Wright Brothers – Honoring the Wright Brothers

Articles relating to the honoring of the Wright Brothers.

Frank Coffyn has spent many hours flying Wright airplanes and so is highly qualified to comment on their flying characteristics. His flights call into question the often heard claim that the Wright machines are difficult to fly.

In 1911 he wrote, “I flew a plane (Model B) the other day from Mines Field, Los Angles to my home near San Diego that practically handled itself, so perfect was its balance and equipment.

In 1912 he said that the Wright Model B “stood up nobly under the buffeting of stiffer winds than it had ever before encountered” while flying over New York City.

One of the best descriptions of flying in the Model B piloted by Coffyn was by Richard Harding Davis in a 1911 Collier’s Magazine. Davis was a celebrated war correspondent and novelist. Colliers commissioned him to describe a flight.

He showed he wasn’t too confident about flying when he gave two of his friends his ring, watch and money to hold for him.

Here is portion of the article.

I crawled between a crisscross of wires to a seat as small as a racing saddle, and with my right hand choked the life out of a wooden upright. Unless I clung to Coffyn’s right arm, there was nothing I could hold on to with my left but the edge of the racing saddle.

My toes rested on a thin steel crossbar. It was like balancing in a child’s swing hung from a tree. Had I placed myself in such a seat on a hotel porch, I would have considered my position most unsafe; to occupy such a seat a thousand feet in mid-air while moving at fifty miles an hour struck me as ridiculous.

“What’s to keep me from falling out?” I demanded.

Coffyn laughed unfeelingly.

“You won’t fall out!” he said.

I began to hate Coffyn and the Wright Brothers. I began to regret I had not been brought up a family man so that, like the other men of family at Aiken, I could explain I could not go aloft, because I had children to support.

Behind us the propeller was thrashing the air like a mowing machine, and Coffyn had disguised himself in his goggles. To me the act suggested the judge putting on his black cap before he delivers the death sentence. The moment had come. I tried to smile at my two faithful friends, but one was excitedly dancing around taking a farewell snapshot, and the other already was calmly counting my money.

On the bicycle wheels we ran swiftly forward across the polo field. There was no swaying, no vibration, no jar. We might have been speeding over asphalt in a soft-cushioned automobile. We reached the boundary of the polo field.

“You are in the air!” said Coffyn.

I did not believe him, and I looked down to see, and found the earth was two feet below us. We were moving through space on as even a keel as though we were touching the level turf.

Coffyn had his own sense of humor. Perhaps first with a glance he assured himself that my feet were wrapped around the steel bar and my fingers clutching the wooden upright. Perhaps he did not. In any event, when we were a thousand feet in the air, about as high as a twelve-story building, he pulled a lever and the airship dived!

The next instant a perfectly solid red clay road was rising to hit me in the face. Not even my feet obstructed my view. We were tilted so far forward that I knew my face and knees would hit at the same moment. I knew the end had come. I had time only to think that what had been Coffyn and what had been me would make a terrible mess in the red clay road.

And then when it was so near that I shut my eyes, Coffyn pulled another lever, and like a rocket, the airship shot into the skies.

Probably many times you dream you are falling from a great height and wake to find yourself in bed. Pile all the agony of all these nightmares into one, and that was how I felt.

When I looked at Coffyn he was laughing. My only desire was to punch him, just once on the tip of his square jaw. The only reason I did not was because I was afraid to let go of the wooden upright.

Coffyn said later that Davis never suggested another flight.

I flew in a modern replica of the Model B in Dayton and I thought it was a lot of fun. Of course my pilot didn’t make any steep dives to test me out and they had added a seatbelt which I wore.

The Wright Model B Flyer was the first airplane that the Wright brothers produced in quantity, with more than 100 built beginning in 1910.

Frank T. Coffyn left the Wright Exhibition Team in 1912 to pursue other flying opportunities. His new adventure would lead to fortifying his reputation as one of the most famous of the early pilots.

The change in vocation came about when a Detroit financier, Russell A. Alger, wanted to buy a Wright airplane and hire Coffyn as his instructor. There was one problem though and that was that the Wrights at the time were not selling airplanes to private individuals.

Alger, however, was able to persuade Wilbur to sell him an airplane. It helped that the Wright Company’s general manager, Frank Russell, was Alger’s cousin.

In addition to teaching Alger to fly, Coffyn took advantage of other opportunities. One of them was a contract to take pictures of New York City from the air for the Vitagraph Co. Initially, the head of the company, J. Stuart Blackton and other company officials were skeptical that it could be done. They thought that Coffyn might be choosing a spectacular way of committing suicide.

He assured them that he could do it.

