The Maupin-Lanteri Black Diamond fills an interesting and significant niche in early aviation history in the United States. Many of the flying exhibitions and competitions of the pre-World War I era were dominated by aircraft designs of the leading pioneers of the day. Wright, Curtiss, Blériot, Voisin, Antoinette, and Farman machines claimed many of the prizes and were flown by the most celebrated pilots of the period. The Black Diamond represents a different, but equally significant, segment of early American aeronautical activity: the dozens of lone amateur enthusiasts who successfully built and flew aircraft of their own design using hardware store supplies and dogged determination. Their names are unknown to nearly all but specialists in the study of early flight; yet the exploits of these historically lesser-known aeronautical trailblazers claimed headlines at the time and notably contributed to aviation after the basic technology was introduced and developed by the more famous pioneers. The Wrights, Curtiss, and the other leading figures all established successful manufacturing firms and thus formed the nucleus of an aircraft industry. But these core efforts were complemented, especially in the United States, by a sizable community of individual practitioners, typically building only one or two aircraft of unique design, who brought considerable public attention and technical advancement to the nascent field of aeronautics.
The Black Diamond and its makers, L.B. Maupin and Bernard P. Lanteri, are an example of this community of experimenters who worked outside the mainstream circle of the "big name" pioneers and manufacturers. They built a very successful aircraft with little guidance and, in the hands of pilot Weldon B. Cooke, it made numerous significant flights and won several important flying prizes in 1911 and early in 1912. Moreover, individual airplane builders such as Maupin and Lanteri represented an important segment of the market for suppliers of aircraft engines and other components and equipment. As such, the Black Diamond holds an important place in the NASM early flight aircraft collection. Along with the Ecker Flying Boat and the Wiseman-Cooke aircraft, other examples of successful amateur efforts in the collection, the Black Diamond beautifully complements NASM's Wright, Curtiss, and Blériot machines.
Beyond the Black Diamond's significance in the broader context of early American aeronautics, this aircraft also has an important California local history. Fred Wiseman fabricated the first California-built airplane to fly, taking to the air in 1910. The Black Diamond flew the following year, making its first brief hops in June 1911, in Pittsburg, California. Before February 11, 1911, the town of Pittsburg was called Black Diamond, hence the name of the Maupin-Lanteri aircraft.
At the time they began work on the Diamond airplane, L.B. Maupin was the captain of a dredger working on the Sacramento River. Bernard Lanteri was co-owner and operator of the Johnson and Lanteri Shipyard in Pittsburg, California, the place where the Black Diamond was built. The Diamond resembled the successful early Curtiss-type aircraft in basic configuration, i.e., a pusher biplane with front and rear horizontal control surfaces and a tricycle landing gear. However, many of the details were of Maupin and Lanteri's own design. The Diamond was originally equipped with a 40-60 horsepower Elbridge engine and a Requa-Gibson propeller.
Many secondary accounts, written decades after the fact, state that work on the Black Diamond began in 1909 and that it was first flown in 1910. Primary documentation seems to dispute this. The apparent source for most of these secondary accounts is an article by a Hal Wiltermood appearing in the October 1933 issue of the Port of Oakland Compass, a monthly magazine published by the Board of Port Commissioners of Oakland, California. The article was based partly on a lengthy letter to Wiltermood from Herbert L. Miller, the then husband of Bernard Lanteri's widow, Anna Lanteri Miller. In Wiltermood's article, he states that, in 1909, Maupin and Lanteri witnessed an exhibition by Glenn Curtiss with one of his early airplanes at the Tanforan racetrack in San Francisco. He goes on to say that they surreptitiously viewed the Curtiss machine through a rear flap of the tent where it was being stored and made some hurried notes and sketches. They built their own aircraft based on this information, test flying it late in 1910. This version of events was repeated again and again in many newspaper articles and other written accounts of the Diamond after 1933.
Certain undisputed historical facts belie this chronology. For example, Glenn Curtiss did not make any flights in California until January 1910, when he flew at the first Los Angeles air meet held at Dominguez Field. Moreover, by that time he had only built a handful of his classic Curtiss-type pushers, and none were flown in California before 1910.
The first appearance of such aircraft in Maupin and Lanteri's area was in January 1911 at an air meet in San Francisco. This event also included the highly publicized first landing of an airplane on a ship, the U.S.S. Pennsylvannia, by Eugene Ely in a Curtiss Pusher on January 18, 1911. Also, early in 1911, Glenn Curtiss began his flying with the U.S. Navy at North Island near San Diego. Given this history of Curtiss's activity in California, the story citing the 1909-1910 dates for the design and construction of the Black Diamond would appear to have little credence.
