History Behind The Card: Mr. J. Armstrong Drexel.
Card #70 of 75, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1911, Capstan Navy Cut – Black-back issue
- John Armstrong Drexel, born October 24, 1891 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America – died March 4, 1958, in Kent, England, Great Britain.
When one hears the surname Drexel, the first thought that comes to mind might be Drexel University located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., and not the aviator J. Armstrong Drexel…
The fact is, our man Drexel, aside from achieving one world aviation record for altitude achieved, didn’t really do a whole lot more as far as pushing forward the aviation industry.
As for Drexel University… that was founded by his grandfather Anthony J. Drexel in 1891 as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry.
In fact, even at the time of Drexel’s life, aside from achieving a then important aviation record, it seems like his life was overshadowed by his family.
Let’s start with grandpa Anthony Joseph Drexel Sr. (September 13, 1826 – June 30, 1893), who was a very, very rich man as a banker. As Drexel & Co, in 1871 he founded Drexel, Morgan & Co. in New York. Don’t recognize that name? Well, the Morgan in that company was none other than J.P. Morgan (as the junior partner).
That company later became known as J.P. Morgan & Co.
Grandpa Drexel also founded Drexel University in 1891, and was also the first president of the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art), the nation’s first private organization dedicated to integrating public art and urban planning.
J. Armstrong Drexel’s grandfather was a very successful business man.
Grandpa Drexel’s brother was Francis Anthony Drexel, also a banker, but it’s his daughter Catherine Mary Drexel who is key here. She is aviator J. Armstrong Drexel’s aunt.
She was born on November 26, 1858, became a nun, founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, took the name Mother Katharine, and was made a Catholic saint.
She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II in 2000; her feast day is observed on March 3.
Her canonization took place after the Church recognized her “curing miracle” of a two-year-old girl who had nerve deafness in both ears.
She was the second canonized saint to have been born in the United States and the first to have been born a U.S. citizen
Yes… J. Armstrong Drexel’s aunt is literally a saint.
Let’s look at J. Armstrong Drexel’s father, Anthony Joseph Armstrong Jr.: Hmm, a banker, philanthropist and good buddy of Great Britain’s King Edward VII (son of Queen Victoria).
Yes… J. Armstrong Drexel’s father was a very good friend of a King.
Okay… let’s look at his sister Margaretta Armstrong Drexel (1885-1952), who married Guy Finch-Hatton, 14th Earl of Winchilsea… okay, she just married well… anyhow, hubby’s brother was Denys Finch-Hatton, who was a big-game hunter, but Denys’ daughter married a guy named Air Commodore Whitney Straight who was part of the Whitney Family… you know… that Eli Whitney guy who was key in starting America’s Industrial Revolution after inventing the cotton gin.
So Drexel’s big sis’ in-laws are related to the guy who started the American Industrial revolution.
Okay, what about Drexel’s brother Anthony Joseph Drexel Jr.? Well, his wife was Margorie G. Gould… the eldest daughter of George Jay Gould… a very rich financier who led the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGW), and the Western Pacific Railroad (WP).
But it’s George Jay Gould’s dad, Jay Gould who is the big name in this thread… one of the leading American railroad developers in the U.S., rightly called one of the robber barons of the Gilded Age.
So… Drexel’s sister-in-law is the granddaughter of one of America’s richest men of his era.
Alright… let’s continue with J. Armstrong Drexel’s youngest brother Louis Clapier Norris Drexel, who married Nancy Doreen Harrington Grayson who was the daughter of Sir Henry Grayson, 1st Baronet.
I know, who the hell is that… but still… he was one of the premier owners of an English shipbuilding firm, H&C Grayson Ltd.
So… Drexel’s little sister married into “royalty”…
If that doesn’t give anyone an inferiority complex, I don’t know what could…
Okay… J. Armstrong Drexel did get $1-million from his father’s death, along with other manner of inheritance (which he received from his rich father)… but this was in 1934… which would have been when our man was 43…
I point that out in case one thinks that J. Armstrong Drexel bought himself some aviation glory.
Well… he might have. But he still tried to do things on his own.
In May of 1910… and without a pilot’s license because such things weren’t required at that time, our man J. Armstrong Drexel along with William McArdle opened up the East Boldre Flying School – also known as the New Forest Flying School in England.
For a mere £80, you could learn how to fly a plane. This was the second ever school for pilots in Great Britain and the fifth in the world.
The school started with seven aeroplanes in May, and by September it had 10… which will tell you just how much money McArdle and Drexel had to spread around. Mostly Drexel. Thanks dad.
