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This Day in History: Teddy Roosevelt, first President to fly

On this day in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt becomes the first United States President to fly in an airplane. Presidents board airplanes on a routine basis these days, but back then, the move was viewed as inherently risky.


“Col. Roosevelt defied death late yesterday,” one 1910 newspaper blared, “when he went up in an aeroplane with Aviator Arch Hoxsey.”


Perhaps, though, Americans were used to the former Rough Rider’s love of adventure? By then, Roosevelt was an ex-President who’d spent his first months out of office on a safari in Africa and a tour of Europe.


Now he was back in the States, but his flight doesn’t appear to have been pre-planned. Instead, he was in Missouri, helping that state’s Republican Party. In the meantime, the Wright Brothers were hosting an air show in St. Louis. The former President had arrived at Kinloch Field with Governor Herbert S. Hadley’s motorcade, and the decision to join Hoxsey was made on the fly (pun intended).

Several accounts exist of what happened. According to Hoxsey, he was introduced to Roosevelt, who pronounced himself envious of the pilot. “Here’s your chance,” Hoxsey responded. Roosevelt agreed to a quick flight, but he also told Hoxsey, “Let’s not make too much fuss about it.”


Other accounts say that Roosevelt declined at first, then changed his mind.


“You know, I didn’t intend to do it,” he later told the New York Times. “But when I saw the thing there, I could not resist it.”


Roosevelt immediately walked over to the plane and climbed aboard. The plane was in the air before the crowd realized what had happened and who Hoxsey’s passenger was.


“The spectators seemed frightened and remained silent,” the Times reported, “watching the aeroplane intently.”


But Roosevelt was having fun. It may or may not have been safe, but he was leaning out of the plane as it passed the grandstand, cheerfully waving at the crowds below. As he waved, his hand kept coming dangerously close to a string hanging above his head.


“Be careful not to pull any of those strings,” Hoxsey warned. The string was the valve cord for the engine. “I forgot to tell you that the engine quits when you pull that rope.”


Hoxsey carefully flew his valuable cargo around the field, completing two laps (three miles) in three minutes and twenty seconds.


“I was very careful,” Hoxsey later said. “I said to myself, ‘If anything happens to him, I'll never be able to square myself with the American people.’ I was mighty glad when we landed. I never felt a greater responsibility in my life.”


The crowd presumably felt a similar sense of relief, as people began cheering wildly when the plane landed. “[T]he guards had all they could do to keep the crowd from breaking into the field,” the Times concluded.


A United Press International reporter later asked Hoxsey what he thought of Roosevelt as a passenger. He was a “model passenger,” UPI summarized, “except that he took too many chances.”


Hoxsey and Roosevelt both attended a dinner hosted by the Governor that same evening. Roosevelt was still beaming. “That was the bulliest experience I ever had,” he told Hoxsey. “I envy you your professional conquest of space.”

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