Charles K. Hamilton (1885 – 1914)

Charles K. Hamilton

Born in New Britain, Connecticut, Charles K. Hamilton was the grandson of Hartford merchant, Lorenzo Hamilton. Interested in flying at an early age, Hamilton became active in hot-air ballooning and parachute jumping at circuses and fairs when he was eighteen. Three years later, he teamed up with Roy Knabenshue and began piloting dirigibles.

Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio solved the problem of controlled powered flight in an airplane beyond all doubt on December 17, 1903 but their accomplishment was not generally accepted until the fall of 1908 when the brothers made their first public flights–Orville in Ft. Meyer, Virginia and Wilbur in France. It was then that aviation practical reality was born.

In Connecticut, as throughout the rest of the country, the flying fever gripped the imaginations of men. Abandoning his dirigible, Hamilton learned to fly airplanes under Glenn H. Curtiss in late 1909. Within six months, his daring flight exhibitions throughout the United States made him perhaps the best known American flyer at that time. Known as a daredevil pilot who would fly anything anywhere, Hamilton repeatedly crashed his “Hamiltonian,” a biplane powered by an eight-cylinder, 110-horse-power motorcar Christie engine nicknamed “too hot to handle.”

Charles K. Hamilton and his Hamiltonian

It didn’t take long for people to become tired of simply watching aircrafts fly. In response, one of Hamilton’s stunts involved climbing to 1,500 feet, cutting his engine and diving steeply toward earth. Just before crashing, or so spectators thought, Hamilton would restart the engine and pull out of the dive. Spectators, convinced that he was diving to destruction, displayed gratifying reactions. Newspaper reports claimed that strong men shouted in dismay and that all over the grounds young women fainted in dismay. Pilots began emulating Hamilton – some not as successfully. The risk, however, was considered worth the reward as a pilot could earn as much as $10,000 for two or three flights of 10 or 15 minutes duration–a great deal of money in 1910.

Also in 1910, Hamilton participated in the Dominguez Field Air Meet, won a prize of $10,000 for flying from New York City to Philadelphia, and made the first documented night flight over Nashville, Tennessee. The following year, Hamilton joined Moissant’s International Aviators, a group of flyers who toured the United States performing daredevil exhibitions, hawking barnstorming flights, and reportedly earning $100,000 a year. During a performance in El Paso, Texas, Hamilton flew over Cuidad Juarez, Mexico and observed engagements between the Mexican militia and rebels, which is one of the earliest recorded uses of an airplane for military purposes.

Although Hamilton’s aviation career was undoubtedly spectacular, sadly, it was cut short on January 22, 1914 when he died at the age of 28 from a lung hemorrhage after a long bout with tuberculosis. Cedar Hill Cemetery legend has it that, in a fitting tribute at his funeral, a group of aviator friends flew over his grave site and dropped flowers from their planes.

Early Aviators. Accessed at on July 15, 2010.
LeShane, Albert A. Hardware City Fliers: Early Aviation in New Britain.  Portland, CT: Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association, 1986.

Photo Credits:  Charles K. Hamilton, Library of Congress #LC-USZ62-35560;
Charles K. Hamilton and the Hamiltonian, Library of Congress #LC-USZ62-705