Who’s on first!
A factual recount of the events surrounding the invention of the airplane, by Steve (Bear) Cartwright
As a few of you are aware, back in June (2013) Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a bill, claiming "First Flight" is now officially a part of Connecticut history, stating Gustav Wiesskopf /Whitehead was first in flight in 1901, over 2 years before the Wright brothers down at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. This was the result of years of lobbying by so-called aviation historian John Brown, Wiesskopf (Whitehead) is "now" the official claimant to first flight honors, ….well….at least according to John Brown and now the State of Connecticut.
It appears Mr. Brown has been a tad closed minded in his claims, as the Wright brothers were the first in flight in what we today call an airplane, as per Sir George Cayley’s published statements (1799-1810), describing the foundation for a “successful” HTA or Heavier-Than-Air machine of demonstrating: weight, propulsion, rise, and control. Apparently also unknown to Mr. Brown, there were a number of individuals who did manage to get airborne with powered HTA flying machines, many years before either the Wrights or Wiesskopf, that’s no secret.
Interestingly, if you're going to claim first flight based solely on someone merely getting off the ground, then Wiesskopf (Whitehead) was clearly not the first there either.
“Officially” (according to FAI* records**), the first to get off the ground was Clement Ader in 1897 when he powered his way for 300m across the French countryside.
*Federation Aéronautique International; Founded in 1906, the FAI is the only recognized organization who can officially record a flight record; rather that be with an HTA airplane (dynamic or soaring), balloon, dirigible, parachutist, hang-glider, etcetera, from 1906 to current, though their records do list Clement Ader’s 1897 flight (9 years before the FAI’s formation), two individuals who witnessed Ader’s flight later became FAI officials, once the FAI was founded.
**Source: January 2, 1909 issue of "Flight", page ten, where the FAI records current up through December 18, 1908 are listed. This publication called "Flight" was the official magazine of the Aero Club of the United Kingdom and is published to this day. Every issue of “Flight” is archived at http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/index.html and I encourage anyone interested in reading about aviation history, written by those who were living it as it occurred that you go to this website and read through the thousands of pages of the magazine “Flight”, published weekly beginning in January of 1909.
Mr. Brown’s current claim and what he used to make his point, concerning Gustav Wiesskopf/Whitehead, is to have located a photograph of Wiesskopf/Whitehead in flight with his #21 air machine, but unfortunately, I offer the following document (photograph) of Clement Ader, outside of Paris on October 14, 1897, in flight with his powered flying machine. So between Wiesskopf and Ader, who’s first?
The above photograph is documented as the first ever photograph of a powered heavier-than-air flying machine in the world, while it was in flight. Clement Ader performed this feat on October 14, 1897 just outside of Paris, France and his flight that day covered 300m and is “certified” by the FAI (Federation Aéronautique International) as the world’s first flight of a powered heavier-than-air flying machine. Even with this photographic evidence, I maintain “First Flight” is still the flight conducted by Orville Wright on December 17th, 1903!
My research has revealed the possibility of at least11 different individuals who managed to get off the ground in a powered HTA before the Wrights (or some claim), though ALL these probable successes are “irrelevant”, as the Wrights were the first to work through each of the technical problems associated with powered flight, not as aviators, but as “engineers”. In fact, Wilbur Wright greatly disliked flying himself and stated so on numerous occasions, but was grossly intrigued by the mathematics of the problems.
Over the last decade, I’ve discovered the following possible powered HTA successful flights, prior to the Wright’s first flights on December 17, 1903 (list includes their country of origin, claimed flight distance, and power source):
1874 Felix du Temple (France) 30m (steam powered)
1875 Thomas Moy/Richard Shill (UK) 20m (steam powered)
1884 Alexander Mozhaiski (Russia) 30m (steam powered)
1890 Clement Ader (France) 160 feet (steam powered)
1894 Hiram Maxim (USA-UK) 250 feet (steam powered)
1897 Clement Ader (France) 300m (official “certified” first flight of a dynamic HTA listed by the FAI) (steam powered)
1898 Augustus Herring (USA) 50 & 73 feet (air pressure motor)
1901 Gustav Wiesskopf/Whitehead (Germany-USA) 1 mile (acetylene powered)
1902 Lyman Gilmore Jr. (USA) 125 feet (steam powered)
1902 Rev. Burrell Cannon (USA) 300 feet (steam powered)
1903 Richard Pearse (New Zealand) 1,100m (gasoline)
1903 Karl Jatho (Germany) 65m (gasoline)
As far as soaring successes, they are far more difficult to pinpoint (as the name of most who’ve tried to fly with an unpowered HTA are probably lost to history). The earliest known (recorded) soaring HTA flight attempts are probably as follows (excerpts from the index of my book, "From The Ground Up")
Al-Djwarhari (Arabia) 1002-1010
What is probably the earliest recorded known attempt at flight occurred in Nisbur (Arabia). Sometime between 1002-1010 after Al-Djwarhari attached wood an cloth wings to himself, then with a large number of witnesses, attempted to fly from a high wall of a castle. In his single attempt at flight, Al-Djwarhari fell to his death according to the writings from that time.
Joao Torto (Portugal) 1540
After constructing wings from a light cloth material, copying a bird’s wing, on June 20, 1540 several dozen witnesses saw Joao Torto (Portugal) leap from the tower of a cathedral located in the St. Mateus Square. Wearing a helmet which resembled a bird’s head (said to have been shaped like a large Hawk or Eagle head), witnesses claimed Torto did fly out a very short distance, but his collision with the ground was fatal.
Archbishop John Williams (Wales) 1589
At the age of 7 (1589), John Williams (Archbishop of York) experimented with flight by wearing an oversized coat as his glider wings, then thrust himself from the high walls of Conwy Castle, but as expected, his flight was short-lived. John did survive his single attempt at flight, but his uncontrolled landing into the rocks did cause him a rather serious injury. Noted by John Hackett (1693), John Williams had “..suffer’d an adventitious mischance..”, as the rocks caused, “...a secret infirmity, fitter to be understood, than further describ’d “. In more clear terms, John Williams survived, but he was castrated by his fall onto the rocks. Regardless, John Williams went on to become the Archbishop of York and lived to the age of 78."
Though Wiesskopf/Whitehead no doubt enjoyed some measure of success, any success he did have with his model #21 in 1901, is all irrelevant to the development of the airplane, as we know it. I say irrelevant because rather Wiesskopf got into the air or not, he was never able to duplicate his claimed feats nor did he offer anything to the advancement of the technology (scientific data useable to others, with which to design and build a successful dynamic or soaring HTA).
Generally, most people are historically unaware of Wiesskopf/Whitehead (for good reason), but I believe to be more interesting is even those who are aware and are ardent supporters of him, are probably not aware Wiesskopf/Whitehead's model #21 was a direct copy of Le Comte d'Esterno's 1864 glider (view d'Esterno's original drawing of his 1864 glider and then compare this to a photograph of Wiesskopf/Whitehead's 1901 model #21 machine and you can draw your own conclusions).
It’s truly sad and a bit perplexing that so many continue to either not want to believe the truth of just how the airplane was invented or simply want to do whatever they can to discredit the Wright brothers, for some misplaced nationalistic reason. Interestingly, this has been going on since the early part of the 20th Century, so nothing is new.
I need to now make a statement as to my understanding of what really occurred at the turn of the century, as the historical truth of what happened during those times is actually far more interesting than many would believe.
Beginning in 2001, I began researching the history of the early aviation pioneers, though my studies initially were only with a modest level of interest, but the more information I discovered, the more interesting I found the subject and the more I began to embroil myself into my research. To be completely frank, initially I was of the belief the Wright brothers were certainly not the first and even if I learned to accept their success, their success was most certainly built upon the work of others. Then after over 10 years of work, what I’ve discovered turns out to be far different than what I expected.
My research included visiting dozens and dozens of museums, digging through archives and databases, both here in America and in Europe, this also included reading period newspapers, magazines, books, published articles, reading through dozens of period official and unofficial documents, studying period published scientific papers, and most importantly, reading through the personal journals and the private letters of those individuals actually alive and involved during those times. To date, I have literally read through thousands of pages of material, all relating to the early pioneers of aviation. Additionally, I have also built a database here at home which includes thousands of period photographs, many of which are quite revealing as to the nature of thinking from that time.
The simple fact is, a truly successful airplane is a rather complex machine, requiring the designer have a broad knowledge of many different subjects. The early pioneers (at the turn of the century) unfortunately lacked the overall scientific or engineering knowledge allowing them to build and fly a successful heavier than air flying machine. It’s not their fault mind you, as they had no scientific base from which to work, as nearly all of the early pioneers may have had some understanding or belief of one piece of the puzzle, NO ONE, understood it all in a combined fashion. More importantly, even those like Otto Lilienthal of Germany, whose “lift” data charts were the accepted standard for designing an airfoil, didn’t fully understand the true nature of his own work (mostly as to how incomplete it was).
To build a successful airplane, you need light-weight yet strong materials to start, with which to construct your machine and designed to withstand the stress it would be exposed to, and then you’ll need a light-weight yet sufficiently powerful engine with an equally efficient propeller attached. Next you need to design your airfoils so they will provide sufficient lift, while maintaining low drag and after all that, you need some method of control, so as the operator you can maintain your equilibrium in a 3-dimensional environment. As easy as all that sounds to us today, at the turn of the century that frankly wasn’t the case.
Many years ago I became acquainted with the award winning non-fiction author, Gerald Posner* and he told me something I’ve never forgotten, “…when investigating history for the purpose of discovering the truth, you have to function with no pre-conceived agenda in-mind and from each piece of what you discover, each piece has to be treated like a piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle, where you have no idea whatsoever what the final picture will look like.”
*Gerald Posner is a highly respected investigative lawyer/author who has had numerous non-fiction best sellers, such as: Case Closed; Hitler’s Children; Mengele: The Complete Story; Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power; and a host of others.
Nearly all of the early HTA pioneers, such as; Clement Ader, Captain Ferdinand Ferber, Henri Farman, Leon Delagrange, Santos Dumont, Louis Bleriot, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, Hirman Maxim, Percy Pilcher, Augustus Herring, Octave Chanute, William Avery, John Montgomery, Karl Jatho, Gabriel Voisin, Traian Vuia, Ego Etrich, de Pischoff, Raoul Yendome, the Zen brothers, Leon Levavasseur, Dr. Samuel Langley, Gastambide-Mengin, and such lesser known early aviator experimenters like Gustav Wiesskopf/Whitehead or Israel Ludlow, among a small handful of others, each and every one of them approached their HTA designs from the same point of view, that of designing their machines based on the concept of “inherent stability”.
Wilbur Wright had expressed interest in heavier-than-air flight as early as 1896, after following the exploits of Otto Lilienthal in the newspapers, leading he and his brother to speculate Lilienthal’s crash and subsequent death was most likely caused by his lack of an adequate control system. Wilbur became far more serious about pursuing some ideas he had formulated, after the highly respected Dr. Samuel Langley began his work, though from the very beginning, Wilbur Wright believed that only through the concept of “inherent instability” would one be successful, which was exactly the opposite of everyone else’s thinking. Wilbur had come up with this concept based on his close observation of large soaring birds, birds he had watched as they soared silently on the winds near his home in Dayton, Ohio.
Wilbur was the first early aviation scientist/engineer to realize “Inherent Instability” was not only how birds successfully maintained control and executed a turn, but would probably be the proper way to maintain control of a Heavier-Than-Air flying machine as well. It’s almost as if birds looked at Wilbur and said “so, you discovered our secret”?
Initially, Wilbur assumed lift and propulsion had already been worked out by others, but it was the singular concept of developing a more robust method of control, specifically to control a machine developed on the concept of inherent instability, would be needed to provide an aggressive method to maintain the machine’s equilibrium.
Wilbur and his younger brother Orville, often discussed a variety of methods to effectively produce lateral control, but everything they initially could think of was too complicated, which also meant it was equally too heavy. In considering different possibilities, Wilbur one evening was fidgeting with an empty bicycle inter-tube box, when he noticed that by twisting the box, he induced the end surfaces of the box to deflect in opposing direction, exactly what he was looking for. Rather than attempt to use a set of gears or separate moveable wing surfaces (either which would render their first glider too heavy), Wilbur felt he could design a system which would be effective, sufficiently strong, and very light-weight to provide adequate lateral control. Wilbur had noted a drawing he had seen of a glider originally designed by a retired civil engineer, Octave Chanute, where Chanute’s air machine had one wing mounted directly above the other, appearing very much like the cardboard box he had first envisioned his idea with.
From there, Wilbur designed a small “kite”, which he spent a couple of hours flying on a sunny afternoon during the summer of 1899, learning to steer with his first “prototype” machine with his lateral control system installed.
Later in life, Wilbur drew a simple set of plans for his 1899 kite for a friend (above right). Wilbur’s simple kite design allowed him to experiment with his idea for wing-warping to control his kite’s roll, something which was simple and easy to apply to a larger man carrying sized machine.
Though Wilbur had gone over to a park, to fly his little biplane kite (Wilbur’s little kite had a 5’ wingspan), Orville didn’t go with him that day. According to Orville (from his journal), Wilbur enjoyed the day with a group of young boys who assisted Wilbur, flying this kite. It must have seemed kind of strange to see a grown man, wearing a suit, and flying this very unusual kite, one which you could steer through the air.
The following spring (May 13, 1900), Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute for the first time, and he (Wilbur) was concerned Chanute would think him an uneducated charlatan, but Wilbur truly believed Chanute could be helpful, after he read a series of articles written by Chanute in a railroading magazine, articles titled; “Progress In Flying Machines”, Wilbur believed Chanute was the master of knowledge when it came to flying machines, so over the following decade, Wilbur and Octave Chanute would exchange in excess of 400 letters.
The first four paragraphs of Wilbur’s initial May 13, 1900 letter, tell much of his initial intentions:
“For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.
My general ideas of the subject are similar to those held by most practical experimenters, to wit: that what is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. The flight of the buzzard and similar sailors is a convincing demonstration of the value of skill, and the partial needlessness of motor. It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge & skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge, than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery.
Assuming then that Lilienthal was correct in his ideas of the principles on which man should proceed, I conceive that his failure was due chiefly to the inadequacy of his method, and of his apparatus. As to his method, the fact that in five years’ time he spent only about five hours, altogether, in actual flight is sufficient to show that his method was inadequate. Even the simplest intellectual or acrobatic feats could never be learned with so short practice, and even Methuselah could never have become an expert stenographer with one hour per year for practice. I conceive Lilienthal’s apparatus to be inadequate not only from the fact that he failed, but my observations of the flight of birds convince me that birds use more positive and energetic methods of regaining equilibrium than that of shifting the center of gravity.
With this general statement of my principles and belief I will proceed to describe the plan and apparatus it is my intention to test. In explaining these, my object is to learn to what extent similar plans have been tested and found to be failures, and also to obtain such suggestions as your great knowledge and experience might enable you to give me. I make no secret of my plans for the reason that I believe no financial profit will accrue to the inventor of the first flying machine, and that only those who are willing to give as well as to receive suggestions can hope to link their names with the honor of its discovery. The problem is too great for one man alone and unaided to solve in secret…..”
Wilbur’s letter went on discussing a variety of different methods he would use, to test a full size man-carrying glider and it was his intent to build such a glider, after finding a suitable location to conduct these tests. Over the next few months, Wilbur and Octave Chanute exchanged several letters, with Octave giving as much advice as he was able, all of which Wilbur greatly appreciated. Finally at the beginning of the second week of September (1900), Wilbur headed on down to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with his brother following along, a couple of weeks later.
Wilbur’s 1900 glider, his first, turned out to grossly underperform expectations of lift, during his earliest attempts to fly from a sand dune down at Kitty Hawk. According to Lilienthal’s lift charts (the accepted standard of the world in 1900, which Octave Chanute had provided Wilbur), Wilbur’s first glider should have easily carried his weight, but the reality was quite different. Wilbur’s first glider did yield some minor successes, though only when the wind was very brisk, at least 15-20 mph or higher.
It was here Wilbur and Orville decided on doing something NO other early pioneer had attempted or more likely, even considered on doing, Wilbur decided to use a set of gauges to measure the actual lift, in pounds, his little glider produced, under very controlled circumstances.
Above are the three primary gauges the Wrights used to accurately measure their 1900 and 1901 full size gliders in flight, while tethered and flown as a kite. (Above left to right) Inclinometer (to measure Angle of Attack), Spring Scale (to measure lift in pounds), and a French made Anemometer (to measure ambient wind speed).
The Wright’s 1900 (above left) and their 1901 (above right) gliders. Note on their 1900 glider how it is being flown as a kite, with a tether line attached and an inclinometer mounted to one of the forward airfoil uprights.
Wilbur’s little 1900 glider had 165 square feet of surface and according to Lilienthal’s charts, his glider should have been capable of lifting 175 lbs at a 10° AoA (Angle of Attack, though in 1900, they referred to this as Angle of Incidence), in a 10 mph wind, but after attaching his (Wilbur’s) gauges and flying the glider tethered as a kite, his glider could only produce 55-65 lbs of lift under those conditions (only about 30%-35% of the lift which Lilienthal’s lift charts predicted it would). Considering Wilbur’s first glider weighed in at 52 lbs all by itself, well, this didn’t leave much lift for any operator/passenger. The boys did fly their glider (tethered like a kite), first with 75 lbs of chain wrapped around its cross-bracing, later (while still tethered) with 13 year old Tom Tate riding as a passenger. Later the boys (the Wrights) did manage a few dozen minor glides on two different days, while Wilbur made plans on returning the following year with a much larger version of his glider.
With their collected data results in mind, Wilbur and Orville designed their 1901 glider with an increase between each airfoil’s cord and wingspan (from 5’ to 7’ cord-length and from 17.5’ to a 22’ wingspan), increasing their newest glider’s airfoil surface from 165 to 290 square feet. Additionally, they increased their airfoil camber from 1/20 to 1/12 (1/12 matched Lilienthal’s airfoil camber), but after they initially flew their new glider as a kite, while their gauges were attached, their new glider still only produced 65-75 lbs of lift at 10° AoA, in a 10 mph wind(?).
Wilbur was beyond perplexed, prompting Orville to write home to his sister Katherine, it was all he could do to keep his brother Wilbur in the flying business. After applying some changes (specifically reducing the airfoil camber from 1/12 to 1/19) their 1901 glider did perform several successful glides, glides which were witnessed by several others, including Ed Huffaker, Augustus Herring, George Spratt (all apprentices’ of Octave Chanute’s), and Octave Chanute himself. Chanute and his group brought down a couple of gliders which Chanute had designed, but they were total disasters. On the other-hand, Chanute and his group were very excited by Wilbur’s glider; with Chanute even commenting Wilbur’s 1901 glider had performed the best in history (one of Wilbur’s glides had exceeded 20 seconds endurance, exceeding anything Lilienthal or Pilcher had performed before they were killed in glider accidents).
On the long ride home after a summer of flying down at Kitty Hawk (1901), Wilbur and Orville were pretty quiet and spoke very little of their summer of disappointment. The boys were disappointed regardless of the excitement contained by those who had witnessed their dozens of successful flights, Wilbur and Orville had made. The boys were disappointed not as aviators, but as scientist/engineers, by not having the answers as to why the numbers didn’t add-up to what Lilienthal’s lift charts predicted, which had perplexed them both, particular Wilbur. Wilbur even commented man probably wouldn’t fly for another 50 years, if ever and even their sister, in a letter to their father, wrote the boys spoke very little of their experiences that summer. They did however speak about how disagreeable Edward Huffaker had been, even to the point of noting when their camp was overrun by mosquitoes, soon after Huffaker arrived, Orville told his sister they were a pleasure compared to the antics of Huffaker.
On the long train ride home, after their 1901 summer of flying down at Kitty Hawk, both Wilbur and Orville, despite their success, still felt the numbers they measured from their glider were perplexing and confusing, leading them to believe it would be years before man flew. By riding a modified bicycle (of which Wilbur and Charlie Taylor built, above right) down the street, at a steady speed, Wilbur was able to determine some noticeable variations in how the airfoil shape affected its lifting capacity. Wilbur was unable to maintain a sufficiently steady wind over his bicycle mounted airfoils to measure accurately, but it was just effective enough for him to speculate on a new idea. When he returned home from Chicago, after his speech to the Western Society of Engineers, he had Charlie (Taylor) build a wind tunnel they could test further with.
It wasn’t long after Wilbur arrived home, he received a telegram from Octave Chanute, asking him to be the keynote speaker at that year’s convention for the Western Society of Engineers, up in Chicago on the 18th (September 1901). Initially Wilbur was going to turn Chanute down, but after his sister nagged him about it, Wilbur decided to accept Chanute’s offer (Katherine felt this would be a chance for Wilbur to discuss the mathematical problems they had encountered, with other engineers). Wilbur began to think through the data they had collected and working on a hunch, Wilbur had their newly hired mechanic and fabricator, Charlie Taylor, attach a bicycle rim, laid horizontally across the handlebars of one of their bicycles. While riding down the street, with small scale model airfoils mounted vertically to the horizontal bicycle rim, Wilbur discovered when you increased camber with an airfoil; this alone increased the drift (drag) of that airfoil.
Wilbur spent several days putting together his planned presentation, but when asked by his sister, would his speech to this most prestigious group of engineers be “witty” or “scientific” in nature, Wilbur simply said he thought it would be “..pathetic”!
Turns out, Wilbur’s presentation* was a big hit with the Western Society of Engineers convention attendees, and though he was quite critical of Otto Lilienthal’s lift charts and work, pointing out the battery of errors in his calculations (even to the point of referring to Lilienthal’s charts as a “…red herring” and of no use whatsoever in airfoil design), he was much less critical of Sir George Cayley’s work. Wilbur Wright also described his theory on “inherent instability” and further stated successful flight would only be obtained when this concept was embraced.
*A few weeks after his presentation, Chanute convinced Wilbur to publish his presentation as a scientific paper, which Wilbur did; you can read the original scientific paper written by Wilbur Wright, by googling its title of “Some Aeronautical Experiments”!
Immediately following his return home from Chicago; Wilbur, Orville, and Charlie Taylor assembled a gasoline powered wind tunnel, which was not new (the wind tunnel that is, as it had been used by a number of individuals over the years), but Wilbur’s design for a pair of balance scales he would use, to measure both the lift and drift (drag) created by his small scale model airfoils, would change history. Each scale model test airfoil had 6² inches of surface area, the same as the balance scales Charlie Taylor built, following Wilbur’s hand-drawn diagram.
These balance scales were brazed together using discarded hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes and regardless of their appearance, they very accurately measured each scale model airfoil’s generated lift and after turning the model wing 90° to the wind, an accurate calculation could be made for determining the energy loss, which allowed Wilbur or Orville to calculate the test airfoil’s Coefficient of Drift or Drag.
Here is a copy of Wilbur Wright’s original drawing (above left) for a wind tunnel balance scale he supplied his fabricator, Charlie Taylor, from which Charlie constructed a pair of balance scales (above center, one of the surviving balance scales currently on display at the Franklin Institute). These balance scales were used in the wooden wind tunnel Charlie and Orville built (replica shown above right).
Wilbur then developed entirely new mathematical formulas (using basic trigonometry), where the forces acting on his model airfoils were looked upon in 90° angles. Despite the rough and crude appearance of his gauges and the basic level of mathematics Wilbur was using, modern calculations on airfoil performance, using “vector analysis” and “computer aided design” systems, have only improved the accuracy over Wilbur’s calculations by 2% or less. Unlike Lilienthal’s basic calculations for “lift” (where drift/drag was merely considered a force acting in a linear fashion), Wilbur’s methodology was able to calculate an accurate Coefficient of Lift/Coefficient of Drift, where Aspect Ratio and Airfoil Camber were brought into the equation.
Lilienthal had used John Smeathon’s Coefficient of Pressure factor of 0.0054 (a factor needed to convert the initial calculation into a useable value for determining total lift in pounds, represented by the letter “k” in Lilienthal’s calculations and with Wilbur Wright’s more complex formulas), but Wilbur estimated this factor value was off by as much as 20%, so Wilbur performed some simple tests, in his wind tunnel, and determined the CoP conversion factor was actually 0.0033 for a low speed airfoil (low speed meaning airfoils designed for airspeeds under 250 mph).
Modern re-analysis of Wilbur’s calculations for a low speed airfoil’s CoP of 0.0033, has been fine tuned to actually be 0.00329, so Wilbur didn’t do too bad using just a pencil and piece of paper (as well as his extraordinary level of genius).
John Smeathon’s CoP factor was actually 40% in error, nearly twice as much in error as Wilbur had estimated.
To operate their wind tunnel, the boys’ set-up a single cylinder gasoline engine, fixed mounted outside of a small room in the back of their bicycle shop in Dayton. With a direct driveshaft, running from their little engine through the back shop wall and into the front of their wind tunnel, where it spun a small fan and sent a 22 mph wind through the enclosed wooden box and out the other end. On top of the wooden box, Charlie Taylor had affixed a glass window at its far end, where either Wilbur or Orville could directly observe the movable scales of their balance gauge, mounted inside and exposed to the wind stream.
Over the winter of 1901-1902, Wilbur and Orville tested over 220 different airfoil designs, in their little wind tunnel, where those airfoils showing more promise being further tested over a wide range of AoA (Angle of Attack), from 5°-45° AoA in 2.5° or 5° increments. As easy as all that sounds, this was extremely tedious work.
I say “tedious”, because when an airfoil shape showed a positive response, the Wrights would read a value, at an initial 5° of AoA, then they would shut down their little fan engine, wait for everything to settle down, increase the angle of incidence (AoA) by 2.5° or 5°, then start up their little engine once again and observe a new value or reading from their balance gauge. Once again they would shut everything down, increase the AoA of their little test airfoil another 2.5° or 5°, start everything up again and observe the new reading, recording these reading in their wind tunnel journal.
Using basic trigonometry, Wilbur Wright was able to devise new math formulas, where he and Orville were able to develop a methodology for accurately predicting airfoil overall performance, from their wind tunnel accumulated data. The forces acting on their test scale model airfoils were looked upon as a 90° angles (copy of Wilbur’s original lift/drag graph above left). Once the data was collected from their wind tunnel tests, this data was recorded in their airfoil data journals (above right).
To measure the scale value to calculate drift, involved a similar tedious procedure, often involving 40+ individual tests of a single airfoil shape, which required them to read their balance scale value, shut everything down, change the AoA, retest, record the values, shutdown, change the AoA, retest, record the values, shutdown, change the AoA, retest, and on and on and on. Sometimes it took 15 to 20 hours to test a single airfoil shape through all of the variations needed, with each of these values calculated out using a new set of formulas* developed by Wilbur.
*Lilienthal used the basic formula of Pressure=SV²kCL, which only allowed Lilienthal to determine his wing size (in area), while Wilbur’s new math formula of sinθ1=SV²kCL/(SV²kCD)+(SV²k), when applied to each of their small scale model wings (empirical testing on a miniature scale), resulted in giving the Wrights a more accurate prediction of an airfoil’s performance, even providing an accurate prediction based on changes in airfoil camber and/or aspect ratio.
S= wing area, k=0.0033 “Coefficient of Pressure” factor (corrected “k” value of 0.0054 to 0.0033 by Wilbur Wright), V=velocity, CL=coefficient of lift, CD=coefficient of drift or drag
After choosing only 2 of the over 220 airfoil shapes tested during the winter of 1901-1902, the Wrights began construction of their 1902 glider, but to further enhance their testing (with their full size glider), the boys’ added 4 adjustable uprights, between their upper and lower wing. These adjusters could be turned or twisted to symmetrically change or modify the camber of the upper and lower glider airfoils equally, ranging their camber ratio between 1/16 and 1/23.
Now equipped with a profound understanding of aerodynamics, Wilbur and Orville went back to Kitty Hawk for the third summer in a row, but this time they brought a machine which they expected no surprises with its airfoil performance.
Once they set-up their gauges and flew the new glider, as a kite, their direct measurements of the lift it produced achieved 97% of their prediction, with the 3% variation Wilbur attributing to pressure loss, due to the porosity of their wing’s cloth covering.
Despite having only increased their wing surface area by a small amount (290² feet with their 1901 glider to 305² feet with their new 1902 glider), their new glider produced 190 lbs of lift, when measured from the tethered gauges! Besides the small increase in wing area, they also increased the aspect ratio from 3 to a ratio of 6.5, as well as having a non-radius airfoil camber, but a camber which was hyperbolical in shape (something initially discovered by the English engineer, Horatio Phillips in the 1870s, someone whose work was unknown to the Wright brothers or the world at large for that matter).
During their first attempts at flight with their new glider, when they attempted to initiate a bank for turning, their machine’s forward pitch rudder would swing in an opposing arc (known today as adverse yaw), with sometimes their machine slowing down and rolling into the sand, something Wilbur called “well-digging” (and what we today call a stall into a spin). In the beginning, the Wright’s 1902 glider lacked any vertical yaw rudder, but after experiencing adverse yaw during their initial attempts at turning, they installed a single rudder airfoil (fixed or non-moving), then they tried dual vertical rudder airfoils. At first they seemed to help, but then they came up with the idea of making the rear mounted vertical airfoils moveable and controllable. Eventually they linked the yaw rudder into the cabling for the wing-warping.
Considering the problems with adverse yaw and pitch insensitivity (initially), it took another month before they worked through the glider’s control system; eventually ending with the world’s first HTA with a 3-axis control system, controlling the glider in Yaw, Pitch, and Roll (the idea for attaching a moveable yaw rudder was actually Orville’s). Unlike all previous examples of gliders flown by the world’s aviators, the Wright’s 1902 glider didn’t glide, as much as it actually soared.
Many today talk of how the Wrights had worked in secret, which is actually not the case, as they really only worked in private, but during the summer of 1902, a number of notable pioneer aviators were at Kitty Hawk to observe the Wright’s enormously successful 1902 machine. Besides Wilbur and Orville, their older brother Lorin was there, along with early pioneer aviators William Avery, Augustus Herring, George Spratt, Octave Chanute, even the secretary of the Aeronautical Society of Britain, Patrick Y. Alexander, was witness to the Wright’s extraordinary and revolutionary machine in flight. One of my favorite photographs of the Wright’s 1902 glider in-flight, shows Orville as he pilots their machine on a long, slow, and shallow glide from atop a low sand dune, while his brother Wilbur runs excitedly underneath.
During the summer of 1902 and after nearly six weeks of developing their 3-axis control system, the Wright’s were in possession of the world’s first HTA flying machine, which contained all of the primary elements of “every” successful flying machines after. In this photo (above), taken by Wilbur and Orville’s older brother, Lorin, Orville is soaring along on a slow and shallow glide, from a Kill Devil Hills sand dune, while Wilbur runs excitedly along underneath.
The Wrights successfully made over 700 flights with their 1902 glider and the following summer Orville would even have one flight, starting from a 90’ tall sand dune, last 79 seconds. Orville’s single flight endurance of 79 seconds was 20 seconds longer than the total accumulative time Santos Dumont recorded, from all his flights in an HTA, between July of 1906 and January 1, 1909 and all of his (Dumont’s) machines had an engine!
After returning home from a summer of flying in 1902, the Wright brothers realized they needed to come to a decision concerning the next logical step, which was rather they should develop a new larger machine, one which would be designed from the ground up with an engine! With that decision, they would have to commit to the idea of eventually marketing their machine, all with the intent of recovering their investment, as their investment into developing a dynamic machine would be most certainly substantial.
Many today are not aware, but the Wrights were very limited in their resources (financial) and despite the moderate success of their bicycle business, their investing into the world of aviation and becoming the world’s first producer of a practical flying machine, meant failure would be catastrophic and would potentially leave their family’s financial future in ruin. Before they had even left Kitty Hawk, at the end of their flying season in 1902, Wilbur drew up his original basic plans for the Wright’s first powered machine, the Flyer. In the spring of 1903, after some discussion between Orville and Wilbur, they drew up a set of blueprints, showing how their 3-axis control system worked, mechanically (on their 1902 glider), to control yaw, pitch, and roll. This particular drawing was supplied with their patent application, first applied for in 1903.
Part of the blueprints provided the US Patent office, demonstrating the mechanical methodology used on their 1902 glider, to effectively implement their control of yaw, pitch, and roll on a dynamic or soaring HTA flying machine (above left). For their dynamic version of their 1902 glider, Wilbur designed his initial idea of the Flyer’s configuration (above right), before leaving Kitty Hawk in 1902.
By January (1903), the family had collectively agreed the boys should move forward, so work on the Flyer I began, first Wilbur calculated they would need an engine capable of producing a minimum of 8 hp, while weighing less than 180 lbs. So, Wilbur sat down and wrote to ten different automotive engine manufacturers, asking for an engine which would fit their requirements, but of the ten he wrote to, only two responded, both stating Wilbur’s requirement of 8 hp minimum, yet weighing less than 180 lbs was unrealistic.
After receiving the news from those two automotive manufacturers, Wilbur drew up his own plans for a 4-cylinder gasoline powered engine, one he (Wilbur) believed would supply 8-10 hp and after a short discussion with Charlie Taylor, the Wright’s in-house fabricator, they believed they could build it and keep the weight under 180 lbs.
Charlie (Taylor) hand-cut the engine’s crankshaft from a single piece of billet steel, then he used a technique he had been taught early on, the art of sand casting, so using this technique Charlie cast the engine block out of aluminum. When finally finished, the Wright’s first gasoline engine only weighed 156 lbs and produced 12.4 horsepower.
When the boys were unable to purchase a gasoline engine from one of the available automotive engine manufacturers, Wilbur designed his own gasoline 4-cylinder engine, which Charlie Taylor fabricated, and incredibly went from Wilbur’s original drawings to a running engine in slightly less than six weeks. Wilbur’s design required it operate in a lay-down or horizontal position (above right).
Rather than designing a carburetor to deliver fuel, Wilbur came up with the idea of simply dripping gasoline onto a copper plate, heated by a small electric battery, which instantly vaporized the fuel and the engine merely sucked in the fuel vapor with air. This method of fuel delivery didn’t allow for throttle control, as the engine would run at either full throttle or nothing, but for their needs for their first dynamic flying machine, this was sufficient.
From the time of Wilbur drawing up his plans for an engine, until Charlie Taylor was able fire it up and test it, was only six weeks, but as it would turn out, their propeller wouldn’t be so easy!
All of the powered HTA experimenters (aviators) had pretty simple propellers, mere fans really; most often they simply attached a boat oar like shaped fan on either end of a long stick. These era propeller styles (1897-1909), were horribly inefficient, often times rarely exceeding 15% to 20% in power-to-thrust efficiency.
Some early examples of typical propellers used, before the Wright brothers’ technology caught on. Far left above, this propeller is from the 1906 Elhammer, 2nd from left is the 1909 Demoiselle used by Santos Dumont, 3rd from the left is from Gustav Wiesskopf/Whitehead’s 1901 #21, and finally the far right propeller is shown on Robert Esnault-Pelterie’s 1908 machine.
From Orville’s book; “How We Invented The Airplane”, you’ll find the following from Orville concerning their propeller design:
“….we began an investigation of screw propellers. At first we hoped to be able to procure a theory of the reactions on a screw propeller from works on marine engineering, but we soon found, after examining the few books we were able to secure in the Dayton Public Library pertaining to marine engineering, that water screw propellers at that time were not based upon theory but almost entirely upon empirical data. We had thought that we could adopt the theory from the marine engineers, and then by using our tables of air pressures, instead of the tables of water pressures used in their calculations, that we could estimate in advance the performance of the propellers we would use. When we found we could not do this, we began the study of the screw propeller from an entirely theoretical standpoint, since we saw with the small capital we possessed we would not be able to develop an efficient propeller on the ‘cut and try’ plan.”
The discussions between Wilbur and Orville, concerning their propeller design, ranged from one spectrum to another and Charlie Taylor wrote in his memoirs, the discussions between the boys most often ended in arguing, where they would argue for two or three hours, only to find that each had reversed their opinions, each firmly believing the opposite of where they had started a few hours earlier.
