For every Orville and Wilbur Wright (or Gustave Whitehead, if you prefer), in the late 19th and early 20th century there were untold numbers of would-be pioneers risking life and limb in a race to be the first to break free of the Earth's bonds by building a working aircraft. In this article from January 1981, titled "A Daring Man and His Flying Machine," we meet ninety-something-year-old Silvio Antonelli, one of those forgotten dreamers, who gives a first-hand account on the frontier of manned aviation.
This article is being posted to the web in May 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
A Daring Man and His Flying Machine
In the early days of aviation Silvio Antonelli proved invention, not discretion, was the better part of valor.
By John Birchard
We had to do everything by hand. We didn't have electricity or nothin'. It look years to build those damn planes. Then we’d wreck 'em in a few minutes!" His old eyes dance, remembering. His name is Silvio Antonelli and he’s over ninety years old. How much over ninety he's not sure. Record-keeping was a little spotty before the turn of the century.
Silvio Antonelli is living history, a participant in the quickly receding past. He’s a man who did things, lived through things we now only read about. He was a pioneer in the Age of Flight. You won’t find him or his planes in the Smithsonian or in the official histories of aviation. But he was one of that handful of visionaries, daredevils, and loonies who thought they could soar with the birds.
I met Sill Antonelli a couple of years ago, sitting at the kitchen table of his sister Josie’s house on Hillside Avenue in New Haven. The occasion was a Sunday night supper, a tradition among certain Italian families. Sill has been a source of outrage, amusement, and a certain pride among his family for his entire life. He's the kind of man who would take a chance, in all that phrase entails.
Sill is now a spinner of yams about how things were in the early days, about trying and failing, about good guesses and bad crashes and back to the drawing board. He tells his stones in a rich mix of roughly phrased English, salted with Brooklynese and the Italian dialect peculiar to the hill country around Naples.
Sill came to the U.S. in 1900, living his first few years in this country in New York City. The early years of the century were yeasty with discovery. The excitement of invention was in the air in America, the possibilities endless. There were fortunes to be made and optimisim was epidemic. And, of all the doors to be opened, one of the most exciting was manned flight. Orville and Wilbur Wright are credited with getting there first in 1903, but that only served to spur on other dreamers and backyard tinkerers. Sill was one of them.
"Me and another kid, Mike Ruggiero—he’s dead now—decided to build a plane. We got a bunch of lumber and built two big wings, like oars, that went up and down—like the birds, you know? He and I were gonna work the oars up and down. And we got five Bloomingdale's umbrellas, big umbrellas they used on wagons, and we tied them on, one every little ways to help out.
"So we flew it off the roof, pushed it off. We pretty near broke our cans. We went down three stories. But, you know, those umbrellas held? If they’da turned up the other way, we'da got hurt. That was the beginning. I was maybe fifteen then.”
He moved from New York to New Haven in 1905 and began work as a plumber’s assistant. But he still had these notions of flying—ideas that wouldn’t go away. And he acted on them. He began building an airplane in the basement of a house on Hamilton Street in New Haven. It was finished in the summer of 1910. This time it was for real.
I asked him if, by then, he had learned to fly an airplane. He laughed. "Who the hell knew how to fly! We didn't know nothin'. I had seen a balloon go by, but that’s as far as it went." Obviously, it was all still pretty casual in 1910. You made a plane and you flew it. Never mind that you didn’t really know how to do either.
Sill remembers that first flight. It took place at Pratt Field, now Yale University’s football practice field. Then, it served as the home of the school’s baseball team. Matter of factly, he reports, "I got it off the ground, but I couldn’t get it to clear the damn (baseball) backstop. I hit the backstop and tied the plane into a knot They had to saw me out of it."
Despite its lack of climb, Sill's first effort at aircraft design was notable in that he built it out of steel tubing at a time when bamboo was the material most airmen were using. But, what else would a plumber use?
By the summer of 1912, he was ready to test another plane. But the field at Yale was too hazardous for an unproven design. This time, he would tow the plane to Mineola, Long Island, the site of increasing flight activity.
"Mineola was cornfields then. There was a level place where you could take a chance. There was a lotta room there. You could start your motor and raise up and then throttle it down and make a nice landing.
