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Someone Had to Be First...

Near Babylon, New York

November 21st, 1916

In the Blood...

Born in 1892 in Chicago and raised in New York, Lawrence Sperry was the son of a famed inventor Elmer Sperry.  After the Wright brother's flights at Kitty Hawk, the young Sperry and his brother sought to develop inventions connected to the new marvel.  In 1913, he studied at Glenn Curtiss' flight school in Hammondsport, where he learned to fly, and earned pilot's license #11 from the Aero Club of America – the youngest pilot in the United States at the time. 

In 1914, Sperry harnessed  the principles of the gyrocompass – which his father had invented - to create an autopilot device for aircraft.  Entering it that summer in the “Concours de la Securité en Aéroplane”  - Airplane Safety Competition -  in France, Sperry's “gyroscopic stabilizer” was the success of the show, and gartered international acclaim at the age of 24.

As Sperry was an experienced pilot, he offered the French government his services in a  frontline combat squadron.  But, but to his dismay, officials turned him down because he lacked a college degree. Unshaken, he returned to the United States to continue his research.

In the Money...

While back in America, the first “World War” broke out and Sperry was commissioned into the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant – Junior Grade.  He also works as a flight instructor – teaching anyone, who can afford it, how to fly an airplane.

One of his students was Dorothy Rice Peirce.  Born in 1889, she was the daughter of Julia & Isaac L. Rice, the founder of the Electric Boat company – the builders of the first American naval submarine.  She was a noted poet, sculptor, artist, and bridge player. 

In 1912, while studying in Spain, she met and married Waldo Peirce.  The couple moved to New York City afterwards and, when war erupted in Europe in 1915, Waldo joined the joined the American Field Service, an ambulance corps that served on the battlefields of France.

But while her husband was away, the adventurous Dorothy learned to fly at the Wright School in Mineola, New York, and earned pilot's license #561 from the Aero Club of America on August 23rd, 1916, becoming the tenth woman in the United States to be licensed to fly.

In the Water...

On November 21th, 1916, Sperry was flying Peirce's personally-owned Curtiss hydroplane from Babylon to Lindenhurst with Mrs. Peirce as a passenger.  While flying at an altitude of about 600 feet, the gyro-stabilizer on Sperry's plane was knocked off, and the plane descended into the waters a half mile off of the shores of Long Island's Great South Bay.

"Nothing to that at all," Sperry said.  "Why, Misses Pierce and I didn't have what you might dignify by calling a real accident. It was only a trivial mishap. We decided to land on the water and came down perfectly from a height of 600 feet and would have made a perfect landing had not the hull of our machine struck one of the stakes that dot the water, which staved a hole in it."

The plane became entangled in fishing nets, and having something punctured a large hole in the bow of the seaplane, caused it to rapidly submerge.  Both Sperry and Peirce managed to climb out of, and cling to, the wreckage of the hydroplane.

When a pair of duck hunters that witnessed the plane's plummet to earth rowed out to the crash site to help the now water-logged aviators – they noticed that both Sperry and Peirce were naked!  Sperry quickly stated that the force of the crash “divested” both he and Peirce of their clothing.

The couple was brought to Southside Hospital, with Sperry walking, and Peirce being carried via stretcher, as she fractured his pelvis in the crash.  A week later, she was recuperating in her apartment at the Ansonia hotel, and she directed her plane be repaired and made ready for further use as soon as is was able to leave her bed.

Sperry later confessed to a friend that the duo were involved in the physical act of love, and that he must have accidentally bumped the gyro-stabilizer platform while maneuvering.  And although their flight occurred well below 5,280 feet, the pair of lovers are generally recognized as the first members of the “Mile High Club”.

In the End...

In the autumn of 1917, Dorothy Peirce filed for divorce – citing non-support and cruel treatment.  Mr. Peirce did little to contest the divorce – and was rather happy to be separated from Dorothy's mother – whom he referred to as “the umbilicus”.  She remarried and became a world-class bridge player with her husband, Hal Sims, until his death in 1949. She passed away in 1960.

Lawrence Sperry continued to create aviation devices.  His inventions include the turn-and-bank indicator, retractable landing gear, and many other contributions to flight safety and instrumentation.  But, at the age of 31, he took off from the United Kingdom, bound for France, on December 23, 1923, amid fog.  Flying his Army-designed and Sperry Aircraft Company-built “Messenger” prototype, he never reached his destination.  His body was found in the icy waters of the English Channel on January 11, 1924.

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This page last updated Tuesday, November 22, 2016

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