The two brothers realized a propeller was really just an airfoil spinning in a circle at a 90° angle to the airflow. In addition they were aware of the obvious; the speed of this spinning airfoil would increase the further you were, from the center of the propeller, meaning the propeller tip moved much faster through the air, as it spun, than the part of the propeller closest to the propeller hub or center.
Over a three month period, the two brothers worked slowly at designing their propeller, finally ending with a propeller so efficient, over a hundred years have passed since and there still has been no improvement (in power-to-thrust) over the Wright’s original 1903 propeller. In 1903, after those months of arguing and work, the Wrights had unknowingly invented the world’s first “high efficiency” propeller specifically designed for use in the atmosphere.
It only took a month and half to go from Wilbur’s drawings to have a running engine, but their propeller design took over 3 months to finally have what you see here (above). The Wright’s understood aerodynamics far beyond any of their contemporaries and in 2003, after one of their original propellers was tested by NASA engineers, at the AMES research center in Sunnyvale, CA, it was discovered the Wright’s original propellers, designed and built in 1903, were 86% efficient at power-to-thrust conversion ratio. Even though one hundred years have passed and even with the availability of new technologies in design and construction, there has been no improvement over the Wright’s original work.
I suspect the Wright brothers were probably not fully aware, but they and Wilbur’s close friend and collaborator, George Spratt, were certainly the only engineers in the world who understood and appreciated the reality of aerodynamics as they did. Their knowledge of aerodynamics gave them a decidedly unique and greater understanding of how to design their propeller, over all scientist/engineers of their era.
At the time, Wilbur estimated their propellers were at least 66%-70% efficient at power-to-thrust conversion (where the typical propeller or fan being used by everyone else of that era rarely exceeded 18%-20% efficiency). Testing in 2003, by NASA engineers at the AMES research center in Sunnyvale, California, revealed the actual efficiency ratio of the Wright’s original propeller was 86%, at their geared rpm and weather conditions they encountered. This compares favorably to a modern, computer designed propeller for a turbo-prop, such as a de Havilland DASH8, where their propellers, under ideal conditions, rarely exceed an 83%-86% efficiency ratio. In 1906, Santos Dumont’s 14bis’ propeller was so inefficient, yielding less than 20% power-to-thrust ratio, only 9.5 hp from his 50 hp engine was transferred into thrust energy, while the Wright’s original Flyer I propellers at 86% efficiency, yielded 10.4 hp thrust energy from their much smaller 12.4 hp engine, roughly 12% more thrust energy from an engine producing 75% less power.
During the late spring and early summer of 1903, the Wrights were busy splitting their time between bicycles and getting the pieces to their Flyer assembled. The Wrights had calculated the Flyer, with either of them aboard, would tip the scales at 650 lbs (the Wrights were very good at estimating the weight of their machine prior to construction), so with this estimate, they knew they needed to design their airfoils with a 40.3’ wingspan, an aspect ratio of 6.5, and a airfoil camber of 1/22. Because they knew exactly their predicted airfoil performance, the Wrights for the first time constructed their wing ribs so they would not be adjustable for camber, as their 1902 glider had been.
Using the calculations from their lift/drag charts, developed during their previous winter of wind tunnel testing, they knew that configuring the Flyer to the outer edge of these specifications would yield better test data. Their purpose in designing their machine to the lower limits of their calculated performance estimate, was if their machine would be capable of successful flight, regardless of being designed on the performance edge limit, this would yield better information or data, then if they built it to operate in the center of their expected performance window. The real purpose to these intended flight tests was as “proof of concept”, as the Wrights only intended for the Flyer to be used this one time, after which they would evaluate the information they gathered to assist at developing the next prototype model.
After writing to the US Weather Bureau back in 1900, Wilbur chose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to perform their experiments, based on a combination of factors. Wilbur had asked the Weather Bureau on the average winds from the Bureau’s reporting sites; from up and down the east coast of the United States (they didn’t need any information concerning the west coast due to the west coast’s distance from Ohio). The Weather Bureau sent Wilbur a detailed chart of average winds (listing the time of year for those average winds by month); from 21 of their reporting stations and it was the 6th station down the list called Kill Devil Hills, which caught Wilbur’s eye. The winds there, from August to November, averaged 21 mph, nearly twice as much as any of the other reporting stations (though it turned out the winds were rarely 21 mph, but rather were either 0 or 40), plus they had some nearby sand dunes with gently sloping sides, making it safer to crash into. The fact this reporting station was near the small village of Kitty Hawk, which was somewhat isolated, only added to their desire to experiment there.
The Wrights headed on down to Kitty Hawk in late September of 1903 and with them they brought their disassembled Flyer and their 1902 glider, which they brought back with them, back home to Dayton, after the 1902 summer of flying at Kitty Hawk (with their 1900 and 1901 gliders, they had left them behind, giving them to the Tate family, who used material from those two gliders to make clothing for their children).
The Wrights didn’t head on down to Kitty Hawk that year, believing they were to be “first in flight”, as they were fully aware of those who had managed to get airborne already, aviator experimenters like; Clement Ader, Hiram Mixam, Augustus Herring, and some fellow up in Connecticut, Gustav Wiesskopf/Whitehead, though all of these experimenters failed to demonstrate a working airplane, with most giving up after a few very minor successes. The Wrights were not aware of either Richard Pearse down in New Zealand or Karl Jatho over in Germany (Pearse flew several times between 1902 and 1903, with at least one flight covering 3,500 feet of distance, but Richard Pearse never told anyone about his flights until 1934, which he revealed during an interview with a local New Zealand newspaper reporter). Karl Jatho’s minor flights weren’t known until after Wilbur’s successful demonstrations at Le Mans, France in 1908, when he (Jatho) restarted his experiments once hearing about Wilbur Wright at Le Mans.
(Above left), Hiram Maxim (1894);(center), Augustus Herring (1898); (right) Clement Ader (1897)
(To give you some idea the size of Maxim’s huge biplane, note the red circle, which shows Hiram standing in front of his machine. Hiram’s biplane tipped the scales at just over 7,000 lbs and had a wingspan only slightly less than a Boeing 737-200)
(Above left) One of Dr. Langley’s flying models, (center) Horatio Phillips’ flying venetian blinds, and finally, (above right) Wiesskopf/Whitehead’s #21 machine.
As they (the Wright brothers) were preparing to head down to Kitty Hawk with the Flyer and their 1902 glider, they were fully aware of Dr. Samuel Langley and his planned first attempts, with Langley and his government sponsored “Aerodrome”, scheduled to fly about the same time the boys were hoping to get into the air (Dr. Langley’s Aerodromes were sponsored to the tune of a $50,000 grant from the US Board of Ordinance and an additional $23,000 from the Smithsonian, where Dr. Langley was the secretary/director).
When the Wright brothers decided to forge ahead with their pursuit of developing a “practical” and “marketable” flying machine, their hope was to sell it to the US Government, at a price which would allow them to recover all of their investment plus some extra, to set their family’s future. The boys knew even if they were successful with their machine, selling it to the government could be an unrealistic dream, because if Dr. Langley was successful, he obviously had the inside track with the US Military. Because of this, they decided to apply for a US Patent covering the cause & effect of their 3-axis control system, in the event they needed to sell their machine commercially, so Orville put together an application for a Patent, but was almost immediately turned down, so they searched for an accredited patent lawyer. Looking for a patent lawyer, the Wrights found St. Louis Patent lawyer, Henry Toulman, who assisted Wilbur and Orville re-writing their applications and notarizing Wilbur’s blueprints, demonstrating their mechanical methodology for controlling lateral roll. The blueprints showed their methodology on a glider, but that was irrelevant to the overall content of their patent application.
In the future, distracters of the Wright’s accomplishments have attempted to use these drawings and the content of their patent in the false claims the patent (which was eventually issued on May 22, 1906 as US Patent #821,393) was issued for wing-warping, on a glider. Actually, if someone who claims the patent illegitimate, should read the entire application, as the patent is actually for the cause & effect of a 3-axis control system and not for a glider anymore it is for their wing-warping feature. If anyone reading this believes I’m full of baloney, then I suggest you read lines 45-100, from Section 3 of the Wright’s US Patent #821,393 patent application. Those particular lines in Section 3 explain the cause & effect of lateral control and suggest several mechanical means by which you can do this, you can use wing-warping like they did (because it was light-weight and easy to install), or you could use any one of a number of mechanical means to accomplish creating opposing lift, along a lateral line of the wingspan. The Wrights, in their patent application, even suggest the use of movable trailing edge surfaces, in opposing directions to control roll, which sounds an awful lot like ailerons to me!
As far as rather the Wrights used their glider for their supplied blueprints with their patent application is also irrelevant as well, because dynamic and soaring heavier-than-air flying machines are the same thing, one has its own power for thrust, the other uses gravity for power. From the opposite point-of-view, all airplanes are gliders, at least you’d better hope so if your engine or engines happen to quit on you, while you’re in the air(?).
No sooner had the Wrights arrived at Kitty Hawk, when the weather kicked up, with some wind gusts exceeding 70 mph or more, then finally by the second week of October, things began to look up.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) (Above left), Visible is young Tom Tate standing in the doorway of the second hanger the boys built at Kitty Hawk, and here Orville (above right) is assembling the airfoils for the Flyer.
In a change from their gliders, Orville “cut” each of the Flyer’s airfoil ribs to pre-shaped sizes, from their Spruce stock, rather than bending the ribs to shape. In addition, they covered the top and bottoms of the ribs with their imported Egyptian cloth. From Orville’s book How We Invented The Airplane, he (Orville) explained their reasoning behind covering the wings of the Flyer, top and bottom, was to reduce their loss of lift due to the porosity of the Flyer’s airfoil covering cloth.
Their actual measured lift values from their 1902 glider were 3% less than their calculations from their wind tunnel tests, which Wilbur believed to have been an acceptable loss due to air seeping through the wing cloth covering.
After getting the wings assembled, which they had pre-sewn back in August up at their home in Dayton, they unpacked their engine. This was a unique engine for its day, as the engine block was made from cast aluminum, but the engine had a very simple fuel delivery system, which was straight gravity feed and the fuel was dripped onto an electric hot plate, which vaporized the fuel as it entered their engine’s intake system. The firing sequence was simple and direct and because they had not attempted to balance their engine’s internal parts, this first little engine vibrated very noticeably, regardless of it having an 11 pound flywheel attached. Their ignition magneto (which initially provided inadequate energy) was driven off of the Flyer’s engine flywheel, with fuel delivered by a pair of delivery lines, while their limited fuel supply was contained in a vertical tube shaped fuel tank.
Even after building a second hanger, assembly of the Flyer itself took longer than expected, so it wasn’t until the last week of October before the Flyer was ready for their first static engine testing. Soon after tying down the Flyer, they cranked up their engine and immediately they noticed their engine vibrated terribly. During this age most engine vibration, when encountered, was dealt with by increasing flywheel weight and the Wrights had equipped their engine with an 11 lb flywheel, regardless it only seemed to help a little.
Because they only intended on completing a few short test flights, the vibration from the engine was considered a minor concern for now, but after only a few minutes, at least two problems showed up, one; their propellers were coming detached at the hub, and two; small cracks were appearing in the propeller drive-shafts.
The propeller drive-shafts were actually hollow tubes, to keep the weight down, but with the sudden appearance of cracks, after only a few seconds of operating their engine, something needed to be done to correct the problem. George Spratt, who had arrived at Kitty Hawk a few days earlier (George Spratt was an interested individual, who after prompting from Octave Chanute, who had also financed Spratt’s trip, had traveled down to Kitty Hawk during the summer of 1902. Wilbur found George to be a person whose intellect was equal to his own and the two would become quite close friends and technical collaborators over the next several years).
With the cracks appearing in both of the Flyer’s drive-shafts, Wilbur and Orville decided they needed to have Charlie Taylor build new ones, but that also meant sending them back to Dayton, Ohio, a trip which took 3 to 4 days, one way, sometimes longer for freight. George Spratt offered to carry the shafts personally to Charlie Taylor, so the boys accepted his offer, with that George was off to Dayton with both shafts in-hand. Along the way George ran into Octave Chanute at a train stopover (going from Kitty Hawk to Dayton required two separate boats and three different trains be used).
George Spratt expressed his concern, to Octave, that the two boys (Wilbur and Orville) were planning on conducting the experimental flights of their dynamic Flyer without any attempts at test flying it as a “glider”. This greatly concerned Octave, so he changed his travel plans and headed on down to Kitty Hawk (Octave Chanute was on the way to Washington DC to witness Charles Manley’s second attempt to fly Dr. Langley’s Aerodrome, after being launched from atop a floating houseboat).
When Octave arrived down at Kitty Hawk (during the second week of November), he immediately expressed his concern the boys were going to attempt a powered flight of their Flyer, without any attempts to fly it as glider, expressing his opinion he believed this was exceedingly dangerous. Both the boys assured Octave, neither were being daredevils in this, as they both had spent several hours a day practicing with their 1902 glider and being they believed their top speed (airspeed) would be around 30-35 mph or so, with the Flyer, and if they limited their initial test flights into a headwind of 15+ mph, their actual speed over the ground would be very low.
Octave was somewhat relieved, after he talked to the boys, so he spent some time looking over the Flyer and discussed their work up to that point. Wilbur asked Octave if he had heard anything from Patrick Y. Alexander, the secretary for the Aeronautical Society of Britain, but Octave had not. Wilbur had personally invited Patrick Alexander back to Kitty Hawk, to be witness to their first test flight of the Flyer. Earlier during the spring time, Captain Ferber with the Aero Club of France, had written he wished to purchase one of the Wright’s gliders (a copy of the Wright’s 1902 glider), but Wilbur sent a cable back, explaining between their bicycle business and preparing their dynamic Flyer, there simply wasn’t sufficient time for that. Wilbur suggested, to Captain Ferber, he come on over to Kitty Hawk where Wilbur explained he would give Captain Ferber flight training and then would sell him their already existing 1902 glider. Additionally, this would give Captain Ferber the opportunity to witness their dynamic Flyer in action, but the Captain never responded to Wilbur’s invitation.
After looking over the Flyer, Chanute expressed his belief their drive-train or transmission would absorb so much energy, there simply wouldn’t be sufficient engine power available to achieve enough thrust for the Flyer to fly. The Wrights possessed great knowledge and understanding of aerodynamics, but with mechanical engineering they were no match to Octave Chanute, considering his years of experience as a civil engineer, designing railroad bridges.
For several months prior Wilbur had complained privately, to his brother Orville and friend George Spratt, that Octave was no longer capable of keeping up with details of the Wright’s discoveries concerning aerodynamics and despite Octave’s general respect for Wilbur, he still believed Wilbur and Orville’s idea of “inherent instability” to be somewhat unrealistic and frankly, overtly dangerous.
On November 15th, Chanute left for Washington DC, to observe Langley’s second attempt at flight, with Charles Manly once again at the controls, while the brothers sat at their camp site, waiting for the rebuilt propeller drive shafts to show up. Both of the brothers worried over what Chanute had told them and adding to their worry, they had no way to either confirm or disprove what Chanute had speculated, at least not until the new drive shafts arrived from Dayton.
Once again the weather turned cold and windy, fortunately not as bad as during their first week there, earlier in September, when the weather was cold, rainy, and wind gusts reached 70+ mph on the outer banks. Finally, the propeller drive shafts arrived and it took the better part of a day to get them re-installed. The first order of business was to set the Flyer on the guide rail and using their spring scales, directly measure the thrust of the machine. They knew from their calculations they would need a minimum of 90 lbs thrust to achieve flight, but Chanute had them worried with the potential power loss through their transmission. When they fired up the engine with the scales attached, they both experienced a sigh of relief, when their thrust reading was 132 lbs, which was even more thrust than they had estimated. At the time, the Wrights really didn’t fully appreciate just how efficient their propellers actually were, as they had estimated they were 60%-70% efficient, but recent (2003) testing of one of their original propellers showed they were as much as 86% efficient, depending on conditions.
The efficiency of the Wright’s propellers is very impressive, as even though they built their propellers out of wood, which they had carved with a hatchet and draw-blade, modern computer designed propellers (for a modern turbo-prop or similar aircraft type) are known to be no more efficient in their power to thrust conversion, than what the Wrights accomplished over a hundred years ago with pencil, paper, and a hatchet.
Winter was quickly approaching, so the Wrights knew they were running out of time and they received word Manly was preparing Langley’s Aerodrome for a second try, which they (Langley’s crew) stated would probably occur in the first couple of weeks of December. Langley (with Charles Manly at the controls) was conducting his experiments on the Potomac River, only a couple of hundred miles north of Kitty Hawk, but because of Dr. Langley using US Military monies, his experiments were being done in full public view.
The Wrights were not concerned about being first, as they knew that several others had managed short powered flights or hops, like Hiram Maxim had done over in England a few years earlier, but Langley was working with a US Military contract, which meant if Langley’s machine worked, financially they (the Wrights) would have to be satisfied their machine worked too. Selling the Flyer to the military probably would never be an option, but if they could just get their machine up and prove their theories on Inherent Instability and their idea about control, maybe they would have something to offer, though with the continuous delays they had been experiencing, they just didn’t see how.
It was on the 1st of December they received a telegram from Octave Chanute and he let the Wrights know that Charles Manly had set the date of December 8th for their next attempt with the Aerodrome and, according to the newspapers, Manly was confident Dr. Langley’s machine would fly this time. (There’s a well known photograph of Charles Manly standing next to Dr. Langley, a few days before Manly’s attempt with the Aerodrome and visible in the photograph is Manly, who apparently was so confident for his anticipated flight, he even attached a compass to his pant leg, just above the knee.)
The boys then set their plans ahead and as soon as the weather was right (they had designed the Flyer so that they needed at least a 15 mph headwind for a successful launch) they would set her up to go!
Following one of their final static engine tests (they worked out a miss-fire they had, they also fixed the propeller hubs loosening by applying Arnstein’s wood glue, and even the engine seizing problem had been handled, though engine vibration was still apparent), Orville once again made a very troubling discovery! Both propeller drive shaft tubes showed signs of cracking, despite Charlie Taylor having beefed both of them up considerably. It was the 2nd of December and another round trip back to Dayton, from Kitty Hawk, was at best a 7 day round trip and the winter weather was building up.
After some discussion, Wilbur and Orville came to the decision they had come this far, they might as well finish it up this year, rather than wait for next year. So Orville headed home, with both cracked drive shafts in hand, while Wilbur stayed behind. Bill Tate and Wilbur spent several days out at the Kill Devil Hills life guard station, as they had become pretty good friends with the crew there.
It was the crew at the guard station who had spent many days helping the Wrights lug their machines around, so with the first flights of the Flyer and because of its 500+ lb empty weight, they had worked out a signal, letting the life guard crew know they needed their help (Bill Tate had given the boys a large red flag, which they could hang on the side of their hanger, in clear view of the guard station about a half mile down the beach).
Meanwhile, Orville and Charlie (Taylor) came to the conclusion that a big part of their problem was that in an effort to keep their Flyer’s weight down, their decision to use hollow driveshaft tubes was an error, especially with all the engine vibration they were experiencing. Orville and Charlie (Taylor) machined up new shafts from solid spring steel bar-stock, so Orville was sure these wouldn’t crack, no matter how much the engine vibrated. Then early on the 8th (December), Orville boarded the “Big Four” train and headed back to Kitty Hawk, at least three days away.
When Orville arrived at Elizabeth City (North Carolina) the night of the 10th (Thursday), he read the newspaper headlines and every paper was full of stories, describing Manly’s second attempt at flight and how it was a complete failure, after the machine fell apart on launch. It seems it went into the Potomac River backwards, with Charles Manly barely surviving his dropping into the icy water. Of course the newspapers put all the blame for the Aerodome’s failure squarely on the back of Dr. Langley.
Apparently, as the Aerodrome left the launch rail, it immediately went nose up and the rear wing assembly simply collapsed, with the machine falling tail first into the Potomac.
(Photos courtesy Library of Congress) On Langley’s first attempt at flight (above left), Langley’s aviator pilot (Charles Manley) immediately went into the Potomac, as the weight/balance was off (Langley’s “Aerodrome” was very nose heavy, as you can see here on Manley’s first flight attempt). With Manley’s second attempt, over a month later on December 8th (1903), he (Manley) snagged a guy-wire during launch (above right) sending Manley along with Langley’s “Aerodrome” into the Potomac, backwards.
In Manley’s second and final attempt, where the Aerodrome actually broke-up in mid-air, the temperatures were at or below freezing and there were patches of ice all around the floating houseboat. Manley got tangled up, underwater, in the wiring from the crumpled Aerodrome and when he tried to make it to the surface, he found for a few seconds ice blocking him. He did eventually free himself and made it safely to the surface, dejected, but alive.
Until Dr. Langley, the general public believed these individuals trying to fly, were really nothing more than self-serving charlatans, individuals who were not really right in the head or at the very least, simply fame seeking stuntmen, not to be taken any more serious than someone going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Earlier that year, Germany’s Karl Jatho had managed a couple of short powered flights and down in New Zealand, Richard Pearse had been quite successful as well, but he (Pearse) didn’t tell anyone about his success until the 1930s. Then, after Dr. Langley’s Aerodromes failed so publicly out on the Potomac, the world’s aviator experimenters simply dropped out of sight and anyone serious (or seriously taken) had given up.
Most respected scientists, around the world, had all publicly stated powered heavier-than-air flight just simply wasn’t possible or at the very least, could ever be practical, but there might be a future with lighter-than-air powered dirigibles. Except for a very select few in America and France, virtually no one was aware of the two boys from Dayton, Ohio, who were getting ready down at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
By noon, Friday the 11th, Orville arrived back at Kitty Hawk where he and Wilbur, according to Orville’s journals, talked about Dr. Langley’s failures. Though it would be natural to assume they were both pleased with his (Langley’s) failures, considering they had yet to fly, by all accounts (letters and such) that may not of been the case at all. Wilbur sent a cable to Chanute and in that cable, stated, “...read of Langley’s failure, I wonder how our luck will fair?”
It wasn’t until the following day (Saturday, the 12th of December) before they were able to begin reassembling the Flyer, fitting it with the new drive-shafts, but by the time they were finally ready for a flight attempt, darkness was quickly approaching. The following day, they woke up to a near perfect day for flying, crisp clear air, with a steady light breeze of 15 to 18 mph, unfortunately, it was a Sunday and they had promised their father (a Bishop in a rather conservative Christen church), they would never fly on a Sunday. So, they would have to wait until the following day, Monday the 14th.
When they awoke on Monday morning, it was as calm as any day they had seen since arriving that year, which was a problem, as they designed the Flyer’s airfoils for a light breeze only. Regardless of no wind, at noon time on the 14th Orville hung their red banner on the backside of their hanger anyway, signaling the life guard crew, down at the Kill Devil Hills station, they would need their assistance getting the Flyer up one of the sand dunes.
After a bit, two of the Kill Devil Hills crewmembers showed up, then Bill Tate along with a couple of local boys arrived (one even brought his dog with him), soon after they set down their guide rail, about 60’ worth and then dragged the Flyer to the top of the rail.
Wilbur and Orville tossed a coin, to see who would be first, Wilbur won.
It had only been the month before when Octave Chanute strongly suggested the Flyer lacked sufficient thrust, with its power loss operating the sprockets and chains driving the propellers, but static testing proved Chanute wrong. With the Flyer angled down, once placed on the launch rail, Wilbur let the engine run (full throttle was the only setting available) for a few extra seconds, then he pulled up on the release rope, but nothing happened!
The Flyer didn’t move because it seems the propellers had so much thrust (132 lbs) and with the nose down angle of the Flyer on the slopped surface, it pinned the release rope from the pressure.
Orville and Bill Tate lifted on the Flyer’s wings and the rope finally released, with Wilbur moving forward fairly rapidly. Within a second or two, the Flyer was moving faster than either Orville or Bill could keep up with, running in the sand, so they both let go, just as Wilbur pushed ahead on his pitch control stick. To Wilbur’s surprise, the Flyer leaped fifteen feet into the air, nose high, and before Wilbur could react, the Flyer stalled, then pan-caked into the soft sand, about 112 feet from the point it left the guide rail. Within a second or two of Wilbur impacting the sand, John Daniels squeezed the bulb of their camera.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University/Library of Congress) The Wright Flyer’s technical first flight, actually occurred on Monday, December 14th, with Wilbur at the controls. Life Guardsman John Daniels snapped this photo (above right) a split-second after Wilbur stalled and impacted the ground, though not hard enough for Wilbur to lose his “hat”!
The Flyer suffered some minor damage, but Wilbur was most surprised of how over-sensitive the Flyer’s pitch control was, most certainly far more sensitive than they had ever experienced with their 1902 glider(?). After that single attempt that day, Wilbur and Orville, Bill Tate, along with the two fellows from the Kill Devil Hills life guard station, dragged the Flyer back to the Wright’s makeshift hanger.
That evening, Wilbur sent the following telegram to his father:
MISJUDGMENT AT START—REDUCED FLIGHT—ONE HUNDRED TWELVE—POWER AND CONTROL AMPLE—RUDDER ONLY INJURIED—SUCCESS ASSURED—KEEP QUIET
This note from Bishop Wright’s dairy dated December 14, 1903, with a word for word writing of Wilbur’s telegram from that day, shows just how confident the Wrights were with their design, as they knew that if the weather would cooperate, they would be successful. Wilbur’s statement, in the telegram, of “misjudgment at start—reduced flight—one hundred twelve”, is reference obviously of Wilbur explaining his error of over-reacting with the pitch control, which limited his first attempt at flight to just 112 feet.
The two were getting concerned, the weather was becoming colder, it would be Tuesday or Wednesday before the Flyer would be repaired, after Wilbur’s little impact with the sand that morning and Christmas was fast approaching (they had promised their father and sister they would be home before then).
The Wrights had spent four years directly on getting to this point and even if they were successful with the Flyer, they already knew it would be two, maybe three more years, before they would have a “practical” airplane ready for marketing. Unlike most of the aviator experimenters, the Wrights were self-financed on very limited funding and they had put their entire future on the line, financially speaking. The difference was they knew, absolutely, they were on the right track; they just had to keep the details of their work quiet. Adding to the difficulty of their work, they were beginning to have a problem convincing Octave Chanute stop revealing details of their findings to the Europeans.
At the turn of century, there were two types of aviation pioneers, with the majority being the aviator types who spent their time just trying to get airborne, however they could do it, never mind researching into what the science dictated. In other-words, their designs were generally all based on wild-ass guessing, nothing else. Then there were the scientist-engineer types, which was limited to Cayley, Lilienthal, Phillips, maybe a couple of others, and the Wright brothers, who generally cared more about the science of early aviation rather than the actual flying. When it came to the actual act of flying, neither of the brothers were ever very comfortable, as they realized their concept of basing their machine on “Inherent Instability” wasn’t only that their machine was inherently unstable, but that it was inherently dangerous as well.
With the very cold weather conditions, repair work went unusually slow on the Flyer’s broken parts, so Wilbur and Orville sat around their stove, trying to decide what to do, wait out the weather and hope? Or do they pack up everything and wait to try again the following year(?).
Unable to receive any weather reports, short or long term (remember, it was 1903), their worry was the wind and cold were coming from the north, which had them thinking even colder weather was on the way! Tuesday morning, the 15th of December, the weather wasn’t too bad, so Wilbur and Orville got a lot of work done (repairing the Flyer damage), but by late that afternoon, the weather began to change and not exactly for the better.
Wednesday, the weather was cold, rainy, and gusty, with some wind gusts hitting 45 mph or better (they had successfully repaired their anemometer, after an 83 mph wind gust had damaged it back in September).
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) In these two photographs (above), Wilbur Wright can be seen in the open door of the Flyer’s hanger (above left), while on Wednesday the 16th (December), the high winds and cold weather threatened to cause them to cancel their attempts at fight in 1903. (photos believed taken by Orville Wright)
Timing was now everything, as they had assured everyone at home they would be back in Dayton well before Christmas, but this was the 16th, and they already knew it took a couple of days to pack all their equipment up and have it ready for shipping, then another three or four days for the trip, but bad weather could lengthen their travel time. The 18th or 19th was the absolute latest they could start packing, so if the weather didn’t break, either that day (Wednesday the 16th) or the following day, the 17th, they agreed they would pack up everything on Friday and head home on Saturday (the 19th), then come back and try again the next spring or summer.
Wednesday night, when Wilbur and Orville climbed into their bunks, suspended in the rafters of the shack they had been using as their living quarters and as a hanger for their dissembled 1902 glider, the wind simply howled. Orville described the wind shaking their shack, that night, sounding just like the thunder they often experienced back home in Dayton. According to Orville’s journal, he and Wilbur discussed upping their idea of the maximum wind they would attempt powered flight in. Before coming down to Kitty Hawk that year, they had designed the Flyer assuming a 15-18 mph maximum wind speed, but they had successfully flown their 1902 glider, in the days and weeks prior, against wind speeds slightly over 30 mph, so they decided those numbers should be acceptably safe with the Flyer too. Their calculations showed the Flyer’s maximum true airspeed was mostly likely 33-35 mph, so a 30 mph headwind would have to be their maximum.
Neither of the Wright brothers were particularly the type of persons to take any unnecessary chances, as they were first of all scientist-engineers and they already knew that several experienced aviators had died trying to fly heavier-than-air machines, with Otto Lilienthal and Percy Pilcher being the most noteworthy. Problem was, they were up against the wall, do they take a chance with the weather tomorrow and attempt to fly their machine, no matter what, or do they wait until next year(?); the following morning they would make that decision.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) On Monday, December 14th, 1903, Orville Wright took these two photographs (above) of the Flyer. Note in the one photograph (above right), how the Flyer’s wings contained a 3.5°-4° negative dihedral (average), something highly unusual for that era, when virtually all experimenters of the time believed so fanatically in “inherent stability”, while the Wrights were convinced in the value of “inherent instability”. The Wrights had gone from 0° (on their 1902 glider) to a -3.5° to -4° dihedral (on the Flyer) to make their lateral control of wing-warping (for roll) more responsive, while in a bank for turning.
Here are photographs of the Wright’s contemporaries (above), all of whom based their designs on the failed concept of “inherent stability”, hence the reasoning behind all of them being designed with high to extremely high positive dihedral and even though a few of these did demonstrate an ability to get off the ground, for a short distance only, none of them demonstrated any ability to provide sustained flight nor any semblance of control. Any attempts at flight with any of these machines, required the calmest of weather conditions, as even the slightest wind rendered these machines useless and far too dangerous to fly. (top row, left to right); Louis Bleriot 1907, Percy Pilcher 1899, Santos Dumont 1906 (14bis), (bottom row, left to right); Gustav Weiskopf/Whitehead 1901, Otto Lilienthal 1894, Santos Dumont 1907 (Dumont’s model 15 biplane shown here, was horribly conceived and so poorly constructed, it simply fell apart on Dumont’s first attempt just to taxi).
When they woke up, Thursday morning, December 17, 1903, the wind was still blowing pretty hard, though by 8 AM, it seemed to have calmed down a bit, but it was very cold, just below freezing in fact. Orville stuck his head out and noticed the cold, but the wind was definitely calming, so by 9 AM, Wilbur hung their red banner, the notice to the Kill Devil Hills life guard station personal to come and help, then within a half hour four members of the crew arrived, along with eleven year old Johnny Moore from Kitty Hawk, who was at the life guard station that morning.
By 10AM, the wind was down to a steady 20 to 25 mph, with an occasional gust to 30, though not very often, so Wilbur and Orville fired up the engine, allowing it to warm slightly in the cold morning air.
The life saving crew and the Wrights pulled the Flyer out and placed it on their launch rail at a little past 10, which was pointed (the launch rail) in a northeasterly direction, more or less toward the village of Kitty Hawk, four miles away and across a small inlet bay. Orville set their camera near the end of their launch beam, aimed at the general point he felt the Flyer would most likely rise from the rail, then instructed John T. Daniels, the lead life guard, on how the camera worked, but basically all Daniels had to do was squeeze the shutter bulb.
Orville shut the engine off and performed a final check on the condition of their machine; just to be sure everything was still tight and hadn’t vibrated loose, because of their engine vibration. They also knew that for the first few seconds of running their engine, it produced about 16 hp, but after a few moments it would settle down to 12 to 12.5 hp when it’s operating temperature stabilized.
There were small puddles around, most with ice on their edges, as the temperature was slightly below freezing, with the wind still brisk, sometimes gusting to 30 mph or more on their anemometer (wind speed gauge). Finally, the wind calmed to a fairly steady 20 to 24 mph, which was in the ballpark, more or less, of what they would accept.
Because Wilbur had won the coin toss and had already been first to attempt to fly, the previous Monday, their second attempt would be up to Orville, so just before he climbed aboard, Wilbur and Orville had a quiet moment alone, where the two clasped hands.
John T. Daniels, the lead life guard from the Kill Devil Hills station, would later note in his memoirs of that day, remembering Wilbur and Orville spent that last moment together, grasping each other’s hands “as if they would never see each other again”!
Well, I must say that after having studied the Wright brothers at length and having read hundreds of personal letters of theirs, not to mention their personal journals, I think John T. Daniels was being rather over dramatic in his memoirs, as his statement of “..as if they would never see each other again!”, well, that just doesn’t fit either of their (the Wrights) characters nor the circumstances.
In Orville’s journal from that day, he does mention Wilbur wishing him luck and telling him to be calm and steady on the pitch control. They were engineers who very much understood the exact expected performance of their machine and considering the wind they were flying into, 20 mph or better, their actual speed over the ground, with the Flyer, would be very low. The Flyer certainly would not be traveling over the ground at a speed, which would expose them to any unusual dangers.
While Wilbur held on to the right side wing tip, to steady it, Orville waited just a moment for his propeller speeds to get their biggest bite (850-900 rpm). The Flyer was equipped with two gauges, their French made anemometer to monitor airspeed and a stop watch, which had a small cord attached to the engine, so when they pulled the lever to cut the engine fuel, it stopped the clock as well. The time was 10:35 AM local, December 17th, 1903.
Orville pulled the release rope and the Flyer moved, at first very slowly against the 20+ mph wind, though shortly Wilbur was unable to keep up, so Orville gently and cautiously pushed ahead on the pitch control, but the Flyer jumped into the air, about 8 feet up. This was similar to what it had done with Wilbur the previous Monday, no matter, unlike Wilbur on Monday though, Orville caught it in time. Even then, Orville over-reacted on the control and the Flyer shot downward and Orville hadn’t even cleared the end of the launch rail yet. Orville reacted by pushing up on the control again, but the Flyer kept over-reacting, pitching up and down in an oscillating motion, until the skids hit the ground about 120’ out and 12 seconds from its launch point, where Orville immediately shut the engine down, which also stopped the on-board stopwatch in the process.
(Photo courtesy National Archives) He had done it and above is the now world famous photograph, captured by John T. Daniels, just as Orville is reacting to the nose dive the Flyer had taken (note the position of the front pitch elevators?), while his brother Wilbur watches.
What is not generally known, the Wrights only stepped off the distance Orville had gone, as the purpose of their attempting to fly that day, wasn’t to be first, they already knew they weren’t, as they were fully aware of Hirman Maxim’s 250 foot flight in 1894, plus Clement Ader’s flights in 1890 and 1897 (in addition there was Augusta Herring’s two flights in 1898, out in St. Louis). What they were doing, was attempting to make some successful flights this day, only as a “proof of concept” for themselves. They were also fully aware their concept of “Inherent Instability” was in opposition to every experimenter, including their friend Octave Chanute, who had never attempted heavier-than-air dynamic flight. Their flights this day were to try and prove a machine built on this concept would be controllable, which they had already proven in practice with their 1902 glider, but they also realized this machine, with its increased size and weight, would be extremely difficult to fly*.