"I had a monoplane then. Nobody else had one. The rest were biplanes. I already had different ideas, I was the guy who came out with the stick...stick control, instead of the wheel. Before that, you had to tie a string to your shoulder and move your body to make the aileron move." j
In 1914, while the world went to war, Sill set about building what was intended to be his masterpiece, the Antonelli Sea Gull. He tells the story this way; “A guy I knew shot a sea gull by mistake. The damn fool thought it was a duck! So I took it and copied its wings. This professor from Yale (Lester Breckenridge) brought over ten or twenty of his engineering students and showed them what I was doing. He says, 'Do you have any blueprints for this thing?' I said, ‘What blueprints? I drew the outline on the floor with a piece of chalk and made it from that.’ I told him about copying it from the sea gull's wings and he couldn't believe it.”
The Sea Gull gradually grew from those chalk marks on the floor. Sill devised a double-winged ship, unusual in its swept-back grace, not unlike today’s dartlike jet fighters. But the Great War impinged on his progress. Most of the airplane engines in those days were as handbuilt as the craft they lifted. Sill had bought an engine from a Long Island man who, before the Sea Gull was completed, decided to “improve” the power plant with aluminum pistons. When the Sea Gull was ready for its test flight, Sill ran up the engine in preparation for lake off. Before the plane began rolling, the aluminum pistons promptly seized in their cylinders. With the government clampdown on civilian flying in effect, Sill's masterpiece was grounded for the duration.
Sill has some strong opinions about those early rudimentary motors. Says he, "How the hell you gonna fly with a little motorcycle engine?" His penchant for power was the reason for his only encounter with the legendary Wright Brothers. During the summer of 1912, when he was trying out one of his creations at Mineola, Wilbur and Orville were visiting and took a shine to the eight-cylinder, sixty-horsepower engine he was using. They tried to buy it as a replacement for their own thirty- five-horsepower unit, but Sill wasn't selling. End of encounter with the legends.
During World War I, Sill was an aircraft mechanic and occasional pilot for Marlin Rockwell in New Haven. Rockwell was exploring a number of experimental areas in the new field of military aviation. One of the areas was the tricky business of getting machine guns to fire through the whirling blades of a propeller without damage to the prop. Sill remembers the difficulties. "They didn’t get it down right until toward the end (of the war). First they tried it with a Hispano-Suiza motor. They tried all kinds of motors. And propellers. Christ, they ran out of propellers! Everytime they’d shoot, the bullets would clip off the propellers —zip, like that. Just the stumps were left."
Another project handled by Rockwell was the testing of aerial bombs, the invention of Lester Barlow of Stamford. “Hughie Rockwell and I used to go up in the (Curtis) R-6. That had two sets of controls—one in front and one in back. We used to go up and drop Barlow’s bombs. Tryin' ’em out. We’d drop ’em the other side of the (New Haven Harbor) breakwater. Sometimes they’d work and sometimes they’d just sink. They were supposed to be for submarines. Then, when we had them ready, the army would come and we'd show them.”
In the years immediately after World War I, America was in a veritable flying fever. It looked promising for those who had gotten in early and had some experience at this new game. Sill felt his future was in flying.
“I was partners with a guy named Lieutenant Hagerty. He was a crazy one. Him and I started a flying school. He came from Canada after the war and landed with one wing down, broke the wing. So he strapped it up with a two-by-four and just kept on. I told you he was crazy.
"We went to Mineola and bought two Jennies, made by Curtis. They had a lot of ’em over there, for training during the war. This was around 1919. Well, Hagerty goes up with the passenger and, first thing, he fell in the harbor. We were lucky. We found a small boat and went out to him and he was stuck in the thing. He woulda gone under if we hadn’t gotten to him. But we got him the hell outta there.
“Then we went up to Springfield (Massachusetts) to the fair. We were going to fly people and make some money. The first thing outta the box, he’s takin’ off and he doesn’t make the trees. Aaaah, another plane gone to hell. I say to myself, ’This guy ain’t gonna be any good for me!’ Everytime I flew with him I could see the cemetery. He’d scare the hell outta me. So, after a while, we split up.”
But the lure of flying was still strong for Silvio Antonelli. "For five years, I didn't do any plumbing. I was trying to see if I could make any money with airplanes. Jimmy Porter, Jack Tweed (for whom Tweed-New Haven Airport is named), and I went in together.”
Tweed held the first pilot’s license issued by the state of Connecticut. He made his first flight on Independence Day, 1913, in a craft that didn't look much different from the one the Wright Brothers flew. When America entered World War I, Tweed was among the first several hundred navy pilots to be commissioned. He spent the war defending the Panama Canal flying the R-6 flying boat.