Okay, to be fair, it is also possible that business was booming with many a person clamoring to learn how to fly an aeroplane. Also, thanks dad.
I believe that all the planes used at the school were Bleriot monoplanes, which will tell you that these guys, McArdle and Drexel, were very forward in their manner of thinking, as the general consensus at that time was that is one wing might be okay, but two was definitely the way to go, which is why we see so many biplanes nowadays… oh, right.
So waydago McArdle and Drexel.
On June 21, 1910, Drexel received his British Royal Aero Club Aviators Certificate, recognized under the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Depending on whom you ask, Drexel was either the 10th aviator or the 14th to receive his aviator certificate from the Royal Aero Club… but from what I can figure, Drexel was the 14th.
He also earned his Aero Club of America pilot’s license No. 8, doing so once again in a Bleriot monoplane.
On August 12, 1910, he set the world altitude record of 6,752 feet in a Blériot monoplane – so Drexel had much positive notoriety about himself in the world of aviation.
The positive notoriety, however, turned negative after a situation during the Belmont Airshow held October 22-31 at a horse racetrack on Long Island, in Belmont Park, New York.
With some $75,000 in prize money up for grabs, the event attracted a lot of good pilots, including our man Drexel.
Like most aviation meets of 1910, prizes were being awarded for such competitions for highest altitude attained, fastest speed, distance, most accurate landing and my favorite for that unsung hero, the best mechanic.
We are concerned with the final event of the meet on October 30, 1910 which had pilots flying their aircraft around a set course – to see who could do it the fastest.
Key to our story is that pilots had to be up in the air BEFORE a certain time of day for the flight to be considered official.
The “track” consisted of taking off from Belmont Park Racetrack, over the New York City Harbor, around the Statue of Liberty, and back to Belmont Park.
With some 75,000 spectators over at Belmont park, the race began.
Claude Grahame-White (see my biography on him HERE) was the prettyboy flyer from England – an important fact here.
Graham-White flew his 100-horsepower Bleriot monoplane, completing the course in a scorching 35 minutes and 21 seconds—the fastest time.
However, American pilot John Moisant came out of nowhere at the last second to post a faster time.
So what’s the big deal? Moisant wins, Graham-White loses and what the heck does this have to do with Drexel?
Moisant had earlier wrecked his own plane in a competition.
And, while Graham-White was setting his time, Moisant was trying to purchase a new aeroplane. That’s fine, right?
Anyhow, finally able to purchase a 50-horsepower Bleriot monoplane, Moisant took off to try and beat Graham-White’s time.
Apparently THIS Beleriot monoplane was a newer model, and had a better navigational system which allowed Moisant to take a more direct route to the Statue of Liberty and back. He beat Graham-White’s time by 43 seconds.
So great… Moisant had the better and faster aeroplane, and he won.
But here’s the thing… Moisant started his challenge of Graham-White’s time some 21-minutes AFTER the close of the allowable start time.
That’s like trying to put a bet on a horse race AFTER it has already started. It’s a no-no.
So, since we are talking big money and prestige for all things aviation, Grahame-White protested.
Welcome to America Graham-White. The Belmont race officials decided to side with American Moisant.
Our fairplay John Armstrong Drexel called out the Belmont officials claiming that they were playing favorite with American pilot Moisant over British pilot Graham-White.
To further show his disdain for the raw deal he felt Graham-White got, Drexel held a dinner banquet at the same time as the Aero Club of America Belmont Park awards banquet.
Drexel’s dinner was just as popular as the Aero Club’s, which caused quite the fracture within the Aero Club of America.
The issue was finally resolved when Drexel resigned from the Aero Club of America – but I don’t have a date on when that actually happened.
As for Graham-White, he appealed his case all the way up to the supreme aviation body (at that time), the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
It took until 1912, but the Federation Aeronautique Internationale reversed the Belmont Park decision, granting him the prize money and an extra $500 in interest.
While back in America, it was still felt that Moisant was the winner, regardless of what the Federation Aeronautique Internationale said.
Uh-huh… and what’s to stop a racer from getting in his aeroplane the next day and breaking the record? The die has been cast that take-off times don’t seem to matter.
The rule was put in for a reason, and regardless of how great the Moisant flight was, he still took off too late and should have been disqualified from his attempt even before he took off.
Bravo for Drexel for standing up for Graham-White.
Let’s take a look at what Drexel did at the Scottish International Aviation Meet in Lanark, Scotland – August 6-13, 1910:
Featuring 22 aviators competing in Scotland’s first air meet, an estimated 215,000 spectators attended.