*Years later, Charles Lindbergh, while speaking with Orville, pointed out it was probably only he and his brother who could have flown that original Flyer, as it was built so close to the minimum tolerances, it was amazing they managed to complete the flights they did.
Next it was Wilbur’s turn and like Orville, Wilbur waited for the wind to calm down, then when his anemometer read 20 mph, he released the hold-down rope and the Flyer quite quickly moved down the rail and at about the half-way point, Wilbur pushed ahead on the pitch bar. Just as before, the Flyer was extremely sensitive in longitudinal stability. So, like a bucking bronco, the Flyer pitched up and down, but it kept moving forward and at about 175’ out, Wilbur slide to a stop, after the Flyer struck the ground. (There are no surviving photographs of Wilbur’s first attempt that day, as they were lost, along with dozens of other photographs, during the Dayton floods of 1913.)
Wilbur and Orville discussed the sensitivity of the Flyer’s pitch control and they assumed, at least for the moment, through continued practice they would eventually get the hang of it.
On Orville’s next try, he encountered a continuation of the up & down pitching or oscillating problem, but he did get out just a bit further than Wilbur at about 200’.
(Photo courtesy Wright State University) Due to the loss of dozens of Wright photographs (from 1900 through 1911) during the 1913 Dayton floods, many of the original 1903 photographs were either lost or have visible damage. This photo (above) is of Orville’s second flight on December 17, 1903, their third from that day, but photos of Wilbur’s first attempt from that day were destroyed in the 1913 Dayton floods.
Controlling the erratic oscillation was a cross between preventing the machine from stalling and not hitting the ground, but with each try, they were getting better. They surmised the problem was the increased weight of their machine, as compared to the 1902 glider, plus the wind they were fighting was probably not helping. It wouldn’t be until their next experimental model, the Flyer type II, before they would discover the primary problem was their “center of balance” point and their “center of lift pressure” point being on-top of each other, something they corrected* with the design of their Flyer type III prototype test machine.
*Further testing in 1904, at Huffman-Prairie, Wilbur and George Spratt attached four custom scales to a single airfoil, then by flying it as a kite; they developed a way to accurately measure the movement (fore and aft) of the center of pressure, at different angles of attack. They discovered that as you increased the AoA, the center of pressure moved aft and as you decreased the AoA, the center of pressure moved forward. Because the center of pressure was moving fore and aft of the center of balance, even with moderate changes in the AoA, the center of pressure was causing their machine’s center point of lift to radius around the center of balance, thus causing the pitch oscillations. These oscillations would intensify as the machine’s operator reacted to it (or more accurately, over-reacted).
On their 4th try that day (with Wilbur at the controls), things began to look up, as Wilbur seemed to get a feel for the violent pitching and after about 200-250 feet from the launch rail, the Flyer suddenly stopped the pitching and Wilbur was flying along in level flight, holding steady at about 10 feet above the ground. After about 700 feet out, Wilbur did attempt to climb slightly, to clear a clump of grass atop a small sand line, but when he tried to level off, the Flyer started its pitching up and down again.
(Photo courtesy Wright State University) (Above).On their fourth and final flight that day, Wilbur was finally able to stabilize the Flyer’s pitch oscillation, after the first 200 or so feet, as this photograph shows. In this photo, Wilbur is about 300 feet from the launch rail, flying smoothly along roughly 10 feet above the Kill Devil Hills sands, heading off toward the village of Kitty Hawk.
Wilbur tried to get it to steady up, but he struck the ground on the skids, pretty hard, and slid to a stop. The Wright’s airspeed was averaging 28-34 mph, but because of the head-wind, his actual speed over the ground was only 10 mph or so. As it had done at least once before, the impact was sufficient, not only to stop their stopwatch before he cut off his engine, the impact had in fact set the stopwatch back to zero. No matter, as two of those on the ground had stopwatches as well and one of the Kill Devil Hills crew had his stopwatch read 59 seconds, same as what Orville had recorded.
This time, they did step off the distance Wilbur had flown, in a more intended purpose of gaining an accurate reading of their flight distance, rather than a rough guess. From his (Wilbur’s) point of rising off the launch rail, to his position on the sand, measured 852 feet, covered in 59 seconds. It took a few minutes for the life saving crew and Orville to make their way out to where Wilbur and the Flyer were sitting, but Orville did think to bring the camera with him, shooting one photo of the Flyer after Wilbur’s 852 foot flight.
(Photo courtesy Wright State University/Library of Congress) After traveling a distance of 852 feet, in 59 seconds, Wilbur’s average airspeed was 31 mph against an average 21 mph headwind, which meant his ground speed was only 10 mph. This was an astounding achievement on their part, as no other aviator in history had been able to demonstrate such a level of aerodynamic success, and it would be another 5 or 6 years before anyone else (other than the Wrights) would be capable of demonstrating a similar flight. Wilbur’s hard “landing” from his second flight that day (the fourth for the boys), resulted in a slightly damaged (above) pitch rudder (forward elevator).
After a few moments of congratulating Wilbur and a discussion of his flight, which was stunning, the guys began dragging the Flyer back to the launching rail. Then after a bit, Wilbur felt pretty confident that if he gently increased his height above the ground, making it the 4 miles over to Kitty Hawk was entirely possible, so the plan was to get the Flyer back to their launch rail, repair the minor elevator damage, have lunch, then try for a 5th flight that afternoon. All of them, eating sandwiches and drinking hot coffee, were elated over Wilbur’s successful flight and as the conversation turned to their next flight, where Wilbur would attempt to make it around the bay to the Village of Kitty Hawk, a sudden 35 - 40 mph gust of wind caught the Flyer, lifting it up and off the ground.
Orville and John T. Daniels were the closest to the Flyer, so they both grabbed the machine, but Orville realized immediately they had built this machine to fly, rather anyone was at the controls or not, but John Daniels was not so aware and held on, even while the machine tumbled over and over across the sand.
The Flyer ended up in a heap of tangled wires, broken wood spars, and ripped cloth, but John (Daniels) crawled out completely unhurt. Years later, Daniels would claim, humorously, he was the pilot on the Flyer’s 5th and last flight that day.
Though the Wright’s plan of flying over to Kitty Hawk were dashed by a gust of wind, they had accomplished what they had set out to do, as Wilbur’s 852 foot sustained and controlled flight was all they had wanted. Later that afternoon, after they packed up the remains of the broken Flyer, Orville walked over to the telegraph office, in Kitty Hawk, and sent a telegram home to their father, telling him they had been successful!
This is a copy of the actual telegram (above) received by Bishop Wright (the Wright brothers’ father) after their 4 successful flights on December 17, 1903. The telegram reads;
success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile
wind started from level with engine power alone average speed
through air thirty one miles longest 57* seconds inform Press
home Christmas Orevelle Wright
*The Kitty Hawk telegraph operator miss-read Orville’s handwriting and sent the message Wilbur’s flight lasted for 57 seconds, but the actual time was 59 seconds, not to mention miss-spelling Orville’s name.
Though the Flyer itself would never again take to the skies, in a sense it did have one more symbolic flight left in it, as three small pieces of that original Flyer, a couple slivers of wood from a propeller and a 6” square cut of wing cloth, were carried by Neil Armstrong 66 years later, which were tucked away in his space suit, when he stepped on the Moon July 20th, 1969. Having those pieces of the Flyer I ride along on Apollo 11, somehow just seems perfect.
Those pieces of the Flyer I, which traveled to the Moon and back, can be seen at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. “Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base”. This was accomplished in only “66” years!
Above are the actual pieces of the Wright’s Flyer I which traveled to the surface of the Moon with “Buzz” Aldrich and Neil Armstrong in 1969. This plaque, containing those pieces, can be seen at the National Air & Space Museum (Smithsonian) in Washington DC. The letter (above) to the right is a notarized & signed letter from Neil Armstrong, certifying these pieces of the Wright’s Flyer I did travel to the Moon, in his charge, during the flight of Apollo 11 on July 20th, 1969.
(Art courtesy of NASA)
In this graphic representation of the Wright’s earliest HTAs, you can see the progressive nature of their design, with their 1900 and 1901 gliders based information derived from Lilienthal’s lift charts, while their 1902 glider and their 1903 Flyer airfoils were based on the data collected from a winter of wind-tunnel testing, by the two brothers.
In their haste to get home, from Kitty Hawk to Dayton before Christmas arrived, the Wrights decided to leave their 1902 glider behind, leaving it packed away in the little shack they used as a hanger.
It was Saturday, December 19th when they began their three or four day trip home and as they crossed the bay on a schooner freighter headed up to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, 30 miles away, they had their last look at Kitty Hawk, as it faded away in the distance, not realizing it would be nearly five years before they would return to this land of sea, sand, and wind.
Once home, the two boys celebrated Christmas with their family, and between then and the new year, they had several of their personal friends over to celebrate their success with their machine, but it wouldn’t be until after the first of the year before they would lay down plans for the next Flyer.
They packed the Kitty Hawk Flyer away in a storage shed behind the Wright’s Bicycle shop and they would leave it there for a few years (during the Dayton floods of 1913, the Flyer would stay submerged in mud and water for several days). In later years, the Flyer would be used as a matter of protest between Orville and the Smithsonian Institute, when in 1928; Orville shipped the re-constructed Flyer to the Science Museum of London, where it would stay until 1946. Today, the Flyer is on permanent display at the National Air & Space Museum (Smithsonian) in Washington DC.
During the holidays of 1903, the Wright brothers spent time with their family and with their Dayton friends (above left), shown here going through the many photographs they had taken down at Kitty Hawk. (Above right is a screenshot of the Wright’s Flyer I, taken in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator; “A Century Of Flight”)
In January, 1904, Wilbur and Orville discussed what they would do next. The Wrights were committed now, as between 1900 and 1903, they had spent the total sum of $1,284 on getting the Flyer type I off the ground and Wilbur believed it would take that much, or more (money), to get the Flyer improved up to the point it would be marketable. They knew this wasn’t going to be easy and they also knew going all the way back to Kitty Hawk, for future developmental testing, was no longer necessary.
Through a friend of their father, they rented a large field just 8 miles outside of Dayton called Huffman-Prairie, which was alongside a rail passenger terminal called Simms Station, where they could build a new hanger and use this rather large field to test their next Flyer, the Flyer type II.
Built on almost exactly the same specifications as the Flyer I, their new machine did have a more powerful engine (18 hp), as once again Charlie Taylor had come through.
(Photo courtesy Wright State University) Though built on nearly the same specifications as the original Flyer type I, the new 1904 Flyer type II (above) test mule had several differences or improvements. Most obvious are the larger propellers, to match the more powerful engine (18 hp up from the original Flyer’s 12.4 hp motor), larger forward pitch elevators, strengthening of several key points (like the skids and front elevator bracing), and they had increased the wingspan by 12”.
The new Flyer II test mule, though nearly identical in appearance, it did have some not so obvious differences, the propellers had been changed to match the new engine, and the under-carriage (skids) had been improved (strengthened), the wing’s negative dihedral had been slightly relieved and the wingspan was larger by about 12”. Also the pitch rudders were enlarged and its actuators improved (reduced tolerances to increase effectiveness). The new engine maintained a minimum 18 hp, but like the Kitty Hawk Flyer’s 12.4 hp engine, the new motor was a lay-down 4-cylinder as well. Much had been improved on the motor, it was better balanced, and its fuel delivery allowed for a throttle, and the new engine’s magneto output was improved.
Instead of the 60’ starting rail like they used at Kitty Hawk, the boys found it necessary to use a 120’ rail at Huffman-Prairie, which had to be moved, anytime the wind was blowing more than 10° out of alignment of their rail, which fortunately wasn’t that often at Huffman-Prairie. By the end of April (1904), they had made only a few flights for a very short distance, but stories of their successes, as limited they may have been, had attracted reporters ever more frequently, often times disrupting their work .
It was decided, in May, to invite several reporters (about thirty) from a variety of newspapers and publications from Dayton and a number of neighboring towns. On the first day, the engine refused to start, but in the late afternoon, when the Flyer II’s engine did start, it had a terrible misfire. As open as Wil and Orv appeared, they would allow no photographs of their machine, except from a distance.
On the second day, only about ten reporters still remained and even though the engine would now run, the Flyer II, after several attempts, only demonstrated two very short flights of thirty or forty feet each.
Today, Wright historians have speculated the boys (Wil and Orv) may have staged the failures over those two days, in an attempt to get the reporters to lose interest in their activities at Huffman-Prairie. Considering a rather oblique entry made by Orville in his journal following those two days; “...flight demos a success.”, this may have been their intent all along, because as soon as the reporters were gone, suddenly the Wrights were flying again and the Wrights never offered more demonstrations nor did they invite reporters out to Huffman-Prairie (until October of 1905).
To further add substance to the belief the Wrights purposely failed, on their attempts to fly their 1904 Flyer II for the reporters, is this excerpt from a letter, where Wilbur Wright wrote to Arnold Fordyce over in France, dated January 8, 1906; “...no doubt an attempt will be made to spy upon us while we are making the trial flight and teaching a French operator, but we have already thought out a plan which we are certain will baffle such efforts as neatly as we fooled the newspapers during the two seasons we were experimenting at Simms Station…..”.
During 1904, the Wrights logged 105 flights of the Flyer II, with each flight or flight attempt photographed and the technical results of each flight logged in their journal (engineer data or empirical flight response data).
Orville and Wilbur (above) discuss the Flyer II with each other (Wilbur on right), out at Huffman-Prairie in 1904. This photograph is one of the best known photographs of the two boys and their Flyer II and was taken by their older brother Lorin.
(Above photos courtesy Wright State University) During the late summer of 1904, the Wright brothers, at Huffman-Prairie, flew their 1904 Flyer II test machine successfully on 105 recorded flights. They had installed a 120 foot launch rail and by September were planning on attempting to fly their first complete circles.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) It was on Flyer II test flight #82 (above left, as logged by Orville) Wilbur completed his first 360° circle, but instead of just one, Wilbur made 4 complete circles while he covered a little over 2.5 miles. All details of test flight #82, date of flight (Sept 20th), average flight speed, wind direction, wind speed, path over ground, etc. can be seen in Orville’s flight journal from that day (shown above right). Additionally, Wilbur’s flight that day was witnessed by a number of Dayton locals and at least one reporter, Amos Root, editor of a magazine called “Gleanings in Bee Culture”.
It was the month after Wilbur’s successful first time flying a circle; the boys came up with the idea of using a weighted catapult, to enhance the safety of their takeoffs. Of their total of 105 flights that year, with the Flyer II prototype, the boys’ catapult was only used on the last 15 flights of the Flyer II. By the end of their 1904 flying season at Huffman-Prairie, they had crashed and repaired the Flyer II so often during that year, they scraped the entire machine, save for the engine and propellers.
Though they got started late in the season, the Wrights progressed up to the 1905 Flyer type III prototype machine and it was beauty too! Besides increasing the engine power (from 18 hp with the Flyer II, up to 22-24 hp with the Flyer III), they incorporated a wide number of improvements, specifically concerning improving the Flyer’s airborne handling.
This is the actual 1905 Flyer III prototype/test mule (above), used by the Wrights at Huffman-Prairie throughout the last half of 1905, as it is today on display at the Carillon Historical Park and Museum in Dayton, Ohio. The Wright Flyer III, originally built in 1905, was totally rebuilt, for the purpose of permanent display, in 1945-1946 under the guidance of Orville Wright.
The most obvious change (obvious to the observer) were how the forward pitch elevators had been extended from 5’ out from the lower wings’ leading edge to 12’, with anti-slip blinkers added, plus the vertical yaw rudder was correspondingly moved aft, to balance the overall machine in flight.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University, Library of Congress, and the National Archives) Here you can see the progressive nature of the Wright’s dynamic prototypes, compared to one of their initial production Flyers. The Wright’s Flyer I (above left) and their type II prototype (above center) were nearly identical in configuration, but the differences with their initial production models (above right is the Wright Flyer III “A” military model) are quite obvious, note the position of the forward pitch elevator of the Flyer III “A” military model above, for example.
During the late summer and early fall of 1905, the Wrights continued their testing of the Flyer type III prototype, finally resulting with the Wrights believing their progressive work and their machine was now ready for production and sales, they only needed to secure their flight control system patent, before they could move forward. Initially they, the Wright brothers, believed they wouldn’t have a “practical” or “marketable” flying machine for another year, but they believed they were now ready, they just needed to get those patents issued. The Wright’s patent lawyer, Henry Toulman, suggested two things, one; perform some public flights, to let the public know the machine existed, and two; following those public flights, they needed to lock away the flyer until the patents had been secured.
The Wrights agreed, so beginning September 26, 1905, the Wrights began a series of flight endurance tests, where they invited three dozen newspaper-magazine reporters for their final two test flights, scheduled for October 4th and 5th (flight tests intended on measuring the Flyer III’s fuel endurance window, to determine the necessary fuel load to fly a minimum of 125 miles, the number they were going to suggest as a minimum specification for the bid requirements for the US Army Signal Corp).
Between September 26th and October 5th (1905), the Wrights flew several flights, but their flights on the 4th and 5th (October, 1905) were witnessed by an estimated 1,100 to 1,500 people, including several reporters from nearby newspapers. On the 4th, Orville stayed in the air for 27 minutes, circling the field at Huffman-Prairie, but the following day Wilbur managed to stay up for 38 minutes, and during this flight, completed 16 circles and covered a distance of just over 24 miles. Hundreds and hundreds of people, who witnessed this flight, lined all of the nearby roads encircling the Huffman-Prairie field, as well as the crowds who lined the rail line, bordering one side of Huffman-Prairie. Of the 30 or 40 reporters invited, only about a dozen appeared, but they and the hundreds of others were treated to a world’s first. Despite the hundreds of people, none were allowed onto the field, unless they had no cameras, as the Wrights would allow no one anywhere near their machine, as they still hadn’t secured their patents.
(Photos above courtesy Wright State University) Between September 26th and October 5th (1905), Wilbur and Orville invited a number of reporters out to Huffman-Prairie to view their test flights with their Flyer type III. During that time period they conducted 6 successful flights, the shortest having a duration of 17 minutes and the longest was when Wilbur flew (October 5th) for 38 minutes and covered a distance just over 24 miles, while circling the field 16 times in the process (above left). On the day Wilbur made this historic flight, hundreds of spectators had gathered along the roads and rail tracks to observe (above right).
As Wilbur flew his historic flight of 24 miles, he demonstrated the Flyer’s unique feature of having been developed on the concept of “inherent instability” and to complete a turn he rolled the Flyer into a bank, something which no flying machine had ever done (which wouldn’t be until early 1909 before this concept would finally be adopted by other experimenters, though slowly at first and today, ALL aircraft turn in this fashion). Even more surprising than Wilbur’s method of turning, he had climbed high enough to fly over the numerous trees at Huffman-Prairie until suddenly, the Flyer’s engine stopped in mid-flight (as expected, Wilbur had exhausted his fuel supply), whereupon Wilbur casually glided down to a safe and secure landing.
After that last flight, the Wrights disassembled the Flyer type III and packed it away in their hanger (at Huffman-Prairie) and a few days later, moved the Flyer III back to Dayton, for more permanent storage near their bicycle shop. It would be nearly 3 years before the Wrights would fly again, public or otherwise.
Unfortunately, today, we look back on this through the eyes of what is called “presentism”, in other words, most often today we look at events of the past through the eyes of how we believe things were, based on our current level of understanding. Today, the question often arises, “if the Wrights had “really” done this, why did none of the American newspapers headline what the Wrights had done, so publicly?”
Up until that time, there had been a number of individuals who had either claimed they had flown, or had offered up a minor accomplishment, such as Gustav Wiesskopf/Whitehead who touted he had flown back in 1901, but there was very little proof he had done anything and even if Wiesskopf had completed the flights he claimed, they were of no consequence to the development of the airplane. Even of more note, Dr. Samuel Langley’s very public failures from 2 years prior were in the minds of the public and those who had witnessed the Wright’s test flights on the 4th and 5th of October, were merely flights witnessed by locals, who had been observing occasional flights of the boys for the better part of a year and half and no one had been allowed to get close enough to have a photograph of sufficient quality to print in a newspaper. More importantly, it was what was actually going on outside of the Wrights flights, which were more on the minds of the newspaper reporters, an more importantly, on the minds of the American public, an example being on October 9th, the opening game of the 1905 World Series started between the Philadelphia A’s and the New York Giants, a game which Philly won by the way, 3-0.
It was a bit different among those who had been experimenting with dynamic and soaring HTA flight; specifically those interested members of the Aero Club of France come to mind. Because of the success of the Wrights since 1901, various members of the Aero Club, who had been kept informed of their successes by French born Octave Chanute, everything the Wrights had been doing was being communicated specifically to Captain Ferdinand Ferber and Ernest Archdeacon, both devote French nationalists. As an example, the very same month the Wrights were publicly performing the fuel endurance tests of their type III Flyer test mule (October 1905), Ernest Archdeacon was on a river near Paris, where he attempted to fly a Gabriel Voisin designed biplane glider, by towing it with a powerboat. Available on the internet (YouTube) you can see just how unsuccessful they were, as Archdeacon’s machine was designed on the concept of “inherent stability” and more importantly, lacked any form of lateral control and on one of the available videos on YouTube, you will see what happened the first time they actually became airborne while being towed up the river by the powerboat. Archdeacon’s glider simply began a slow roll to the left (port) and rolled directly into the water.
Soon after word of the Wright’s success with their 1901 glider (the same glider the Wright brothers felt personally was a failure), those interested in flight, the majority being with the Aero Club of France, began copying the Wright’s designs so predominately, members of the French Aero Club referred to their own designs as “Type du Wrights”!
Ernest Archdeacon (above left) contracted with his young friend, Gabriel Voisin, to build this copy of the Wright brothers’ 1902 glider (above right, with Archdeacon standing, photo taken 1904). Though Archdeacon’s “Type du Wright” glider appears to be a pretty solid copy of the Wright’s 1902 glider, Archdeacon’s machine lacks any lateral control (wing-warping or otherwise) and its construction was poorly executed (the glider was almost un-flyable, due to its weak construction and would flex uncontrollably against even the lightest loads).
French Aero Club member Captain Ferdinand Ferber (above left) was much more aggressive at attempting to fly with an HTA and unlike other French Aero Club members, Captain Ferber began much sooner with his first Lilienthal glider designs (1901). After an introduction by Octave Chanute with Wilbur Wright, Captain Ferber began to write directly to Wilbur, hoping an exchange of ideas would be forthcoming, but soon after an exchange of letters, Wilbur became a bit suspicious of Captain Ferber’s intentions.
Despite Captain Ferber’s lack of an engineering background, he was quite capable of developing test rigs to test various components of this flying machines, such as this gasoline powered 4-wheel contraption to test various propeller fans (above right, photo circa 1904-05).
Captain Ferber’s first “Type du Wright” was this copy (above left, photo circa 1902, a copy in configuration only) of the Wright’s 1901 glider, but its lacking in either lateral control and its obvious lack of lift producing airfoils rendered it unflyable. Perplexed by his continuous failed attempts at flight with his “Type du Wright” glider, Captain Ferber added an engine and a rather large pair of fans (see above right, photo circa 1904). After suspending a dynamic version of his Wright 1901 glider from a counter-balanced crane, Captain Ferber was able to power around in a circle, but he never attempted to release his machine from its leash.
Another prominent member of the Aero Club of France was Robert Esnault-Pelterie (above left), but unlike Archdeacon or Captain Ferber, Esnault-Pelterie had a more extensive background in engineering. In late 1905, Esnault-Pelterie’s first “Type du Wright” glider was a complete failure, but after he decided the Wright’s wing-warping feature was the cause of his initial difficulties, he installed small mid-wing winglets (ailerons if you will), on his “Type du Wright” (above right, photo circa 1904), though it failed as well.
Brothers Gabriel and Charles Voisin (above left) teamed up as designers of a variety of dynamic and soaring HTA flying machines, usually for private customers. On many occasions they did try flying machines of their own design, though that wasn’t their primary objective. The Voisins did attempt soaring flight with their own version of a “Type du Wright” glider in 1905 (above right) with this highly flexible, non-ridged biplane.
Within days of the Wrights successfully demonstrating their dynamic 1905 Flyer type III, Octave Chanute sent a cable to Captain Ferber, telling him of the Wright’s success. Up until this point, Octave Chanute had been providing fairly detailed information* concerning the Wrights designs, so much so, Wilbur finally had had enough and sent a letter to Chanute complaining of Chanute’s having freely given the Europeans (specifically the Aero Club of France members) details of their hard earned discoveries.
*Octave Chanute had not only given several personal presentations to the Aero Club of France membership, but had also provided numerous copies of Wilbur Wright’s scientific paper on aerodynamics titled; “Some Aeronautical Experiments” and in addition, Chanute provided the Aero Club of France in-house magazine L’Aerophile editor, Georges Besancon, with copies of Wilbur’s scientific paper, as well as copies of the Wright’s blueprints supplied with their US Patent application. Georges Besancon published in his Aero Club publication, “L’Aerophile” in January of 1906, Wilbur’s scientific paper and the blueprints supplied with his Patent application.
Meanwhile, the French Aero Club members, led by Captain Ferdinand Ferber and Club President, Ernest Archdeacon, were both truly shocked and dismayed by the news of the Wright’s success with their Flyer type III, communicated to them by Octave Chanute. It wasn’t a matter of they, the members of the Aero Club, being first or not, but was more simply their overtly nationalistic point of view, a point of view that “all” matters of aviation be associated to France, it was a matter of French National Honor. France, after all, was home to the Montgolfier brothers, who had been first in modern times to take to the air over Paris, in the late 18th century (those early balloon flights, by the Montgolfier brothers, were also witnessed by American founding fathers, two of whom would later become Presidents; John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin).
The Aero Club de France was originally founded in 1898 by; Comte de la Vaulx, Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe, Albert de Dion, and Ernest Archdeacon, each and everyone were very wealthy and individuals from the exclusive Paris upper class. Most of the Aero Club of France membership had earned their money the old fashion way, they inherited it and despite being called the Aero Club de France, the club was in reality little more than an exclusive “Gentlemen’s” club! All of the founders and early members of the Aero Club of France were comprised of wealthy balloonist, where the majority didn’t actually attempt flights themselves, but paid others to do it for them.
After Chanute’s cable arrived concerning the Wrights, Captain Ferber was completely stunned by this news and immediately relayed the news to Ernest Archdeacon, who quickly called up a meeting of the Aero Club membership.
At the meeting, Archdeacon was visibly shaken, exclaiming “…..how could this be?”
Archdeacon, in his mind, was astounded by three facts:
First: America, at the turn of the century was considered somewhat of a backwards nation, for it was Germany, England, and France who were the accepted world powers (more than just as military powers, but as cultural, art, social, and developmental leaders in particular) and from what they understood, these two boys from America were uneducated commoners, even by American standards.
Second: For the previous several months (almost three years for some members) numerous Aero Club de France members had been experimenting with, what they had been told, were faithful copies of what Chanute claimed were very successful designs from the Wrights, but none of the Aero Club de France members had had anything at all which could be considered successful.
Third: and of most importance, which was the biggest question posed by Archdeacon, if these claims from Chanute were true, then why not a single newspaper had even the smallest article about it, especially something of this significance, which by all accounts would deserve front-page headlines around the world?.
Captain Ferber suggested, for whatever reasons, Chanute’s wire had to be true, as unlike his previous wires and presentations which were general in their nature, this was very specific to what Wilbur had accomplished, in that Chanute stated Wilbur had flown 24 miles (38.6 km) in a circling pattern. Regardless, Archdeacon still questioned the validity of Chanute’s claims, as he and others felt they needed to do something to find out the truth!
It just so happened, F. S. Lahm, an American businessman living in Paris, was also a member of the Aero Club, and he had a brother-in-law living near Dayton, Ohio (in the nearby town of Mansfield). Mr. Lahm sent a cable to his brother-in-law, H. M. Weaver, who was a cash register salesman, asking him (Weaver) to immediately go to Dayton and check out what the Wright boys were up to, if anything.
It only took a week for Weaver to confirm Chanute’s claim about what the Wrights had accomplished and he (Weaver) sent a cable to his brother-in-law in Paris, that all was confirmed and he would follow up with a letter on the details of the Wright’s successful flights. In his follow-up letter, Weaver confirmed the brothers had flown their first complete circles a year earlier, in September of 1904 and the day before Wilbur flew the 24 miles on October 5th, 1905, his brother Orville had flown almost 21 miles. He also discovered the only reason Wilbur stopped at 24 miles was because he run out of petrol (gasoline), after which he (Wilbur) glided down to a safe landing!
Ernest Archdeacon, above all, was a politician and he understood the public’s view on “perception”, so he hatched a plan or idea if you will, which Archdeacon believed could still save the “honor” of France, in relation to being the first at Heavier-Than-Air powered flight.
First though, Archdeacon himself set-up a cash award for the first to exceed 25m flight distance and then the Aero Club arranged for an additional cash prize for the first to exceed 100m distance. Before all this was announced, Archdeacon sent off a rather terse letter to Wilbur Wright, challenging him to bring his machine over to France and collect on the Grand Prix d’Aviation award for the first to complete a circle (with the monies awarded provided by Archdeacon and Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe), but Wilbur never responded, as Archdeacon suspected would be his reaction.
Archdeacon also knew they had the perfect person to fill the role of aviator for this quest, their very own an already world famous dirigible aviator, Santos Dumont, but with Dumont there were two problems, one he didn’t necessarily believe heavier-than-air flight was possible, which he had publicly stated on several occasions, and secondly; he knew virtually nothing about designing a powered HTA machine.
At the same time, the Aero Club of France club magazine, L’Aerophile, published precision drawings of the Wright’s 1902 glider, showing how its control system worked in their January 1906 issue. Then in June, L’Aerophile repeated the article, but this time the L’Aerophile was far more detailed in their accounting of the Wright’s system, including the fact the Wrights had been issued a US Patent (on the cause & effect of their 3-axis control system), US Patent #821,393, issued to the Wrights on May 22nd (1906). By all accounting, the Aero Club members either didn’t understand it or they simply ignored it, with the latter being the most likely. It’s known that Octave Chanute told the Aero Club of France members, the Wright’s control system patent would not be enforced against them, as they (the club members) were essentially experimenters and he (Chanute) would see to it this information would be shared.
At the turn of the Century, Santos Dumont became quite famous for his exploits with LTA (Lighter-Than-Air) powered dirigibles, but it was his flight on October 19, 1901, which truly made Dumont world famous. He flew his No. 6 airship (dirigible) from a park (St. Cloud) just outside Paris, over the city and around the Eiffel Tower, then back to St. Cloud, all in less than 30 minutes. For his success on his attempt, Dumont won the 125,000 francs, which was part of the Deutsch de la Meurthe award, awarded to the first to complete this feat with a lighter-than-air flying machine (Dumont’s flight was somewhat controversial at the time, as the ruling committee changed the rules on Dumont, mid-flight, when they realized he was going to win). Dumont also received an additional 125,000 francs from his birth country of Brazil, which he reportedly gave away a large portion (75,000 francs) to the Paris poor.
Santos Dumont was the youngest sibling in a family of six children, where his parents (his mother was Brazilian and his father was French born) moved from Dumont’s birth country of Brazil in the 1880s. Dumont’s father had accumulated a fortune from coffee growing, but following an accident on his property, which left him partially paralyzed, Dumont’s father moved his entire family from Brazil to Paris. Dumont received from his father the reputed equivalent of $750,000 US and was told to go make something of himself, so Dumont gained a serious interest in lighter-than-air powered flight, dirigibles if you will. After joining the Aero Club of France in 1899, Santos Dumont became a favorite of Ernest Archdeacon’s, as Dumont was young, good-looking, well educated, and quite wealthy, but unlike the majority of Club members, Dumont was dedicated to conducting his own experimental flights as the pilot, rather than pay others to fly for him.
Between 1899 and 1902, Santos Dumont and his powered dirigibles were a common sight above Paris, but it was his winning the Deutsch de la Meurthe award in 1901, for flying from St. Cloud, around the Eiffel Tower, and back to St. Cloud in under 30 minutes (above right), which made Dumont world famous. Dumont was a person of slight build (barely a tick over 5’ tall and only tipping the scales at 110 lbs or so), but his popularity among the Paris women was quite extraordinary. Dumont’s distinctive “floppy” hat, for a time, became a Paris fashion rage, especially among the younger crowd.
So impressive were Dumont’s dirigible flights, even the famous novelist, Jules Verne, was inspired to write his book, Master of the World, Verne’s last. (Verne’s novel Master of the World, was also the inspiration for the 1960s Hollywood movie of the same name, starring Vincent Price).
With the Aero Club leadership knowing the Wrights were successful with their flying machine, Archdeacon was convinced that if they could sponsor a fellow Club member, into having some success at HTA flight on French soil, his contacts with the Paris based newspapers were all he would need to establish France as the world’s center of aviation. Hoping that with success from a French experimenter, this would allow them to supersede any later claims made by the Wrights.
It took some effort, by Archdeacon, to convince Dumont to even attempt HTA flight, but with the help of Gabriel Voisin* and Robert Esnault-Pelterie designing and building a machine with him (Dumont), Archdeacon felt quite confident they would succeed.
*Gabriel Voisin was a young engineer who had been mentored, by Archdeacon, straight-out of engineering school. In 1905, Archdeacon arranged for a partnership between Gabriel Voisin and Aero Club member Louis Bleriot, but after a few months of their continued bickering (their approach to engineering concepts of their HTAs led the two, Voisin and Bleriot, to constantly be at odds), so Voisin bought out Bleriot’s half of the business and brought his younger brother Charles in as partner, in early 1906.
There were a handful of individuals, most having some attachment or involvement with the Aero Club of France, who showed interest in winning the various awards being offered, by Archdeacon, Deutsch de la Mearthe, and the Aero Club of France, but it was the specific effort by Voisin/Pelterie/Dumont which showed the most promise.
In their design, Voisin and Pelterie used the blueprints they had of the Wright’s 1902 glider, combined with a version of a box kite developed by Australian Lawrence Hargrave several years earlier.
Aero Club of France members, Robert Esnault-Pelterie (above left), Gabriel Voisin (above right), and Santos Dumont combined the two prior designs of the Wright’s 1902 glider (above center left) and one of Australian Lawrence Hargrave’s box kites (above center right), for Santos Dumont’s first dynamic HTA he called the “14bis”. Dumont’s 14bis was “officially” listed in the Aero Club of France in-house magazine as a “Type du Wright”.
Though Santos Dumont was working in very unfamiliar territory, concerning heavier-than-air flight, he did provide some contribution to the design of the 14bis, specifically it was his idea to install the basket from his No. 14 airship and it was his suggestion to angle the wings up at a high angle (dihedral), believing this would force his machine to remain level. Esnault-Pelterie and Voisin agreed to Dumont’s additions (besides, Dumont was paying for this machine).
Santos Dumont made several attempts at flight, with his Voisin/Pelterie/Dumont designed machine, which Dumont had designated the “14bis”. One of Dumont’s first attempts was on August 22, 1906 (above left), with follow up attempts on September 14th, and finally on October 24th, after installing a more powerful engine. Dumont successfully power hopped his machine for 60 meters or 197 feet (above right) on October 24th (roughly the same as Clement Ader had done in 1890, 16 years earlier), after replacing his 24 hp V-8 automotive engine (built by Leon Levavasseur’s auto plant) with Levavasseur’s newer 50 hp V-8 engine, was when Dumont began to show some progress. (Because the 14bis used such an inefficient propeller, despite Dumont’s engine producing 50 hp, only 9.5 hp was directly used as thrust, while the Wright brothers, even though their initial engine for their 1903 Flyer I only produced 12.4 hp, their propellers were so efficient, 10.7 hp was directly used as thrust, more than Dumont’s 14bis! The Wright’s Flyer I produced 12% more actual thrust energy, with an engine producing75% less horsepower than what Dumont was using.)