The strongest evidence of a later date for the construction and first flight of the Diamond lies in the available primary sources. A series of articles appearing in a local newspaper, the Antioch Ledger, from the period March 4, 1911, through September 23, 1911, indicates that the airplane was built during the first half of 1911 and first flown in June of that year. These articles chronicled the progress Maupin and Lanteri made on their aircraft in anticipation of planned public flights at a major local Fourth of July celebration. What makes these references most convincing is the regular progress updates contained in them. They are not passing mentions. They contain specific details of the work on the aircraft. For example, the April 8, 1911, edition of the paper contains an article entitled, "Biplane is Almost Complete," which states, "Trial flights will take place at Pittsburg in about a month." "... the work of assembling and stretching the canvas would be commenced next week." "The engine is expected to arrive from the east next Tuesday...." "After that comes the painting and the adding of finishing touches...." Given these kinds of detailed descriptions of the work in 1911, it is hard to imagine that the airplane was built and flown in 1910. The series of articles continues with mentions of Maupin and Lanteri's progress as the Fourth celebration approached. On June 3, the paper states that they are nearly ready for "trial flights." On July 1, the Ledger reported that they were "making flights during the last week." Thus, it seems the best evidence supports a June 1911 first flight date. The airplane was built at the Johnson and Lanteri Shipyard in Pittsburg, of which Lanteri was co-owner and operator. A Leo Jackson also assisted in the construction of the Diamond.
After this date, the history of the Black Diamond is fairly clear. In August of 1911, Weldon B. Cooke and Richard Williamson joined Maupin and Lanteri as partners. As Oakland residents, Cooke and Williamson heard of the Diamond airplane and traveled to nearby Pittsburg to meet the builders and see their aircraft. Williamson's role was primarily that of mechanic. Cooke offered his services as a pilot. The September 30, 1911, issue of Aero and Hydro reported that Cooke had been flying the Diamond for several weeks, making 160 "jumps and short flights." It went on to say that Cooke would begin exhibitions in the Diamond airplane soon. Cooke had no experience flying powered airplanes before his association with Maupin and Lanteri, but he had experimented earlier with gliders. The financial arrangement between the parties regarding profits from the planned exhibition flying was one-third each to Maupin and Lanteri, and Cooke and Williamson would split the remaining third.
Cooke made the first major public flights with the Diamond on October 6 and 7, 1911, at the Grape Carnival at nearby Walnut Creek. He flew an exhibition at an Oakland Columbus Day celebration on October 12, making a flight from Alameda to Adams Point on Lake Merritt. During his takeoff from Adams Point for the return flight to Alameda, Cooke failed to get the Diamond off before hitting the water, and the airplane had to be transported back by wagon. Beginning late in October, for a period of three weeks, he flew exhibitions at nearby Fitchburg. Photographic evidence shows that by this time the Diamond had its single-surface fabric covering on the wings sewn on top of the rib structure. Earlier images show the fabric originally attached beneath the ribs. When this change was made is unclear, but the Diamond flew in this configuration (fabric on top) for the remainder of its operational life.
Further exhibition flights were made in Stockton, California, late in November, and at an Oakland race track called the Motordrome in early December. These exhibitions included racing with automobiles and motorcycles. Cooke took several men and women passengers aloft during these flights, including his brother Robert and his sister Alma. During this series of exhibition flights the original Elbridge engine was damaged and replaced with a 50- horsepower Roberts 4X engine turning a Paragon propeller. The Elbridge blew a cylinder upon starting, ruining the engine.
Among Cooke's most notable flights of the Diamond was his flight over Mt. Tamalpais on December 19, 1911. The one-hour, twenty-minute flight started at the Motordrome in Oakland, passed over the University of California, over Point Richmond, and around the summit of Mt. Tamalpais at an altitude of 915 m (3,000 ft), 122 m (400 ft) above the mountain. While over the University, Cooke dropped two personal letters, one addressed to his brother Robert, who was an instructor there, and one to the President of the University, Benjamin Ide Wheeler. Weldon Cooke was a 1907 alumnus of the University of California.
On December 31, 1911, and January 1, 1912, Cooke continued flying exhibitions with the Black Diamond at Santa Rosa, California. He made another significant flight in Oakland on January 13, 1912. Before officials of the Pacific Aero Club and a crowd of enthusiastic spectators, Cooke performed the requisite flying skills to qualify for his pilot's license. In addition to receiving his pilot's certificate, Oakland mayor Frank Mott presented him with a loving cup for his achievements. The license, along with the well-publicized exhibition flights of the previous few months, qualified Cooke for the upcoming international flying meeting to be held the following week at Dominguez Field in Los Angeles. Cooke and his partners Maupin, Lanteri, and Williamson were collecting several hundred dollars per exhibition while flying the Diamond in the Bay area. Participation in the international competition in Los Angeles would provide the opportunity for substantially greater sums and popular acclaim.