Wilbur had flown two years earlier in the fall of 1909 during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration. His flight took him around the statue of liberty and up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb and back.

But this time it was winter and there was ice in the Hudson River and Coffyn planned to fly off the water.

To accomplish this risky task, Coffyn designed and installed pontoons on Alger’s Wright Model B airplane. Alger and his brother paid for the reconstruction. They said it was “solely in the interests of aviation.”

A crank to start the engine was also added because the airplane would be sitting in the water and no one would be able stand in the water to turn the propellers over.

On February 6, 1912 Coffyn was ready for his first flight. The machine sat on the Hudson River at the foot of 23rd St. The temperature was ten degrees and there was ice in the water so the plane had to be towed by a river tug to open water to take off.

The tug was filled with newspaper reporters. Coffyn said that it didn’t make a difference to them whether I went up or under. They had a good story either way – but “it made a difference to me.”

The take off was successful. “Underneath me the sirens of the ferry boats, tugs and other craft shrieked the city’s welcome to me.” Coffyn flew for about 20 minutes on this first trial flight.

On the second flight of the day, Coffyn flew to a height of 1500 feet and circled the Statue of Liberty several times.

Then he returned and picked up a photographer, Adrian C. Duff. The extra weight made the climb much slower and water sprayed over them from the waves. Duff suffered severely from the cold and Coffyn reported that part of him was actual ice.

Duff set two world records that day. He was the first passenger to be carried over New York Harbor and the first photographer to take pictures of it from an airplane.

Despite the extreme weather conditions, Duff took 9 pictures and obtained 5 excellent pictures including pictures of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island. The pictures were published in many newspapers.

The Wright airplane had performed extremely well despite the buffeting of the stiffest winds that Coffyn said he ever encountered.

The still pictures were such a success, Coffyn decided to take motion pictures. Taking motion pictures required the cameraman to turn a crank at a constant rate. This would be difficult task in an airplane, so Coffyn designed a little electric motor to turn the crank.

The electric motor had another advantage; it eliminated the need for a photographer and thus saved precious weight.

The flight that received the most publicity was the one in which Coffyn was the first to fly under the Brooklyn Bridge on February 13. It was another frigid day and the pontoons had frozen to the raft. They had to be chopped free.

He first flew over the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. He then returned to fly under them. At the Manhattan Bridge, Coffyn reported he misjudged his distance and almost hit the bridge. He said could see a policeman looking down at him.

At he passed under the Brooklyn Bridge he tried to compensate and flew too close for comfort to the water. He barely missed the stacks of a tug and a ferryboat. The force of nearby welcoming tugboat whistles nearly lifted him out of his seat and he dropped the camera and a precious roll of film into the water.

The flights were a great success and the films shot for Vitagraph did well and were shown all over the world.

The Wrights were pleased with Coffyn’s success. Wilbur even traveled to New York in March and witnessed some of them along with thousands of other spectators.

Coffyn said he performed some extra stunts he hadn’t performed previously in New York while Wilbur was watching because he wanted his commendation before anything else.

Wilbur told reporters, “There are great things in store for the hydro-plane in the future.”

Reference: “Flying with the Wrights,” by Frank T. Coffyn, World’s Work Magazine, Dec. 1929-Jan. 1930.

Frank Coffyn was taught to fly by Orville for about an hour and a half, than by Walter Brookins for another hour and a half, becoming the 26th pilot in America and was a member of the Wright Exhibition Team. His recollections of Orville and Wilbur provide an interesting look at their personalities.

Brookins was the first pilot taught to fly by Orville. The Wrights had known him since he was four years old. Katharine had him as a student in school.

When Frank first arrived in Dayton to begin his pilot training, he was surprised to find that many of the citizens of Dayton were only barely tolerant of the brothers. They thought that the Wright brothers’ activity with flying was a fad and wouldn’t last long.

Their attitude changed by the time Frank left Dayton. He observed that the citizens of Dayton began to wake up to the fact that these crazy Wrights must have something in them after all. They hadn’t crashed and killed themselves. They weren’t bankrupt. And strangest of all, they hadn’t become swell-headed.

Famous people from around the world were coming to Dayton to see the Wrights. Wilbur and Orville were not big on receiving visitors who they didn’t know. Katharine Wright would often greet the guests with her charming personality.

Frank noted that the Wrights were fond of his five-year-old son. Wilbur spent a lot of time making a kite for him. He was also was kind and considerate to his Frank’s wife.

Frank did many daring things during his flying career but the only time he almost died was in an automobile crash in New York City when the car he was riding in went over a bridge. He was unconscious for 10 days, having sustained a skull fracture. Some newspapers even published a report of his death.