During Dumont’s first attempt to get airborne, in August, he even attached his No. 14 airship non-ridged LTA envelop, but to no avail, then in September on his second day of attempts, Esnault-Pelterie and Voisin convinced Dumont to try to get airborne without the balloon attached. Which Dumont agreed and on the 14th did bounce his machine for 7 or 8 meters across the field. When Dumont tried again on October 24th, this time he did have one short hop of a very few seconds and did manage to reach 60m across the ground. This was about what Clement Ader (“father of French aviation”) had done back in 1890, but 240m short of what Ader had done in 1897, nearly 9 years earlier.
During Dumont’s successful (sic) October 24th hop, Dumont noticed his machine started a slow roll to the left (port) and he had no control over it, so Robert (Esnault-Pelterie) installed ailerons similar to what he had used on his (Esnault-Pelterie) 1905 glider, mounted in-between the upper and lower wings of the 14bis. Unfortunately Dumont was attempting to use them to “prevent” roll, rather than induce it (which was the conceptual difference between everyone in the world and the Wright brothers). The first time Dumont had a chance to use his roll-preventers or “ailerons”, was on November 13, 1906, where Dumont successfully had 3 power hops, with the longest being for 220m or 722 feet. This was 80m short of what Clement Ader accomplished in 1897 and it was almost 38,690 meters short of what Wilbur Wright had done a year earlier, but it didn’t matter, Ernest Archdeacon had what he wanted, something tangible he could splash the front-page of every newspaper he could get to.
Finally, on November 13, 1906, Santos Dumont managed 3 separate power hops, with his last measuring 220m or 722 feet, which he covered in less than 21.5 seconds (most times when Dumont’s November 1906 is listed or mentioned, the date of November 12th is usually listed, but the “official” FAI records say the date was November 13 and being as they were there and I wasn’t, I’ll go with the 13th). Because Dumont had, during his October 24th 50m hop, noted his machine slowly rolled to the left, uncontrolled, Robert Esnault-Pelterie took the “aileron” idea from his 1905 glider (above left) and installed them on the Voisin/Pelterie/Dumont designed 14bis (note the position of the mid-wing ailerons on Dumont’s 14bis above right). Even with the Esnault-Pelterie ailerons added, Dumont’s machine still rolled to the left uncontrollably, as can be seen in the above photograph (above right).
Though in today’s world, many assume Santos Dumont was the only individual, from the Aero Club of France, who was attempting to get airborne, but in fact there were a number of individuals who were having a go at it, and they weren’t all limited to just those aviators in France.
During 1906, there were a number of individuals who attempted to get off the ground with one flying contraption or another and here is a very small example of some of them. (Top row, left to right): Gustav Wieskopf/Whitehead, Charles Gilbert, Jacob Ellehammer. (Center row, left to right): Louis Bleriot, Trian Vuia, Emile Bellemy. (Bottom row, left to right): Curtiss Gillespie, Charles Oliver Jones.
Dumont’s singular power hop on November 13th, the only one which exceeded the 100m distance, was sufficient for Dumont to receive the Deutsch de la Meurthe and L’Aero Club de France awards, for his having exceeded 100m (Dumont’s 3rd attempt on that day extended to 220m, while his first two hops were 60m and 83m, respectively).
Today, there are entire countries (specifically Brazil), where the citizenry mistakenly believe that Dumont’s flight was “officially” presented as the world’s first flight of a heavier-than-air powered flying machine, but that is not what the FAI (Federation Aéronautique Internationale) actually states, the FAI regards Dumont’s single powered hop of 220m as merely the first they (the FAI officials) had personally observed, not the first that had occurred.
People today have either forgotten or are unaware the FAI had only been founded a few weeks prior to Dumont’s hop and Dumont’s single hop was simply the FAI’s first opportunity to observe a successful attempt at getting airborne. Officially, by 1908 the FAI recognized Clement Ader’s 300m hop in 1897 as the first successful powered flight, as two of the individuals who became officials with the FAI, when it was founded in 1906, were also present 9 years earlier when Ader was successful with his little “Avion” machine.
The FAI or Federation Aéronautique Internationale’s sole mission was and is to provide an officially recognized organization, who records all aviation flights, rather those record attempts are made with a balloon, dirigible, glider, airplane, spacecraft, or whatever. Today, the FAI is still the “only” organization internationally recognized to perform this function and they do not judge the quality of those flights, they only record they occurred.
Because Santos Dumont had already gained worldwide fame with his dirigibles, the continued fame and recognition he gained with this single power hop with a powered HTA hop only added to the myth and/or legend of his accomplishments, exactly what Ernest Archdeacon had hoped for.
Dumont’s powered hop, though it did provide some level of inspiration for others, those who were already involved in the endeavor of attempting to fly, had already been inspired by the success of the Wright brothers, but the public at large were generally unaware of the Wright brothers, in a few months that would change.
In December of 1906, Leon Delagrange was elected President of the Aero Club of France for 1907 and with that; Leon Delagrange indicated he was going to be working with Gabriel Voisin on developing a flying machine. It was during the first of January something else occurred, which would have some influence on Delagrange’s plans.
Throughout 1906, the Wrights seemed to have almost disappeared, at least to the residents of Dayton, Ohio, as the Wrights shifted from being engineers to being businessmen, while their last test machine remained locked up in a Dayton storage garage. The Wright’s business ventures started almost immediately after the Wrights successfully demonstrated the superiority of their machine, in October of 1905. To start, Wilbur had been in contact with Captain Ferdinand Ferber, who arranged for a pair of wealthy Paris residents to purchase a production version of the Wright Flyer III, at a rather substantial price (1 million francs).
Throughout 1906, the Wrights actions were almost entirely spent working either with their bicycle business or their hoped future business in selling their flying machine, with their initial intent of selling their flying machine to the world’s governments. Following Wilbur’s last flight with their Flyer III prototype on October 5, 1905, neither of the Wrights would fly again until the spring of 1908. This was even after they were issued their primary US Patent #821,393, issued on May 22, 1906. Rather than me rehash what the Wrights were up to during 1906, I’ll let Wilbur tell it in his own words, by way of the letters he wrote in 1906:
Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute (Chicago, Illinois), January 2, 1906
“It seems that Captain Ferber realized that it would require a year or two for the French Government to act, and fearing another nation would anticipate it, he went to some wealthy friends and a newspaper publisher (Arnold Fordyce and M. Letellier owner of the Le Journal [a Paris newspaper]) and induced them to form a syndicate to purchase our invention and present it to the French nation as a gift for war purposes. We have made an agreement by which the formulas are communicated, not to the syndicate, but to the government direct. The syndicate cannot exploit the invention commercially. The members are not Aero Club people, and have no wish to make the machine public. Their idea seems to be to secure their return in the shape of army promotions, or decorations of the “Legion of Honor”, etc.. They are to post a forfeit of 25,000 francs by February 5th, and deposit one million francs in a New York bank before April 5th, of which sum 750,000 francs is to become ours absolutely as soon as we have delivered a machine to them, after a trial flight of 50 kilometers. The balance is to become ours absolutely after an interval not exceeding three months more, during which time we are to exercise diligence in imparting instruction etc..
We have just received a letter from the ‘Austrian Association of Builders’ of Vienna, who, having seen that we are offering the invention to the French for 1 million francs, write to inquire whether they cannot become the purchasers for the purpose of presenting it to the Emperor Franz Joseph on the occasion of his 60 jubilee in 1908 as a national gift. The idea is to make it the star feature of the Vienna Exposition. If the idea of acquiring the machine in different countries by popular subscription should spread, we may be able to secure all the remuneration we care for, and establish “free” trade in flying machines within a year or two. Nothing would suit us better, but we shall not begin counting our chickens until we are sure of them.”
Less than a week later, Wilbur Wright wrote the following letter to Arnold Fordyce (representative of the French syndicate contracting to purchase the Flyer to be presented to the French people [government] as a gift):
Wilbur Wright to Arnold Fordyce (Paris, France), January 8, 1906:
“We thank you for your two letters and a card from New York, and also for the newspaper clippings. We sent to you several days ago two clippings from Dayton papers, and another today. A vivid imagination is characteristic of American journalism, but the French seem to be very similar. The continued story of Coquelle in the “L’Auto” December 22-26 is nearly all pure fancy. We laughed so loudly while reading it you must have heard us half across the Atlantic Ocean. The New York Herald man’s idea of the nature of our secret formulas was also very amusing. He seemed to think that we possessed a formula for compounding a wonderful elixir, two or three drops of which when rubbed on the wings were sufficient to overcome the force of gravity and allow the machine to soar aloft……….We shall begin work at once on the preparation of a machine for the earliest possible delivery. When you first disclosed your plan for raising money, we were not entirely sure of your success and felt some hesitancy in signing an agreement, but since we have had time to consider more carefully our doubts have vanished. A small part of the public may hold back in fear of being “hoaxed”, but more will see that France would become for many years the laughing stock of Europe if it should now let slip this prize after having secured the very first chance at it. The risk of accepting the chance is infinitely small compared with the risk which would result from rejecting it.
No doubt an attempt will be made to spy upon us while we are making the trial flight and teaching a French operator, but we have already thought out a plan which we are certain will baffle such efforts as neatly as we fooled the newspapers during the two seasons we were experimenting at Simms.”
Wilbur to Octave Chanute (Chicago, Illinois), January 10, 1906:
If the French deal goes through all right, we will have no difficulty in securing all the money we need without exploiting the invention commercially or assuming any business responsibilities. It would leave us entirely free to pursue a number of scientific studies which we have heretofore carried only far enough to settle practical points.
Wilbur to Arnold Fordyce (Paris, France), January 15, 1906:
…….You will be amused at the Herald [New York based newspaper, Paris edition] interview. We have just been laughing over a number of clippings from foreign periodicals which Mr. Chanute sent to us. Is not Archdeacon an “amoozin cuss”? In his article in “La France Automobile” of 23rd December he offers to solve the flying problem in three months for only 200,000 francs. It is as funny as if a school boy who has not finished learning the multiplication tables should offer to calculate the eclipses of the sun for the next five years if someone will advance 20 francs to buy lead pencils and paper. It is quite evident that M. Archdeacon has never ventured to try a ride on an aeroplane himself. A few personal attempts at gliding merely would open his eyes to problems whose existence he knows nothing of. He would then know more and talk less……..
It was in Wilbur’s next letter to Octave Chanute, where one can surmise when the rift between the Wrights and Chanute began to surface. Also, one can see in Wilbur’s words, how they really just wanted to form agreements between themselves and various governments and why!
Wilbur to Octave Chanute (Chicago, Illinois), January 19, 1906:
We have no objections to the publication of information regarding the number, length, time, height and direction of our flights, nor anything relating to them which does not throw light on the construction of the machine or the methods and principles of operation…...We think it best to say nothing about the patents for which we have applied. We make no concealment of our reasons for wishing to sell in some other way than as a patented commercial invention. We prefer to sell to governments because we can thus secure a sure return, sufficient to satisfy us, without delay, and without burdening our future with business responsibilities and the tedious law-suits which are always necessary to maintain a valuable invention by patent. We wish to be free as possible for further scientific explorations.
On February 27th (1906) Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley passed away (heart attack) and in a letter between Wilbur and Chanute, Wilbur expressed his grave feeling of loss for Dr. Langley’s family and how he (Wilbur) felt Dr. Langley was responsible for he and his brother having developed their interest in pursuing their investigations into the scientific problems of heavier-than-air flight.
In addition and at about the same time, the true face of Captain Ferber appeared to the Wrights. Ferber released a portion of a private letter he had received from Wilbur Wright. The excerpt from this private communication was reprinted in a French monthly magazine (L’Aerophile, the official magazine of the Aero Club de France) and gave the impression Wilbur Wright was highly critical of the German, Austrian, and Russian leadership. Wilbur’s private statement to Ferber, which was not only taken out of context, but was printed in L’Aerophile magazine as a deliberate act on the part of Ferber to further his own agenda.
Wilbur to Captain Ferber (Paris, France), November 4, 1905:
“……….with Russia and Austria-Hungary in their present troubled condition and the German Emperor in a truculent mood, a spark may produce an explosion at any time. No government dare take the risk of waiting to develop practical flying machines independently. To be even one year behind other governments might result in losses compared with which the modest amount we shall ask for our invention would be insignificant.”
When Georges Besancon, editor of L’Aerophile and close friend of Captain Ferber, reprinted the above portion of Wilbur’s letter [to Captain Ferber], his translation of Wilbur’s comment truculent mood, Besancon used the French term cherchant noise, which has the literal meaning in English of “seeking war or a quarrel”, whereas truculent mood, in Wilbur’s context meant “harsh or belligerent”, nothing more. Contained also in Besancon’s interview article with Captain Ferber, Ferber stated he would very shortly solve the flying problem and his machines would be offered at half the price the Wrights were requesting.
Wilbur to Octave Chanute (Chicago, Illinois), January 31, 1906:
“….we regard the publication by Captain Ferber of our private letter to him of November 4th, see last L’Aerophile, as simply outrageous. It is the worst from the fact that he deliberately includes the direct reference to Russia, Austria and the German Emperor, while striking out all references to his bluff and making other changes in the letter.”
Wilbur to Octave Chanute (Chicago, Illinois), April 13 1906:
“We fully appreciated the probability that the French deal would fall through; but we felt that we did not care for a contract which called for a rise to 300 meters with a time limit of August 1st. The time was too short for any preliminary practice, and almost too short for what we had already agreed to perform…...before leaving Dayton, the Frenchmen said they believed they knew what was back of the failure to close the deal, that it was probably the present attitude of Captain Ferber, the man who had been instrumental in starting the negotiations. Ferber, they thought, had now decided that with his knowledge of the Wright plane he could build one himself, and so become the French pioneer in aviation, a greater honor than being merely the instrument of introducing the airplane into France.”
Wilbur to Octave Chanute (Chicago, Illinois), October 10, 1906:
“Octave, with all due respect, our friends do not seem to exactly understand our position in the matter of supposed delay. We are not delaying an instant more than we consider necessary. We merely refuse to let our hand be forced. Regarding the price no two persons will have exactly the same view. There is really no such thing in the world as absolute value for anything. If there were, the air we breathe would be the highest price thing in the world instead of the cheapest. From our own study of the situation and conversation with the French and English visitors we believe that the price or rather the amount of money is not directly an important issue. If it be assumed that someone else will produce a practical flyer in a year or two years at most, or that by refusing to buy, governments can force us to sell at their own terms, then the price we ask is undoubtedly too high. But if the governments know that there is only one way to get a practical flyer within five or ten years, and that there is no hope of beating down the price, then they will consider the price very low…...It is not the amount involved but the possibility of getting it cheaper that makes them hesitate…...If it were indeed true that others would be flying within a year or two, there would be reason in selling at any price but we are convinced that no one will be able to develop a practical flyer within five years. This opinion is based upon cold calculation. It takes into consideration practical and scientific difficulties whose existence is unknown to all but ourselves. Even you, Mr. Chanute, have little idea how difficult the flying problem really is. When we see men laboring year after year on points we overcame in a few weeks, without ever getting far enough along to meet the worse points beyond, we know that their rivalry and competition are not to be feared for many years…..We do not believe there is one chance in a hundred that any one will have a machine of the least practical usefulness within five years. If our judgment is correct undue haste to force a sale would be a mistake…!”
I highlighted the last section of Wilbur’s October 10 (1906) letter, because this was the first time Wilbur openly challenged Octave Chanute’s opinion. Five days later Chanute returned the following letter to Wilbur.
Octave Chanute to Wilbur (Dayton, Ohio), October 15, 1906:
“You are quite correct in saying that it is not the amount of money involved but the possibility of buying your machine cheaper which causes your clients to hesitate. The value of an invention is whatever it costs to reproduce it, and I by no means sure that persistent experimenting by others now that they know success has been achieved, may not produce a practical flyer within five years.
The important factor is that light motors have been developed. As there are many shapes of birds, each flying after a system of his own, so there may be several forms of apparatus by which man may encompass flight. Flapping wings for instance. I cheerfully acknowledge that I have little idea how difficult the flying problem really is and that its solution is beyond my powers, but are you not too cock-sure that yours is the only secret worth knowing (?) and that others may not hit upon a solution in less than “many times five years”. It took you much less than that and there are a few other “able” inventors in the world. The danger therefore is that others may achieve success, and one (shall we say distressing) symptom is that, thus far, nobody seems to have been hurt in trying! This does not mean that I would advise you to “force a sale”, but I believe that if the only obstacle in the way was the question of price it would be wise to make a reduction.”
These were among the first communications, between Wilbur Wright and Octave Chanute, which displayed that some strain in their relationship was beginning to appear. This letter, from Octave to Wilbur was in particular distressing to both of the brothers, as Octave had actually referred to Wilbur as being “cock-sure” and in Orville’s journal, he noted how upset and surprised Wilbur was that Octave had actually stated “.., thus far, nobody seems to have been hurt in trying!”, considering that two very notable experimenters, Otto Lilienthal and Percy Pilcher, had each died in experimenting accidents.
Wilbur to Octave Chanute (Chicago, Illinois), October 28, 1906:
“I am not certain that your method of estimating probabilities is a sound one. Do you not insist too strongly upon the single point of mental ability? To me it seems that a thousand other factors, each rather insignificant in itself, in the aggregate influence the event ten times more than mere mental ability or inventiveness. The world does not contain greater men than Maxim, Bell, Edison, Langley, Lilienthal and Chanute. We are not so foolish as to base our belief, (that an independent solution of the flying problem is not imminent), upon any supposed superiority to these men and to all those who will hereafter take up the problem. If the wheels of time could be turned back six years, it is not at all probable that we would do again what we have done. The one thing that impresses me as remarkable is the shortness of the time within which our work was done. It was due to peculiar combinations of circumstances which might never occur again. How do you explain the lapse of more than 50 years between Newcomen and Watt? Was the world wanting for smart men during those years? Surely not! The world was full of Watts, but a thousand and one trifles kept them from undertaking and completing the task…...we look upon the present question in an impersonal way. It is not chiefly a question of relative ability, but of mathematical probabilities.”
In the months following the letter dated October 28 (1906), Wilbur and Octave communicated very little. The Wrights had been issued their primary patent USP #821,393 the previous May 22nd and as the year 1907 opened, they came to realize they would have to forego their potential deals with governments and pursue the sales of the Flyer and their technology, in a more public commercial fashion, exactly what they really didn’t want to do.
The year started out with Santos Dumont claiming, during a newspaper interview (the L’Journal, a Paris based newspaper), that he and he alone had designed and developed his “14bis” aircraft. By doing so, he broke a gentlemen’s agreement with Gabriel Voisin and Robert Esnault-Pelterie, both of whom told Dumont after, from that point on he (Dumont) was on his own when it came to any future designs of HTAs for him were concerned.
Following the Voisin/Esnault-Pelterie and Dumont falling-out, Dumont designed his first machine and by March, he was ready to take to the air with it at his preferred location of the open fields at Bagatelle, just outside of Paris. Dumont’s first machine of his own design, was a tractor style rather than a pusher like his 14bis (a tractor style refers to having the engine mounted in front, with the propeller pulling rather than pushing) and he had relocated his pitch and yaw rudders to the rear (Dumont had eliminated Esnault-Pelterie’s ailerons on his model 15). Dumont was also one of the most prominent early pioneers who firmly believed “flat” rather than “cambered or curved” wings were superior. Dumont’s machine (his model 15), which besides the already mentioned changes from his 14bis, Dumont’s model 15 was much smaller, thereby much lighter, though he stayed with his 14bis’ biplane configuration.
Problem was, Dumont’s wings were constructed of glued flat layered veneer (thin plywood) and he even attached small underside ribs to keep his airfoils perfectly flat, smartly though, Dumont did use cross-wire supports. During his first attempt at taxiing, his model 15 machine simply fell apart around Dumont, due to its inadequate design and specifically due to its exceedingly poor construction.
Dumont’s model 15 (above left) was a lightweight biplane tractor style machine, but it was so poorly designed/constructed, it simply fell apart the first time Dumont attempted to taxi. On April 4, 1907, Dumont dragged out his 14bis (with which he managed a single hop of 220m the previous November), but after spending the better part of a morning outside of Paris, bouncing across the fields at Bagatelle, Dumont was unable to duplicate his prior feat and ended the day after crashing his machine (above right).
After the newspapers mentioned Dumont’s miserable failure with his model 15, a month later he brought his previously successful 14bis back out to Bagatelle, though unlike the previous November, Dumont could do no more than bounce across the field, but he did manage one short hop of 20 or 30 meters against a slight headwind, but with his lack of control he crashed, smashing up his machine. Following his two consecutive failures, Dumont spent little time flying and what little he did was only with his last LTA, his No. 16 airship. Throughout the spring and summer of 1907, the newspapers ignored him (Dumont) and generally only printed stories and news of other aviators. Throughout the year, the names which dominated the newspaper headlines were Trian Vuia, Leon Delagrange, Louis Bleriot, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, Gabriel Voisin, and a newcomer with the Aero Club group, Henri Farman, who after having been given a short ride, for a few meters by Leon Delagrange, became seriously interested in aviation.
After performing a short hop of 203 meters, on November 17, 1907 with the last of his biplanes (Dumont’s model 17), Dumont then switched to his first mono-plane (above), a design given him by his good friend Louis Bleriot, who had used a similar design to successfully complete a 186 meter hop earlier in July (1907). Finally on November 21, 4 days after his last biplane hop, Dumont did complete one single hop of only 143 meters, following which Dumont gave up on HTA flight considering the nearly year-long list of continuous failures Dumont had endured. Throughout all of 1908, Dumont restricted the few flights he performed, to his last LTA airship (No. 16) and wouldn’t again attempt flight with an HTA machine until January of 1909.
In May of 1907, Wilbur Wright was spotted in Paris, where he was traveling from Paris out to several European cities and traveling with him was the Wright’s European marketing representative, Hart O. Berg (Berg was a successful salesman known to be working with the C.R. Flint & Company of New York City). While Wilbur was seen in and around Paris during the spring of 1907, in July Wilbur’s brother, Orville, appeared and several of the Aero Club of France membership were known to have met with the Wrights at their hotel in Paris. Though Orville Wright had suddenly appeared in Paris, seen often with his brother, few realized Orville had come to France bringing with him a pair of very large wooden crates, which he and Wilbur stored in a warehouse up at the Le Havre harbor (France). Whatever was inside those wooden crates, neither of the brothers would discuss it.
The “3” largest newspapers (by circulation numbers) in Paris at the turn of the Century, were the Le Matin, Le Journal, and the New York Herald: Paris Edition and throughout 1907, their front-pages headlined one aviator or another on a daily basis, with those headlines being fairly dominated by Gabriel Voisin, Henri Farman (above left), Leon Delagrange (above right), Louis Bleriot, Trian Vuia (note photo of Vuia and his mono-wing, on front-page of The New York Herald above center), or one of the dozen or more aviators attempting to fly.
Leon Delagrange, Captain Ferber, the Zen brothers, Louis Bleriot, among others, did meet with the boys, privately at their hotel and everyone of them came away quite impressed and convinced the Wright brothers really did have something and certainly had an understanding of aviation beyond their comprehension (Delagrange, Ferber, or Bleriot).
Though Wilbur Wright was respectful of those who were avid aviators, privately he was not all that thrilled dealing with some of them, even when it was something as innocuous as a friendly breakfast meeting, he was annoyed by some of these French aviators (especially Captain Ferber). For example, here is one letter Wilbur wrote home to Octave Chanute during their stay in Paris (1907):
Wilbur to Octave Chanute (Chicago, Illinois), July 24, 1907:
“I have met Capt. Ferber several times, but we are not very intimate. I find that after working hard last year or rather in 1905-6 winter to secure our flyer for France, he became infected with ambition before the end, and was largely responsible for the failure of the final negotiation in March, 1906. Since then he has done all he could to prevent us from doing business here”.
The time the Wrights spent in France in 1907, was almost entirely about meeting with various governments, but they weren’t having much luck with any of these people and even in France, J. Humbert (head of a budget committee for the French Senate) told Arnold Fordyce and French General Targe, he had no faith in the Wrights and they were most likely frauds. (It was no coincidence French Senator J. Humbert felt this way, considering he was close friends with a Paris lawyer, Ernest Archdeacon)
Wilbur Wright was very stubborn about his machine, and he wouldn’t perform any stunts nor was he interested in proving what he claimed was true, he knew it was true and he knew exactly how his machine performed, so with each government agency he met, he told them he would be glad to perform a demonstration, but only after they had a signed contract.
He made the promise, that if his machine didn’t perform as claimed, then any contract they signed would be null & void, but neither he nor his European Marketing representative, Hart O. Berg, could convince any of these governments otherwise. Virtually every government representative they met with, considered a flyable HTA machine to have little or no military value, certainly nothing as they all believed the lighter-than-air dirigible promised. This was especially true in Germany and Italy, where both governments were already busy building military style dirigibles, to be used as dependable observation platforms, as well as the possibilities as troop transports.
Finally, after Orville arrived in Paris in July, the Wrights along with Hart O. Berg, came to the conclusion the only way they were going to successfully market their flying machine in Europe, was by a more robust form of selling. They would perform demonstrations flights, followed by selling their demonstration machines directly. With this in mind, building a fleet of Flyer IIIs, back in Dayton, then shipping the finished product to Europe didn’t make much sense, cost wise, so Orville was going to stay in Paris, while he looked to arrange for the raw materials they would need to construct them in France. Hart O. Berg would spend the time looking into arranging for a French based syndicate, financially capable of building the Flyers under license. Meanwhile, Wilbur returned home to Dayton, so he could deal with the request for bid they had received for a heavier-than-air flying machine, the bid from the US Board of Ordinance they had been expecting, something which they knew only they could fulfill.
Regardless of the Wrights knowing they were in possession of the “only” flying machine in the world, which could meet the minimum of the US Board of Ordinance bid request, the government received over a dozen bid applications (the bid specifications required such performance standards as: exceed 40 mph in level flight, be capable of attaining or exceeding 500 feet elevation above ground level, be capable of covering 125 miles in a single flight, be capable of being transported on a standard Army truck, being capable of remaining in the air for a minimum of 1 hour, and be a flying machine which an intelligent man could be trained to operate in a reasonable amount of time, etc.). Most surprising to the Wrights, was that Augustus Herring (who had become a bit of a thorn in the side of the boys over a number of false claims he had made) offered for bid, the Wright’s Flyer III, but at half the price the Wrights had bided. It was Herring’s belief that once he was awarded the contract, he would simply purchase the Flyer III from the Wrights (at a greatly reduced price) and he would deliver their machine to the US Signal Corp, but the US Board of Ordinance was much smarter than that and even threatened to sue Augustus Herring for false representation of his bid application.
While Wilbur was back in Dayton, he received a letter from Octave Chanute, telling him (Wilbur) the Europeans were catching up with the boys on the technology of a successful flying machine, so Wilbur wrote to Orville telling him of Chanute’s comments. Orville wrote back this of course was highly unlikely, but Orville thought it prudent to personally observe the leading Aero Club aviator, Henri Farman, as he had announced he was going to attempt to complete a circle to win the coveted Grand Prix d’Aviation award.
On October 20th (1907), Henri Farman did have one flight cover 771 meters (in a straight-line), but his attempt was a failure, though he did complete a circle, but each time he threw in some yaw rudder, to turn, his Voisin-Farman biplane would sink and touch the ground. When asked by the reporters about what he (Orville) thought of Henri Farman’s attempt at the Grand Prix d’Aviation, Orville calmly said: “..time will show whether the methods of control used in the Farman machine are adequate to meet the conditions encountered in windy weather?” Orville’s calm and off-hand attitude only further incited Archdeacon, who was also present, and though the Paris newspapers, for the most part, had been fairly quiet about the Wrights for nearly a year now, they again started condemning them in the papers, no doubt with encouragement to do so from Ernest Archdeacon.
Ernest Archdeacon had previously convinced several newspaper reporters attempt to interview the Wright brothers, while they were staying in Paris that spring and summer, but the Wrights respectfully declined all of them and following Orville’s appearance at Farman’s attempt to win the Grand Prix d’Aviation, led a number of the newspapers to publish not-so complimentary articles about them (the Wright brothers). One such article was headlined with “Wright brothers; Flyers or Liars” (where Ernest Archdeacon made his infamous comments about the Wrights, when he was quoted; “..The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It's easy to say, 'We have flown’…..”!
Even the New York Herald (Paris Edition) newspaper got into the act, when one of their reporters referred to the boys as “the Wright bluffers”.
After having personally seen the European’s attempt at flight, Orville wrote home and was even more avid they (the French aviators) and probably the rest of the world were years behind them, possibly as much as 5 or more years. Just a few days after witnessing Farman’s first attempt at winning the Grand Prix d’Aviation, Orville packed up his bags and boarded a ship for home.
As 1907 came to an end, it had been a monumental year for aviation in France, though the great dirigible aviator, Santos Dumont had all but announced his retirement from HTA experimentation, there had been literally dozens who made nearly daily headlines with their individual achievements, especially from the Aero Club of France ranks, with Paris born Englishman, Henri Farman being the most successful of the year.
While the French aviators were looking back on a seemingly successful year, the Wright brothers were about to receive some very exciting news, news which would propel the Wright brothers into the consciousness of the world.
Throughout 1907, there were several successful individuals, while others who were not so successful, so here are just a half dozen different examples of both. (Top row, left to right): Alfred de Pischoff (500 meters on December 17th), Louis Bleriot (600 meters on December 6th), Horatio Phillips and his multi-wing something or another (Horatio’s machine was never successful, but was certainly entertaining). (Bottom row, left to right): Ego Etrich monoplane, Koechlin No. 1, Epps No. 1 (none of those shown on the bottom row above were in themselves successful, but most of the designers found success with subsequent models, once the Wrights in 1908 demonstrated to the world, the base technology required for successful HTA dynamic flight).
Outside of France, Danish born Jacob Christian Hansen Ellehammer developed and flew his unusual appearing biplane and mono-wing (above left and center). French aviator De La Vaulx designed this safety flight suit (above right) which he used during his November 17th flight, outside of Paris, for 60 meters.
On December 23rd, 1907, the Wright brothers received a telegram from the US Board of Ordinance they (the brothers) had won the B of O’s bid for a heavier-than-air flying machine and payment for same would be issued immediately after a series of qualifying flight “trials” had been successfully completed. Soon after, the Wright brothers worked out the date of the qualifying trials to begin in September (1908) at Ft Myer, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington DC.
Barely two weeks into 1908, Henri Farman made the world’s newspaper headlines when on January 13th, he completed the first full circle in France, which won him the Grand Prix d’Aviation and the 50,000 francs prize monies (half from Archdeacon and the other half from Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe, both co-founding members of the Aero Club of France).
On January 13, 1908 Paris born Englishman, Henri Farman (above left), became the first to complete a full circle in a heavier-than-air flying machine in Europe (above right).
During the first half of 1908, a few members of the Aero Club of France were having some success getting into the air, but despite Henri Farman’s successful winning of the Grand Prix d’Aviation, he was not able to duplicate his feat. European newspapers were full of headlines, providing extensive articles covering a number of aviators who were getting off the ground, with some even flying (in a straight-line) for distances measured in kilometers, rather than just a few hundred meters.
The primary and most successful French aviators during the first half of 1908, were all, in one way or another, attached to the Aero Club of France, the most successful French aviators were Louis Bleriot, Henri Farman, Gabriel Voisin, Leon Delagrange, and Robert Esnault-Pelterie (above, shown left to right).
There were others, many others, who all had their own idea of what a flying machine should look like, but none of them, not a single aviator accepted the idea or concept of “inherent instability”.
(Above, top row, left to right); French d’Equevilley’s 1908 multi-plane, Leon Levavasseur’s 1908 Antoinette I, and the 1908 Givaudan. (Center row, left to right); Paul Cornu’s 1908 helicopter, 1908 Jacob Ellehammer, 1908 Bertin Autogyro. (Bottom row, left to right); The 1908 French Robart, a 1908 French Jabo, and the 1908 Bousson.
The French aviators were so active, nearly every weekend someone somewhere (near the city of Paris) was attempting to get airborne in one contraption or another, so much so, watching these aviators had become sort of a French national pastime. Unfortunately, except for a small handful of individuals, the French aviation fans were offered little to see, except for an occasional fast taxi.
Over in America and within days of the Wrights receiving the news, their bid for the US Signal Corps’ heavier-than-air flying machine had been accepted, newspaper reporters from all over America descended on Dayton, Ohio. With the constant interruptions from the reporters, the boys were finding it difficult to find the time to make the necessary updates to their 1905 Flyer III test mule, changes they needed to install and flight test prior to building a new Flyer III for the military trials.
These changes or updates included installing their newer 24 hp Vertical-4 engine, which Wilbur and Charlie Taylor had developed back in 1906, install two seats (changing from their single lay down arrangement of the Flyer III’s original configuration), re-arrange the flight controls, specifically changing their roll or wing-warping control, from a sliding hip/foot saddle, to a more conventional stick control (conventional as we think of flight controls today), and finally reversing the Flyer III’s pitch rudder control.
Up until the Wright brothers, all of the early aviation pioneers had been using engines (gasoline) which were adapted from the then just expanding automotive industry, but the Wright engines were designed from the beginning, by Wilbur and Charlie Taylor, as aircraft engines; light in weight, small in physical size, yet quite powerful for their time.
The Wright’s original 1905 Flyer III test mule used an 18 hp lay-down 4-cylinder engine (above left), which was very similar to the original engine used on the 1903 Flyer I. During 1906, Wilbur Wright and Charlie Taylor (the Wright’s chief mechanic/fabricator) developed a water-cooled Vertical 4-cylinder engine, which developed 22-24 hp (above right).
The flight control system modifications were going to be even more extensive, though on the surface the changes appeared subtle. Wilbur and Orville spent a great deal of time in discussion, trying to come up with a viable method of controlling the Flyer’s lateral control (wing warping) and separately its yaw (rudder), as they were combined (similar to a 1950’s ERCO Ercoupe) on the Flyer type I and Flyer type II. Pitch would remain by a fore/aft yoke, controlled from the operator’s left hand.
The Wright’s 1905 Flyer III prototype controls were very similar to their 1903 Flyer I’s, but unlike the 1903/1904 Flyer I & II, roll on the 1905 Flyer III, was controlled by a sliding foot-box (above left), while rudder control (for yaw) was by swinging left-right a horizontal stick (above right, note handle for the yaw rudder in the display figure’s right hand). Pitch was controlled by a vertically arranged stick (above right in the display figure’s left hand), which when the stick was pushed forward, the pitch rudder would send the Flyer III’s nose “up” and then “down”, when the stick was pulled back.
Here Wilbur is shown with the modifications made to the controls of the first production version of the Flyer III (serial no. 001), to later be known as the “A” model. With the production Flyer III “A”, roll was controlled by the side-to-side movement of a vertical control yoke (seen above in the left photograph and in Wilbur’s right hand), with yaw controlled by fore-aft movement of this same control stick. Pitch was by the fore-aft movement of a second vertical control stick (seen above in Wilbur’s left hand). Forward movement of the “pitch” control stick caused the Flyer III “A” to descend nose down, while pulling back on this stick would send the Flyer III “A” upwards (which was reversed to the original Flyer III prototype’s controls). In February (1909), the Wrights added a “second” pitch yoke, just to the right of the right seat, allowing for “dual” controls for the purpose of flight training.
In addition to all of the modifications (between the Flyer III prototype and the production Flyer III “A”), was the adding of a second seat, to accommodate a passenger (which was listed as an observer’s seat by the Board of Ordinance bid specification). To maintain balance, the passenger seat was installed directly over the center of gravity/balance, leaving the operator’s seat off-set to port, balanced against the weight of the engine. In the photo (above left) Wilbur’s sister, Katherine, is about ready to get her first ride in the world’s first production practical airplane (Pau, France). Note the small rope tied around Katherine’s dress, this would later lead to the popular “hoop” dress for woman aviators. Also shown is the Dutch Countess being assisted by Wilbur Wright (photo above right), just prior to her first flight in a powered air machine in 1909.
