Herbert Hazzard: The Wright Brothers’ “Essential Man”
By William F. Hanna
In the years just before World War II, a quiet, unassuming man named Herbert Hazzard worked as a night watchman at the Chandler Oil Cloth Company in East Taunton. Approaching age 60 and unmarried, he lived in a rented room nearby, and although he never drove an automobile, he was well known for riding an English bicycle around the city. He was also a correspondent for the Taunton Daily Gazette, one of a group of volunteers who regularly reported news from the city’s several neighborhoods.
Hazzard’s unsigned summaries from East Taunton covered the usual wedding engagements, birthday parties, church announcements, etc., but there was one facet of his reporting that was obviously special to him. That was anything pertaining to the airplanes at King Field, because when Hazzard wrote about the many types of aircraft that he had seen there, it was evident that he had a detailed knowledge of the aviation industry. We can only wonder if he talked much about how he had acquired that expertise.
Born in New Bedford in 1881, the early years of the 20th century found Hazzard in Philadelphia, where he worked in an office building making advertising novelties for store window displays. He had been interested in flying even before the Wright brothers made history at Kitty Hawk in December 1903. In Philadelphia, he became charter member №9 of the Aero Club of Pennsylvania and liked to test his theories of aircraft design by launching paper airplanes from the office window. Hazzard had once traveled to New York to watch Wilbur Wright demonstrate a flying machine, so in about 1909, when he saw a newspaper article stating that the brand new Wright Exhibition Company was ready to stage an air show in Atlantic City, he left his job and headed for New Jersey.
This new Wright venture was intended to draw attention to the fledgling aviation business and also to sell airplanes. The Exhibition Company team consisted of nine pilots who flew in five planes, all of them Wright Flyers Model B. When the outfit arrived in Atlantic City, Hazzard was there waiting for them — and he never left. Befriending the pilots, he made himself indispensable by anticipating their every need. Those early planes for example, had no wheels, so in order to become airborne they had to first be pushed along a 200-foot wooden rail to gain momentum. In the seconds before departure, someone had to run alongside at full speed, guiding the plane and steadying its wings until it achieved sufficient lift for take-off. Hazzard assumed that role, and he also met the plane as it came in for a landing, grabbing hold of a wing to make sure it remained securely balanced and under control. Since the public found the whole flying scene glamorous, security was sometimes an issue. Hazzard happily volunteered to spend nights sleeping on the ground under the planes to ward off curiosity seekers and souvenir hunters.
From Atlantic City the air show moved on to Asbury Park, New Jersey and Hazzard went too, still without any formal job but nonetheless still making himself irreplaceable. As he worked, he learned, and although no one had yet taught him how to fly, he was able to make suggestions about how the Wright Model B could be improved. During this period, as Hazzard learned more about practical aeronautics, wheels were added, and changes were made to the elevator spars and rudder surfaces. In these early days, with regular flying exhibitions before large crowds, there was little time for drawing board analysis.
Hazzard’s opportunity came when the Wright team moved to the Squantum Peninsula in Quincy, Massachusetts. They were there to take part in an air show at what was then called the Harvard Aviation Field, a landing strip cleared in 1910 that was ideally situated between Dorchester Bay, Quincy Bay and the Neponset River. Among Hazzard’s unofficial duties was helping the pilots assemble the apparatus for one of their trick flying stunts. His enthusiasm and dependability brought him to the attention of Orville Wright, and as they talked one day, Wright decided to put him on the payroll. “I guess I got the job,” remembered Hazzard, “after he saw how interested I was in flying.”
From then until the Wright Exhibition team was disbanded in November 1911, one writer has described Hazzard as the “personal valet” of the company’s planes. After Arthur Welch, one of the pilots, taught him how to fly, Hazzard served as the team’s mechanic, foreman and advance man as they traveled the country. If they could, the team flew to their next engagement, but if that wasn’t possible, it was Hazzard’s job to disassemble and pack up the airplanes, see that they were carefully loaded onto a freight car, and then travel with them to the next town in time to get the whole thing operational before show time.