The Los Angeles international meet was held from January 20 to 28, 1912. Cooke won the duration event, flying the Black Diamond. During six days he stayed aloft for a total of 18 hours and five minutes out of a possible 22 hours and 30 minutes of flying sessions, collecting a $7,000 prize. He also won the altitude event on three days, and came in second in altitude on two other days during the meet. Complete coverage of the 1912 Los Angeles can be found in the January 6, February 3, and February 10, 1912 issues of Aero magazine.
Cooke's success using the Roberts engine brought a great deal of publicity to the company. A photograph of Cooke and the Diamond in the air at the Los Angeles meet, with copy highlighting the Roberts engine, graced the cover of the February 1912 issue of Aeronautics magazine. Other advertisements touting the performance of the Roberts engine and Cooke's achievements at Los Angeles appeared in various aeronautical publications of the day.
The flying career of the Black Diamond came to an end on the day after the Los Angeles meet concluded. On January 29, 1912, Cooke's friend and mechanic, Richard Williamson, was attempting to qualify for his pilot's license with it, but during the flight the front elevator control broke and the airplane crashed. Williamson sustained only minor bruises. The Black Diamond was transported back to Pittsburg and stored at the Johnson and Lanteri Shipyard. The Roberts engine was sold and the partnership between Maupin, Lanteri, and Cooke and Williamson was dissolved.
Cooke went on to further aeronautical acclaim. He purchased a second airplane built and flown by Fred Wiseman (not the one that Wiseman flew in May 1910), improved it, and installed a new six-cylinder Roberts engine. This aircraft is also in the NASM collection (catalog number A19490037000) and is referred to as the "Wiseman-Cooke aircraft." Cooke became one of the premier exhibition pilots of the period. He was killed in a flying accident at a Pueblo, Colorado, air show on September 16, 1914. Bernard Lanteri went on to become mayor of Pittsburg, Ca., and was killed in a boating accident in 1921. L.B. Maupin died in 1947.
The Black Diamond aircraft was later moved from the Johnson and Lanteri Shipyard to Maupin's barn in Yuba City, California, in 1927 or 1928. It remained there until 1930 when it was displayed publicly for the first time since the Los Angeles air meet in 1912. Under Maupin's direction, it was reassembled and restored by students at the Yuba Junior College in Marysville, California. The airplane was restored to be exhibited in a local parade and fair held September 23-28, 1930. Work did not begin until September 15, so it was a very quick and cursory job. Details are limited on precisely what was done during this first restoration of the Diamond, but comparing photographs taken of the airplane in 1930 with those from 1912 show that the control wheel, front wheel yoke, the tires, and possibly the wheels were replaced. In addition, triangular fins visible on the front biplane canard in 1912 are missing in the 1930 photographs. Also, an article in the September 11, 1930, edition of the local Appeal-Democrat newspaper stated that to prepare the airplane for exhibition, the fabric covering would have to be replaced, probably with material that was different from the original. Also, there was no engine on the airframe at this display.
The Black Diamond finally left the possession of L.B. Maupin when he and Anna Lanteri Miller (former wife of the deceased Bernard Lanteri) donated it to the Oakland Municipal Airport at a ceremony held on November 12, 1933. Public exhibition space in an airport building was dedicated specially to the Diamond and the accomplishments of Weldon Cooke. By this time a four-cylinder Kemp engine was mounted on the Diamond. It never flew with this engine. The Wiseman-Cooke aircraft was also turned over to the Oakland airport. The Black Diamond was displayed there from 1933 until 1948. In August 1947 it was briefly displayed at McClellan Field in Sacramento at an Army Air Forces Day celebration. It was also shown at the local state fair later that week.
Paul Garber, curator of the then National Air Museum, became aware of both the Diamond and the Wiseman-Cooke airplanes in 1947 and approached the Oakland airport officials about acquiring them for the national aeronautical collection. Plans were then in motion to expand the National Air Museum's facilities and staff. In a letter dated April 9, 1948, Garber reported to the Oakland airport authorities on the progress that had been made on the expansion of the NAM and inquired if the heirs of the builders of the aircraft would consent to turning them over to the Smithsonian Institution. The families enthusiastically agreed. On May 31, 1948, at a ceremony at Oakland airport commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Charles Kingsford-Smith's flight to Australia in the Southern Cross, the Diamond and Wiseman-Cooke aircraft were transferred to the National Air Museum. Paul Garber, representing the Smithsonian, was on hand to accept the donation personally. Both aircraft were immediately transported to Washington, D.C., and placed in storage.
The Wiseman-Cooke was restored by NASM in 1983-1985 and is currently on display in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. The Black Diamond was restored in 1997-1999 for NASM by the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California, and is currently on loan to that museum.