Flying High

Class of 1877 | At the first meet of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1876, a Penn junior named Hugh deLaussett Willoughby C1877 won the running broad jump, as it was then called, by leaping 18 feet 3 1/2 inches through the air. Not much of a jump by today’s standards, maybe, but good enough to win that day in Saratoga, and thus make Willoughby Penn’s first intercollegiate champion.

Willoughby blazed some other trails at Penn, where he studied mining and geological engineering. He was the first student-athlete to wear a Red and Blue letter, and he was a member of Penn’s first football team in 1876 (its record was 1-2).

He would later claim that as a 14-year-old boy in 1870, he had brought the first bicycle and the first dry-plate photography apparatus back from France (where he was visiting with his family) to the United States. While the claims to primacy are debatable—the records show that someone had applied for a bicycle patent in the U.S. in 1866—he was clearly ahead of his time at a young age. And he would become a pioneer of motion: in the air, on land, and by sea.

According to Who’s Who in American Aeronautics, Willoughby’s love affair with the air dates from 1894, when he began making airplane models inspired by photographs of soaring birds. After taking photographs of the Paris Exhibition in 1900 from the vantage point of a balloon, he took what are believed to be the first aerial photographs of Philadelphia in 1908.

That same year he is said to have assisted Orville Wright with one of his Army demonstration flights at Fort Myer, Virginia, near Washington. Just how he assisted is not clear, though. In a letter to Willoughby written on December 26, 1908, Wright wrote: “The planes of the machine I used at Washington were not flat, as you seem to think, but curved downward at the ends.” In another letter, Wright concluded that he and his brother “shall be very glad if you find it possible to run down to see us” in Washington the following spring.

Whatever the extent of their professional relationship, Willoughby was certainly in on the ground floor of the flying revolution, and the Wright brothers made use of some of his technical innovations. In 1909 he designed and built a large bi-plane called the War Hawk, and by 1911 he was touting his latest invention, a “hydro-aeroplane” named Pelican. (“The sport of hydro-aeroplaning,” Willoughby told a newspaper in October 1911, “will supplant the racing motor boat among the men who want to drive fast and get a thrill that is a combination of fast motor boating and aeroplaning and the best part of the hydro aeroplane is that it is absolutely safe.”) He would end up holding more than a dozen patents for his aerial inventions, and for years he was listed as the oldest licensed airplane pilot in the country.

Willoughby liked fast cars, too. In 1903 he set a record by driving an automobile from Philadelphia to Newport, Rhode Island, in 20 1/4 hours, which included four flat tires and a ferry ride from Long Island to New London, Connecticut. Nine years later he established another record by driving his Hupmobile from Newport to Jacksonville, Florida, in 19 days, despite some “execrable” roads in southern Georgia and northern Florida.

Willoughby also had a thing for water, even in his Penn days, when he was a member of the College Barge Club. Two decades later, he organized and commanded the Naval Reserve of Rhode Island, then enrolled in the Naval War College, graduating in 1896. He worked with the Navy in developing its early submarines, and his speedboat, Seminole, was said to be the first in the U.S.

He first saw South Florida on a fishing trip shortly after graduating from Penn, and would spend much of his life there—first on his houseboat, Manatee, and later in the house he built at Sewall’s Point. In 1897 he and a guide spent 15 days canoeing through the Everglades, from the Harney River to Miami. In his book, Across the Everglades, he effectively disproved the notion that the Everglades was a swamp, noting that “pure water is running in it, and no stagnant pool can be found.”

By the time he died in 1939 at the age of 82, newspaper editors had trouble summing up his life in a short headline. “Pioneer in Aviation Was one of Penn’s first Great Athletes,” wrote one. A chapter in a book on Southeast Florida Pioneers may have put it best. “Hugh deLaussett Willoughby,” it was titled. “Farther, Faster, Higher.”—S.H.

Much of the research for this piece was provided by George H. Stewart W’53—who, along with his wife, Betsy Bratton Stewart DH’52, and fellow alumni James F. Conway W’49, John Deuchler W’50 WG’51, Nancy McFadden Schroth NTS’57, and Walter Schroth W’58, live in the Willoughby Golf Club Community in Stuart, Florida, where Jack Mitchell W’46 is a “valued member of our golf staff.”


©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05


Alumni: Profiles : Events :
Notes : Obituaries

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Trail blazer Hugh Willoughby
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