Drexel was one of the competitors flying his 50 horsepower, seven-cylinder Gnome motor powered Bleriot monoplane. And… he did very well for himself.
McArdle also entered the competition in a 50 horsepower, seven-cylinder Gnome motor powered Bleriot monoplane.
All results below are taken from http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/1910_Lanark_Aviation_Meeting
Results for August 6, 1910:
- John Armstrong Drexel … 61 miles 1,215 yards (99.28 kilometers) … 1 hour 36 minutes 16.6 seconds, American in a Bleriot monoplane with a Gnome 50 horsepower, 7-cylinder motor;
- Bartolomeo Cattaneo… 42 miles 407 yards (67.96 kilometers)… 54 minutes 40.2 seconds, Italian in a Bleriot monoplane with a Gnome 50 horsepower, 7-cylinder motor;
- Gustav Blondeau … 26 miles 550 yards (42.35 kilometers)… 46 minutes 34 seconds, French in a Farman biplane with a Gnome 50 horsepower, 7-cylinder motor;
- Bertram Dickson … 12 miles 766 yards (20.01 kilometers) … 23 minutes, British in a Farman biplane with a Gnome 50 horsepower, 7-cylinder motor.
Aggregate Long Distance
- John Armstrong Drexel … 68 miles 126 yards (109.55 kilometers)… 1 hour 48 minutes 45.6 seconds;
- Bartolomeo Cattaneo … 42 miles 407 yards (67.96 kilometers) … 54 minutes 40.2 seconds;
- Gustav Blondeau … 26 miles 550 yards (42.35 kilometers) … 46 minutes 34 seconds.
- Bertram Dickson … 19 miles 1,688 yards (32.12 kilometers) … 37 minutes 36 seconds.
August 8, 1910 results:
Daily Duration Prize
- Bartolomeo Cattaneo … 3 hours 19 minutes 9.2 seconds;
- John Armstrong Drexel … 1 hour 27 minutes 13 seconds;
- Florentine Champel … 54 minutes 2 seconds French in Voisin biplane with an E.N.V. 65 horsepower, 8-cylinder motor;
- Gustav Blondeau … 31 minutes 42.2seconds;
- Cecil Grace … 31 minutes 7 seconds, British (not sure which of his two aircraft: Short Bros. biplane with an E.N.V. 65 horsepower, 8-cylinder motor or a Bleriot Monoplane with a Gnome 50 horsepower, 7-cylinder motor;
- G.B. Cockburn … 11 minutes 20.4 seconds, British in a Farman biplane with a Gnome 50 horsepower, 7-cylinder motor;
- (First name?) Ogilvie … 10 minutes 31.8 seconds, British in a pair of Wright Bros. biplanes with an E.N.V. 40 horsepower 4-cylinder motor, the other with a Bollee 40 horsepower 4-cylinder motor.
Longest Single Flight to Date
- Bartolomeo Cattaneo … 89 miles 118 yards (143.34 kilometers);
- John Armstrong Drexel … 61 miles 1,215 yards 99.28 kilometers);
- Florentine Champel … 32 miles 1,147 yards (52.55 kilometers);
- Gustav Blondeau … 26 miles 550 yards (42.35 kilometers);
- Cecil Grace … 16 miles 1,659 yards (27.27 kilometers);
- Bertram Dickson … 12 miles 766 yards (20.01 kilometers);
- G.B. Cockburn … 6 miles 1,563 yards (11.09 kilometers);
- (First Name ?) Ogilvie … 5 miles 1,414 yards (9.34 kilometers).
August 9, 1910 results:
Speed Competition (5 Laps)
- James Radley … 10 minutes 6.4 seconds, British in a Bleriot monoplane with a Gnome 50 horsepower 7-cylinder motor;
- Cattaneo … 10 minutes 40 seconds;
- Drexel … 13 minutes 41.4 seconds.
- Radley … 1 minute 50.2 seconds;
- Cattaneo … 1 minute 58 seconds;
- Drexel … 2 minutes 20 seconds;
- Grace … 2 minutes 32.8 seconds.
- Drexel … 4,276 feet (1,303.33 meters) – a new world record;
- Cattaneo … 3,230 feet (984.5 meters);
- Grace … 2,480 feet (755.9 meters);
- Renato Vidart … 1,300 feet (396.24 meters), French in a Hanriot monoplane with a Clerget 40 horsepower 4-cylinder motor.
