Hugh Armstrong Robinson, a member of the distinguished Early Birds of Aviation organization, was a pilot, inventor, and engineer who made significant contributions to aviation history. His daredevil, first-flight feats illustrated the potential of airplanes to the public, and his ideas and inventions convinced military leaders of the usefulness of airplanes in warfare.
Though some sources give his birth year as 1881, US Census records indicate that Robinson was born in Neosho, Missouri, on May 13, 1882. Because of his creativity in building bicycles, motorcycles, and cars, his parents, James and Missouri Robinson, encouraged him to go to college. In 1900 he earned an engineering degree from nearby Webb City Baptist College. Robinson moved to St. Louis in 1904 to work for the Dorris Automobile Company. He enjoyed making cars run better and faster, but he also was becoming passionately interested in aviation following the Wright Brothers’ first successful airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Robinson learned about ballooning and dirigibles. The more he learned, the more he wanted to know. In time, he began to study gliders and built one of his own. He also built his own monoplane, which he flew successfully in 1909 after some initial failures.
At the St. Louis Centennial Exposition in 1909, Robinson met the famous aviator Glenn Curtiss. Impressed with Robinson’s abilities as an engineer, his talents as an inventor, and his skills as a pilot, Curtiss offered him a job in California helping to design a new hydroplane capable of landing on and taking off from water. When Robinson’s monoplane was destroyed in a windstorm, he decided to accept the offer, and he became the chief pilot and engineer of Curtiss’s company.
As a test pilot and stunt pilot, Robinson flew new models of airplanes and performed new aerial maneuvers. While flying in one aviation meet, Robinson earned prize money in the amount of $1,313.13 for flying for thirteen minutes. He considered thirteen to be his lucky number, partially from his birthdate, but after this aviation meet he felt the number thirteen was his talisman, and he had it put on all his planes.
Robinson performed many first-flight feats. He is often credited with being the first to perform a right turn in an airplane. It was thought in the early days of flying that this maneuver might tear a plane apart, but Robinson did it. He was among the first to design and pilot a hydroplane, and was the first to attempt a rescue of someone at sea using a plane. In 1912, Robinson also made the first medical flight when he flew a doctor to care for a young boy who had fallen and broken his leg. He was one of the first pilots to make authorized mail flight deliveries as the aviation industry moved toward the start of regularly scheduled airmail service in 1918. In addition, Robinson trained other pilots, including the first US military test pilots, and he helped design and build the first commercial airplane with fellow Missourian Tom Benoist, who started the first commercial passenger airline in 1914.
Seeking military applications for aircraft, Robinson devised the art of dive-bombing. At an aviation meet of the San Diego Aero Club in 1911, he dropped oranges from his plane onto a miniature mock fort. When the oranges landed on the right spot, they touched off a mine that demolished the fort. This demonstration illustrated how useful airplanes could be in war.
Robinson also invented the tailhook—a device that allows airplanes to land safely on the deck of a ship. No one had successfully landed a plane on a ship before his invention, because there was no way to stop the aircraft in time once it landed. Robinson’s invention consisted of placing U-shaped iron hooks on the airplane and a double line of sandbags with ropes stretched between them on the deck of the ship. The ropes were designed to catch the hook and bring the plane safely to a stop. On January 18, 1911, the usefulness of Robinson’s tailhook invention was illustrated when Eugene Ely made the first aircraft landing on the USS Pennsylvania. Robinson’s concept that a plane could quickly decelerate by catching a cable was so successful that the technique is still used today.
When he ceased active flying, Robinson continued to be involved in the aviation field. As a correspondent for several magazines, he wrote articles about various aircraft and the future of aviation. His work appeared in Aircraft magazine, and he helped to edit the Curtiss Book of Aviation. In addition, he served as a technical editor for Auto Review. Robinson also worked as a consultant for the government and several aircraft companies, developing new aircraft, improving engines, and building gliders for use in World War II. His last position, from 1945 to 1953, was as a consulting engineer for the National Scientific Laboratories in Washington, DC.
Robinson died of a heart attack on March 26, 1963, but his pioneering achievements in aviation have not been forgotten. In 1999, Hugh’s hometown of Neosho honored him by renaming the town’s airport the Neosho–Hugh Robinson Memorial Airport. It is estimated that Robinson completed more than three thousand hours of flying time and gave more than nine hundred flying exhibitions in countries around the world. Because of his efforts, many people came to realize the importance of human flight.
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Morehouse, Harold E. “Hugh A. Robinson: Early Curtiss Exhibition and Test Pilot—Manufacturing Executive.” Harold E. Morehouse Flying Pioneers Biography Collection, Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives.
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Published November 10, 2023
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