Wright Brothers – The Military Airplane

Articles relating to the ongoing of the Wright Brothers and the US military.

Few people really believed that the Wright brothers had flown until their public fights in 1908 and 1909 in Europe and at Ft. Myer in the U. S.

In 1905 they had developed the first practical airplane and had flown twenty-four miles in the heavier-than-air flying machine in 38 minutes while completing 30 consecutive circuits of a course at Huffman Prairie in Dayton.

The challenge now was to sell the airplane without prematurely revealing their secrets of design. They decided that the best way was to do this was to require an up front contract of sale before demonstrating their machine to serious buyers. Their policy was “no contract, no look.”

First Public Announcement

The Aero Club of America was formed in 1905 patterned after the Aero Club de France. They decided that something had to be done to counteract the critics that questioned whether the Wrights had flown as claimed. Even the prestigious Scientific American magazine wrote a critical article questioning whether the flights of 1903-5 had taken place.

William J. Hammer, of the Aero Club of America, visited the Wrights in Dayton, and convinced them to write an official account of their experiments of 1904 and 1905 for release to the public. The Wrights agreed and the Aero Club of America endorsed the Wrights’ account and released it for public consumption.

Below is the record written by the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio, made known by the Aero Club of America. It is the first public announcement ever made by the Wrights, the result of whose work has been awaited with keener interest than of any of the score of inventors who have been trying to solve the problem of aerial navigation.

The Report

“Though America,” wrote the Wright brothers in their report to the Aero Club, “through the labors of Prof. Langley, Mr. Chanute and others, had acquired not less than 10 years ago the recognized leadership in the branch of aeronautics which pertains to birdlike flight.”

“It has not heretofore been possible for American workers to present a summary of each year’s experiments to a society of their own country devoted exclusively to the promotion of aeronautical studies and sports. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that we now find ourselves to make a report to such a society.”

“Previous to the year 1905, we had experimented at Kitty Hawk, NC, with man carrying gliding machines in the years 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903, and with a man carrying motor flyer, which on December 17, 1903, sustained itself in the air for 59 seconds, during which time it advanced against a 20-mile wind a distance of 852 feet.”

“Flights to the number of more than 100 had also been made at Dayton, Ohio in 1904 with a second motor flyer. Of these flights, a complete circle, made for the first time on September 20, and two flights of three miles each, made on November 9 and December 1 respectively were the most notable performances.”

“The object of the 1905 experiments was to determine and discover remedies for several obscure and somewhat rare difficulties which had been encountered in some of the 1904 flights, and which it was necessary to overcome before it would be safe to employ Flyers for practical purposes.”

Date. Miles flown. Time. Cause of stopping.

Sept. 26 11 1/8 18.00 Exhaustion of fuel

Sept. 29 12 19.55 Exhaustion of fuel

Sept. 30 — 17.15 Hot bearing

Oct. 3 15 1/4 25.05 Hot bearing

Oct. 4 20 3/4 33.17 Hot bearing

Oct 5 25 1/5 38.03 Exhaustion of fuel

“The experiments were made in a swampy meadow about eight miles east of Dayton and continued from June until the early days of October when the impossibility of longer maintaining privacy necessitated their discontinuance.”

“Owing to many experimental changes in the machine and the resulting differences in its management, the earlier flights were short, but toward the middle of September means of correcting troubles were found and the flyer was at last brought under satisfactory control. From this time forward almost every flight established a new record.”

“It will be seen that an average speed of a little more than 38 miles an hour was maintained in the last flight. All of the flights were made over a circular course of about three-fourths of a mile to the lap, which reduced the speed somewhat.”

“The machine increased its velocity on the straight parts of the course and slowed down on the curves. It is believed that in straight flight the normal speed is more than 40 miles an hour.”

“In the earlier of the flights named above less than six pounds of gasoline was carried. In the later ones a tank was fitted large enough to hold fuel for an hour, but by oversight it was not completely filled before the flight of October 5.”

In the last three years, a total of 160 flights have been made with our motor-driven flyers, and a total distance of almost exactly 160 miles covered, an average of a mile to each flight. But until the machine had received its final improvements the flights were mostly short, as is evidenced by the fact that the flight of October 5 was longer than the 105 flights of the year 1904 together.”

“The lengths of the flights were measured by a Richard anemometer, which was attached to the machine. The records were found to agree closely, with distances measured over the ground when the flights were made in calm air over a straight course; but when the flights were made in circles a close comparison was impossible because it was not practicable to accurately trace the course over the ground.”

“In the flight of October 5 a total of 20.7 circuits of the field was made. The times were taken with stop watches.”

“In operating the machine it has been our custom for many years to alternate in making flights, and such care has been observed that neither of us has suffered any serious injury, though in the earlier flights our ignorance and the inadequacy of the means of control made the work exceedingly dangerous.”

