Ralph Greenley Johnstone (September 18, 1880 – November 17, 1910) was the first American person to die while piloting an airplane that crashed.[2] He and Archibald Hoxsey were known as the "heavenly twins" for their attempts to break altitude records.


Johnstone was born on September 18, 1880 in Parsons, Kansas.[1]

Johnstone started as a vaudeville trick bicycle rider that performed a mid-air forward somersault.[3] He became a Wright exhibition team pilot. On August 17, 1910 he survived a crash at Asbury Park, New Jersey.[4]

On October 27, 1910, the International Aviation Tournament was at the Belmont Park racetrack in Elmont, New York. The meet offered $3,750 for the highest altitude, another $1,000 for a world record and a $5,000 bonus for exceeding 10,000 feet. Johnstone set a new American flight altitude record of 8,471. feet.[1] During the flight, a gust of wind forced him to fly backwards, and he landed near Artist Lake in Middle Island, New York.

Johnstone died on November 17, 1910 in Denver, Colorado in an aircrash.[2] Johnstone's Model B was still fairly new. Surviving photos of the wreckage show the parts/components still gleaming with factory fresh paint. Johnstone had damaged the wing of the plane on a previous landing and superficially repaired the wing. Not properly repaired the wing collapsed in high altitude flight and Johnstone plunged to his death.


He was in a crash after he failed to recover from a dive in Denver on November 17, 1910. Surviving Ralph were his wife and two young children – a daughter, Ethel Johnstone (born 1905), and a son, Ralph Ernest Johnstone (born 1904), who became a well-known and talented tattoo artist and circus banner painter. [5][6] [7]

A New York State Historic Plaque commemorating the landing at Artist Lake can be found at the lake along New York State Route 25 in Middle Island. On the ground Ralph was pals with Hoxsey and rival Curtiss team member Eugene Ely.

See also


  1. ^ a b The birth date of September 18, 1880 comes from his July 21, 1904 and September 19, 1905 applications for a United States passport. His March 6, 1902 passport application uses September 18, 1881. His tombstone uses September 18, 1879. The Centennial of Flight commission erroneously says: "Born 1886, Kansas City, Missouri".
  2. ^ a b Richard Stimson. "Ralph Johnstone, Daredevil Wright Pilot". Retrieved 2012-10-19. On November 17 Johnstone's flirting with death came to an end in Denver. He went into a spiraling dive and never pulled out. His body was smashed beyond recognition. He was the first American pilot to die in an airplane crash. 
  3. ^ Air & Space. April 2008.  Missing or empty title= (help)
  4. ^ New York Times; August 18, 1910; Aeroplane Crashes into an Automobile; Ralph Johnstone Comes to Grief in a Twenty-Mile Wind at Asbury Park. Aviation Field, Asbury Park, New Jersey, August 18, 1910. Wilbur Wright's school of fledgling filers came to grief again this afternoon when they drove another of their teacher's biplanes into the ground, nose on and reduced it to a hopeless mass of kindling wood and canvas.
  5. ^ "The Life & Times: Ralph E. Johnstone". www.bookmistress.net. Retrieved 2015-10-22. 
  6. ^ "History of Tattooing: Tattoo Artist Grave Sites". Buzzworthy Tattoo History. Retrieved 2015-10-22. 
  7. ^ "Ralph Ernest Johnstone (1904 - 1960) - Find A Grave Memorial". www.findagrave.com. Retrieved 2015-10-22. 

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