Wilbur visited and sat at his bedside in the Presbyterian Hospital. Frank said that he discovered a new and tender side to Wilbur. Later, after recovery was certain, Wilbur wrote him a letter.

“Dear Frank, I was immensely pleased on my return from Augusta to find a telegram from Mr. Levino stating that you were doing so well, and that you had become father of a little daughter. Please accept for yourself and Mrs. Coffyn the congratulations and best wishes of my father, my sister, my brother and myself. I hope that when you receive this you are up and flying again, but not over the sides of bridges.” (Letter on left)

One newspaper reporter described the Wrights as uncompromising, Puritan mechanics. Frank commenting on the description, said that he agreed they were Puritans, “bred in the bone.” “There never was a taint of hypocrisy about them. They held to what they believed to be a right course, and nothing could make them trim their sails.”

The Wrights rejected flattery offered by many famous people. Had they lived in Europe, honors would have been heaped upon them.

The director of the Smithsonian Institution fraudulently claimed that the original failed Langley aeroplane had flown after restoration and then displayed it in the museum with an inscription that said it was the first aeroplane that was capable of flight.

The Smithsonian asked Orville to display the 1903 Flyer adjacent to the Langley plane. Orville was outraged. Instead he accepted an offer from the South Kensington Museum in London and sent the 1903 Flyer to London for display.

Frank, commenting on this sad episode, explained that Orville was uncompromising in his attitude because he would not be false to his dead brother’s memory and his pride of achievement by letting the Flyer rest side by side with the Langley machine. The Flyer remained in London for 20 years, not returning until 1948 after the then director of the Smithsonian published a retraction of the false claims.

Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley was an eminent scientist. “He had forgotten more mathematics,” said Frank, “than the Wrights ever knew. But what about the results? The Wrights’ plane flew; Langley’s plane did not.”

“I have heard,” said Frank, “the Wrights called parsimonious and niggardly. That is not correct. They had opportunities to make a great deal more money than they amassed, but in those early days the only returns were from exhibition flights. They were not selling machines, although there were a thousand ready purchasers. They could have made enormous sums of money by catering to these enthusiasts, but money as money did not seem to interest them.”

Frank, commenting on the status of aviation in America in 1920, had this to say:

“I think we can say, without undo boasting, that as an air nation we have arrived. And I trust that in our triumphs of today and our hopes for the future, we shall never lose sight of the fact that it was Wilbur and Orville Wright who made possible man’s conquest of the air.”

Reference: “Flying with the Wrights,” by Frank T. Coffyn, World’s Work Magazine, Dec. 1929-Jan. 1930.

Frank Coffyn was one of the early members of the Wright Exhibition team. Orville and Wilbur formed the team in 1910 against their better judgment as one of the few available ways to make money building and flying airplanes.

Coffyn was an astute observer of the Wright brothers, friend of General Benjamin Foulois and an enthusiastic pilot who took many risks during his flying days including being the first to fly under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Frank was a wealthy young New Yorker; his father was the vice president of the Phoenix National Bank of New York. One of his father’s friends, Andrew Freedman, was a director of the bank and also a director for the newly formed Wright Company. Frank wanted to learn to fly so he took advantage of Freedman’s association with the Wrights and boldly asked Freedman to recommend him to the Wrights for attendance at their flight school.

Frank got his wish when Wilbur was visiting Freedman in his New York office. Freedman introduced Wilbur to Frank and got to shake his hand.

Wilbur was courteous but noncommittal. He told Frank to visit Dayton and “we will see how we like each other.”

Frank said later that he had no idea what Wilbur looked like, but was disappointed at first. He had imagined him looking like a hero built on godlike lines. Instead he found a tall, thin, middle-aged modest man with diffident manners who Instead of enunciating startling truths, was more ready to listen than to talk.

Frank arrived in Dayton on May 10, 1910. He was surprised to find the people of Dayton only barely tolerant of the Wright brothers. They seemed to think that the Wrights were just two hard-working local boys who had given up a good bicycle business to fool around with a fad that wouldn’t last.

The next day Frank was directed to take the streetcar to Simms Station at Huffman Prairie, some eight miles away. He was surprised to find Orville seated across from him on the same trolley. Frank noted that Orville was a quiet-looking man of around 40 years old whose eyes reminded him of Wilbur.

Frank introduced himself; “You are Orville Wright? I’m Frank Coffyn, and you’re going to teach me to fly.”

Orville smiled and said, “I like enthusiasm, you’ll need it.”

Orville was responsible for selecting and teaching members of the Wright Exhibition team. Wilbur was busy with managing the Wright Co. and handling the patent suits they were pursuing. He flew as a pilot for the last time on May 21.