- (First Name ?) Edmond …
- Grace …, French in one of two aircraft: a British & Colonial biplane with a Gnome 60 horsepower 7-cylinder motor or a British & Colonial biplane with an E.N.V. 65-80 horsepower 8-cylinder motor.
Daily Prizes (5 Laps)
- Radley … Radley £50
- Cattaneo … Cattaneo £30
- Drexel … Drexel £15
- Fastest Lap: Radley £25
- Fastest Lap (Monoplane): Radley £25
- Fastest Lap (Biplane): Grace £25
- Height: Drexel £20
August 10, 1910 results
- Cattaneo… 195 miles 846 yards (314.6 kilometers);
- Drexel … 179 miles 1,440 yards (289.39 kilometers);
- Champel… 32 miles 1,598 yards (52.96 kilometers).
Speed (5 Laps) …
- Radley … 58.32 mph (93.86 kph)
- Cattaneo … 56.27 mph (90.56 kph)
- Grace … 38.88 mph (62.57 kph)
- Radley … 58.25 mph (93.75 kph)
- Cattaneo … 56.46 mph (90.86)
- Gilmour … 42.14 mph (67.82 kph)
- McArdle … 2,290 feet (698 meters)
- Drexel … 1,400 feet (426.72 meters)
- Hanriot … 1,350 feet (411.48 meters)
- Starting … Radley, £20.
- Long Distance … Cattaneo, £25; Drexel, £10.
- Speed (5 Laps) … Radley, £50.
- Speed (Fastest Lap) … Radley, £25.
- Height … McArdle, £20.
August 11, 1910 results
Speed (5 Laps)
- Radley … 57.45 mph (92.46 kph)
- Cattaneo … 55.07 mph (88.63 kph)
- Drexel … 43.68 mph (70.3 kph)
- Grace … 38.87 mph (62.56 kph)
- Ogilvie … 36.16 mph (58.19 kph)
- Edmond … 31.60 mph (50.86 kph)
- Radley … 58.14 mph (93.57 kph)
- Cattaneo … 55.55 mph (89.4 kph)
- Kuller … 45.92 mph (73.9 kph)
- Drexel … 43.49 mph (70 kph)
- Grace … 38.79 mph (62.43 kph)
- Ogilvie … 36.39 mph (58.56 kph)
- Edmond … 34.50 mph (55.42 kph)
- Drexel … 6,750 feet (2,057.4 meters)
- McArdle … 2,730 feet (832.1 meters)
- Speed (5 Laps) … Radley, £50.
- Speed (1 Lap) … Radley, £25.
- Cross-Country … Grace, £100 and further special prize of £100; Dickson, £30.
- Altitude … Drexel, £20.
August 13, 1910 results
Before the close of the meeting several passenger flights were made, with Drexel taking up two ladies on his passenger Bleriot, one of whom was the wife of Captain Taylor, who had charge of the surveying section. On his third flight, however, his engine failed, and he had to alight — with a male passenger this time — on somewhat rough ground, but no damage was done.
At the end of the meet, Drexel was the third-winningest aviator taking home £1,340 and both the Lanark Trophy and the Scots Pictorial Cup.
A little known fact, however, is that when Drexel achieved his altitude world record, he dis so in a Bleriot monoplane he borrowed from fellow aviation Cecil Grace.
The Greatest Altitude Competition was won by Drexel , whereby in order to even qualify for the first prize an altitude of at least 1,000 feet had to be met, with 500 feet needed to qualify for second place… anything greater got the prize.
Drexel ended up with a best flight of 6,750 feet. McArdle came in fourth best with an altitude of 2,290 feet achieved.
In the Speed Competition, McArdle grabbed third best speed, and Drexel fourth:
To qualify, pilots had to be able to fly five consecutive times round the course without alighting made during the entire meeting, the distance being 9 miles 300 yards. The fastest lap took the prize.
- Radley … Bleriot Monoplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor at 58.32 mph (93.86 kph);
- Cattaneo … Bleriot Monoplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor at 56.27 mph (90.56 kph);
- McArdle … Bleriot Monoplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor at 52.63 mph (84.7 kph);
- Drexel … Bleriot Monoplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor at 43.68 mph (70.3 kph);
- Grace … Farman Biplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor at 39.55 mph (63.65 kph);
- Dickson … Farman Biplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor at 37.95 mph (61.01 kph);
- Edmond … Bristol Biplane with 60 horsepower E.N.V motor at 34.60 mph (55.68 kph).
MacArdle also took home the top prize for the Fastest Single Cross-Country Flight, doing it in 23 minutes 4.2seconds.