It’s impossible to understate how dangerous flying was during these early years. Some of that was due to primitive equipment, but a major cause was the inexperience of the pilots. As the Exhibition team was touring the country, for example, the Wright brothers also operated a flying school at Simms Station, near Dayton, Ohio. Although their 10-day program consisted of lessons in mechanics, aeronautics, etc., it guaranteed only 15 minutes of flying per day. In those early days, even the most famous pilots were woefully — and often fatally — inexperienced.
One of the main reasons for the 1911 termination of the Exhibition Company was the high number of pilot fatalities. Among them were the so-called “heavenly twins,” Ralph Johnstone and Archibald Hoxsey. Johnstone was killed in November 1910 in a gruesome crash in Denver. Hazzard, among the first to reach the crash site, was appalled when he saw souvenir hunters rush toward the plane hoping to grab a keepsake from the wreckage.
Johnstone’s colleague, Hoxsey, had been the first pilot to fly at night, and had also taken ex-President Theodore Roosevelt up for a ride in St. Louis in October 1910. On the last day of that year, in Los Angeles, Hoxsey was attempting to beat an altitude record that he had set just days before. The record was 11,474 feet, but as Hoxsey’s plane approached that altitude it suddenly fell from the sky, killing its famous pilot. The Wright brothers paid for the funeral. “I think he [just] went to sleep,” said Hazzard, who would always treasure the gauntlets that Hoxsey had worn during his career.
When the Wright Exhibition team broke up, Hazzard joined the community of pilots who barnstormed around the country. He also continued to work for the Wrights whenever they sold a plane and needed a teaching mechanic. Often referred to as a “chief mechanician,” his travels introduced him to some interesting people, to say the least. One was 16-year old Farnum Fish, who in a 1912 stunt dropped dozens of newspapers over three Wisconsin towns. Fish carried a passenger on the 48-mile return trip to Milwaukee, and that was the longest passenger flight ever recorded up to that time. The passenger was Hazzard.
Throughout 1912, Hazzard worked with or for many of the most famous American pilots, and by the end of that year he had also made some significant flights of his own. He flew, for example, the first south to north flight over Boston Harbor, and he also recorded excellent time on the 12-mile flight from Squantum out to Boston Light and back.
The summer of 1912 must have been a difficult one for Hazzard. In June, he received word that Arthur Welch, the pilot who had taught him to fly, had been killed while testing a Wright Company plane for the army. The worst of it, however, surely came in July, at Squantum, with Harriet Quimby.
In the United States, the federal government did not require pilots to be licensed until 1926. Before then, if a flier claimed to be “licensed’ it usually meant that he or she had been certified by a private aero club. Such was the case with Harriet Quimby, “licensed” in 1911 by a French club and later by one in the U.S., so therefore advertised as the first American woman to be so qualified. “Firsts” were important then, so when Quimby flew across the English Channel in April 1912, she earned her place in aviation history.
Airplane enthusiasts were excited to learn that Quimby would appear at the third annual Squantum air show that summer. In preparation, she had hired Herbert Hazzard as her mechanic, with instructions to meet her at the field on July 1, 1912. Why Hazzard was delayed that afternoon, we do not know, but by the time he arrived Quimby was already in the air.
Sitting in the grandstand as she passed over the field, Hazzard noted that Quimby was carrying a passenger. At just that moment, and for reasons forever unknown, the man either jumped or fell from the plane, causing the French-made aircraft to pitch forward so violently that Quimby also fell out. In front of a horrified crowd, both plunged 1,000 feet to their deaths in the mudflats of the Neponset River. “Balance was a delicate thing, in those days,” was all Hazzard could say 30 years later. “She never had a chance.”
History keeps its secrets and we know almost nothing about Herbert Hazzard after that. You might find that unusual — he lived to be 91-years old — but where, when and why he gave up aviation remains a mystery. Apparently never married, he was living in Taunton by sometime in the 1930s, and for a while he enjoyed going to the airport. He had jobs around the city and worked for several years as the night desk clerk at the old Taunton Inn, today the site of Marian Manor. In his later years, he moved to an apartment on the Taunton River in Dighton. In January 1972, he fell, broke his hip and died at Morton Hospital shortly afterward.
Hazzard’s obituary, published in the Taunton Daily Gazette, noted that he had family in the Westport area. Perhaps they — or one of our readers — can give us more information about this fascinating man. His story is important and deserving of a better telling.