"Jimmy Porter’s father owned a bank. Jimmy was one of my pilots. He used to show up in a Pierce Arrow. Anyway, we borrowed three thousand dollars from the bank to buy a flying boat and start a charter service. The bank didn’t know what we wanted the money for.” And they weren’t telling.
Sitting across his kitchen table from Antonelli, his skin stretched lightly across his skull and cheek bones, eyes alight with excitement at the memories of his ancient adventures in the air, it’s hard to picture how he must’ve been in those days.
I look at a photo of Sill, taken in 1910. It shows a well-muscled young man, almost handsome, with a shock of dark hair parted in the middle as was the fashion. It’s a posed picture, with him peering toward some far horizon, stiff in a tight suit.
Now his shirt collar is loose on his neck. He’s lost weight, shrunk with age. His work-worn hands play with a beer opener as he recounts his last fling with flight.
"Jack and I went to Philadelphia and bought the plane. We had to assemble it ourselves there and then fly it back. We put it together down on the Delaware River. It had side-by-side controls and nothin’ but a little windshield. You stick your head around the side and your nostrils would close up (from the wind).
“We took off, headed north for Atlantic City where we had to refuel. We were flyin’ along the coastline and a fog came up. We couldn't see a thing. We kept going for miles and miles. Sure enough, we ran outta gas So we just dived her down through the fog and landed on the water. We had a little anchor, so Jack threw that out and we sat there. The water was calm and everything was quiet. But you couldn't see a step ahead of you We didn’t know- where we were and all we had was a chocolate bar between us. All I could think of was what the hell happens if a storm comes up? After a while we hear this pop-pop-pop. It’s a little boat, a fisherman. He spotted us and we hollered at him to come over. He told us we were just a coupla miles off Atlantic City. He gave us a couple gallons of gas and we hopped on in.
“We bought another plane, a five-passenger with a Hispano-Suiza motor in it. Then, right outta the box, it went down. We lost it. I got disgusted then and said to hell with the airplanes. I was broke. That was 1922."
And this is 1981. The old man, bent with age, walks on slippered feet down the brick path to the garage. There, sitting silent under a tarpaulin, mounted on a stand made of metal pipe, is a nine-cylinder radial aircooled aircraft engine. Its twin-bladed wooden propeller is taller than a man and its varnished surface is crazed and checked by the passing years.
Sill describes its heritage, its power and peculiarities. It’s been sitting out here for almost sixty years. “The magneto still makes a spark,” he says. Rummaging through a large wooden box, he pulls out several metal turnbuckles. “That’s from a Curtis,” he says, tossing it aside, “and that's from a Bieriot.” His arthritic fingers turn one of the turnbuckles over lovingly. He holds it up to the light. “And that’s one of mine. I made that one. I can tell from the handwork on it. Took a lotta work to make that.” He looks at me proudly. “A lotta work.”
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FIRST GENERATION OF POWERED FLIGHT IN CONNECTICUT
1901—August 15—Gustave Whitehead claims first powered flight at Tunxis Hill, Fairfield, two years before Wright Brothers.
1911—June 8—Connecticut Governor Simeon Baldwin signs the first state laws governing aviation. Believed to be the first such laws in the world. Aviation didn’t need much governing, since it was estimated there were only twenty-six trained pilots in the entire United States.
1913—John Hancock Tweed obtains Pilot’s License #1 from the state of Connecticut.
1917—August—First cotton fabrics for airplanes are produced at Ponemah Mills in Taftville. Linen had been used before.
1918—May 19—Wallingford’s Major Raoul Lufbery, America’s “Ace of Aces” in World War I, is shot down and killed over France. Bom in France of an American father, Lufbery flew with the legendary Lafayette Escadrille and shot down eighteen of the Kaiser’s aircraft.
1921—First commercial airport in Connecticut opens in Bethany.
1925—Pratt & Whitney build its first aircooled aircraft engine.—J.B.
John Birchard is a Hew Haven-based freelance writer and broadcaster.
MORE ABOUT CONNECTICUT INVENTORS AND PIONEERS:
Alexander Pope build and mass-produced “Connecticut’s Original Electric Car” (August 2017)
Bridgeport's Gustave Whitehead: “First in Flight or Fake News?” (July 2017)
Igor Sikorsky is profiled in “That Magnificent Man and His Flying Machines” (October/November 1971)
Meet the prolific Weston-based inventor of dozens of everyday things in “People: Stanley Mason” (September 1997)