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Baldwin Aerial Rowboat
Baldwin, known for his balloons and parachutes and, in 1910, his Red Devil airplanes, was the first to debut an aerial rowboat. Baldwin had already built the California Arrow, the first U.S. airship to make a controlled circular flight, when he won a contract with a Los Angeles amusement park to exhibit a dirigible that could be rowed through the air like a boat. In 1905, Baldwin came up with a 38-foot-long hydrogen-filled gas bag with a kayak-shaped frame underneath. In lieu of an engine were bamboo oars with paddles made of silk. A canvas bag filled with sand maintained neutral buoyancy.
Baldwin’s non-rigid dirigible could do about 4 mph on a calm day, but even a slight headwind would stymie it. Because Baldwin was too heavy to pilot the craft, he hired 23-year-old L. Guy Mecklem. On the craft’s maiden voyage, Mecklem became stranded 2,000 feet above the crowd with a broken oar and a malfunctioning safety valve on the bag. “The sun got hotter and the hydrogen expanded and nothing I could do…would stop it” from rising, he recalled. After the sun set, Mecklem was able to land in an orange grove.
The next day, Baldwin strung a 300-foot-long wire between two poles and attached a guideline to the aerial rowboat so it could slide along the wire. Mecklem spent the next two weeks practicing how to row back and forth.
“We could put on a pretty good show,” Mecklem recalled in his unpublished autobiography. Ascending a few hundred feet, he bombed his audience with bags of peanuts. He’d also throw his handkerchief overboard and paddle down to retrieve it. His favorite stunt was aiming the tip of the gas bag at a girl in the grandstand and rowing away at the last second as she tried to dodge it.
Alva L. Reynolds challenged Baldwin to an airship race in his own version. When Baldwin’s pilot, the balloonist Roy Knabenshue, asked for $20,000 in expense money, Reynolds said Knabenshue was “afraid to race.”
Baldwin’s aerial rowboat proved a remunerative attraction, though a short-lived one: One night its hydrogen inexplicably ignited, destroying the craft.
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