Other members of the team were Walter Brookins, Archie Hoxsey, Ralph Johnstone and Al Welch. Brookins, 21, was the youngest and the Wrights’ first pupil. The Wrights had known him from childhood.

The student pilots were assigned work to do other than flying. Frank’s first job was cleaning a magneto and fixing leaks in some water pumps. He then had to clean up the mess on the field that the cows had left and to drag out tufts of coarse prairie grass.

His first chance to fly was on May 19th. He climbed in beside Orville and started down the monorail with Johnston holding the wing. But before they lifted off they ran into trouble when one wing got too low, so Orville shut off the engine.

As Frank was helping to push the plane back to the starting point he felt “vaguely troubled” by the bad start.

Orville was not troubled. The Wrights were not superstitious. They carried no mascots for good luck and knew of no unlucky days. The only day they refused to fly was on Sunday and that was because of religious belief.

Orville decided not to fly again that day because it was getting late. The next day it rained.

On 8:40 on May 21st they finally got off the ground and flew for a little over 12 minutes. Later in the day they flew for another 10 minutes.

Frank had a great time. He was just past 30 years old but found himself an enthusiastic boy again. He was surprised by the “gliding smoothness of the motion” and enjoyed his first sight of the earth from the air. They landed easily on skids.

Orville said little during the flight; the Wrights were not conversationalists.

The only complaint Frank had was that his hands had swollen painfully. Orville told him that he was gripping the controls too hard.

I believe the airplane they flew that day was a transition model sometimes referred to as a Wright Model A. The Model A had a fixed (later movable) horizontal stabilizer applied to the tail of the 1909 machine. The Wright Model B was brought out early in July 1910 and replaced the Model A. It eliminated the front elevator and wheels were attached to the skids. A single wing warping control lever was mounted between the seats on both models so that the pilot and the student could share it. (See photo of Model A at left)

Orville told Frank that he was ready for his first solo flight after 2 1/2 hours of flight training. It was not to be flown at Huffman Prairie, however, but during the Wright Exhibition team’s first show to be held in Indianapolis where the 500-mile automobile races are held.

One might think that this was a bit risky, but the Wrights believed in themselves, their airplanes and their students. Frank commenting on the situation said, “They didn’t fuss around and make one nervous; they assumed I would make good.”

Frank nearly did fail. He took off on a nice June day and proceeded to follow the racetrack. The plan was to make straightforward laps around the track.

Before he completed his first lap he felt a violent pain in his left eye and both eyes began to tear profusely. Frank thought he was going blind and would crash. Although in pain and about to crash, his main worry was he was going to let the Wrights down.

By shaking his head he managed to see some, although it was like looking through a mist. It was enough to enable him to land without incident.

Wilbur ran over and asked him what was wrong. His voice was anxious, but not scolding. Frank answered it was his eyes while thinking his flying career was over.

He removed his goggles and to his surprise there was a spider on the left lens. The spider must have crawled inside while the goggles were hanging on the wall of the flying shed.

Frank went on to fly successfully every day of the exhibition, as did the other members of the team.

Orville had flown over 250 flights in 1910 training his students, 100 of the flights were in the last three weeks of May.

More to come on Frank Coffyn in future articles.

Reference: “Flying with the Wrights,” by Frank T. Coffyn, World’s Work Magazine, Dec. 1929-Jan. 1930.

Steady winds…..Velvet sands

Determined Brothers…..Willing hands

Gifted men…..Self-taught minds.

By years of toil and eager thirst,

That from your dunes that they be first

To launch a plane by man’s own might

And ride your winds in motored flight.

From Kitty Hawk the Wrights did rise

To throttle time…..Explore the skies.

Bring nations from a distant berth

With hopes of Peace upon the earth,

That by their flight this Hallowed Date

May ground forever War and Hate

And man will strive as they once stood

To bring the World to Brotherhood.

This poem appeared on the program for the 61st anniversary of the first flight held at the Wright Brothers National Memorial on Thursday December 17, 1964.

Howerton Gowen of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, wrote it. Mr. Gowen owned an oil and chemical business for many years.

Mr. Thomas E. Myrick of Roanoke Rapids brought the poem to my attention.

The Kill Devil Memorial Hills Association, The National Park Service, The National Aeronautic Association and The Air Force Association sponsored the event in 1964.

The Kill Devil Hills Association was organized formally in 1927 to preserve and honor the original site of the Wright brothers’ flights of December 17, 1903.

In 1966, the association was rekindled as the First Flight Society. The society supports the Park Service including the annual ceremony honoring the Wright brothers held at the park on December 17th.