Considering the changes with the Flyer III’s flight controls, both of the boys knew they were going to need to get some stick time, to adjust to the modifications, but with all the newspaper reporters hanging around, they could barely get anything done, so test flying at Huffman-Prairie was completely out of the question. It didn’t really matter anyway, Mr. Huffman had long before tore down their hanger.
Following completion of the modifications to the 1905 Flyer III, it was decided they would return to Kitty Hawk, mostly due to its isolation, where they would spend a few weeks test flying the modified flight control system without the daily interference of those pesky reporters.
Their plan was Wilbur would head on down to Kitty Hawk first, to spend a couple of weeks getting the hangers back up, as it was assumed they were in bad need of repair after nearly five years of neglect, then Orville would show up a couple of weeks behind Wilbur, bringing the modified 1905 Flyer type III with him.
Two days after Wilbur left for Kitty Hawk on April 6th, Charlie Furnas (a mechanic from a nearby town) showed up in Dayton, only to learn Wilbur was already two days ahead of him. Charlie often talked to the brothers, looking for part-time work, but most of the time Charlie just volunteered his time and Orville told him they simply didn’t have the money to send him down to Kitty Hawk. No matter, Charlie had his own money for the trip, so completely on his own, Charlie (Furnas) boarded the “Big Four” train and headed on down to Kitty Hawk two days behind Wilbur, good thing too.
Wilbur had arrived at Kitty Hawk on the 9th (April, 1908) and before he had the chance to fix up the heavily damaged hangers (five Outer Bank winters had taken their toll), Wilbur fell ill with the flu. He spent all of his time convalescing at the Kill Devil Hills life guard station and just didn’t have the strength to work fixing up their hangers.
After nearly 5 years of neglect, the Wright’s hangers at Kitty Hawk in 1908 were in pretty sad shape (above). Five winters of the Outer Banks weather was even harder on their 1902 glider, which they had left behind after they successfully flew their dynamic Flyer I in December of 1903. All that was left of their little 1902 glider was a portion of the leading edge of one wing (see above).
When Charlie Furnas showed up at Kitty Hawk, he found Wilbur rolled up in a blanket, over at the life guard station, and though Wilbur seemed upset at Charlie just showing up like that, later he would be genuinely happy to have Charlie around! It seems that one of the life guards, Bob Wescott, had been driving Wilbur nuts, talking on and on about his theories on perpetual motion machines.
With Wilbur down with the flu, Charlie took over reconstruction of the two hangers which would take several days and was also an excuse to stay away from life guard Wescott. Both hangers were in pretty bad shape, especially the hanger where they had stored their 1902 glider, as only a piece of the leading edge of the lower wing had survived. That last remaining piece of the Wright’s 1902 glider now rests at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
After a few days, when Wilbur felt better, he joined in on the reconstruction project, but Charlie (Furnas) had everything pretty much in hand, so they would be ready when Orville arrived with the modified 1905 Flyer III test mule, presumed to be on or about the 25th (April).
Going back to when Wilbur was leaving Dayton for Kitty Hawk, at the beginning of April, Wilbur mentioned to Orville he would have to write an article for Century magazine which he (Wilbur) had promised. Writing and public speaking were not really something Orville was particularly fond of, but he did it anyway, and Orville’s article was titled The Wright Brother’s Aeroplane. Orville, before heading on down to Kitty Hawk, had sent the completed article to the Century magazine, but Orville felt somewhat embarrassed about it. In fact, he felt so embarrassed, Orville returned the $500 he was paid, but the magazine refused the return of the money and that article became a small masterpiece which is highly appreciated for its content, even today.
Earlier, in the fall of 1907 (the year before), the newly formed AEA (Aerial Experiment Association), founded by Alexander Graham Bell, had requested information from the Wright brothers by way of their secretary, Lt Thomas Selfridge, who was attached to the US Signal Corp. The information the AEA had asked for were details on aerodynamic airfoil design and specifically, detailed information on the Wright’s patented 3-axis control system. Wilbur at first was reluctant releasing this information, but Lt Selfridge was one of the US Signal Corps’ liaisons they had been in contact with and then considering it was Alexander Graham Bell, someone who of all people understood the implications of miss-using patented technology, Wilbur felt it probably would be okay.
Founded by telephone inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, the A.E.A. (Aerial Experiment Association) was formed in late 1907. (Above left photograph, left to right); Glenn Curtiss, John A. D. McCurdy, Alexander Graham Bell, Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin, and Lt Thomas Selfridge. This group of young engineers became known as “Bell’s Boys” and of these young engineers, it was Glenn Curtiss who had shown to be the most innovative, with his 1908 “June Bug” (above right) being quite unique.
Wilbur and Orville’s agreement with the AEA was they could use their technology, but for experimental purposes only, any “...exhibition or commercial use” of their (the Wright’s) patented technology was prohibited in writing. One of the AEA members, Glenn Curtiss, would not follow the Wright’s agreement and the court battles between the Wrights and Curtiss would eventually become legendary.
Further adding to the Wright’s public perception dilemma, just before Wilbur left for Kitty Hawk on April 6th, the boys received a letter from the Aero Club of America stating they and Scientific American magazine were co-sponsors of the Scientific American prize for the first to fly 1 mile in a straight-line, on North American soil. The Aero Club had already been a long time supporter of the Wrights, but the Scientific American magazine had a history of being a critic and the magazine thought this gesture would go a long ways toward correcting that error. The trophy was obviously going to be given to the Wrights, but something came up which put the club and magazine into an odd position, the first group to apply for the trophy was not the Wrights, but instead was Glen Curtiss from the AEA (Bell’s boys).
The publisher of Scientific American, Charles Munn, cabled Orville and offered to delay the AEA attempt at the trophy if he wished, but Wilbur was already on the way to Kitty Hawk and Orville would be headed that way in a couple of weeks, so there simply wasn’t time to haul the 1905 Flyer III around the country side at that particular moment.
Orville didn’t refuse the offer from Charles Munn, but he told him he and Wilbur were on the way to Kitty Hawk, to test the modifications they had made on their test Flyer for the US Signal Corp bid they had been awarded, maybe in May or June they could possibly have the time to try it.
Exactly as planned, Orville arrived on the 25th and he had a large wooden crate with the disassembled 1905 Flyer type III in it, so they borrowed a horse and wagon and moved it down to Kill Devil Hills where their rebuilt hangers were, 4 miles south of Kitty Hawk.
It took a couple of days to assemble and prepare the Flyer III, but the brothers were quite anxious to get started, as they knew there was going to be a learning curve with the new control configuration. As expected, with their first test flights, both Orville and Wilbur plowed into the sand often, as they would momentarily became confused with the new control yokes.
They had brought the Flyer back down to North Carolina, because the influx of reporters was making it impossible to test fly at Huffman-Prairie, but despite the remoteness of the Outer Banks, it was only a few days after Orville arrived, the reporters appeared as well. The reporters hid at some distance, while observing the Wrights with their binoculars, and the reporters got a real treat on May 14th, when they witnessed the Flyer circling with two people aboard, the first time in history something like that had happened, where a passenger* rode on the world’s first practical airplane.
*To be historically accurate, the first “known” person to ride along, as a passenger, during a short forced power hop of an HTA was Henri Farman. This occurred about year earlier than Furnas’ ride here with Wilbur, while Farman’s ride along was with the then Aero Club of France President, Leon Delagrange.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) It had only been a few days after Orville arrived at Kitty Hawk (April of 1908) before the reporters arrived and hid in some nearby trees, watching the Wrights from a distance (above right). On May 14th, the reporters got a real treat, when Wilbur took Charlie Furnas up for a ride, the Wright’s first ever passenger (above left).
Their initial flights, starting on May 6th, were short, usually lasting no more than a minute or two, then after believing they were becoming more comfortable with the new control configuration, they placed sand bags on the second seat they had added, to become accustomed to the extra weight.
One of the key changes they made in the control configuration, was the Wrights were engineers and they had designed the pitch lever on the 1905 Flyer type III so that as you pushed the pitch lever forward, the nose pitched up. Remember, this machine was the 1905 Flyer III and originally the brothers flew it from a lay-down position, so they could visually sight along the chains that moved the pitch elevators, something which worked for them at the time. Now the Flyer III “A” was being flown from a sitting position and the Wrights knew they were going to be training military personal how to fly, so having the pitch control work in an opposite fashion, seemed to make more sense. The newly modified 1905 Flyer III, with the model “A” modifications, the nose of the Flyer III went down when you pushed the stick forward and when you pulled back on the control, the nose came up, giving the Flyer III “A” a more natural feel to it.
Problem was, all of the boys experience had been with the pitch control working in the opposite direction (this was true with the 1902 glider through to their 1904 Flyer type II), so they had to re-train themselves on how to fly their own machine. Then on May 12th, while Wilbur was rolling into a turn, he momentarily got confused on the controls and plowed very heavily into the sand, damaging the Flyer III “A” fairly extensively.
It took two days to repair the damage the Flyer III sustained, when Wilbur crashed into the sand, so it wasn’t until the 14th before they could get back into the air. After the boys had made several practice flights, Wilbur suggested that maybe it was time to switch from sand bags to a real person. Wilbur, realizing all the work Charlie Furnas had done for them, which was all volunteered by the way, he offered Charlie the chance to become the world’s first airplane passenger (at least the first passenger on the world’s first “practical” flying machine).
With Charlie aboard, Wilbur flew about a mile in a circle, then he landed while Orville took over and Charlie got the chance to ride again, only this time with Orville Wright as pilot, not only making Charlie Furnas the Wright’s first aeroplane passenger, he would be the first of only two people to fly with both Wilbur and Orville as pilot (the Wright’s sister, Katherine, was the only other person later able to claim this).
The Wrights kept flying for the next couple of days, then on the 16th, the Kitty Hawk telegraph operator walked over from town and delivered a message to Wilbur. The telegram was from Hart O. Berg, the Wright’s European sales manager, and it seems their French syndicate was getting cold feet and they were possibly pulling back on their financial interest in building the Wright Flyer in France.
That evening, Wil and Orv sat and discussed their next move and it was decided Wilbur would go straight from Kitty Hawk to New York, from there he would book passage on the first ship available and go to France, assemble the Flyer III (their first production unit), which had been sitting at the docks in Le Havre, France since the previous July (1907). Meanwhile, Orville and Charlie Furnas would pack up the Flyer III “A” test mule and store it in the larger of the two hangers there at Kill Devil Hills, and then they would go back to Dayton to finish construction of their second production Flyer III “A”, which Orville would use for the US Signal Corp flight trials in September.
Wilbur headed directly to New York from Kitty Hawk early Thursday morning (May 17th), while Orville and Charlie Furnas left for Dayton on Friday (the 18th), after he and Charlie dissembled the Flyer type III test mule and packed it into the larger of the two hangers.
Very soon, the whole world would know the name, the Wright brothers!
Once Wilbur arrived in France, he first traveled over to Paris to meet up with Hart O. Berg, where they sat down and set up a game plan. It was already the first of June and Wilbur estimated it would take about three or four weeks to get the Flyer up and running, but first they had to find a suitable location.
It seems Hart had arranged for Wilbur to meet up with someone he had run into, one Leon Bollee from Le Mans, who was President of the Aero Club de Sarthe (Le Mans) and owner of an automobile manufacturing company there. The Wright brothers had somehow always been lucky, as at any moment they needed outside help, it seems the right person just happened to appear. Unlike any of the Aero Club de France members, who were all either wealthy or extremely wealthy, the Wrights were individuals of very modest financial means and just like it was with Charlie Furnas showing up when his help was needed, now Leon Bollee appears and was quite willing to volunteer his much needed assistance.
As an active balloonist, Bollee had formed the Aero Club de Sarthe, based in Le Mans and he offered Wilbur much in the way of aid. First he provided a truck and trailer so Wilbur could move the Flyer III, still in its crates and still sitting on the dock up at Le Havre, then he offered the use of a workshop, near his auto manufacturing plant, which was only a mile or so from Hunaudiéres field. Bollee being a French auto manufacturer loaned Wilbur a couple of his workers, to assist him with putting his flying machine together.
Once they moved the crated Flyer down from Le Havre to Le Mans, Wilbur went about opening the crates, only to find the Flyer was heavily damaged, with broken spars, ripped cloth, a crushed radiator, engine cylinder damage, and several broken wing struts.
Wilbur immediately was upset with his brother Orville and Charlie Taylor for miss-packing the Flyer and even stated in a letter home: “...I could have done a better job in two minutes using a snow shovel!”
It was only later Wilbur realized it wasn’t his brother or Charlie Taylor’s fault for the damage to their machine, it was in fact the French custom agents who had opened and improperly repacked the Flyer at Le Havre, then the long hard ride on the back of their transport truck, from Le Havre to Le Mans, which actually lead to the damage.
No matter, Wilbur organized the workshop Bollee provided and began, first, repairing the extensive damage the Flyer III exhibited, while modifying it as well, by bringing it up to date with the model “A” improvements.
Compared to the hangers (shacks really) they had at Kill Devil Hills, the Le Mans workshop was quite excellent and once the Flyer was repaired and modified, Wilbur moved his machine into an auto garage out at Hunaudiéres field, next to an auto race track, which was great and Bollee provided tools and materials, so Wilbur could finish his work.
(Photos courtesy Library of Congress/Wright State University) Once Wilbur arrived in France (late May of 1908), the Wright brothers’ European marketing manager, Hart O. Berg introduced Wilbur to a Le Mans auto manufacturer, the rather rotund Leon Bollee (above standing next to Wilbur). The first thing Leon Bollee offered Wilbur was the free use of a large garage (above right) out near an auto race track Bollee owned.
The workers Bollee released to Wilbur were impressed by him, as Wilbur wasn’t anything like they expected, the workers believing he was a blue collar worker just like them. At the turn of the century, social class separation was very prevalent, which was very much as it was in Europe. The members of the Aero Club de France were all from the upper class, socially, financially, and especially with some of the members, Ernest Archdeacon in particular, having substantial political power as well.
Wilbur and Orville were both just two individuals from the American mid-west, the sons of a Bishop in a very conservative Christian church, who felt their social status should be of no concern to others, but most Europeans of social stature (specifically the French) would see the Wrights differently regardless.
In the weeks and months before Wilbur made his first flight, out at Hunaudiéres field, he spoke with several European aviators and other individuals interested in his machine. From the tone of his letters, you’ll note the astonishment gained by Wilbur from the experience.
Wilbur to Orville (Dayton, Ohio), June 14, 1908:
“We have decided to locate at Le Mans. We get exclusive possession of the race course at 250 francs per month and 15% of gate receipts if we charge admission at any time. The course is entirely enclosed by trees and is 800 meters long and 300 meters wide. The ground is not smooth but will do for landing all right. There are several trees at one corner which will prevent following the track all the way around unless I go over them. It is not an ideal grounds but I think it will answer our purpose….Bleriot called the other morning and offered us his shop at Neuilly and his shed at Issy if we wished to use them. A more friendly spirit is being manifested by all sides.
I saw Mr. Rolls the other day. He wishes to be the first to fly one of our machines in England. He did not purpose to buy one himself but thought he could get a wealthy friend to buy one if we would sell one, and let him run it. I said I would consult you as to price and date of delivery. If we can get an order I think it might be well to take it. When could you have a machine ready to ship? And what should be our price without training operators? What do you say to $10,000 each? We ought to do something in England. Do not fail to inform me when our patent there must be worked.”
Charles Rolls was the “Rolls” in Rolls-Royce motor cars and would turn out to be a great fan of the Wrights for the next couple of years.
Wilbur to Orville (Dayton, Ohio), June 17, 1908:
“A note came from Henri Farman asking to meet me, so Berg invited him to take lunch with us…...He is a pretty nice sort of fellow and disposed to be friendly. He is much better looking than his pictures make him out to be………
The newspapers in general are giving us a lot of advertising and on the whole in a much more favorable way than heretofore. “Les Sports” is about the only one to hold out in its pretended unbelief and it is getting shaky.”
On July 4th, the Flyer was looking pretty good, so it was time to fire up the engine and run some static tests and while the engine was warming up, Wilbur noticed the upper radiator soft flex hose was starting to swell, while the lower hose was starting to collapse. As he reached to feel the collapsing hose with his right hand, the upper hose blew off, spraying Wilbur on the left side and on his left arm with boiling hot water.
One of the auto workers got the Flyer’s engine shut down, while two of the other fellows rushed to Wilbur, lying on the ground in extreme pain.
When the hose blew, Wilbur had fortunately reacted fast, turning his head and covering his face with his hand and arm, as the steaming hot water hit him in his side. He got his jacket and shirt off quickly, so the burns turned out to be less than they expected, but still quite painful I would imagine.
Bollee’s plant workers got Wilbur to the Le Mans hospital as soon as they could, but Wilbur’s burns turned out to be not nearly as bad as first thought. Still, Wilbur would have to take it easy for a few days, even though his burns were really no more serious than a really bad sunburn, but a few blisters did pop up.
While Wilbur was laid up, he thought about why the lower hose collapsed and he realized a pocket of air most likely got trapped in the lower hose and the pump simply created a vacuum, collapsing the hose and preventing the coolant water from circulating.
This was their first engine designed with up-right cylinders, which also meant their water-pump had to transfer water nearly 20” vertically. Most automotive engines of that early era used brass or steel pipes for transferring water for cooling, but that was okay because automotive engines were fix-mounted in a framework. Because of the Flyer’s design, the radiator was mounted on a vertical strut, with the engine mounted on the cross-braces between the lower wing ribs, so the Flyer’s coolant water lines required flexibility because of the Flyer’s wing-warping.
After the accident, Wilbur came up with the idea of wrapping a steel spring inside both of the hoses, to prevent them from collapsing, which was a simple idea, but Wilbur’s little invention would apply anytime a flexible hose was used on an engine and this has been especially true in the automotive industry. In the last decade or so, most automotive coolant hoses are pre-formed composites, but for nearly a hundred years, hoses which had to follow a curve, had a strong spring wound inside of it, to prevent it from collapsing, an idea which came from Wilbur Wright.
Wilbur to his father (Bishop Wright), (Dayton, Ohio), July 9, 1908:
“I have had a little trouble….recently. A rubber tube came off of the upper water connection of the engine when it was running with water boiling, at 1,500 rev per min. I was standing just in front of it taking the speed, and the stream under pressure of the pump struck me in the side and upon the arm at my elbow.”
In addition, Wilbur wrote a similar letter to his sister, indicating his “accident” was minor, but Wilbur’s letter to Orville indicated the real seriousness of it. The burns on Wilbur’s arm were still giving him trouble a month later and in his letter to Orville, Wilbur admitted how bad it was and that he had taken a week off, where he spent time catching up with his reading and walking around Le Mans, but he would had preferred to have spent a few days laid up in bed.
Wilbur to Katherine Wright (sister), (Dayton, Ohio), July 15, 1908:
“I have just received Professor Zahm’s letter…..When Orville gets down to Washington I fear my chances will be gone, so far as the young lady is concerned. But I will console myself with the thought that “my loss is his eternal gain,” as they say at funerals.”
Professor Zahm’s letter, which Wilbur refers to, is concerning a beautiful and wealthy heiress who was greatly interested in Wilbur for marriage. It seems Professor Zahm* was working as a match-maker with the Wrights or specifically with Wilbur.
*A couple of years later, Professor Zahm contacted Wilbur, after the Wrights filed their initial lawsuit against Glenn Curtiss, offering his testimony against Curtiss on the Wright’s behalf, for payment of course. The Wrights respectively turned him down (Professor Zahm), and then soon after, Professor Zahm appeared as a witness for Glenn Curtiss, set to provide testimony against the Wrights (presumably because Curtiss did provide payment for Professor Zahm’s testimony),….. interesting(?).
When the nearby Bollee auto manufacturing plant’s whistle would blow, for lunch time, Wilbur didn’t give a second thought about sitting with the workers, while he quietly ate his lunch. Wilbur spoke little to no French and nearly all of the plant workers spoke no English, which did mean Wilbur, who appreciated the help they offered, found it was easier to just do the work himself, rather than struggle with the language barrier trying to explain what to do.
The repair of the Flyer, from the shipping damage, combined with the modifications he had to complete, Wilbur found the work was slow and tedious, but by the second week of July, Wilbur felt he was getting ready.
At the same time, Wilbur received a wire from Orville, explaining that despite their written agreement with the AEA (Aerial Experiment Association), one of the AEA members (Glenn Curtiss) had gone ahead and used the Wright’s patented technology, on his machine, to win the Scientific American award for being the first in America to fly a mile in a straight line (Glenn Curtiss with his “June Bug”). Orville wrote a rather terse letter to Mr. Curtiss, explaining to him he is not allowed to use their technology for any exhibition flying! Orville offered to establish a users fee, for use of their patented technology, if Curtiss should want to fly his machines in exhibition, but Curtiss wrote Orville back, claiming he had no intention of flying for commercial or exhibition reasons!
Privately, Curtiss told his partner, Augustus Herring, he would “…never pay the Wrights for the use of their patented technology, no matter what and if the Wrights don’t like it, they can just try and take me to court!”
By the end of July, Wilbur and the Flyer III “A” were ready and anxious to go, but the clouds opened up and it rained nearly all of the last week of July and into the first week of August. Light rain would have been no problem, but this was a deluge, though by Thursday afternoon the 6th (of August), the weather was finally clearing and Wilbur had the Paris newspapers announce he would begin his flight demonstrations, and if the weather held, probably sometime late Saturday the 8th.
The skies over Le Mans, after sunrise that Saturday, were sunny with scattered clouds and calm winds, so Wilbur knew this was going to be a good day.
Wilbur had been in France for just over two and a half months and during that time, some of the Paris newspapers had been fairly consistent at ridiculing both he and his brother. Headlines like “...the Wright Bluffers” or “...Liars not Flyers” and such had popped up on occasion, most likely prompted or suggested by Ernest Archdeacon or Captain Ferber, but for the most part Wilbur believed they (the Paris newspapers) had been pretty favorable towards them.
Barely a month or two after Wilbur had shown up at Le Mans, Archdeacon was quoted in the Le Matin newspaper during an interview; “…..all public experiments in powered aviation have taken place in France and almost exclusively by Aero Club de France members; Delagrange, Farman, Bleriot, and Robert Esnault-Pelterie. Each of these aviators have demonstrated flights exceeding anything the Wrights have claimed and last January Henri Farman became the first in the world to fly a circle to win the coveted Grand Prix d’Aviation award….”!
Le Mans is about 115 miles southwest of Paris and being the year was 1908, transportation choices between Paris and Le Mans were limited. The most common way for the Paris based newspaper reporters, traveling to Le Mans to interview Wilbur, were by taking the train, but that was a near four hour trip or more, one way. During the month of June, several reporters had come down to interview Wilbur, but for the most part he simply ignored them, as taking the time for an interview with newspaper reporters wasn’t at the top of his list.
From the beginning, neither of the Wrights cared much about flying for the glory or fame of their flights, as they were only interested in showing the world what their machine could do and the fame at being given credit for what they had invented as engineers, not aviators.
Many greatly misunderstood Wilbur, as it only seemed to the reporters he (Wilbur) was indifferent by his lack of defending himself against the newspaper headlines and articles, but the real reason Wilbur appeared this way was because he knew something no one else did! What Wilbur Wright understood was his airplane actually worked!
Delagrange, Farman, Bleriot, and Esnault-Pelterie each had some experience with machines which were capable of getting off the ground for a limited distance, but they had to keep them nose high, under full power, and they couldn’t turn except by jerking the nose around and then they could only attempt to get airborne as long as the wind was calm.
Wilbur knew the Flyer could bank and turn, climb and descend, you could fly to a neighboring town if you wished, or you could simply circle above the town you departed from, you could stay in the air as long as you wished and as long as you had fuel, and weather conditions were of little concern (as long as it wasn’t stormy). He knew the day he started his demonstrations, all those who claimed they were liars or bluffers would have to retract their comments. Wilbur was a person of few words and he quietly knew, exactly, what his machine could and could not do.
There was a great deal of concern about Wilbur in the Wright family, especially when it came to their father, who understood the importance of what his two boys were having within the world of engineering. It was only a few days before Wilbur began his first demonstration flights at Le Mans, Wilbur received this letter from his father:
Bishop Wright (father) to Wilbur (Le Mans, France), August 2, 1908:
“I think that, aside from the value of your life to yourself and to ourselves, you owe it to the world, that you should avoid all unnecessary personal risks. Your death or even becoming a cripple or an invalid, would seriously affect the progress of aeronautical science...Soon, others can do the flying, but you have a field for truth and science that no one else can fill. I think that you and Orville ought to take especial care of your health, as well as of your life.”
By noon (Saturday), dozens of local citizens from the nearby town of Le Mans made their way out to the auto race track where Wilbur Wright and Bollee’s crew constructed a small hanger, so once there, they found some kind of wooden tower with a ground level wooden rail system, though the Flyer was still in its hanger.
By 2 or 3 PM, more people began showing up, including Louis Bleriot, Leon Delagrange, and the newly re-elected President of the Aero Club de France himself, Ernest Archdeacon. Of real importance, in addition to the Federation Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) officials were a half-dozen newspaper reporters and the owner/editor of the L’Aerophile magazine Georges Besancon, which was the official publication of the L’Aero Club de France.
Late that afternoon, Wilbur finally showed up with a half dozen auto workers and Leon Bollee, who was the owner of the local auto manufacturing plant as well as the auto/horse racing track, where Wilbur’s hanger was.
Finally by about 5 in the afternoon, Wilbur and the auto crew dragged the Flyer out of its hanger and using the twin wheeled carriages the crew had built for Wilbur, rolled it over and placed the Flyer on the launching guide rail. Wilbur and his brother Orville, had devised a way to more safely launch the Flyer into the air, a method Wilbur stated in a letter to Captain Ferber a couple of years earlier, as more “eloquent” than what others were doing.
Though today many criticize the Wrights for having used a “catapult” system, forgetting the Wrights were “engineers” and not “aviators”, for the fact was their catapult was merely a safety device and was not a requirement for their machine to get airborne (even on calm weather days) and Wilbur most often flew without using it. Wilbur made it a habit to always use it when taking up passengers though. If you do a YouTube search (for the title: “Wright Brothers First Flight, 1903-A Day That Shook The World [HD]”), at 1:20 into the video, you’ll see Wilbur taking off at Le Mans in his Flyer III “A”, alone, and in the above video frame captures, please note the position of the Wright’s catapult tower (blue arrow). Due to the design of the Wright’s catapult, this video is unquestionable proof the Wrights use of their catapult was not only not required, it was rarely even needed, except when Wilbur believed its use was prudent for safety reasons.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) It wasn’t until late the afternoon of Saturday, August 8, 1908, before Wilbur and his small crew on loan from Leon Bollee’s auto manufacturing company, rolled out the Wright’s first production Flyer III “A”, getting ready for Wilbur’s first demonstration flight on European soil.
Wilbur Wright’s demeanor was one of a quiet calm and because his French language speaking ability was all but non-existent, Wilbur appeared aloof in his attitude, to those attending his first European flights that day.
While Wilbur and his French crew spent the better part of an hour, assembling the Flyer after taking it out of its hanger, Ernest Archdeacon spent this same time explaining to the attending Paris reporters, why the Flyer was a failure and would be incapable of flight. Part of Archdeacon’s comments related to the fact the Flyer’s wings were angled down slightly, from center to tip (negative dihedral), with Archdeacon believing Wilbur wouldn’t be able to maintain control for very long due to its lack of stability, if it would even get into the air.
Despite Wilbur’s inability to speak and understand French, he was fully aware Archdeacon was continuing his ridicule of him and his machine to the attending reporters, but Wilbur simply whistled a tune, while he quietly prepared the Flyer for launch.
Other details Archdeacon pointed to, were the Flyer’s ultra-thin propeller blades, something no one in Europe had ever seen, as Archdeacon commented they would obviously lack any bite of the air, additionally he commented on how small the Wright Flyer’s wings were, as there wasn’t enough surface area for them to produce sufficient lift to stay in the air.
At a bit before 6 PM (5:50) Wilbur climbed aboard and opened the fuel cock. Then after his French crew cranked the Flyer’s propellers through a few rotations, they put their backs into it and cranked the engine up and with his hand on the throttle; the little 24 hp engine came to life.
Almost immediately the Flyer’s engine began running very rough. Looking down, Wilbur noticed an upper wing’s support wire had snagged one of his engine’s cylinder head studs, so Wilbur shut her down, and then climbed down an freed the wire from his engine.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) Wilbur commandeered several of those attending, to assist at pre-loading his catapult counter-weight (above left), before he launched for the first time at Le Mans. Immediately after starting his engine, Wilbur noted his engine was miss-firing, then noticed one of the Flyer’s wing support wires had snagged his engine’s cylinder-head stud. Wilbur quickly climbed down, after stopping his engine, freed the snagged wire (above right), then re-started and immediately after, took-off.
Moments later, Wilbur was back in the operator’s seat and his crew re-cranked the propellers and the engine easily restarted. This time, Wilbur’s engine ran smoothly, so Wilbur powered it up until his propellers held a steady 980+ rpm. Once his propeller rpm was steady, Wilbur didn’t hesitate and he hit the release rope dropping the catapult counter-weight, which sent the Flyer rapidly down its guide rail.
At about 40 feet distance, down the 60 foot guide rail, Wilbur eased back on his pitch elevator control and the Flyer lifted into the air. Flying away from the crowd, Wilbur held a very shallow climb until he had attained about 50 to 60 feet of altitude above the ground.
The gathered crowd was very quiet, as Wilbur appeared to become airborne with ease, which is not something anyone had witnessed from Delagrange, Farman, Bleriot, or with the Pelterie flights during the previous few months. Those flights were by force and each had to struggle, under full power, to maintain any semblance of flight, but Wilbur seemed at ease, with his machine remaining fairly level, nose to tail, as he gently gained altitude.
Then suddenly, Wilbur did something absolutely no one in Europe had ever seen, he rolled the Flyer into a steep bank and soared through a 180° turn, flying back high over the heads of those who were at the Le Mans race track. Once Wilbur flew by, he executed a second steep bank and once again turned 180° and again flew over the crowd returning once again after a third turn, then Wilbur gently landed on the dirt surface of the race track, precisely where he intended. Upon landing, Wilbur shut off his engine almost immediately, after coming to a sliding stop, and though he had only been in the air for 1 minute and 45 seconds, everyone immediately realized they had just seen something,….well,….something truly historic.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) Wilbur’s first flight that day at Le Mans, only lasted one minute and forty-five seconds, but during that short time, Wilbur rolled his Flyer into a high-angle bank and completed three turns. The French crowd was stunned into momentary silence, while young boys from nearby Le Mans watched in amazement from the surrounding fence and from their position high up in the trees lining the outside of the field (above right).
For a brief moment, everyone at Le Mans that day was apparently stunned into silence, but only for a moment, then the crowd started cheering and clapping, while shouting Wilbur’s name; “Veelbur….Veelbur….Veelbur”!
Immediately after Wilbur landed, following his very short 1 minute 45 second flight, he was surrounded by newspaper reporters and members of the Aero Club of France, who were in attendance on Saturday August 8, 1908 at Le Mans. Nearly everyone was busy trying to ask questions of Wilbur, where was he from, how was he able to perform this act of shear magic, etc., but Wilbur quickly turned the questions away from himself and directed them toward machine he and his brother had invented. Wilbur (above right) explains the technical side of the Flyer’s control system and how he was able execute a roll to G.P. Dickin, a reporter for the New York Herald, Paris edition (the man standing wearing hat to Wilbur’s immediate right). Listening intently is Hart O. Berg, Wilbur’s European Sales Manager (standing to Wilbur’s immediate left, in the above right photograph).
The photos above were actually taken on August 10, 1908 at Le Mans, France and are courtesy of the Wright State University from their “Wright Collection”.
Very quickly, Wilbur was surrounded by reporters, locals, the FAI officials, and the attending members of the Aero Club de France. With Leon Bollee and Hart O. Berg translating, the reporters asked one question on top of another of Wilbur; where was he from(?), how did he do this(?), so on and so forth, but Wilbur quickly turned their attention back to his machine, a subject he was obviously intimate with.
Today, we take the sight of an airplane flying overhead for granted, barely giving it a passing thought if anything at all, but at the turn of the century, over a hundred years ago, the sight of an automobile was unusual enough, I can’t imagine what the sight of an airplane flying overhead, on that day, was like to those who witnessed it?
Up until that moment, there had maybe been a couple of dozen individuals who had tried to get airborne with a powered (dynamic) heavier-than-air machine in Europe, where five or six had managed an uncontrolled short hop or two, but the idea of designing a machine you tilted (rolled into a bank) for the purpose of turning was simply inconceivable to everyone who had ever tried (this was especially true with the European aviator experimenters).
Wilbur explained to those attending his first demonstration that day, that birds soar (fly) in a fashion which would be best described as “unstable”, as birds use very aggressive means to maintain control and they (he and his brother Orville) designed the Flyer on this same concept of instability, requiring the operator constantly provide adjustment or input to maintain their machine’s equilibrium, by way of some mechanical means.
This was in complete opposition to everyone else’s belief and in fact, Archdeacon had explained to the reporters at Le Mans, prior to Wilbur taking off that day, that Wilbur wouldn’t be able to maintain control for any extended length of time, as Wilbur wouldn’t be able to keep up with his machine’s instability and most likely would crash only a few moments after taking off, if he was even able to do that.
To Archdeacon’s thinking, everything about Wilbur’s Flyer was wrong, the engine didn’t produce enough power and his very small and thin propeller blades wouldn’t provide sufficient thrust to successfully maintain flight, plus the Flyer was way too heavy and its wings were way too small, but Wilbur had proven them all wrong, in very dramatic fashion.
The newspapers, over the following days, were full of quotes from those attending Wilbur’s first day of demonstration flights and here are just some samples:
“...the Wrights have beaten us all with their machine and I want one!”
“I would have waited ten times as long to see what I have seen today, Monsieur Wright has us all in his hands!”
“The most beautiful dream that has haunted the heart of man since Icarus is today reality.”
Georges Beancon (Editor of L’Aerophile, the French Aero Club official magazine):
“Wilbur Wright has completely dissipated all doubts. Not one of the former detractors of the Wrights dare question, today, the previous experiments of the men who are truly the first to fly…..”
Unnamed Federation Aéronautique Internationale official:
“..for months I have witnessed what I had thought were flights of an airplane, but today I find I just witnessed my first airplane flight, ever!”
“For a long time, the Wright brothers have been accused in Europe of bluffing… They are today hallowed in France, and I feel an intense pleasure to be among the first to make amends!”
Of all the quotes from that day, my particular favorite were two young boys, who had climbed a tree overlooking the surrounding fence, then, following Wilbur’s first European demonstration flight, jumped down an rode their bicycles throughout the surrounding neighborhood yelling: “Il vole,...Il vole,...Il vole!” (he flies, he flies, he flies!)
Wilbur’s first flight, that Saturday afternoon at Le Mans, only lasted 1 minute and 45 seconds, but that was enough for those who witnessed it to realize they had seen something truly astonishing! From that day forward, the name “Wright brothers” would be in the minds of everyone, each time they eyed an airplane passing overhead.
So, what did Wilbur think of his first flights on European soil, well, his reaction was not really as one would expect, in fact, by reading between the lines, Wilbur seemed a bit embarrassed by his success, considering all the attention he was getting, rather than his machine. As you read the following letters of Wilbur’s, you can come to your own conclusions, but I think it key one understand neither of the Wright brothers felt they were the ones who had performed this feat of shear magic, the only magic that existed was in their machine, not them. This was a bit counter to the majority of other aviators, especially among the French aviators, where most became enthralled by their own fame and many became somewhat obsessed at getting their name in the Paris newspapers, and to be fair, a lot of them were doing this to gain some honor for France, where the Wright brothers were, more or less, quite the opposite.