“The 1905 flyer had a total weight of about 925 pounds, including the operator, and was of such substantial construction as to be able to make landings at high speed without being constrained or broken.”

From the beginning the prime object was to device a machine of practical utility, rather than a useless and extravagant toy. For this reason extreme lightness of construction has always been resolutely rejected. On the other hand, every effort has been made to increase the scientific efficiency of the wings and screws, in order that even heavily built machines may be carried with a moderate expenditure of power.”

“The favorable results which have been obtained have been due to improvements in flying quality because of more scientific design and to improved methods of balancing and steering.”

“The motor and machinery poses no extraordinary qualities. The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.”

In view of the fact that all of the flights which have been mentioned were made in private, it is proper that the names of persons who witnessed one or more of them should be given.

We therefore name E. W. Ellis, assistant auditor of the city of Dayton; Torrence Huffman, president of the Fourth National Bank; C. S. Billman, secretary of the West Side Building Association; Henry Webbert, W. H. Shank, William Fouts, Frank Hamburger, Charles Webbert, Howard M. Myers, Bernard H. Lambers, William Webbert, Reuben Schindler, William Weber, all of Dayton, Ohio; and O. F. Jamieson of East Germantown, Indiana, Theodore Waddell of the census department, Washington, D. C., David Beard of Osborn, Ohio, and Amos Stauffer of Osborn, Ohio.” (end or Wrights’ report).

The board of directors of Aero Club responded with the following resolutions:

Whereas the Messrs. Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville of Dayton, Ohio have developed an aeroplane type of flying machine that many times has carried a man safely through the air at high speed and continuously over long distances and, therefore, of practical value to mankind;

Therefore, be it resolved, that the Aero Club of America thereby expresses to them the hearty felicitations on their achievement in devising, constructing and operating a successful and man-carrying dynamic flying machine; and

Be it further resolved, that a copy of these resolutions be addressed to Messrs. Wilbur and Orville Wright at Dayton, Ohio.

Few secrets have been as closely guarded as that of the Wright brothers. It has been known that they were attaining considerable success, but every effort to gain any accurate information has heretofore been met with positive refusal.

The New York Herald reported that Americans of wealth who are genuinely interested in attempts to solve the problem of aerial navigation, or who would gladly provide a large expense fund in return for the honor of being known as leaders in the effort to conquer the air, have been rudely turned away by Orville and Wilbur Wright.

“I am satisfied that they solved the fundamental principles of the great problem,” said Arnold Fordyce, who represented the French Government in the recent negotiations with the Wrights, “I believe they have settled the question of whether or not it is possible for man to fly.” The French were interested.

When Mr. Fordyce, arrived in Dayton shortly after Christmas, 1905, he was employed by the Le Journal and also representing M. Etienne, French Minister of War, and a private group of French capitalists. He made as careful an examination as was possible against the great wall of silence set by the Wrights. From residents of the city he learned of the aeroplane flights and finally he was shown several photographs of the machine in full flight, after the terms of the tentative French contract had been agreed upon.

The syndicate planned to buy a Flyer as a gift to France after successful demonstration fights.

“I know that all of this seems fantastic,” Fordyce admitted, “and of the dream order, but there are certain evidences back of it, all of which convince me that these men have discovered the secret for which the whole world has been working for many generations.”

According to the terms of this test, the aeroplane must leave the ground, fly 31 miles within an hour, with one operator, against an air current of a specific force, make certain evolutions and return to the starting point, using a motor of 16 horsepower.

To witness this test, a committee consisting of a representative of the French war department of the president of the French Republic, and two aerial experts will accompany Mr. Fordyce when he returns to this country.

The Wrights’ stipulated that the airplane must be turned over to the French military.

The French then asked for a one-year extension. Apparently because of the probability of war in Europe had subsided.

Subsequently an agreement was signed and $25,000 was deposited in the Paris branch of J. P Morgan on Feb 5, 1906. An additional $275,000 would be paid by the French for the rights to the invention. The Wrights were to make demonstration flights in France by April 5.

It never happened. The French said they didn’t want to risk public ridicule.

It would be 1908 before the Wrights would receive contracts to demonstrate their airplane. When it happened it occurred simultaneously in both France and America.

Reference: The Springfield Daily Republican, Monday, March 19, 1906.

In the fall of 1908, The Wright Brothers were scheduled to perform demonstration flights in France and at the U.S. Army’s Fort Myer, Virginia, at the same time. Wilbur went to France and Orville went to Fort Myer. It was the first time that the team was not together for a major event. It may have had played a role in Orville’s almost fatal crash.

Orville’s Military Flyer was delivered to Fort Myer eight days before the Army’s contract deadline of August 20 for required demonstration flights.

