We’ve all heard of famous aviation pioneers such as Amelia Earhart or The Wright Brothers, but one pioneer you may not have heard of is William Luckey, a pilot in the early 20th century who won the New York Times Aerial Derby.

Early life

Not much information is known about William Luckey’s early life. He was born in 1863 but other than that, not much is known about his education or his family life. However, we do know he was not always interested in aviation as he had a job as a manufacturer of suitcases and trunks. He decided to become a pilot in his early 50s after he was diagnosed with rheumatism and decided to learn how to fly for his health.

Aviation career

After being diagnosed with rheumatism, he became a student at the Curtiss Flying school, Hammondsport, in New York in 1913. In May of that year, William Luckey demonstrated his skills as a pilot as he did some exhibition flying as a member of the Curtiss Flying school. He also did some exhibition flying of his own for the Pennsylvania National Guard, in which he flew two guard officers.

Aviation pioneers including William Luckey attended the Curtiss flying school
The Curtiss Flying school produced many aviation pioneers including William Luckey. © U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News December 1977

New York Times Aerial Derby

In October 1913, Luckey was an experienced pilot and took part in The New York Times race around Manhattan Island known as the ‘New York Times Aerial Derby’. This would prove to be a tricky race for Luckey as the 57-mile round trip from Staten Island wasn’t without its incidents.

The course ran from Aeronautical Society’s field at Oakwood Heights from Staten Island to the east of the Harlem River in New York, all the way to the Hudson River and then ending at the starting point in Staten Island. The Hudson River caused a lot of trouble for Luckey as the conditions on the day were not good. There were northerly winds of up to 28mph which proved tricky for the Curtiss planes. Luckey noticed that whilst on the Hudson River, the plane’s intake pipes were freezing up, but he managed to carry on and win the race. He was able to maintain a top speed of 75mph across the Hudson River and finished in a record time of 2 hours and 52 minutes.

As the winner of the race, Luckey was awarded $1,000 dollars.

When the Head of the Curtiss Flying school, Glenn Curtiss, found out about William Luckey’s win, he was shocked. Luckey was older than other pilots and had not grown up in the aviation industry. He had spent most of his life as a manufacturer of suitcases, not as a pilot. Glenn Curtiss commented that Luckey was one of the surprises that aviation is continually springing.

Later life and death

After winning the New York Times Aerial Derby, Luckey was becoming an ‘aviation pioneer’ and continued to show his expertise as a pilot.

During the summer of 1914, Luckey and his team of pilots at the Curtiss flying school toured North America, including Rochester, New York and Ontario in Canada.

In 1915, tragedy struck for Luckey. He suffered a fatal accident at the Sturgeon Falls Fair in Canada on 6th September. Whilst trying to land the plane, the tail of the aircraft hit a railroad embankment throwing Luckey up in the air and hitting the ground.

He suffered critical injuries and was rushed to a hospital in Montreal, where he later died of his injuries on the 6th of December 1915.

Luckey’s story is one to behold as though starting at an older age, he became an experienced pilot touring North America, and his passion and skills were to be admired.

Did you know William Luckey’s story? Let us know in the comments below.

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