Wilbur to Orville (Dayton, Ohio), August 15, 1908:
“Last Saturday I took the machine out for the first time and made a couple of circles. On Monday I made two short flights. In the second I wound up with a complete 3/4 of a circle with a diameter of only 31 yards by measurement, and landed with wings level….In the second flight I made an “Eight” and landed at the starting point. The newspapers and the French aviators nearly went wild with excitement. Bleriot and Delagrange were so excited they could scarcely speak, and Kapperer could only gasp, and could not talk at all. You would have almost died of laughter if you could had seen them…On Thursday I made a blunder in landing and broke three spars ends of the central section, and one skid runner. It was a pretty bad smash up, but Kapperer who was present pronounced it as fine a demonstration of the practicability of flying as the flights themselves.”
Wilbur to Bishop Wright (his father), (Dayton, Ohio), August 15, 1908:
“In my experiments I have my two men and in addition a special corps of high priced assistants consisting of Mr. Bollee, and Mr. Pellier the richest men in Le Mans, who come out every day and work twice as hard as common laborers. Mr. Pellier is one of the largest manufacturers of canned goods in France and has factories in a number of different towns. He has sent me for my lunches all kinds of the finest sardines, anchovies, asparagus, etc., etc., you ever saw. The people of Le Mans are exceedingly friendly and proud of the fame it is giving their town. I am in receipt of bouquets, baskets of fruit, etc., almost without number. The men down at Bollee’s shop have taken up a collection to buy me a testimonial of their appreciation.
They say I too am a workman, I wish Orville could have been here, but I presume he will find similar treatment at Washington. Only he will miss seeing Bleriot, Delagrange and Kapperer so excited that they could scarcely talk, gasping that nothing like our flights had ever been seen in France or in all the world, yet I have made flights of only a few minutes each so far.”
Wilbur to Katherine Wright (sister), (Dayton, Ohio), August 22, 1908:
“The newspapers have told everything I have done and still more that I have not done so you know pretty well how things are going. The way the French have thrown up the sponge and made a grab for the band wagon is a great surprise. M. Peyrey the aeronautical editor of “Auto” has been favorable to us ever since I met him on my arrival in France and he has almost outdone himself since I began flying. Several others are not far behind. All questions as to who originated the flying machine has disappeared. The furor has been so great as to be troublesome. I cannot even take a bath without having a hundred people peeking at me. Fortunately everyone seems to be filled with a spirit of friendliness and this makes it possible to deal with them without fuss...We have even been set to music, and everyone is singing a song “Il Vol” or “he flies” of which I will send you a copy as soon as I can get one! You really can have no comprehension of the enthusiasm with which the flights have been greeted, especially in France, but almost equally in the rest of Europe…..”
As can be surmised from the private letters to Orville and his family from that period, even Wilbur was a little surprised by the enthusiasm of those attending his first flight at Le Mans, for even young local boys, who had ridden their bicycles out from town to watch, were cheering from their hiding spots along the surrounding fence or from the trees the boys had climbed to gain a better view.
After each landing, Wilbur would immediately be surrounded by spectators and newspaper reporters, usually completely overwhelmed by what they had just witnessed. At first the reporters wanted to know about Wilbur, but Wilbur always turned their attention away from himself and toward the Flyer III, after all, that’s what had performed the magic of flight, not Wilbur.
Neither Wilbur nor Orville were never very comfortable being the center of attention, unless it was with their peers, their peers being other engineers who were capable of understanding the technology of what they had built. Most members of the Aero Club of France, especially members like Santos Dumont, Leon Delagrange, or Hubert Latham were more like modern day movie or rock stars, who were more interested in the personal fame they gained from their actions, rather than for the technology of the machine they were operating.
Much to Wilbur’s surprise, Ernest Archdeacon had been one of the first to publicly apologize to him, moments after that first flight for all the previous name calling, as Ernest was quoted with the following to the attending reporters: “For a long time, the Wright brothers have been accused in Europe of Bluffing… They are today hallowed in France, and I feel an intense pleasure to be among the first to make amends!”
Of course, Archdeacon’s public face and his private one were two entirely different subjects.
With the reporters who were there, Wilbur calmly and quietly explained details of his Flyer and how it performed, always with an eye toward explaining their (the brothers) technology in layman’s terms.
In the weeks following Wilbur’s flights at Le Mans, Archdeacon was questioned on why, it appeared, the French aviators had apparently fallen so far behind the newly crowned “King of the Sky”, which is what the French newspapers were calling Wilbur, and Wilbur’s astonishing success was contradictory to everything Archdeacon had said or claimed over the previous two years. In most cases, Archdeacon simply had no answer and by the end of the year, a couple of Paris newspapers were beginning to call Archdeacon the “liar” or “bluffer”.
Wilbur did comment in a letter home, it was kind of embarrassing when the estimated 180-200 people in attendance, when he made that first European flight, began yelling out his name; “..Veelbur...Veelbur...Veelbur”, as that kind of attention was something he would never become accustomed to or comfortable with.
The day following Wilbur’s first demonstration flight was a Sunday, and both he and Orville had promised their father, a Bishop in a rather conservative Christen Church, they would never fly on Sunday, so it wouldn’t be until Monday, August 10th, before Wilbur would fly again.
On Monday, Wilbur only made two flights, neither of which lasted more than three minutes or so (though he did complete a 3/4 circle with one of them, which was measured out to be only 31 yards across), but on Tuesday the 11th, he took up his first passengers for a short hop, starting with one of Bollee’s auto workers, who had so kindly assisted Wilbur putting the Flyer together over the previous couple of months. On Wednesday, the 12th, Wilbur did have one solo flight lasting six minutes and fifty-six seconds, but the crowds were beginning to be a problem. The field adjacent to the auto race track, where he was conducting his demonstration flights, was rather small and the crowds were not only getting larger, very quickly, but they were spilling out onto the area where he flew, plus Wilbur was concerned about how rough the ground was.
On Wednesday night, Wilbur discussed with Leon (Bollee), that flying at Hunaudiéres was becoming a bit problematic, so Wilbur suggested maybe they could move over to a nearby military field called Camp d’Auvours, which he had seen the month before. Wilbur figured he would spend the remainder of the week flying at Hunaudiéres, then he would use the weekend moving everything out to d’Auvours, which was only a couple of miles east.
On Thursday morning the 13th, Wilbur arrived at his hanger, on Hunaudiéres field, at about 10 AM and already there were several thousand people waiting, all wanting to see Wilbur fly his machine. His Bollee crew already had the Flyer moved out on its launch rail, while Wilbur set about organizing several spectators to pull on the rope, to arm the catapult weight.
After a few minutes, Wilbur was up and the lines of spectators were cheering him on, as he passed overhead. Wilbur had only been up for a little over 8 minutes, when he circled low, but while turning to land away from the crowd, Wilbur had to fight a slight crosswind.
On approach to landing, the Flyer slide sidewise (side slip) and his port side wing struck the ground hard, spinning the Flyer flat onto the grass and throwing Wilbur out of his seat. Though the damage to the Flyer appeared fairly substantial, those in attendance, which included two Russian soldiers representing the Russian government and a fellow from the German Daimler-Benz group didn’t seem bothered by the accident.
(Photos above courtesy Wright State University) At Hunaudiéres, Wilbur at first believed it to be quite adequate, but after only 3 or 4 days, Wilbur could see this location was simply too small and confining, for in less than a week, thousands were showing up to watch the world’s only fully functioning airplane perform. On Thursday (August 13), Wilbur suffered a hard landing, after he side-slipped his Flyer III to avoid some spectators, damaging his port side wings. In this photo (lower right above), Wilbur gets help from some interested observers; left to right, Gabriel Voisin, Charles Voisin, Wilbur standing on a saw-horse giving directions, and German aviator Kapperer.
Mr. Kapperer, a German experimenter, even made comment that Wilbur’s ability to walk away from his accident was further proof of the superiority of the Wright’s Flyer.
Wilbur wasn’t injured, but continued use of the field at Hunaudiéres wasn’t in the cards, so Wilbur decided not to wait until the weekend, to move all of their operations over to Camp d’Auvours a short distance away. Repairing the damage would probably take a week or two anyway, so once arrangements were made, they moved out to Camp d’Auvours, as it would give Wilbur a much better place to fly from and besides, the ground there was very sandy and much smoother to land on.
Camp d’Auvours offered much, there was a dignitary stand or tower, very long and wide open fields, and there were even grandstands, so as VIPs arrived to view Wilbur in flight, he, Berg, and Bollee could easily accommodate them.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) The field at Camp d’Auvours, besides having a tall observation tower, it also had a grandstand where dignitaries could observe Wilbur in full view as he passed by. The field at Camp d’Auvours, compared to Hunaudiéres, was very broad and very long and it had a nice sandy base to it, which would lend it a bit softer, if Wilbur should experience another hard landing.
The New York Herald; Paris Edition newspaper printed this cartoon (lower right above), where it showed Wilbur Wright having members of virtually every royal family, from throughout Europe, lining up an asking permission for an audience with the newly crowned “King of the Skies”, which was how Wilbur was being referred to by the Paris newspapers.
Moving everything, then doing extensive repair of the damage from Wilbur’s side-slip did take a couple of weeks, so it wasn’t until Thursday, September 3rd, before Wilbur once again took to the air.
It was also on September 3rd, when Orville started his US Signal Corp trials at Fort Myer, Virginia (directly across the Potomac from Washington D.C.), flying a “near” identical Flyer III “A” for the required flight trials to assure the US Signal Corp it (the Flyer) met or exceeded the minimum of the B of O bid specifications.
I said “near” identical, because Orville’s Flyer III “A” was slightly modified compared to Wilbur’s Flyer “A”, as Orville’s machine had a 3” shorter wing cord-line and a 6” shorter wingspan, which would increase the maximum speed of Orville’s Flyer III “A” (serial number 002) by about 5 mph. The US Signal Corp bid specifications called for a minimum 40 mph average speed, over a one mile course. To the Wrights, this was serious business, for every 1 mph under 40 mph, there would be a $2,500 penalty, but for every 1 mph over, it would mean a $2,500 bonus.
When Wilbur left Kitty Hawk on May 17th, headed up to New York and then on to France, Orville and Charlie Furnas spent the day packing up the 1905 Flyer III and stuffing it into one of the hangers Charlie had fixed up. On Friday the following day (May 18th), Orville and Charlie boarded a boat and headed north to Elizabeth City (where they boarded a train going to Norfolk, Virginia, then cross, by ferry, the mouth of the James/Elizabeth Rivers to Old Point Comfort. From Old Point Comfort, Orville and Charlie rode the C&O (Cincinnati & Ohio) train up to Cincinnati, then finally boarding the Big Four train, which took them all the way home to Dayton.
Once back in Dayton, Orville, Charlie Taylor, and Charlie Furnas began work on constructing their second Wright Flyer III “A”, serial no. 002. Their arrangements with the Board of Ordinance had them scheduled for the flight trials to begin the first week of September, so this gave them time to work even more diligently, on the quality of workmanship building the military version of the Flyer III “A”.
Orville’s concern was not only the fact Wilbur was working alone in France, it was the importance of getting through the B of O trials unscathed and especially concerned they met all of the minimum bid specifications. By reducing their wing area and airfoil camber by 1 point (1/22 to 1/23), Orville was certain their machine would easily exceed the minimum 40 mph the B of O was demanding. Orville also knew this change would reduce the amount of total weight their machine could lift, but Orville believed the military people he would, of course, be asked to take aloft would be in good physical condition, compared to what Wilbur probably would have to contend with.
By the third week of August, Orville and his Dayton boys (the two Charlies, brother Lorin, and employee friend Ed Sines) carefully packed the Flyer III “A” machine, for the US Signal Corp trials, then loaded the crate on the train for Ft Myer, Virginia. Along with the Flyer, Orville and the two Charlies boarded as well. With the cost of shipping the catapult being prohibitive, they would do as Wilbur had done in Europe and just purchase the necessary material locally, to build a catapult, once they were in Virginia.
Though much today is made of the Wright brothers and their use of a catapult to take-off rather than wheels, like most of the other experimenters had used dating back to Sir Cayley in 1847. The Wrights felt wheels were unnecessary and only added unwanted weight and complications to their machine. All of the work they had worked on dealt only with a flying machine…well…while it was flying, not what it did while it was on the ground. The catapult was not required for the Flyer to become airborne, as many today claim, and proof of that is their lack of a catapult at Kitty Hawk, both in 1903 with the Flyer I and earlier that year (1908) when they were testing the modified 1905 Flyer III. There is also video (YouTube) showing Wilbur taking off at Camp d’Auvours without the catapult.
The Wrights were about developing an HTA machine for “flying” and they felt their method of taking off irrelevant to what they had accomplished. The catapult only assured a quick and safe method of getting airborne and certainly was not required, even in still winds, which they had proven over and over again.
On Monday, August 17th, Orville and the two Charlies arrived in Virginia (Ft Myer), where the military people they met offered up a large storage shed to assemble the Flyer out of the weather, while Orville spent the week chasing down the material to construct a catapult tower, including finding the appropriate material for a drop weight.
On Saturday, Orville walked the area around the field where he would be flying and though the actual parade grounds he would use for his launches was small, he found an acceptable flight path between Ft Myer and Alexandria, though that route did pose some obstacles along the way. This excerpt (below), from Orville’s August 23, 1908 letter to Wilbur, explains some of the problems Orville saw at Ft Myer.
Orville to Wilbur (Le Mans, France), August 23, 1908:
“Yesterday I went over the grounds for five miles in several directions from the Fort. I have about decided on a course directly toward Alexandria. There would be quite a number of good landing places on this course, though there is one large forest of over a mile wide in which there are no breaks whatever……..”
Orville went on to say there were also several rather deep ravines he would have to cross as well, but he felt confident that with a week or more of practice it shouldn’t be a problem.
Orville was told by the military brass, with the Signal Corp, that he could pick and choose who he wanted to take along. Orville really liked Lt Foilois and was hoping he would agree to fly with him. In a letter to Wilbur, Orville wrote: “If Lieutenant Lahm* wants to go I think I will ask him, or maybe Lieutenant Foilois whom I like very much. He is a rather little fellow, only weighing 130 lbs!”
*This Lieutenant Lahm was the son of F.S. Lahm, the same fellow with the Aero Club of France, who had three years earlier contacted his brother-in-law by cable (H.M. Weaver), to go over to Dayton and confirm the Wrights had indeed flown for 24 miles at Huffman-Prairie. Small world!
Between August 23 and September 15th, the letters between Orville, Wilbur, their sister Katherine, and their father; tells the story of Wrights far better than I could ever hope to attempt, so for the next few pages, read the boy’s personal impressions of that time and just try to imagine what it must have been like to the thousands of individuals witnessing the world’s first flying machine!
Wilbur to Orville (Ft Myer, Virginia), August 25, 1908:
“The excitement aroused by the short flights I have made is almost beyond comprehension. The French have simply become wild. Instead of doubting that we could do anything they are ready to believe that we can do everything. So the present situation is almost as troublesome as the former one.
People have flocked here from all over Europe, and as I wish to practice rather than give exhibitions it is a little embarrassing. But I tell them plainly that I intend for the present to experiment only under the most favorable conditions. If the wind is more than five miles an hour I stay in. In a calm you can detect a mismovement instantly, but in winds you do not know at first whether the trouble is due to mistakes or to wind gusts. I advise you most earnestly to stick to calms till after you are sure of yourself. Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent. Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready. Be very cautious and proceed slowly in attempting flights in the middle of the day when wind gusts are frequent. Let it be understood that you wish to practice rather than give demonstrations and that you intend to do it in your own way. Do not let people talk to you all and all night. It will wear you out, before you are ready for real business. Courtesy has limits. If necessary appoint some hour in the day time and refuse absolutely to receive visitors even for a minute at other times. Do not receive anyone after 8 o’clock at night.
A few days ago I was presented with a medal of the International Peace Society of which Baron d’Estournelles de Constant is president. Another for you was also given into my charge.
It is not probable that I will be able to go to Washington unless absolutely needed. I can only say be extraordinarily cautious. Choose your own times. Good Luck.”
As can be seen from Wilbur’s August 25th letter to Orville, he was quite worried about Orville, as by that time, Wilbur had already experienced two minor incidences, one which had done some damage to the Flyer at Le Mans.
Orville to Katherine (Dayton, Ohio), August 27, 1908:
I haven’t done a lick of work since I have been here. I have to give my time to answering the ten thousand fool questions people ask about the machine. There are a number of people standing about the whole day long.
I find it more pleasant here at the Club [Cosmos] than I expected. The trouble here is that you can’t find a minute to be alone…..I have trouble in getting enough sleep.”
Wilbur to Orville (Ft Myer, Virginia), August 29, 1908:
“It has rained and stormed all week and I have not made any attempt to fly. I should have gone out several times if it had not been for the crowds and reporters, but I did not care to take it out and then come back without a trial. I fear you will have trouble at Ft. Myer with the crowds. They are an awful nuisance here, though they are friendly and good tempered….The papers here continue to devote considerable space to us every day. We are more advertised than is really desirable, but it is almost impossible to control such things. I fear they will raise too high expectations....I see from the papers that you have the machine about ready, and will begin experiments next week. Be careful of your electrical connections.”
Orville to Katherine (Dayton, Ohio), August 29, 1908:
“I meet stacks of prominent people here at the club, who are very friendly. Last evening I met Mr. Steward, the chief examiner at the patent office, who was just as friendly as he could be. He told me, if we had any patents pending, over which we were having any trouble, to come in and see him; that he might be able to at least give advice which would help us.
I think I will be able to begin flights Monday or Tuesday.”
Wilbur to Orville (Ft Myer, Virginia), August 30, 1908:
“The papers today report an accident to your transmissions in which the chains apparently whipped around the axle. It may have been due to running new chains too loose and letting them climb the sprockets, but I do not see how any trouble was really possible if everything was properly assembled and locked…..With the machine I have here I can turn easily in four or five hundred feet diameter. The accident was due to pulling the lever the wrong way...Be exceedingly cautious as to wind conditions and thorough in your preparations. I wish I could be home.”
Wilbur to Bishop Wright (father), (Dayton, Ohio), August 30, 1908:
“Crowds of people have flocked here from all over Europe….Ambassador White and Senator Lodge had arranged to come down but we stopped them by telegraph as the weather made a flight impossible…..I tried to make a rule that I would receive no visitors before 5 pm, but every day several people whom I cannot well refuse come to see me, and keep me pretty well tired out, though I am feeling better than last week. I learn from the newspapers that Orville is in Washington and almost ready to begin flying, I fear he will have trouble with over-attention from reporters, visitors, etc.. It is an awful nuisance to be disturbed when there is experimenting and practicing to be done. I am treated with wonderful kindness on all hands, but too much time is wasted and too much nervous energy expended.”
Orville to Katherine (Dayton, Ohio), August 31, 1908:
“I don’t know whether you have seen the Washington papers or not. The reporters seem to think I am not in the least uneasy about fulfilling our contract. They say that I do no boasting of what I can do; that they can get but little out of me as to what I expect to accomplish, but that I have the air of perfect confidence!
I am meeting some very handsome young ladies!…..I have met so many I will have an awful time trying to think of their names if I meet them again…..I think it quite probable that I will make an attempt to fly tomorrow evening…..”
It turned out, Orville wouldn’t begin his flight demonstrations at Ft. Myer until Thursday, September 3rd.
Thursday morning the 3rd, turned out to be warm and there were only a few scattered clouds about, so Orville, just like he had done every day since being there, boarded a street-car and took the long ride from the Cosmos Club, where he was staying, out to Ft. Myer. In 1908, there were no taxi-cabs, so street-cars were the normal method of getting around in Washington DC.
Orville must of appeared as just another rider on the street-car that morning, but to quote Fred C. Kelly (life-long friend of Orville Wright’s and official Wright biographer) “It is doubtful if any of the others on the car suspected that this fellow passenger was about to perform a miracle.”
From that first morning at Ft Myer, Orville literally set America on fire, just as Wilbur had done with the Europeans a month earlier. After Orville began his flight demonstrations, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were filled with stories of the two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, one flying in Europe and now the other brother doing the same in America. These two boys were demonstrating, not only the world’s first airplane, but the astonishing fact was there were two of these machines and with Orville, he showed that Dr. Langley, from 5 years earlier, was right, controlled powered heavier-than-air flight was possible.
(Photos above courtesy Wright State University) On September 3, 1908, Orville Wright prepared to begin his flight trials at Ft Myer, Virginia (above). In this photo (above right), you see Charlie Taylor, Orville Wright, and Charlie Furnas doing a final inspection of the Flyer III “A” military machine, moments before Orville’s first of several test flights.
(Photo courtesy Wright State University) By the time Orville was flying to establish the Flyer III “A” top speed (above), upwards of 30,000+ spectators were showing up from Washington DC (just across the Potomac River from Ft Myer).
On that first day of Orville’s practice flights, Thursday September 3rd, there were several hundred spectators out at Ft Myer, so Orville, following Wilbur’s suggestion, started off easy, keeping his first flight very short, by only circling the parade grounds twice and staying less than two minutes in the air. After Orville glided down and gently landed, he was met with a wildly cheering crowd and was immediately surrounded by military personal, civilian spectators, who had come over across the river (Potomac) from Washington DC, and of course a number of newspaper reporters. The first thing Orville noticed was that three or four of the newspaper reporters were not only completely speechless, there were, clearly visible, tears streaming down their cheeks.
The difference between Orville’s first flight at Ft Myer and Wilbur’s first flight at Le Mans, a month earlier, were those who witnessed Orville’s flights had been subjected to nearly a month of newspaper headlines and stories, about Wilbur’s huge success over in France, but still, there is a big difference between reading of some great accomplishment and witnessing it firsthand.
There was one witness standing in the crowd that day at Ft Myer, a sixteen year old boy named Donald Wills Douglas who would, only 13 years later, found the Douglas Aircraft Company and there were others too. Of more prominent fame at the time, Alexander Graham Bell was there, as was Glenn Curtiss.
Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and yes, the same Lt. Selfridge who had misrepresented himself a few months earlier and gained the detailed information on the Wright’s technology for the AEA, was there for the first day of Orville’s trials. Orville was also fully aware it was Lt Selfridge who had given the details of their discoveries to Glenn Curtiss, who subsequently incorporated them into his machine, the June Bug, and now another more advanced machine called the “Red Wing”, of which Curtiss was offering for sale at $5,000 apiece, despite the fact the “Red Wing” clearly violated the Wright’s US Patents and specifically US Patent #821,393.
Orville was more to liking either Lieutenant Lahm or Lieutenant Foulois and believed one of them should be the first military passengers, but it seemed Lt Selfridge was pushing his way in. He was pleased when he heard Lt Selfridge had been ordered out to St. Joseph, Missouri to test fly the Military’s newest dirigible.
Following is a letter from Orville to Wilbur, where it becomes very clear exactly what Orville thought about Lieutenant Selfridge.
Orville to Wilbur (Le Mans, France), September 6, 1908:
“It is now nearly two weeks since I have had a letter from you. I see in the papers something of what you are doing, though some of the reports seem pretty unreliable….I made a flight of 4 minutes and 15 seconds Friday afternoon....I find it easy to make short turns, as the greater difficultly is to turn slowly….Lieutenants Selfridge and Foulois are detailed to operate the dirigible at St. Joseph, MO, the latter part of the month. Lieutenant Lahm will stay here. I like Foulois very well, but I will be glad to have Selfridge out of the way. I don’t trust him an inch. He [Selfridge] is intensely interested in the subject, and plans to meet me often at dinners, etc. where he can try to pump me…..I understand that he does a great deal of knocking behind my back.
All the others I think are very friendly…..”
Orville suspected Lieutenant Selfridge was merely using his military position to “borrow” their discoveries and obtain information on their control system, regardless of their patents, and was working as an unnamed agent to Glenn Curtiss. Within a year or two Alexander Graham Bell, founder of the AEA, would disband the group, as he foresaw the problems developing between the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss. In later years, Bell admitted he had originally organized the AEA strictly as a group to experiment with several ideas he had concerning HTA (heavier-than-air) flight, nothing more, and he certainly didn’t want the group to get involved with any prolonged patent wars.
From the Wright’s position, they were of the opinion that the AEA, as founded by Bell, may have been initially nothing more than an experimental group, it was the personalities of the group’s members, specifically Lieutenant Selfridge and Glenn Curtiss, of whom the Wrights believed were less than honorable and they realized they were in for a battle, protecting their hard earned discoveries. Their (the Wrights) initial impression or suspicions concerning Lieutenant Selfridge and Glenn Curtiss would soon prove correct.
To further exacerbate their worries, was from as early as 1902, following their success down at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights were aware Augustus Herring had openly approached Dr. Samuel Langley with details of their airfoil design concepts and of their control system, but Dr. Langley was a person of impeccable credentials and informed Wilbur of Herring’s backroom dealings. Now, as Orville began his flight demonstrations at Ft Myer, he learned Augustus Herring had become business partners with Glenn Curtiss, “two peas in a pod”, as Wilbur stated to his brother.
Interestingly and at the same time, Wilbur was experiencing similar difficulties with Captain Ferber and Octave Chanute over in Europe. With the fore-mentioned individuals (Selfridge-Herring-Curtiss) it was a matter of their gaining individual financial profit, but with Ferber-Chanute (in Europe) it was more likely a matter of national honor with Ferber, but with Chanute, it was probably more to do with he personally saving face, as he (Chanute) had presented himself as Wilbur’s mentor and Chanute openly made promises to the Aero Cub de France members that the Wright’s technology, and patents, would always be available to the membership with no “attachments”, to use his words.
The Wright’s original intention, as Wilbur described in his January 19, 1906 letter to Octave Chanute, the Wrights only intended, at least initially, to sell their machine to individual governments and based on their asking price, the profit they would have gained, from that endeavor, would have been more than sufficient for them to have recovered all the monies they had invested, as well as provide sufficient monies for their family’s future. From there, they would have offered their discoveries, to any individual in a free market, so they (Wilbur and Orville) could pursue further scientific studies and not have to deal with the business of selling air machines and all that entails.
Unfortunately, beginning in mid-1906, Wilbur spent months trying to get the US Signal Corp to understand they already had a working air machine and his letters of inquiry were not that they were seeking additional funding, for research into further developing their machine, they already had a working machine, and over in Europe, they were being under-mined in their negotiations by those they thought were their friends, specifically Captain Ferber and Octave Chanute (and probably for the reasons already stated).
By the time Wilbur started his demonstration flights out at Le Mans, both Wilbur and Orville realized that only by arranging for others to build the Flyer, under license, and by the selling of individual “user licenses” for use of their technology, would they be able to recover their investment. This also meant, as predicted by Wilbur as early as 1906, was that lengthy court battles would be ensued. In addition to the patents they controlled concerning the airplane, Wilbur and Charlie Taylor had also developed advanced engine designs which they could also license others to build.
During 1906, Wilbur and Charlie Taylor developed the first, of a long line of engines, which would carry the Wright name. This was the same engine Wilbur and Orville were using on their Wright Flyer III “A” aircraft in 1908, which was a water-cooled vertical 4-cylinder engine (called the Wright Vert-4), which produced 30+ hp and weighed only 158 lbs. Engine design and licensing builders of Wright engines would become a secondary source of income for the Wrights.
During the later part of August and into the first couple of weeks of September, Wilbur limited his flight demonstrations, mostly keeping them under 10 to 15 minutes each, but by the 9th (September), Orville began extending his flights, each day breaking the world endurance record, usually which he had set from the day before.
It was also on September 9th, when Orville flew 57 circles over the Ft Myer’s parade ground in 57 minutes, than after lunch and flying much wider turns, Orville made 55 circuits of the field, while staying in the air for 1 hour, 2 minutes, and 15 seconds. Each of these flights were a world record for endurance (in September of 1908, Orville’s only competition for records, was his brother Wilbur over in Europe). After landing and re-fueling and his setting another new endurance record, Orville asked Lieutenant Lahm, “..would you like to go for a ride?”
Lieutenant Lahm never hesitated in answering with an immediate “...yes!”
With Lieutenant Lahm aboard, Orville only stayed in the air for 6 minutes 30 seconds, circling the field six times, but it was a world record endurance flight with a passenger (Wilbur’s longest flight over in Europe, with a passenger, had only been 4 minutes 30 seconds). And so it went, each day Orville would make a solo flight, extending his longest from the day before by 5 or 6 minutes. Then on Saturday, the 12th, Orville took along Major George Squier, who was the acting Chief Signal Officer at Ft Myer, for a 9 minute flight (setting another record for a flight with a passenger), additionally Orville’s solo that day was 1 hour 15 minutes, nearly twice as long as any flight Wilbur had yet performed in France.
Between the two, Orville and Wilbur, Orville was having a wonderful time and certainly conveyed an air of confidence, something the newspapers had picked upon, but Wilbur on the other hand, wasn’t really enjoying himself all that much. The difference was Orville was not alone, he had the two Charlies with him and he had befriended Lieutenants Lahm and Foulois, plus nearly all of the attending newspaper reporters had been printing wonderful articles about Orville and he (Orville) greatly appreciated that. More importantly, Orville was surrounded by “English” speaking peoples as he was more or less on home ground, while Wilbur was alone and across an ocean from home, and he was only able to communicate fluently with a couple of individuals, Hart Berg and Henri Farman, who each spoke perfect English.
At about the same time, Wilbur’s father, Bishop Wright, sent both his boys a similar letter, explaining their names would be remembered forever, so they needn’t dwell on that fact, as fame was nothing more than a fleeting moment in time, it’s how they acted and presented themselves that would count in the long run.
Bishop Wright to Wilbur (Le Mans, France), September 9, 1908:
“Indeed they treat you in France as if you were a resurrected Columbus; and the people gaze as if you had fallen down from Jupiter. Enjoy fame ere its decadence, for I have realized the emptiness of its trumpet blasts.
“And false the light on glory’s plume,
And fading hues of even.”
You and Orville are, however, secure of a place with Fulton and Morse and Franklin in the temple of fame. “Conquerors of the Air.” Its extensive results are, as yet, uncomprehended and undreamed of, even by yourselves. Did Fulton have any vision of an ocean greyhound, or Franklin of wireless telegraphy?…….I wish it were so you could be in the home circle. Milton [Wilbur and Orville’s favorite nephew] says his uncles will be in business and he cannot have fun with them as in the past. You are alone, if not lonely.”
Starting on September 10th, 1908, the letters home to Dayton from Wilbur, do tell the story of his increasing frustration, which would probably be better described as “homesickness”!
Wilbur to Katherine (Dayton, Ohio), September 10, 1908:
“I received word last evening of Orville’s flight of 57 minutes, and today learn of his having passed the hour in a second flight later in the day. It is a record for sure! I have not done much for several weeks, partly because of windy weather, partly because of accidents which have necessitated repairs, and partly because I have been so nervous and worried that I have not felt like doing much hustling. You can scarcely imagine what a strain it is on one to have no one you can depend on to understand what you say, and want done, and what is more, no one capable of doing the grade of work we have always insisted upon in our machines. It compels me to do almost everything myself and keeps me worried.”
Wilbur to Bishop Wright (Dayton, Ohio), September 13, 1908:
“Orville’s fine flights are making more of a sensation than my first flight over here and I thought then people would go crazy they were so excited. Well it will be a relief to me to have some of the responsibility removed from my mind. While I was operating alone there was the constant fear that if I attempted too much and met with a serious accident we would be almost utterly discredited before I could get the machine repaired, with no materials and no workmen. The excitement and the worry, and above all the fatigue of an endless crowd of visitors from daylight till dark has brought me to such a point of nervous exhaustion that I did not feel myself really fit to get on the machine. But I am much better now and our position is so secure that I can work with less strain than when I felt that I was surrounded by a pack of jealous & chauvinistic Frenchmen who would be glad of the least excuse for stopping their cheers & beginning to hoot.
However I must say that here in the district of La Sarthe everyone from the prefect of governor down to the humblest citizen has seemed a genuine friend from the beginning almost. They look on me almost as an adopted citizen and show their friendliness in a dozen different ways. For instance, the old green cap which Orville brought home last fall and which I have been wearing over here when at work has set a new style and the stores have their show windows full of “Wright” caps. Some of the other manifestations are not so pleasant. From daylight till dark a crowd hangs about the building peering in at every crack.
Almost every evening a crowd of two or three thousand people come out to see if I will make a flight, and goes home disappointed if I do not. Some of them have come twenty, forty or even sixty miles on bicycles and a few from foreign countries. One old man of 70 living about 30 miles away made the round trip on a bicycle every day for nearly a week. I sometimes get so angry at the continual annoyance of having the crowd about that I feel like quitting the whole thing and going home, but when I think of the sacrifices some of them have made in the hope of seeing a flight I cannot help feeling sorry for them when I do not go out. If I can get through this season in such a way as to make a reasonable competence secure I am done with exhibitions & demonstrations forever. I can’t stand it to have people continually watching me. It gets on my nerves.
Mr. Lahm is immensely proud of the fact that his son made the first trip with Orville.”
Wilbur to Orville (Ft Myer, Virginia), September 13, 1908:
“The newspapers here for several days have been full of the stories of your dandy flights, and whereas a week ago I was a marvel of skill now they do not hesitate to tell me that I am nothing but a “dub” and that you are the only genuine champion skyscraper. Ha, such is fame! Your flights have naturally created an immense sensation in Europe and I suppose that America is nearly wild.”
Wilbur had confided with Hart Berg, he felt very guilty he was leaving the important work, of fulfilling the flight trials for the US Signal Corp, to his younger brother to conduct alone. His (Wilbur’s) flights in Europe, though the Europeans were fascinated and all very enthusiastic, the reality was they were of little importance to the advancement of their idea of selling their technology to the various foreign governments, though Germany and Italy were now indicating renewed interest.
Probably of greatest annoyance to Wilbur, was the displayed self-importance the members of European royalty, many of whom assumed Wilbur would drop everything, to attend to their individual requests. Fortunately, Hart Berg was quite successful, as was Leon Bollee, detouring most of the representatives from the various royalty members, into understanding Wilbur would accommodate them as best he could, but it had to be understood Wilbur could only provide so much time.
Orville wrote to Wilbur, that the US Navy Department had been attending the flight trials at Ft Myer and they were suggesting the idea of adding a small float to the Flyer, so the Flyer could be installed on every US Navy ship, from a destroyer up. Also, the city of Dayton was planning a huge homecoming for Orville when he returned home, but Orville told them only after his brother Wilbur had returned from Europe, would they even consider any such celebration.
Everything was going unbelievably well for Orville, so much so, Wilbur was considering coming on over to share the flight duties, that was until September 17th.
During August and into the first couple of weeks of September, Wilbur had been making numerous demonstration flights, but the crowds were growing almost daily, and once Wilbur moved out to Camp d’Auvours, the crowds were easily reaching into the thousands in number. Fortunately, the field at d’Auvours was much better, both by it sheer size and the condition of the ground, than it had been over at the auto race track (Hunaudiéres), so Wilbur felt a bit more relaxed flying there.
Due to the accidents (minor though they had been) and the weather (rain) in France that year, Wilbur was unable to fly every day, regardless some people had ridden their bicycles from as far away as sixty miles and often had to ride home disappointed.
When Wilbur did fly, it was a spectacular sight to the French public who filled the open areas around the large field at d’Auvours. Most often, the grandstands were filled with foreign dignitaries as well as wealthy French and German attendees.
Meanwhile, nearly all of the major French (Paris) newspapers, like the Le Matin, Le Petite Journal, and the New York Herald Paris edition, had shifted their daily news about Wilbur, to Orville, after he started his flight trials for the US Military at Ft Myer, Virginia.
One Paris newspaper, the Le Journal, even ran front-page articles which heavily criticized the Aero Club members (French), especially Ernest Archdeacon for their earlier (false) claims of the Aero Club de France members advancing the science of aviation beyond what the Wright brothers had accomplished.
