William Robinson: A Pioneer in the Air

Early aeroplanes were crude and often unreliable. Flying was dangerous, but many saw the air as a new American frontier. These pioneers of the air were willing to take the chance. Out of their adventures and inventions the science of aviation was born.

A Better Engine

One of the pioneers of the air was an Iowan named William Robinson. This plane builder and flier wanted to break an altitude record. But fate intervened.

"Robinson's American Cross-Country Record," the title announced. The first article in Area and Hydro magazine for October 31, 1914, told all about William C. Robinson's record-breaking flight. The young man from Grinnell had made the flight in his home-built "parasol" monoplane with a radial motor of his own design. His speed had been around 80 miles per hour. Robinson had flown from Des Moines to Kentland, Indiana—370 miles in 4 hours and 44 minutes.

Billy Robinson lived in Grinnell, Iowa, where he built an aeroplane and then took flying lessons. He spent two years flying for exhibition and competition. But his greatest ambition was to design and build flying machines and better engines.

He returned to Grinnell where he started an aeroplane company. He built a biplane with his special radial engine to power it. Robinson believed that with this aeroplane he could break an altitude record.

The record was over 20,000 feet at the time, and Robinson had already been up to 14,000 feet. He was sure he could break the record.

On a chilly gray afternoon in March 1916 the people of Grinnell gazed toward the sky as the Robinson aeroplane worked its way upward. The plane became only a speck in the sky and people began to think the record was surely broken. But then, the plane turned toward the earth, fluttering like a leaf in an uncontrollable fall. There was a terrible crash and explosion as the plane plunged into a farm field. That was the end for Billy Robinson and his magnificent flying machine, but his contribution to aeroplane engine design remained.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney Ed., “Iowa’s Pioneers of the Air,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 1 (September 1980): 6-10.