Long Distance Competition
This took place on four days of the meeting. The three money prizes were awarded for the longest single flight in point of distance round the oval course mapped out by mark towers and without touching the ground during the meeting.
- Cattaneo … Bleriot Monoplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor – 141 miles 188 yards (227.09 kilometers):
- Drexel … Bleriot Monoplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor – 67 miles 1,068 yards (108.8 kilometers);
- Champel … Voisin Biplane with 60 horsepower E.N.V. motor – 32 miles 1,598 yards (52.96 kilometers);
- Grace … Farman Biplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor – 31 miles 305 yards (50.17 kilometers);
- Blondeau … Farman Biplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor – 26 miles 550 yards (42.35 kilometers);
- Edmond … Bristol Biplane with 60 horsepower E.N.V. motor – 23 miles 264 yards (37.26 kilometers);
- Ogilvie … Wright Biplane with 27 horsepower Wright motor – 19 miles 658 yards (31.18 kilometers);
- Dickson … Farman Biplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor – 12 miles 766 yards (20.01 kilometers);
- Vidart … Hanriot Monoplane with 40 horsepower Clerget motor – 11 miles 858 yards (18.49 kilometers);
- Cockburn … Farman Biplane with 50 horsepower Gnome motor – 5 miles 1,414 yards (9.34 kilometers).
Signor Cattaneo’s performance is a British record.
Other prizes include: those who spent the greatest time in the air in this competition during the entire meeting. The first prize of £250 under this head was won by Signor Cattaneo with his Bleriot monoplane, and a record of 8 hours 35 minutes 53.6 seconds; the second prize of £100 by Drexel with his Bleriot monoplane with a record of 7 hours 31 minutes 18.8 seconds.
Longest Daily Distance Competition
On each of four days, two cash prizes were offered to the competitors who remained longest in the air in the longest single flight competition. Drexel claimed the daily win twice, coming in second the other two days.
There’s more, but I urge you to go and visit the Graces Guide website at http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/1910_Lanark_Aviation_Meeting.
Let’s see… what else did Drexel do? Well, in November of 1910, he tried to fly across the U.S., but got lost and landed near the Delaware River to figure out where he was. Hmm… he must have had one of those older Bleriot navigation systems like Graham-White had at Belmont Park.
There’s not much else I can add about Drexel between 1911 and 1914… I assume he went back to England and attended his flying school, but also took part in other aviation meets, perhaps taking home a bit of pocket change here and there.
When the Great War (WWI, or the incredibly naive moniker “the war to end all wars”) began in 1914, Drexel, according to Wikipedia, was the chauffeur to Field Marshal Sir John French of the British Army.
I can’t determine if the term “chauffeur” was for air travel or via automobile… but I assume it was for the latter… why the hell would a Field Marshall need to fly around?
After Field Marshal Sir John French was stripped of his position of Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) (personality clashes with others), Drexel flew with the French Lafayette Escadrille from 1916-17.
This squadron was part of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique militaire, during World War I, and was mostly made up volunteer American pilots.
In 1917, Drexel was commissioned Major in the Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps, and served there as part of the U.S. Army Air Service until the war’s end on November 11 of 1918.
What of Drexel’s brothers at this time?
Well, according to Dan Rottenberg who wrote the book: The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance, George Drexel donated his own yacht to the US government—a generous gesture that eventually made it the very first US armed seacraft to be sunk by a German U-boat torpedo.
Anthony Drexel Jr… he worked as a stretcher-bearer for the British ambulance corps in France. Not bad for a playboy… but it did keep him away from the action. Thanks dad… and you know that’s true.
With the war’s conclusion, information on J. Armstrong Drexel is sparse at best, but we do know that in 1926, Drexel drove the famous Flying Scotsman speed train from London to Edinburgh.
And, in 1934, he was a partner in the securities firm of William P. Bonbright & Co., and served on Bonbright’s board and on the board of the Anglo-South American Bank. I am sure that Drexel’s father—just before he died in December of 1934—may have had a hand in helping him get these positions.
John Armstrong Drexel died in 1958… and for some reason I am having difficulty in determining when exactly and where.
My date of March 4, 1958 is a best guess scenario based on an obituary notice of a J. Armstrong Drexel in Kent, England, but with NO background information such as birthdate or even occupation or claim to fame.
Still, as a best guess option, it’s more information than is available elsewhere on the Internet. Thanks for you help, Vinnie!
So… was John Armstrong Drexel worthy of having his own aviation card – I would say no… but he was apparently the right man at the right time to have achieved such recognition.