The heaviest criticism came when reporters for the Le Journal learned the French government had had the opportunity to have been first to purchase Wright Flyers nearly two years earlier, but it was several members of the Aero Club de France whom had blocked the Wright’s efforts (specifically Captain Ferber and Archdeacon).
Now it appeared, at least to some Paris newspaper reporters, the United States was going to be the first in the world with an air force and to make matters worse, Germany was not only working with the Wrights, they had already built a pretty impressive fleet of airships (lighter-than-air dirigibles).
The Paris newspapers were not just reporting on Orville’s flights, the reports were even more thoroughly covered than anything they had done with Wilbur, who had started his demonstrations a month earlier in France.
Unlike his brother Wilbur, Orville was really kicking it up, not only by flying more frequently, nearly every day in other words, but by the end of the first week he was flying an hour or more at a time (except when he was carrying a passenger). Despite the boys’ distrust of Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, he (Selfridge) was the lead military liaison between them (the Wrights) and the US Signal Corp officials at Ft Myer. This was because he was one of the military’s own and he was also the Secretary of the AEA under Alexander Graham Bell.
On September 17th, Orville asked Charlie Taylor if he wanted to be the one to ride as passenger that day and he gladly said yes, after all, besides the two brothers, it was Charlie Taylor who had performed much of the work building these machines. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Selfridge arrived out at Ft Myer in uniform and he insisted, as a military representative, that he be the one to ride as Orville’s passenger that day.
(Photos courtesy Library of Congress) Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge (left above, standing next to a white bearded Alexander Graham Bell), would be the passenger who would be the first recorded death, aboard a dynamic heavier-than-air flying machine, on September 17, 1908. Only moments before Orville Wright took off, with Lieutenant Selfridge on his fateful first ride, this photograph was taken (above right).
Regardless of Orville’s personal feeling towards Selfridge, he couldn’t refuse, besides, this would be a chance to show Selfridge the futility or impracticability of trying to match what they (the Wrights) had developed.
After take-off, Orville maintained a shallow climb, while circling the field in very wide turns to the left. Orville had only been up for three and half minutes, when he leveled off about 125 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) and was crossing over some trees as well as one of the open ravines, then just as he began to start his fourth turn, which would put him back over the field, Orville noted a light tapping sound coming from the rear of his Flyer.
Orville quickly looked back at his tail, but spotted nothing out of order, when in a span of only two or three seconds, two very loud bangs were heard, bangs even heard on the ground a quarter-mile away. Orville immediately felt that his stick, the right-side one controlling the rudders (yaw), was free and he no longer had control of his machine in turning. At this point, the Flyer was slowly turning starboard, right back over a brush filled deep ravine, so Orville reduced engine power and forced maximum wing warp for a left turn, in an effort to get his machine back over the parade grounds. It worked, but after reducing his engine power, he lost forward speed and about fifty feet of altitude in the process. Once over the field, he pushed ahead on his pitch control, hoping to gain some speed and at the same time, Orville reached next to himself and shut off his engine’s fuel, shutting it down.
When Orville pitched forward, to gain speed, the Flyer over-reacted and instead, nosed over, going nearly straight-down, so Orville pulled back hard to gain maximum up status, on his pitch elevators. Slowly, the Flyer did begin to recover, but it was too late and Orville simply didn’t have enough altitude to fully level out, had he another thirty or forty feet of altitude their impact would have been radically reduced. They impacted the ground at a 45° angle, while traveling between forty and fifty miles per hour.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) After one of Orville’s propellers developed a crack or split, starting at its tip, the propeller blade flattened and set-up a severe vibration, leading to a center hub failure and sending the propeller off-center. A few seconds later, Orville’s propeller sliced through the rear rudder support cables, causing Orville to lose control and pitch nearly straight-down. In the crash, Orville was seriously injured, with broken ribs, broken leg, and a fractured pelvis. Unfortunately, Orville’s passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge’s injuries were far more severe and he succumbed to his injuries (head), a few hours after the accident at Ft Myer (September 17, 1908).
The Flyer lay in a crumbled heap, covered by a dust cloud, which was kicked up from their crash, and Orville immediately realized he was still “alive”, though he knew he was seriously injured. Orville never lost consciousness, but looking over at Lt Selfridge, lying nearby, Orville could see the lieutenant was pinned and was unconscious, and he could see there was blood present on his head.
Orville was removed from the wreckage first and quickly taken by wagon to the military hospital there at Ft Myer. The military personnel who removed Orville, initially believed his injuries to be possibly mortal, but Orville would eventually recover from his injuries, which were four broken ribs, a badly broken leg, and a possible hip fracture.
Lieutenant Selfridge wouldn’t be so fortunate, as it took the military personal several minutes extracting him from the tangle of broken wood braces and support wires, but the Lieutenant never regained consciousness and would die from his injuries some three or four hours later in the hospital. On impact, Lieutenant Selfridge’s head struck the upright support for the Flyer’s fuel tank, severely fracturing his skull.
It wasn’t until later that evening, before Orville was informed Lieutenant Selfridge had succumbed to his injuries, causing great distress to Orville, knowing someone had died while he was at the controls of his machine.
Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge would go down in history as the first recorded death, of anyone, in a powered aircraft.
Regardless that both Wilbur and Orville distrusted Lieutenant Selfridge, the feeling of guilt and responsibility for his death was foremost on their minds.
On the second day of his recovery in the hospital, Alexander Bell visited Orville and informed him the cause of the accident was determined to have been an apparent failure of his starboard side propeller*. The propeller had rotated off-center and sliced through the Flyer’s tail section support cables and there was nothing Orville could have done to prevent the accident.
*It was later determined with the new much larger propeller blades, installed the morning of Orville’s accident, that the starboard side propeller had split on a radial line from the tip, with the split extending 8” down toward the propeller hub. With the added pressure during Orville’s full power left climbing turn, the split blade tip flattened and the vibration caused the center hub assembly to fail. The propeller then cut through the support cable for the rudder assembly and the assembly fell to a horizontal position, forcing the Flyer into a pitch down attitude. Later propeller designs (the Wright’s), would include a hand-formed metal cap, covering the tip of each propeller blade.
A couple of days following the accident, Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Taylor, and Charlie Furnas carried the damaged starboard side propeller blade into the hospital, laying it next to Orville’s hospital bed so he (Orville) could inspect the split propeller blade tip for himself.
It took a couple of days before Wilbur was made aware of what exactly had happened to his brother at Ft Myer, so in the interim, Wilbur suspended all demonstration flights at d’Auvours.
Wilbur wrote a lengthy letter home to Orville, expressing his deep regret that Lieutenant Selfridge lost his life in the crash, but Wilbur was further assured by dozens of letters and dozens of telegrams he had received, from all over Europe, and mostly from back home in America, telling him how regretful it was, the accident had occurred. None of the letters or telegrams, however, indicated any reason progress should not be made or that the pursuit of aviation should not be continued.
Out of respect to Thomas Selfridge’s death, Wilbur suspended all demonstration flights until after his (Selfridge) memorial services and in addition, Wilbur was greatly concerned as to what the specific cause of the accident was.
On September 20th, Wilbur received a cable from Alexander Graham Bell, explaining Orville’s accident had been unavoidable and it was the failure of a propeller hub, following the splitting of the propeller blade tip, which had been the cause. Bell went on further to explain the accident would have no effect on the US Signal Corp’s evaluation of their machine. Up until the accident, the Wright Flyer had performed extraordinarily well and had exceeded all expectations of the US Military advisor observers, or so Mr. Bell stated.
Most helpful to Wilbur’s feeling of isolation, was a letter he received from his father:
Bishop Wright to Wilbur (Le Mans, France), September 24, 1908:
“You may rest assured that I have deeply felt for your situation in France. The loneliness of so far from home and friends, your difficulty in getting suitable workmen, your defective supply of parts of your machine, your burned arm, your overwork and unaided cares, the annoying attentions of the multitude, the inconsiderate attention and requirements of notables, the immense responsibilities on your lone shoulders—all joined to make it hard on you. And the thunders of the world’s applause could but ill comfort you under the handicaps and mishaps and depressions you had to encounter. It took good metal to stand the strain. Most of men under it, would have been like your broken propeller shaft at Kitty Hawk, in 1903. But you will come through all, safely and gloriously. We shall yet see you here in triumph….
The friendship of the officials and people of Sarthe is a beautiful thing—toward a stranger. I hope you will ever maintain and cherish it…
The distance overcome and perseverance, to see the flights is pathetic. What compassion Jesus showed toward the multitude drawn out by curiosity!
No doubt, not a few would have welcomed a chance (by your mishap) to hoot, though they cheered your success along with the multitude. Men are savage.
Our folks like Lieutenant Lahm and his father, Orville wrote that he would like to take the Lieutenant up first, but feared jealousy among the officers. He adroitly managed to give him the preference.
We look forward to the time when you can be again in the home you have always so loved. All Dayton awaits your coming.”
It wasn’t until the 28th (September) before Wilbur restarted his flight demonstrations and unlike his keeping his flights short and generally at low AGL altitude, he now began flying at least one flight per day of one hour or more.
Following that first flight on the 28th, the first since Orville’s accident, Wilbur determined there were some issues with his motor which needed attention. Two poles had been erected, one kilometer apart, and Wilbur completed 24 circuits in 1 hour and 7 minutes, winning the 5,000 franc prize from the French Commission of Aviation (Aero Club de France). Wilbur noted though, his engine had consumed nearly all the oil in the oil tank during that 1 hour flight, so he removed the Flyer’s engine and rebuilt it over at Bollee’s shop.
In a letter home on October 4th (1908) to Orville, Wilbur wrote: “….our supremacy in flying is no longer questioned over here. Even Archdeacon has given up. It is amusing to see the scramble for the band wagon. The Aero Club has voted us a gold medal of engineering achievement, the first they have ever issued…….Prade, who wrote so many things against us in “Les Sports”, is now one of our strongest boomers….”
Despite what had occurred during the month of September, Wilbur realized he needed to get back into the air as soon as possible and he needed to do it in the spirit of “exhibition” flying, rather than his prior mental idea of “demonstration” flying. He wanted the world’s newspapers to focus on him, rather than continue to report on Orville’s accident.
Following the rebuilding of his engine, which had demonstrated a substantial increase in its oil consumption, Wilbur noted a really obvious engine roughness or misfire. He then once again removed the engine and completely disassembled it, over at Bollee’s shop. This time he found where the potential problem was, as he had contracted with a local (Le Mans) shop to manufacturer his intake runner tubes and this little company handmade them from rolled pipes, made of copper.
These copper tubes were fastened together by small rivets and Wilbur noticed that several of the rivets were missing! Close examination of the engine’s pistons revealed these rivets had entered the engine and at one point stuck to the tops of the pistons, creating a hot point resulting in pre-ignition. By the time Wilbur disassembled the engine, these rivets had melted and exited the engine through the exhaust, so he cleaned it up, re-assembled it, and upon its first start, it ran perfectly.
On October 4th, Wilbur took the rather rotund Leon Bollee up for his first experience at flight (Leon tipped the scales at slightly more than 240 pounds). It was the taking off with Leon Bollee, as a passenger, which really impressed Louis Bleriot and Henri Farman. Farman had taken a lady friend (P. Van Pottelsberghe) a couple of months earlier, on one of his short hops of about 200 feet, flying his Voisin designed biplane, but she barely weighed more than a 100 pounds. Earlier in 1908, Leon Delagrange had not only taken a lady friend (Therese Peltier) on a short hop (also a Voisin biplane), but she even partially handled the controls!
So, seeing the Flyer III take off with Wilbur and Mr. Bollee together, well that was an impressive sight, though Wilbur had drained most of the fuel from his tank, reducing some of the Flyer’s weight to compensate for Leon and his girth.
It was also at this time Wilbur was being approached by a number of individuals, challenging him to try and win the various prizes or awards everyone was starting to put up.
Lord Northcliffe, editor/owner of the London Daily Mail newspaper, traveled over to Le Mans to watch Wilbur and back in January of 1908, put up a £1,000 prize, for the first to cross the English Channel. Privately, Lord Northcliffe approached Wilbur and offered a £7,500 bonus (in addition to the public £1,000) if he would fly his machine from France over to England and then perform a series of flying exhibitions near London, which Wilbur thought at length about.
In October, Wilbur did write to Orville concerning the offer from Lord Northcliffe, about crossing the channel, but Orville suggested he (Wilbur) wait until he was able to join him over in France. Orville felt that maybe Wilbur was right, they may just want to do this considering the publicity they would gain from it, but Orville thought it would be a better idea he do it, as Wilbur hadn’t had much luck with their engine.
On average, throughout October and November, Wilbur flew three or four days out of each week, while thousands showed up every day and not just local spectators mind you, but spectators from all over France and a great deal of people from virtually every country in Europe.
Relating stories about those attending, Wilbur sent the following in a letter to Orville on October 9th;
“Every day there is a crowd of people here not only from the neighborhood, but also from almost every country of Europe. Queen Margherita of Italy was in the crowd yesterday. Princes and millionaires are as thick as fleas.”
As October and November played out, Wilbur was very busy with his demonstration flights, all the while European Royalty was showing up, often times unannounced and there were several organizations offering various awards or prizes for either altitude flight records or endurance records.
In addition to all this, the French government contacted Wilbur and told him he was to be presented with the French “Legion of Honor” medal for his achievement of developing the world’s first airplane. Wilbur told them as proud and honored he was, he could only accept the medal if it also included his younger brother Orville, who without his work, the airplane could not have happened, the French government agreed.
Completion of the flight trials for the US Signal Corp had been rescheduled for the following July (1909), so Wilbur suggested Katherine (his sister) take a year sabbatical from her teaching job, collect up Orville and join him (Wilbur) in France. She thought that would be wonderful for Orville, so she wrote Wilbur they planned to come on over to France, probably the first week of January (1909).
As Wilbur continued his demonstration flights, it was on the first Saturday of October, Wilbur took M. Painleve* up for a 1 hour 10 minute flight, and Painleve’s flight was an official trial, as he (Painleve) was the Vice President of the French Scientific Commission and a member of the French Institute on Science and was going to be presenting an official paper on what the Wright brothers had accomplished and provided to the world.
*M. Painleve was best known for his work in differential equations and other work in advanced mathematics, M. Painleve would be the single passenger with the longest time in the air with Wilbur Wright as pilot.
Later that month, at the Aero Club’s monthly dinner, Wilbur was presented with the Gold Medal of Achievement from the Aero Club de France and another medal from the French Academy of Sports and it was here Wilbur gave his famous “Parrot” speech**. At the Aero Club dinner, it was announced Wilbur and Orville Wright were to be presented with the French “Legion of Honor” medal, an honor rarely ever presented to a non-French citizen. Also Wilbur learned that the Aero Club of Great Britain was going to be presenting he and Orville with a similar Gold Medal as well (a medal similar to the one presented by the Aero Club of France), meanwhile, Wilbur was being named the “honorary” President of the newly formed English Aeroplane Society.
**At the Aero Club de France dinner, Wilbur opened his speech with his now famous line, “..I know of only one bird—the Parrot—that talks, and it doesn’t fly very high!”
During the month of October and into November, representatives of the governments from several countries were showing up at Camp d’Auvours, including representatives from Spain, Italy, Russia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Argentina, Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Germany, England, and several French government representatives from Paris.
It was while on one of Wilbur’s trips up to Paris, the first week of November, he was invited to present himself to the French Senate, where the Senators gave Wilbur a 5-minute standing ovation.
Throughout October and November, Wilbur spent most of his time living in Le Mans and despite his being alone and far away from home and his family, Wilbur did find some parts of living in Le Mans quite enjoyable, and especially how the neighborhood kids reacted to him. Wilbur often spent mornings riding a bicycle in and around Le Mans and by this time, everyone in town knew who he was. It was most often the kids, who would tilt their “Wright” hats and yell; ...Bon jour Monsieur Wright! It was also the kids who generally pronounced Wilbur’s name as Veelbare, which always made Wilbur smile.
It wasn’t long before an artist from Paris showed up to offer his work, if Wilbur would agree to a sitting, well, Wilbur told the artist he was honored, but said “..the best I can do is a standing…”. In the end, the artist presented an excellent pencil drawing from an enlarged photograph Wilbur provided.
Wilbur tended to be quite shy and this was especially true when it came to his being photographed while in France (1908-1909). Wilbur did have a Paris artist attempt to convince Wilbur for a sitting, so the artist could draw a portrait of him, but the best Wilbur could offer was a “..standing”! Finally the artist settled for a photograph, where the artist finished a very nice pencil/charcoal drawing of Wilbur (above right).
It’s hard for us today to fully appreciate what the Wrights had accomplished. Following Orville’s accident, it is easy to assume, the world’s newspapers could have just turned against the Wrights, but what the Wrights had done, both Wilbur and Orville, was successfully demonstrate to the world that the possibility of flight had its practical side.
Yes, the accident was tragic, as the loss of a life always is, but interestingly at the time, the general public, as well as the various governments, realized what the Wrights had accomplished and both understood the Wrights were not evolutionary, but were in fact revolutionary.
The majority of successful early experimenters, with powered HTAs, had been centered in France, starting with Felix du Temple in the 1870s and then by 1908, it was Leon Delagrange, Henri Farman, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, and Louis Bleriot (all four being members of the Aero Club de France) who could consistently become airborne and power hop for a short distance, but the reality was that in the span of 30 years, the French aviators accomplished very little or gained little progress in the actual “science” or “engineering” of powered flight from what the French experimenter Felix du Temple had offered. None of the Aero Club “Four” could execute a turn, except by forcing their machines to yaw left or right, by way of a series of forced jerks with their rudimentary rudders, and then ONLY in absolutely calm winds and though they all (the four previously mentioned) realized, cambered (curved) airfoils seem to work better, none of them could tell you with scientific certainty as to why!
In a very lengthy letter Wilbur wrote to Katherine (his sister), dated September 20, 1908, Wilbur noted the reaction of Mr. Nernst, which was the typical response from everyone after their first personal experience at seeing Wilbur fly.
Wilbur to Katherine (Dayton, Ohio), September 20, 1908:
“……..Mr. Nernst the inventor of the Nernst Lamp was here Thursday evening and saw me fly in a golden sunset, thirty-two minutes, at about 80 feet height. He had seen Delagrange make a flight of about twenty-five minutes in the morning before leaving Paris. He nearly went crazy with enthusiasm over my flight. “It was so different,” he said..”
Mr. Nernst’s comment; “It was so different,” is in reference to Wilbur tilting his machine over (banking) to execute a turn. In 1908, this was an “unthinkable” action, unthinkable in that anyone could do this and survive and the newspapers, magazines, and comments of everyone from that era had the same response as Mr. Nernst, when they saw the Flyer in action. This is something which is very difficult for us to comprehend today, because when we see an aircraft bank into a turn, we today don’t give it even a passing thought, that is just simply how it’s done. But, until 1908 and the Wright brothers, no one, I mean absolutely no one believed this could work, except for the two boys from Dayton, Ohio.
As an example of just how far the Wrights had come, in a very short period of time, it was during one of Wilbur’s “trial” flights he climbed up to about 200 to 250 feet (above ground level) shut off his engine, then soared down to a dead-stick landing directly, to a pre-determined spot, after he had executed a classic figure-8 while gliding.
Everyone else, with the most active aviators being in France at that time, all struggled just to get into the air and staying there was a cross between horsepower and forward speed. The only other aviators (other than Wilbur and Orville) who had shown any success, limited though it was, included Leon Delagrange, Louis Bleriot, Henry Farman, and Robert Esnault-Pelterie, with newcomers; Moore-Brabazon, Gastambide-Mengin, De Pischoff, and to a lesser degree, Viula and De La Vaulx.
Though his name continues to be associated with the early pioneers, Santos Dumont had for all intensive purposes given up after his string of embarrassing failures in 1907. Embarrassing as to the expectations he would do well, but his first design (the first actually designed by Dumont) was his model 15 and during his first attempt to fly, it was so poorly constructed it simply fell apart around him. During those years of early airplane development, Dumont was essentially a non-player and had it not been for his extraordinary accomplishments with LTA flight, his minor success in 1906 with his Voisin/Pelterie/Dumont designed 14bis, would today be nothing more than a footnote in history.
Throughout 1907, all of the leading newspapers (Paris) are conspicuously void of any mention of Dumont, except the two mentions of his failures in March and April 1907 and then his two minor short power hops in November (the other aviator power hops were measured in kilometers, but Dumont’s two November hops were each 210 meters or less). From late 1907 until early 1909, Dumont abandoned all HTA flight attempts and his only flights were with his No. 16 LTA airship.
Wilbur, throughout October, November, and December (1908) seemed a bit more relaxed than before, which can be determined by the nature of his letters home, as he apparently was enjoying the longer flights and he was more at ease with the huge crowds, which were showing up at Le Mans, plus he had Hart O. Berg keeping people at bay.
Probably easing Wilbur’s dilemma at Le Mans, was the knowledge his sister Katherine and Orville were planning on arriving at Le Mans, during the first week of January (1909). So throughout November, Wilbur conducted numerous flights, including a 25 mile circular flight, similar to what he (Wilbur) had done out at Huffman-Prairie, three years earlier.
Then on December 31st, the last day of the year, Wilbur set a world’s endurance (non-stop) record of 2hr 38min (73 miles), while flying under appalling weather conditions, winds gusting to 30 mph, with snow and freezing rain mixed. After those 2 1/2 hours, Wilbur landed because his hands began to ache terribly due to the extreme cold. Wilbur did not refuel, but after warming up from a fire made by his ground personal, Wilbur took off after an hour rest and continued for an hour and 20 minutes (covering an additional 55 miles).
(Photos above left courtesy Wright State University) On December 31, 1908 Wilbur set a world’s record endurance flight of 2 hours and 38 minutes (covering 73 miles) and he only stopped at that distance due to the extreme conditions he was flying in (freezing rain and snow, with side winds up to 30-40 mph). Wilbur stayed in the air as long as he could endure, but with his hands and feet nearly frostbitten, Wilbur finally stopped so he could warm himself. After a few minutes by a fire and with a change of gloves and clothing, Wilbur took-off and flew for another 1 hour and 20 minutes, covering an additional 55 miles.
His total flight distance that December day would have been sufficient to have crossed, back and forth, the English Channel five times without stopping.
1909 and beyond!
By late December, Wilbur was greatly relieved when he heard, from his father, Orville and his sister Katherine would be arriving soon in England. Wilbur had, since the beginning of December, been looking at establishing a new flight center down in Pau, France, near the Spanish frontier. Pau was nearly 330 miles due south of Le Mans and over 400 miles south-southwest of Paris. It was Wilbur’s hope with the distance from Le Mans and more importantly, the distance from Paris, maybe they could get some flight training in, without the constant interruptions from the throngs of people who were showing up every day at Le Mans.
Wilbur spent Christmas (1908) away from his family and based on his letters home, he was suffering greatly from homesickness, as after all, he had been in France since the previous May. It was even more bothersome he had not been able to find a way to buy what he thought would be proper gifts for his family, so instead simply sent them money, including a thousand dollars each for his brothers Lorin and Reuclin.
It was during the first week of January, 1909, when Orville and Katherine arrived at Plymouth, England, much to Wilbur’s delight.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University and the Library of Congress) Before Orville and sister Katherine arrived in France, Wilbur moved all of the equipment necessary to begin flight training with the Wright’s Flyer III “A” serial no. 001 down to Pau, France; nearly 330 miles due south of Le Mans.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University and the Library of Congress) Almost immediately after arriving in Pau, Wilbur was in the air and conducting his first flight training, with Captain Paul N Lucas-Girardville and Count Charles de Lambert being Wilbur’s first two students.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University and the Library of Congress) During the first week of January (1909), Orville and his sister Katherine, made it to England, where Hart O. Berg met them and then joined them as they crossed the English Channel by ferry, headed toward Le Havre, France (see Hart O. Berg-Katherine Wright-Orville Wright above left). Once in France, Orville and Katherine finally caught up with Wilbur down at Pau (France), where Wilbur was having their first truly fully-functional flight training center built. (In the above photos, you can see Orville observing Wilbur in flight, center, and then right, Orville waving off Wilbur during a flight, with Charles Rolls & Katherine Wright to Orville’s right and Lord Northcliffe from England to Orville’s left).
Soon after Katherine and Orville’s arrival, they all began making their way over to France and then down to Pau, a more isolated location, where Wilbur and Orville could spend time training others to fly. After Wilbur’s record 73+ mile flight, the previous December 31, 1908, the Wrights tended to shy away from those kinds of stunts, as they were now trying to get down to the business of aircraft sales and fulfilling their flight training commitments.
One interesting note about Orville and Katherine, the train they were on collided with another during their ride down to Pau, neither were injured, but their trip to Pau was delayed several hours.
With Orville’s arrival, Wilbur was simply delighted, as now he could spend more time away from the flying duties, as regardless of Orville’s accident the prior year, Orville actually enjoyed flying and continued to fly for several years following, while Wilbur did not.
Over the next few months and even with the general remoteness of their new flight center down at Pau, the Wrights soon found, after their arrival there, those of European Royalty and of great political importance continued arriving, despite the remote location of Pau. Secondary to their moving down to Pau to work in more isolation, was their hope, at least Wilbur’s hope, they could get themselves off the front-page of all the world’s newspapers, but that would actually occur for other reasons.
Meanwhile, no sooner had Orville and Katherine made their way to Pau, so had important heads of state and numerous members of European Royalty, not their representatives mind you, but the Royalty members themselves.
(Photos courtesy Wright State University) It was Wilbur’s hope that moving their flight center down to Pau, would improve their isolation; the fact was, the number of European Royalty members visiting actually increased. (Above left: the Duke of Manchester-Wilbur Wright-Viscount Northcliffe. Above center: King Alfonso XIII [Spain] shaking hands with Wilbur Wright, while the older bearded King Edward VII [UK] stands directly behind Wilbur. Above right: Hart O. Berg and the Crown Prince of Sweden.)
Things were slow to settle down, but now with Orville and his sister Katherine in France, Wilbur could at least begin to attend to business and it wasn’t long before Wilbur had his first students in the air. With Count Charles Lambert being his first student to successfully meet Wilbur’s approval handling the Flyer. Once Count Charles Lambert was acceptably trained (in Wilbur’s eyes), Wilbur, Orville, and Katherine traveled down to Rome (Italy), so Wilbur could fulfill some training commitments he made with the Italian military. (They had also packed up the Flyer III “A” Wilbur had been using at Le Mans and Pau and brought that along with them.)
(Photos courtesy Wright State University, National Archives, and the Library of Congress) Once at Rome, Wilbur very quickly got into the air, some days flying in front of crowds numbering nearly a half-million. It was while Wilbur flew in Italy, the first moving film from a powered airplane was taken by an Italian film maker, riding along with Wilbur. (Above left photograph: With leather bag, L. Griscom, the US Ambassador to Italy; leaning forward; Major General Mario Morris [Italy]; and in foreground with cameras; King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. Above center: Wilbur flying over the crowd, estimated at ½ million and the Flyer III “A” over the Italian country-side, above right.).
Starting back in August (2008), at least one or more Paris newspaper mentioned one or the other of the two Wright brothers, usually on their front page and on a daily basis, but finally, by the beginning of 1909, mentioning the Wrights by these newspapers, became less and less a daily thing. Which was what the Wrights were hoping for by this point in time, regardless of what many believe or claim today, the Wrights were never very comfortable being so much the center of attention. In particular Wilbur was more than satisfied if others would simply buy one of their machines and go off setting whatever flight record they wished, Wilbur was not that excited about flying himself. Wilbur was truly hoping to get someone else trained, and then have them work as one of their flight instructors, so he (Wilbur) could become a ground-bound engineer and any future flying he would leave to others and his brother Orville, but only if he (Orville) really wished to do so.
During the first part of 1909, Wilbur limited his flying to “flight training” and to those flights specified in their contract commitments.
Of Wilbur’s initial flight training students, Count Charles Lambert proved to be particularly adept at handling the Flyer and after receiving a little over eight hours of flight instruction from Wilbur, the Count performed a solo 25 kilometer flight, after which the Aero Club de France issued him pilot license no. 17. It had been back in January, the Aero Club de France began issuing pilot’s licenses, with the no. 1 license going to Louis Bleriot, followed by Leon Delagrange, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, Henri Farman, and no. 5 going to Wilbur Wright.
By February, the Wright’s orders for Flyers had reached a fever pitch in Europe (orders to La Compagnie Générale de Navigation Aérienne, the Wright’s licensed French Flyer manufacturer), so Wilbur suggested to those waiting for their Flyer to be built, they should first learn to fly with a glider. Over in England, a pair of wealthy adventurers (Alec Ogilvie and Ted Searight) ordered a Flyer model “A”, as partners, from the French Wright Flyer syndicate (it wouldn’t be until March 10th, before the Wrights would license the English manufacturers, the Shorts brothers, to begin building Flyers), so they took Wilbur’s advice and had an English fabricator, Thomas Clarke, build a glider based on the Wright’s 1902 glider design for them (Ogilvie and Searight) to use to learn how to fly.
Thomas Clarke was a truly skilled craftsman and he incorporated several improvements upon what the Wrights had originally used with their 1902 glider. These improvements included twin rudder planes, leading edge pivot flexible elevator surfaces, rather than center hinged surfaces, (this design had just been newly patented by the Wrights), a double canard elevator, and dual surface airfoil covering (not only was there a top covering of the glider’s airfoils, but Clarke stretched cloth creating an airfoil with a flat bottom surface). Mr. Clarke (and his two brothers) also added skids, similar to what the Flyer “A” had.
The most obvious improvement, with Thomas Clarke’s version of the Wright’s 1902 glider, is he included a more conventional seat for the operator, rather than have the operator lay-down, as the Wrights did in 1902.
With their move from Le Mans down to Pau, the distance from Paris was now over 400 miles, while it was only 115 miles from Paris to Le Mans, so as the Wrights had hoped, the constant headache of trying to work without the watchful eyes of thousands and the daily interference from reporters, lessened a great deal. Especially as other aviators, such as Delagrange, Esnault-Pelterie, and Farman were now all starting to see some success and their flights were being conducted near Paris. In February, Bleriot moved his operations down to Pau, with the Wrights, and he gave his hangers out at the fields near Issy to Santos Dumont.
After Dumont’s short power hops in October and November of 1906 with his 14bis machine, he enjoyed very little success in 1907, as his machines were all ill-designed and very poorly constructed, so after November of 1907, Dumont suspended his HTA attempts and during 1908, only occasionally flew his No. 16 airship (lighter than air dirigible). Louis Bleriot, before leaving Paris for Pau, spent a great deal of time with his close friend, Santos Dumont, re-constructing his wings and added a unique method of wing-warping to a re-designed version of Dumont’s model 18 mono-wing (a mono-wing design given him by Bleriot), this new machine was now called the “Demoiselle”, and would be considered Dumont’s model 19.
A French auto and engine manufacturer, Clément-Bayard Company, would soon begin manufacturing Dumont’s model 19* (with the Wright/Bleriot modifications) and though Clément-Bayard were designing their own engine, the Wrights also licensed them to manufacturer the Wright-Taylor Vertical Four 30+ hp engine. The Clément-Bayard Company was the chosen company to manufacturer the Wright’s Vert4 engine for the syndicate, La Compagnie Générale de Navigation Aérienne, who would be manufacturing the Wright Flyer “A” under license. Any of the Clément-Bayard Demoiselles sold by Clément-Bayard had legal license to sell them with the Wright’s patented control system installed, which was a part of the agreement between them (Clément-Bayard) and La Compagnie Générale de Navigation Aérienne.
*Clément-Bayard Company felt very confident they would sell a ton of the Demoiselles, so much so, they pre-built 50 airframes (their expected sales were 100 airframes sold in the first year), with each airframe they offered the option of any of 3 engine choices to an interested purchaser (with the starting price of each airframe set at 2,500 francs, not including the cost of your engine choice), and one of those engine options was the Wright 30+ hp Vert4. Unfortunately, it turned out the Demoiselle was not generally accepted as a legitimate aircraft, noted after Dumont put it on display at the Olympic Aero Exhibition held in late March, several attendees referred to Dumont’s Demoiselle as “...an impractical toy”. (details which are fully covered in the March 27, 1909 issue of Flight, the official weekly magazine of the Aero Club of the United Kingdom). By early 1910, the Clément-Bayard Company had only managed to sell 15 Demoiselle airframes, so they scraped the remaining 35 units and used the salvaged pieces to build Voisin-Farman II & III biplanes.
Meanwhile, the Wright’s French syndicate was scheduled to deliver their first constructed Flyer on February 27th (to be used as a flight trainer at Pau), which wouldn’t be until the end of the month, so Wilbur continued to use the same 1907 Flyer he had been using all along in France. On February 15th, Wilbur took his sister Katherine up for her first airplane ride, where he offered to train her (his sister) so she could become the first licensed “female” pilot, but she was quite satisfied to simply ride along with either of her brothers.
After Katherine rode with Wilbur that day, a month later she would go up again, only this time with her other brother, Orville, making Katherine one of only two people (the other being Charlie Furnas) to have flown in an airplane piloted by each of the Wright brothers.
While the Wrights were getting down to the business of licensing the building and selling of their airplanes, as well as training aviators, the French aviator/designers; Leon Delagrange, Louis Bleriot, Leon Levavasseur, Henri Farman, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, the Zens brothers, Captain Ferber, and whole host of others, were quickly designing new machines, all made flyable, in some cases barely, because of the technology provided by the two boys from America.
In April, Henri Farman, who had worked with Wilbur Wright a great deal and had purchased a licensing agreement to use the Wright’s US Patent #821,393 on his machines, developed a method of lateral control that would be followed by many for years to come, even to this day. Farman attached a secondary hinged airfoil surface on the outer trailing edge of each of his wing, in other words, ailerons, at least ailerons implemented as we know them today!
Often missed by aviation historians, is not only the importance of what the Wrights had developed, their patented 3-axis control system, but it was their overall concept of Inherent Instability, which is what had required they develop a more aggressive system of control in the first place. Up until Wilbur started his first European demonstrations, those who had had some success getting into the air, such as Delagrange, Bleriot, Farman, Pelterie, Ferber, Vuia, etc., could only do so in the calmest of days (wind). Wilbur had dramatically demonstrated that wind and weather were of little concern (within practical limits of course) and when Wilbur flew his world record flight on December 31, 1908, he did so during a winter storm, which was not only his encountering freezing rain, he had to deal with wind gusts as high as 30 mph. This is an important historical fact about what the Wrights had accomplished, even more important than their work in airfoil design, aerodynamics, and even the extraordinary development of their highly efficient propeller (of which after 100 years, no measurable improvement of efficiency has been achieved).
As winter turned into spring over Europe, the Wrights, much to their pleasure, were finally becoming less and less the subject of the daily newspapers, as others were now finally becoming successful with their new machines, though limited at first. During the early spring, the three of them (Wilbur, Orville, and Katherine) traveled to Rome, where Wilbur performed exhibition flights in view of an estimated 500,000 Italian spectators.
When Wilbur and Hart (Berg) traveled over to England in early March, they stayed at an apartment owned by Hart (London). This worked for Wilbur the best, because traveling by either him or his brother was becoming rather difficult by this point in time. Photographs of the Wright brothers had been published throughout the world’s newspapers and in particular, the Aero Club of the United Kingdom had begun publication of its weekly magazine called Flight, so photographs of both the Wright brothers and their sister Katherine adorned almost every issue since its distribution started on January 2, 1909. The Wrights, regardless of their wishing to remain themselves obscure and in the background, had become the most famous two people in the world and were now international stars, rather they wanted it or not.
During that first week of March, after Wilbur and Hart O. Berg crossed the channel to England, they met with their UK Flyer manufacturer, the Short brothers, and they (the Shorts) suggested a draftsman be hired to develop a set of construction blueprints for the Flyer. Wilbur thought this a great idea, so they (the Short brothers) hired an experienced engineer/draftsman they knew, from the Rolls-Royce Company. While Wilbur was overseeing the work on the blueprints there, he met up with Charles Rolls and he and Wilbur got along famously.
Meanwhile, after the draftsman completed the full set of construction blueprints, Wilbur approved of them, then paid for a few additional sets and these he would not only supply to the LCGdeNA, but would also make them available to the other contractors they (the Wrights and Hart O. Berg) were working with in Belgium, Italy, Germany, and possibly Russia.
It’s interesting to note, while Wilbur was in England with the Short brothers, they showed Wilbur an aircraft they had contracted to build. It was a design by a very interesting and brilliant English engineer, John Dunne, and the machine’s development was being financed by the Royal Aeronautical Society. Up until that point in time (the Shorts had been working with John Dunne on this machine since 1907), they had been less than successful with it in their secret trials, but it was the work Wilbur and his brother had done which would probably make the machine flight-worthy.
The Dunne aircraft was a flying wing (a world’s first), but its lacking of lift producing airfoils and having an inadequate control system, meant their first test trials were not very inspiring.
The airfoils were reshaped, based on the Wright’s lift tables, and the Dunne model 8 had a working 3-axis control system (properly licensed by the Wrights). The rudder controls (yaw) were vertical airfoil surfaces, located out near the wing tips and the pitch/roll were controlled by the trailing edge mounted elevons (yes, another first, as the elevators and ailerons were incorporated into the same control surfaces, an idea suggested to Dunne by Wilbur Wright).
Because of the swept back wings and the way they twisted the upper wing’s angle of incidence, this machine displayed far greater “stability” while in flight, far more stability than the Wright’s Flyer did, something which had greatly impressed Wilbur.
The Dunne model 8, with its 80 hp Gnome Rotary engine, was capable of 55 mph in level flight. Considering the Dunne M8’s maximum take-off weight of 1,900 lbs, this is stunning performance for the world’s first aircraft (successful) which was for all practical purposes, a flying wing! In 1914, the US Navy would purchase one of these Dunne flying wings (as a Burgess-Dunne No. 3*) equipped with floats, but this Burgess-Dunne No. 3 used the 135 hp Saimson M9 nine-cylinder radial engine, which gave the flying wing a 75 mph top speed and a maximum take-off weight (from water) of 2,140 lbs.
*The Burgess-Dunne No. 3 would later inspire a young aeronautical engineer, Jack Northrop, to pursue his life’s work at developing a much larger and far more practical version of the Burgess Dunne flying wing. Jack Northrop’s concept would eventually cumulate into the ultra-advanced, Northrop-Grumman B-2 “Spirit” bomber.
British engineers ready the John “Dunne” No. 4 (above left photograph) “flying wing”, for its first test flight, after John Dunne and Wilbur Wright had collaborated together on the design of its unique “elevons”. In 1914, Dunne sold a float version of his flying wing to the US Navy, as a Burgess-Dunne No. 3 model (above right drawings). This is the machine which inspired a young aeronautical engineer, Jack Northrop, to spend his lifetime designing and developing the Northrop flying wing.
While in England, Wilbur learned the Aero Club (of the UK) was sponsoring an air machine exhibition, featuring balloons, dirigibles, fixed wing gliders, and dynamic HTAs, beginning at the end of March called the “Olympic Air Exhibition and Air Show”. Lord Northcliffe (owner and editor of the London Daily News) personally asked Wilbur and Orville to attend and display their Flyer there, but due to their (the Wrights) business commitments, neither of the two boys could attend themselves. Unfortunately they couldn’t have their machine there either (it was needed for the training commitments they had contracted for).
Interestingly, it was now Wilbur who began to realize the importance of having spent the time and money applying for their patents, which was beginning to have been necessary, though only a couple of years earlier he told Chanute he was sure they (the patents) would never be needed.
The Wrights spent much of their time working with flight students at their Pau based flight center and were also involved with fulfilling various commitments they had agreed to. They scheduled their commitment for the flight trials with the German government, for later that year (late July or early August), right after Orville was to finish up the remaining flight trials for the US Board of Ordinance at Ft Myer, Virginia. Adding to their concern, Bishop Wright (the two boys’ father) wrote and mentioned to them the City of Dayton wanted to have a weeklong celebration in their honor, once they returned home. Adding even more to their increasingly busy schedule, President Taft (President of the United States) wanted to present them with the Congressional Medal of Honor, but for that, the President wanted both boys come to Washington DC.
Their real hope was to get back to Dayton by May or so, which would allow them a couple of months to relax and arrange for finding a location to build Flyers, plus there was the long term plans of opening a chain of “flight training centers”, modeled after their operation in Pau.
Initially everything seemed to be okay with their licensed French Flyer manufacturer (La Compagnie Générale de Navigation Aérienne), but they were already late with their first Flyer, which was to be supplied to the Wrights at Pau and used as a second flight trainer airplane (second to their 1907 Flyer III “A”). The Wrights realized, due to the problems with the LCGdeNA being behind on filling orders, the Wrights pulled back on their original contract (with the LCGdeNA supplying the Wrights with a second Flyer A) giving delivery of that first French Flyer to Leon Delagrange, who was the first to place an order.
In the January 9 (1909) issue of the British magazine “Flight”, Wilbur is quoted “…we plan on discarding our starting gear shortly”, referring to the catapult launch the Wrights had been using, a safety device which assured they made a clean take-off, but with their level of experience, its continued use was unnecessary.
Much of what the Wrights did during their last couple of months in France, before finally heading back to Dayton (it had been nearly a year since Wilbur had been home), were their attending a lot of diners in their honor and when they announced they were going to go home, Leon Bollee specifically asked Wilbur (along with his brother and sister) to please come by Le Mans first.
In commemoration of the Wright’s astonishing achievement, the people of Le Mans erected a monument (above center and right) detailing the Wrights contribution to the world of aviation. Before going home to Dayton in May of 1909, the Wrights (Wilbur, Orville, and Katherine, above left) stayed in Le Mans for a couple of days, as the cornerstone for their monument was laid. The monument lists out the Wright’s first flights on December 17, 1903; their first full circles on September 20, 1904, Wilbur’s record endurance flight on October 5, 1905, and also lists Wilbur’s first flight at Le Mans on August 8, 1908 as the “First Flight” of a heavier-than-air flying machine on European soil. Since its erection in 1909, Louis Bleriot and Charles Lindbergh’s names have been added, for their extraordinary flights (Louis Bleriot for being the first to cross the English Channel in 1909 and Charles Lindbergh for being first to cross the Atlantic non-stop and alone in 1927).
After attending the events commemorating the laying of the cornerstone for their monument in Le Mans, the Wrights first crossed the channel to England and then before boarding a ship bound for New York, Wilbur spoke at the Aero Club of the United Kingdom and the following evening, at the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, which was met with great anticipation by the Aero Club members and the Aeronautical Society group members.
When the Wrights (all three) arrived in New York, they were both shocked and surprised, because thousands were dock side, waiting to see the great hero aviators, but even more surprising, were the hundreds and hundreds who crowded rail crossings, bridges, and rail-stations, all hoping to get a glimpse of either of the brothers, as their train headed west to Dayton. The Wrights were really dismayed by all this attention, especially all of the well-wishers along the way of their train, with most holding up signs with the words “Welcome Home Boys” or “Welcome Home Kings of the Sky”, or some other similar comment.
Once the Wright brothers made it home (Dayton, Ohio) after Wilbur had been in France for a year, Wilbur, Orville, and Katherine were met by over 10,000 hometown fans (above left), with even the streets between the station and their home were shut-down to all but foot traffic (above right). Three weeks after their arrival home, the City of Dayton and the State of Ohio held a two day celebration on the boys’ behalf, including a two-mile long parade through downtown Dayton (above center).
During a two day celebration, the Wrights were presented with numerous awards and presentations, including being given the Congressional Medal of Honor by their local US Congressman. The celebration included a two-mile long parade and a special likeness of the American Flag, formed by children holding up colored placards (above center). During the actual presentation session, Wilbur and Orville were set up on stage (above right; Wilbur, Orville, their father Bishop Wright, and brother Lorin).
Immediately following the celebration event in Dayton, Orville, Charlie Taylor, and a couple of other newly hired workers left directly from the presentation stage and traveled over to the Dayton train station and headed off, once again, to Ft Myer, Virginia, with Wilbur following up a couple of days later.
Starting in late June and running into early July (1909), Orville successfully completed the necessary flight trials for the US Board of Ordinance. Here you can see military personal and Wilbur Wright assisting on the new 1909 Flyer III “A” military machine, for Orville (above left). When they built the second military machine for the US Signal Corp trials, they configured the newest Flyer’s airfoils the same as they had for the 1907 Flyer III “A” Wilbur had used in 1908-1909. Speed testing by Wilbur while he had been in France showed they didn’t need the previous re-configuration used on the now destroyed Flyer III “A”, used during the previous attempt to meet the bid specifications. The newest Flyer III “A” exceeded the US Signal Corp minimum average speed of 40 mph by 2 mph, which resulted in the Wrights receiving a $5,000 bonus, on top of the $25,000 bid price for their flying machine.
Because the Wrights used their unusual launch device of a catapult (above left) strictly for themselves, when they satisfactorily met or exceeded the US Signal Corp (Board of Ordinance) bid specifications and received the order to deliver their first Flyer III “A” military flying machine, they didn’t supply them (US Signal Corp) with a catapult. US Signal Corp personal immediately added, to the Flyer, a wheeled under-carriage (above right).
Immediately following Orville’s finishing up of the US Signal Corp trials, after which they were awarded their bid price of $25,000 plus an a $5,000 bonus ($2,500 for every 1 mph their trial speed exceeded 40 mph average and their average speed was 42 mph), Orville and sister Katherine headed off to Pau, France. At Pau, Orville directed local workers to disassemble the 1907 Flyer III “A” and have it loaded on to a train bound for Berlin, Germany.
Because of Wilbur’s initial flights, which had only begun a year to the month earlier and then with the previous month’s (July 25th, 1909) extraordinary crossing of the English Channel by Louis Bleriot of France, the world and especially Europeans, had gone air machine crazy and it wasn’t too long before the German public learned Orville Wright was coming to Berlin and he was bringing his flying machine.
Orville and Katherine arrived in Berlin, Germany on August 19th, 1909 and with them was Wilbur’s original Flyer III “A”, first used the previous year at Le Mans.
Besides the scheduled flight demonstrations, Orville was also there to train at least two individuals, who would be working for the German Wright Flyer Company, previously arranged during their last trip to Europe, a couple of months earlier. By the second day of flight demonstrations at an open field near Berlin (a field which today is where Templeholf International Airport is located), the German crowds approached a reported 1 million in number, quite astonishing, even by today’s standards.
(Photos courtesy of Wright State University) After arriving by train in Berlin, Orville oversaw the assembly of the 1907 Flyer III “A” (above left). Once out on the field near Berlin, the temperatures on that first day were quite stifling to Orville, seen here sitting in the shade of his Flyer (above right).
(Photos courtesy of Wright State University) By the second day, a reported 1 million German spectators showed up, to watch Orville during his flight trials and flight training sessions with a pair of German military trainees (above).
During Orville’s flight trials/demonstration, he managed to set a couple of records, one he officially exceeded 300m (1,000 feet) altitude above ground level and during one late afternoon flight, Orville failed to return to the field at Templeholf until well after dark, but quick thinking German military personal turned on automobile lights, lighting a highly visible landing site for Orville. This is the first known full “night” landing by either Wilbur or Orville.
While Orville was providing the last of his European flight trial/demonstrations, the first ever air meet and air race for heavier-than-air flying machines was being held in Reims, France. Orville learned that Glenn Curtiss was there with a new machine of his and he had removed the wing tip ailerons, such as he had on his June Bug a year earlier, but now had installed small movable wing surfaces mounted midway between his upper and lower main airfoils.
Curtiss believed he could get around the Wright’s patent by having Robert Esnault-Pelterie adapt the ailerons he had used on his 1904/5 glider (the same as Pelterie installed on the 14bis for Santos Dumont in late 1906). This time though the Wrights saw through Curtiss’ deception and frankly they had had enough, so Wilbur contacted their New York based lawyers and filed on Curtiss for his indiscretion. Thus began a multi-year battle, in court, between the Wrights and Curtiss.
Orville and Wilbur discussed the idea of attending the air meet in France, but decided against it, though they were sure they could have dominated the event based on the performance of those who did attend, as listed in the British magazine Flight.
Meanwhile back home, between September 25th and October 4th, 1909, the City of New York held the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, which was an event celebrating the 300th anniversary of the discovery of the Hudson Bay and River, as well as the invention of the steamer ship by Robert Fulton.
Ironically, while Wilbur was in New York filing his first lawsuit against Glenn Curtiss, who had yet to return from Europe and the Reims Air Meet, Wilbur was contacted by the Hudson-Fulton Celebration group and asked if he would be willing to demonstrate his Flyer, by flying up the Hudson River along Manhattan's shoreline, after starting from Governor's Island. Wilbur agreed and was scheduled to do so on October 4th (1909), but unknown to him (Wilbur Wright) at the time, that same committee had also arranged for Glenn Curtiss to perform the same flight on the same day, but Curtiss was contracted to fly up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb and back to Governors Island!
The Hudson-Fulton committee had overstated to Wilbur that this event was going to be a really big deal and it was to be “the event of the Century”, with Wilbur’s flight to be their center-piece attraction! While saying this, they had yet to inform Wilbur they had also invited Glenn Curtiss (all arranged and agreed to by Curtiss’ partner, Augustus Herring).
Wilbur agreed to this flight, despite the fact he was always a bit nervous about flying, but Orville and Katherine were in Germany setting up their Wright Flyer manufacturer, so he would have to go it alone. Wilbur and Charlie Taylor (with a newly constructed Flyer III “A”) arrived in New York on September 20th and the next day, Glenn Curtiss arrived in New York, from Reims, France, and only then learned Augustus Herring had also signed a contract for him to fly up the Hudson and circle Grant’s Tomb.
Though Wilbur never really let on to the Hudson-Fulton celebration committee just how upset he was about their negligence at also inviting Curtiss, he wasn’t going to let Curtiss get an upper-hand on the flight either.
While Wilbur and Charlie (Taylor) installed a canoe to the bottom of the Flyer, mounted between its skids, Curtiss made his first attempt to fly on September 30th, but unfortunately, Curtiss’ machine was far too under-powered, so the wind blowing in from the ocean was simply too much for his machine.
Wilbur, seeing an opportunity to embarrass Curtiss, came up with an excuse to fly, only minutes after Curtiss had felt the weather too iffy, stating he needed to test the Flyer with his safety canoe attached, just to see how the Flyer handled. Taking off (without the catapult by the way) regardless of the high winds, Wilbur subsequently flew a complete circle around Governor’s Island, then flew out and circled the Statue of Liberty, while several boats in the harbor blasted their horns.
On October 3rd, Curtiss tried again, but as before, the gusty wind conditions made any flight in his under-powered machine impossible, so he contacted the committee and reneged on his contract, stating it was just too unsafe for him to try.
On the 4th, the day after Curtiss backed out of his contract, Wilbur, despite the weather conditions, told the committee he would not only fly as he contracted to do, but would fulfill Curtiss’ promise of flying up the Hudson to Grant’s Tomb, then after skirting Manhattan along the way, would return to Governor’s Island.
Photos of this flight show Wilbur as he took off, flew the ten miles to Grant’s Tomb, then returned, as over one million spectators cheered him on, along with hundreds of attending boats and ships, many from Europe and beyond, most blasting their horns or whistles.
After attaching a canoe between the skids of one of their Flyer A’s (above), Wilbur flew a flight, beginning at Governor’s Island in New York, during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration up and around Grant’s Tomb. Being as this was a last minute arrangement, Wilbur performed all of his launches without having their catapult available, as it wasn’t needed.
Glenn Curtiss’ partner, Augustus Herring, had signed a contract for Curtiss to fly his 1909 Curtiss Racer (Glenn Curtiss was just returning from France following his huge success at the Reims air meet and race) from Governor’s Island up the Hudson, around Grant’s Tomb, and back again, but due to the high winds and his terribly under-powered machine Curtiss abandoned his attempts and reneged on his contract. Wilbur took advantage of Curtiss’ short-comings and flew the contract flight himself, with his Flyer A. Wilbur flew the 10 miles up to Grant’s Tomb and back, plus he skirted along Manhattan Island, as well as circling the Statue of Liberty (above). Charlie Taylor (the Wright’s chief mechanic) had painted Wilbur’s Flyer A a very shiny silver, plus he attached small American flags to the outboard up-rights, with his airplane painted brightly and with American flags waving, well over 1 million spectators cheered Wilbur on as he flew overhead.
While the Wrights spent the better part of 1909, establishing themselves in the business of marketing a practical airplane, Europe and to a lesser extent, the United States, exploded with aviation fever. Regardless of how famous the Wrights had become, local heroes were appearing almost daily elsewhere, especially in England and most obviously in France. The Wrights had not only shown the world it “could” be done, they also showed the world “how” it was done. By early 1909, other aviator names began filling the front-page headlines of the world’s newspapers, much to the Wrights wishes.
While the Wrights were at Ft Myer, Virginia, where Orville was finishing up the trials for the US Signal Corp, Louis Bleriot stunned the world when he successfully crossed the English Channel on July 25th, after having a bit of a go at it with 3 other competitors; Hubert Latham flying an Antoinette IV, Charles de Lambert in a Wright Flyer A (Charles de Lambert was Wilbur Wright’s first student to graduate at Pau), and Arthur Seymour flying his Voisin-Farman I biplane. Leon Delagrange (Voisin-Delagrange biplane) and Eugène Lefebvre (Wright Flyer) had each expressed an early interest in going for the London Daily Prize award, but they dropped out as soon as the up-coming Reims, France air meet/air race was announced, as they intended on spending their time preparing for that event instead.
Though 4 individuals had stated they were interested in being the first to cross the English Channel (1909), to win the London Daily Mail newspaper prize, including Leon Delagrange, Eugène Lefebvre (both of whom were planning on using their biplanes; a Voisin & Wright Flyer, but they dropped their interest in winning the prize, when it was announced the world’s first air meet/air race was to be held at Reims, France in August). There was an Englishman (Author Seymour who had officially entered the quest for the London Daily Mail prize, but early tests indicated crossing the Channel with his Voisin-Farman biplane may more than it was ready for. Count Charles de Lambert (above left in his Wright Flyer) officially entered, but broke his arm in a pre-crossing practice flight crash. Louis Bleriot raised enough money at the last minute to enter his Bleriot XI mono-wing (above center), and finally Hubert Latham (the favorite by both the French and the English) in a beautiful Leon Levavasseur designed Antoinette IV mono-wing (above right).
Arthur Seymour dropped out of the “race” to win the Daily Mail prize, when early testing in England showed his machine wasn’t capable of a sustained flight of the length required to cross the Channel, unless the wind was absolutely calm, which wasn’t likely. Charles de Lambert broke his arm two weeks before, during a practice crash of his Wright Flyer A.
Louis Bleriot had only a month earlier became the first to take to the air with “two” passengers, one of which was the great dirigible aviator, Santos Dumont (though Santos Dumont had had a single hop for a few meters in October and November of 1906, he had forgone any attempts at powered HTA flight during all of 1908 and only a couple of months prior to his ride with Bleriot, finally made his first successful sustained flight with a powered HTA flying machine in February of 1909).
With Lambert and Seymour out of the race to cross the Channel, Hubert Latham was the first to attempt to cross the Channel from France to the Cliffs of Dover, on July 19, 1909, but his engine quit in his Antoinette IV mono-wing after he only made it 8 miles out from the French coastline.
Hubert Latham (above left), a self-proclaimed “man of the world”, was hired to fly Leon Levavasseur’s Antoinette IV mono-wing (above center), but after only making it out into the channel on July 19th for about 8 miles, his engine quit. As Latham’s rescue boat pulled up, Latham was seen sitting calmly in his floating Antoinette, drinking from a bottle of French wine (above right).
On the morning of the 25th (July), Bleriot’s crew awoke very early and got Bleriot up and out, 38 minutes later Bleriot made a rather hard landing in an English farm field, just above the white Cliffs of Dover. Though Latham had been clearly beaten by Bleriot, he did try to cross the Channel (for the second time in less than a week), a couple of hours after Bleriot’s success, but Latham’s engine quit a second time, only this time he was only a mile short of the Dover coast.
As Louis Bleriot took-off from the French coast, the very early morning of July 25, 1909 (actual photo of that take-off above left), the noise of his Bleriot XI mono-wing awoke Hubert Latham, Leon Levavasseur, and crew, but though they tried, minutes after Bleriot left for England, the wind picked up, grounding Latham until later that same day. After 38 minutes of struggling to find the English coastline in a foggy and wet crossing, Bleriot finally spotted a newspaper reporter waving a very large French flag. Bleriot’s landing was sufficiently hard, it collapsed his under-carriage, but it was no matter, he had made it (above center). Later that afternoon, Louis Bleriot enjoyed a full on ticker-tape style, impromptu parade in London (above right).
Other aviators in Europe were breaking records, almost every day, especially after news of Bleriot’s Channel crossing circulated the world’s newspapers, but only a month after Bleriot crossed the English Channel (an event which also woke up the British military to a potential threat, other than by sea against their island nation), the world’s first air meet/air race was held at Reims, France.
August 22-29, 1909 at Reims, France was the site of the world’s first air meet/air race (see copy of original poster, above left), where all entries (29 in total) competed over a week’s period. Of the 29 entries, 20 were biplanes and 9 were mono-wings and the overall winner of the event would receive the Gordon-Bennett Trophy (above right). In this photograph (above center) are visible two Voisin biplanes, an Antoinette IV, and a Bleriot XI.
The top competitors at the event, the three believed to have the best chance at winning the Gordon-Bennett Trophy were Louis Bleriot (above left), Eugène Lefebvre (above center), and the sole American in the event, Glenn Curtiss (above right). Eugène Lefebvre was fined twice during the event for flying too close to the spectator filled grandstands, and though Eugène Lefebvre was a crowd favorite, due to his aerial antics, he crashed on the final day of the event and was killed. Glenn Curtiss was the eventual overall winner of the event (recording the highest speed) and was awarded the Gordon-Bennett Trophy, which was ironically adorned with a Wright Flyer at its top.
Besides such famous aviators as Louis Bleriot, Eugène Lefebvre, and Glenn Curtiss, there were also several other rather famous (at the time) aviators entered in the event such as; Leon Delagrange, Henri Farman, Louis Paulhan, Captain Ferber, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, Count Charles de Lambert, Hubert Latham, P. Tissandier, and the list goes on and on. Above are some examples of the type of aircraft entered into the Reims event (above left; Antoinette IV, center; Voisin-Farman, right; French Wright Flyer). Of the aircraft types (or brands if you will) entered into the event, the Voisin biplane (and its various derivatives) was by far the most popular, as out of the 20 biplanes listed, 11 were Voisins.
Despite how famous the three Wrights (Wilbur, Orville, and Katherine) had become in Europe and how obviously superior their machine was, several individuals (almost all French and members of the Aero Club of France), were beginning to make claims of having made flights, of one kind or another, before the Wright’s December 17, 1903 flights. It wasn’t too long after Wilbur had begun his demonstration flights at Le Mans in 1908, the FAI now went back to the Clement Ader October 14, 1897 flight of his “Avion” for 300 meters and officially included it as the world’s first “official” flight of a powered heavier-than-air flying machine. Two members of the FAI (in 1908) had also witnessed the earlier flight of Clement Ader, before the FAI had been founded. I consider most of this minutia, as there was a great deal of internal politics going on, particularly with some members within the Aero Club of France, who also had a number of important and influential political connections. Details concerning the engineering of a successful aircraft are not one you can argue with, some things worked and some things didn’t. The Wrights were scientist/engineers, not aviators, so lay-persons tend to look at the individual flights they made and the dates they performed these “alleged” flights, without realizing the dates the Wrights did or didn’t fly are all irrelevant.
Several members of the Aero Club of France (specifically Georges Besançon, editor of the Aero Club of France magazine, L’Aerophile) and those officials with the FAI, who witnessed Wilbur’s extraordinary demonstration flights out at Le Mans the previous year, all fully realized Wilbur and Orville’s earlier experimentation flights most certainly had to have been true. Georges Besançon, someone highly respected among the French aviators, was quoted in his magazine; "….today in Le Mans, the Wrights have completely dissipated all doubts. Not one of the former detractors of the Wrights dare question, today, the previous experiments of the men who were truly the first to fly...."!
By the time of the Reims air meet, improvements upon the Wright’s basic technology were appearing almost daily, with probably the most significant development during 1909 being the mechanical system for controlling an aircraft, developed by Robert Esnault-Pelterie. REP’s system of a single yoke for roll & pitch, with yaw controlled by foot pedals, was slow for others to adopt, but by the beginning of World War I, his system became the standard of the world, continuing on to today. Of all the early control systems, it was easily the one designed by Glenn Curtiss which takes the cake for being the weirdest, as he used a rather cumbersome harness, worn around the operator’s chest to control an aircraft’s roll. Another area where technology was rapidly changing in its advancements was in the area of instrumentation, with no single individual developing all of them, but each additional gauge or instrument appearing from a variety of aviator-engineers.
From the middle of 1909 and continuing on until the first World War, the Wrights spent a great deal of their time in court, fighting to protect their original work and their numerous patents, though in most cases, they found that even if judgments fell to their favor, it was a continuous battle to enforce those court findings. Many today confuse the Wright’s numerous lawsuits in Europe, which were generally not filed by them, but rather by those who were the legal licensee of their technology, La Compagnie Générale de Navigation Aérienne in France for example. At the turn of the century, most European countries (Germany, England, France, or Italy) only provided patent protection for 8 to 10 years, unlike in the United States, where a patent protection stood for 17 years, with an extension available in some isolated cases.
By the end of 1909, the Wrights had profited nearly $250,000 from their European sales, of which a big chunk of that money was for the sale or licensing of their technology, specifically licensing their patented technology on their concept of the 3-axis control system (US Patent #821,393). The courts in France, though they found in favor of the LCGdeNA, they (the French courts) refused to disallow anyone from using the Wrights technology until all the appeals had cleared (by the time all of the appeals were approaching their court dates, the Wright’s patents had expired). In Germany, it was less vague, as the German courts found against the Wrights and the Wright’s licensed manufacturer* in Berlin, all because Octave Chanute had openly discussed the Wright’s idea on control as early as 1903, while he (Chanute) was speaking to an engineering group in Berlin. Additionally, Chanute had been freely handing out copies of Wilbur Wright’s 1901 keynote speech to the Western Society of Engineers (Some Aeronautical Experiments), all over Europe and in Germany; this also meant the Wrights, in the German court’s eyes, were freely giving their technology away. This further widened the gap in the relationship between Wilbur Wright and Octave Chanute. Something which Wilbur intended on correcting in 1910, after he and Octave Chanute exchanged letters, showing each felt an apology was needed between them.
*Despite the German court finding against the Wright’s German manufacturer of the Wright Flyer A, deeming the Wright’s US Patent #821,393 unenforceable, the Wright’s licensed German manufacturer managed to eventually sell and deliver 61 Wright Flyer A’s!
In Wilbur’s last letter to Octave Chanute, he expressed his concern that regardless of their earlier disagreements, it was what it was, and Wilbur wanted to get things settled between them to get back to the level of friendship they enjoyed the decade before. Octave Chanute wrote Wilbur back, fully agreeing with Wilbur and maybe it was both of them who were at fault and fully intended on getting with Wilbur, in Dayton, as soon as he (Octave) returned from a much needed rest in Europe. Unfortunately, Octave passed away (November 23, 1910), before he and Wilbur could get together as they had planned.
Regardless of Wilbur seemingly becoming obsessed with protecting the belief in his wanting to control his work, specifically his US Patent #821,393, there were a lot of individuals who simply didn’t understand why he was doing this. By 1910, the Wrights were once again adorning the front-page of the newspapers, not for their aviation exploits, but for their seeming to attack those who misused the Wright’s patents, action the public saw only as the Wrights attacking someone’s personally favorite aviator (popular French flyer Louis Paulhan being one of those specifically targeted by the Wrights). On the other hand, if they had not done this, then it is highly possible their “true” contribution to the development of the first airplane may have been obscured for future generations.
Despite all the time they (the Wrights) were spending in court, Wilbur was able to develop his idea of an “automatic stabilization” system (the pre-runner to the autopilot), with which they (both Wilbur and Orville) designed a new high efficiency glider to test it with. Because the boys needed a windy spot to effectively test their new system, going back to Kitty Hawk seemed the right thing to do, so that’s what they did in the summer of 1911. Because reporters did follow them there, they decided to cancel their automatic stabilization system test and simply fly their latest machine for the fun of it, which they did (well Orville did) and on one flight, starting from a sand dune 90 feet high, Orville stayed aloft for 9 minutes and 45 seconds. Orville’s record endurance glider flight of 9 minutes and 45 seconds was a soaring record which stood for nearly 10 years, until a German glider pilot finally broke Orville’s endurance time in 1921 (Germany).
During the summer of 1911, the Wright brothers brought their 1911 glider (above), with Wilbur’s first attempt at an “automatic stabilization” system or “auto-pilot”, if you will, installed. Though due to the influx of newspaper reporters, the Wrights didn’t get to test Wilbur’s new system, but Orville did record one flight, which started from a 90’ tall sand dune, and it lasted 9 minutes and 45 seconds, a record soaring endurance flight which would stand for nearly 10 years. Orville Wright later sold the patent rights to their automatic stabilization system to John Sperry, who some years later patented the world’s first electrically driven “auto-pilot”.
The following year after the Wright brothers were so successful with their 1911 glider, Wilbur had traveled to Boston, to deal with more court hearings concerning their lawsuit against Glenn Curtiss, when Wilbur got sick from either a tuna fish sandwich, someone at his hotel made for him, or possibly from the shellfish he had eaten at a banquet.
This was Friday April 12, 1912 so the following morning, Saturday, Wilbur felt it best he go home (the following Sunday evening the British White Star ocean liner, Titanic, struck an iceberg during its maiden voyage).
Once back in Dayton, Wilbur was diagnosed having contracted Typhoid Fever and after slipping into and out of consciousness for a month, Wilbur Wright subsequently died the early morning of May 30, 1912, at the young age of 45.
Following Wilbur’s death (something which the family blamed Glenn Curtiss for), Orville simply didn’t have the drive to continue all of the court battles, except for the ones against Curtiss, but Orville’s decades long battle with the Smithsonian would begin.
As far as the court battles between the Wrights and Curtiss, the 5th and final court found, once again, in favor of the Wrights, but with Wilbur now gone and with the outbreak of World War I (where all patents pertaining to war material or weapons were “pooled”), Orville simply hadn’t the energy to continue with the court battles. In 1916-1917, Orville sold the Wright Aeroplane Company, all rights to their patents, and the sale included the Wright Engine Company, to a New York investment group (for a reputed $2.5M) and Orville was out of the aeroplane business for good. Sometime after the end of World War I, this investment group’s biggest investor became none other than, Glenn Curtiss!
Back during the time Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley was director of the Smithsonian, one of Langley’s closest friends was Charles Walcott (who just happened to be director of the US Geological Society), so following the death of Dr. Langley in 1906, it was Charles Walcott who was appointed the Smithsonian’s director. Walcott’s new position and considering the very public failure of his friend’s (Langley) “Aerodrome” in 1903, Walcott felt it necessary to protect his friend’s good name.
When Dr. Langley’s “Aerodrome” was put on display at the Smithsonian (in 1912), the propaganda placard placed in front of Langley’s Aerodrome stated it was “…the first man-carrying powered heavier-than-air flying machine, capable of flight”!
Orville Wright took great exception to this “lie” (as he put it) and Orville knew he and his brother’s 1903 Flyer I was the first heavier-than-air powered flying machine, with the capability of sustained and controlled flight and the Flyer I had done so on several flights in 1903. Regardless the Wright’s 1903 Flyer I was merely a “proof of concept” test machine, its basic technology led directly to the world’s first “practical” heavier-than-air flying machine in 1905, the machine which fulfilled all four of the points stated by Sir George Cayley at the beginning of the 19th Century of: Weight, Propulsion, Rise, and Control!
Soon after the Wright’s original 1903 Flyer I spent a week submerged during the 1913 Dayton floods, Orville and workmen at the Wright’s Aeroplane Company rebuilt the 1903 Flyer and put it on display, first in Dayton, then later at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston. After Charles Walcott passed away in 1927 and was replaced at the Smithsonian by Charles Abbot, Orville attempted, initially in-vain, to convince the new director look into the falsehood of Walcott’s original statements concerning the Langley Aerodrome. By 1928, Orville had finally had his fill of the Smithsonian and subsequently followed through on his threats and shipped the original Kitty Hawk Flyer off to England, where it was put on display at the Science Museum of London.
Adding to Charles Walcott’s statements or claims concerning Langley’s Aerodrome, Glenn Curtiss in 1914, borrowed Langley’s original Aerodrome #6 from the Smithsonian and after performing much needed repairs, successfully flew Langley’s Aerodrome as a floatplane at Hammondsport Lake, in upstate New York.
After Dr. Samuel Langley’s death (heart-attack) in 1906, the director of the US Geological Society and a Langley close confidant Charles Walcott (above left), replaced Langley at the Smithsonian. In an attempt to preserve the good name of Walcott’s late friend, Dr. Langley, Walcott had the Aerodrome display propaganda placard state: “…the first man-carrying powered heavier-than-air flying machine, capable of flight”! To further confirm Walcott’s claim, Glenn Curtiss repaired/rebuilt Langley’s original #6 Aerodrome, in 1914, and subsequently flew it successfully as a floatplane, from Hammondsport Lake, New York (above center). After Charles Walcott died in 1927, Charles Abbot (above right) was appointed as the new director of the Smithsonian and though he failed to respond to Orville Wright’s initial complaints concerning the Langley Aerodrome, Abbot did eventually re-open an investigation, to answer Orville’s claims in the 1930s.
It wasn’t until the late 1930s before the Smithsonian Director, Charles Abbot, began a serious look into the original complaints by Orville Wright and then only after direct intervention by Charles Lindbergh. Finally in 1942, Charles Abbot published new “official” papers on behalf of the Smithsonian, rebutting Walcott’s prior claim of Langley’s Aerodrome flights, as performed by Glenn Curtiss in 1914. From there, Abbot convinced Charles Lindbergh, a very close friend of Orville’s, to meet with Orville and discuss the possibility of Orville bringing the Flyer I back to America and placing the Flyer I into its rightful place at the Smithsonian.
Charles Abbot’s official paper concerning the Aerodrome, following a lengthy investigation, detailed all that had been done to Langley’s Aerodrome by Glenn Curtiss in 1914, masked as only repair to make it flyable, was updated technology which ironically had first been developed and documented by Wilbur Wright over a decade earlier.
After the publication of Abbot’s official paper, Orville Wright finally agreed to the Smithsonian’s request and in 1942 agreed to the conditions of the Flyer’s return to America, conditions which Charles Abbot himself suggested, namely that the Smithsonian would state the Wright Flyer I was the first known heavier-than-air machine to successfully demonstrate sustained and controlled flight. Furthermore, Orville agreed to sell the Wright Flyer I to the Smithsonian for a sum of $1, but if the listed conditions* (established by the Smithsonian) were not met or were ever changed, Orville or Orville’s family descendants, following his death, had the contractual right to recover the Flyer I from the Smithsonian. It had become obvious to Orville Wright though, Charles Abbot was not Charles Walcott, as Abbot understood the falsehood which had been perpetuated against the Wrights and their (the Wrights) obvious and extensive contribution to the invention of the airplane.
*The conditions concerning the successful return of the Flyer I do remain in controversy by those who continue to believe others h