On September 1, the first demonstration was successfully concluded. The demonstration consisted of the airplane being successfully moved to the parade ground in an Army combat wagon. Portability was one of the Army’s specification requirements.

The first public flight of the Flyer in America took place on September 3 before some 500 spectators. President Theodore Roosevelt’s son was among them.

The Flyer took off from the parade ground. As it reached the south end of the field, Orville turned east toward Arlington Cemetery and followed the cemetery wall back toward the parade ground. In attempting to make a second circuit of the field, Orville pulled his steering lever the wrong way, necessitating a quick landing to avoid hitting the top of a tent. He came down just in time, damaging both landing skids of the airplane, but otherwise unhurt.

No matter, the spectators cheered. The Scientific American enthusiastically reported the event: “The Wright Brothers have followed closely the soaring birds in the method of steering and maintaining their transverse equilibrium; and that this method works goes without saying.”

On September 9, Orville set a new world’s record for passenger flight carrying Lt. Frank Lahm on a six minute flight circling the field 6 1/2 times. Lieutenant Lahm was the one who had first interested the Army in the Wright plane. He later rose to the rank of brigadier general in 1926 and became commander of the Army Air Corps.

Three days later Orville set two new records. Flying with a passenger, he flew nine minutes. Then flying alone, he achieved a new distance record by circling the field 71 times in one hour, 14 minutes and 20 seconds.

Summing up his successes, he had set nine new world records. His speed was officially clocked at 38 mph.

That was the end of the good news. On September 17, Orville was preparing to take-off with Charlie Taylor, his long time mechanic, when a senior Army officer asked if he wouldn’t mind taking along an Army observer instead. Taylor, who was already seated in the passenger seat, jumped out. The new passenger was Lieutenant Tom Selfridge.

Lt. Selfridge was a member of the review committee, so Orville didn’t have much choice in the matter. He wasn’t pleased because he didn’t trust Selfridge. He was a member of a group (Aerial Experimental Association) that included Alexander Graham Bell and Glen Curtiss, who were developing their own airplane. In an unusual arrangement, President Theodore Roosevelt, at the request of Bell, had assigned Lt. Selfridge to the project.

On the fourth circuit of the parade grounds before some 2,000 spectators at around 5:00 p.m., Orville heard a strange tapping sound in the rear. He was flying at an altitude of at least 100 feet at the time. He turned and saw nothing, but thought it best to immediately prepare to land.

Suddenly, there were two loud thumps and the machine began to shake. Orville shut off the engine but found that the control levers didn’t work. The machine turned to the left, paused a moment, made a complete turn and went into a dive. About 25 feet from the ground it seemed that he had regained some control and the plane started to right itself, but it was too late.

The Flyer hit the ground with a terrific force near the gate in the cemetery wall. Orville and Selfridge were pinned under the wreckage, unconscious, with their faces buried in the dust. Soldiers and spectators ran across the field and assisted in lifting Orville and Selfridge from under the tangled mass of machinery, wires and shreds of muslin.

Charlie Taylor leaned against the wrecked Flyer, buried his face in his arms and cried after helping to remove the two men.

At the hospital it was found that Orville had fractured several ribs, fractured his left thigh including a dislocation, and suffered a scalp wound. While serious, miraculously, it was not life threatening, although it left him with frequent back pain for the rest of his life and his left leg 1/8 inch shorter than the other.

Lt. Selfridge was not as lucky. His head was covered with blood as he was lifted from the wreckage. He had been crushed under the plane and died three hours later following surgery without gaining consciousness. Selfridge, a 1903 West Point graduate, was buried with appropriate military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. He had the dubious distinction to be the first person to die in the crash of a propeller-driven airplane.

Wilbur in Le Mans, France, when he heard the news of the crash, blamed himself for not being there. He wrote his sister Katharine, “— I cannot help thinking over and over again if I had been there, it would not have happened.”

Wilbur, on September 21, determined to try for a record flight, believing he could cheer his brother. He did. Before 10,000 spectators he flew 1 hour, 31 minutes, 25 seconds covering 61 miles for a new record.

At year’s end Wilbur won the Michelin prize of 20,000 francs and a trophy. The prize was established by industrialist Andre Michelin to be awarded for the longest flight of 1908.

Next: Orville recovers and successfully completes Army trials.

The Original Buzz Bomb

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

In 1917, Orville was back in the airplane business again in Dayton after selling the Wright Company in 1915. This time he didn’t own the company named Dayton-Wright Airplane Company, but was a technical advisor. Six Dayton businessmen formed the new company. The president of the company was Edward Deeds, a vice-president and later president of the NCR Company. The vice-president was Charles Kettering, the noted inventor. Both were good friends of Orville. A new factory was built at Moraine City, just south of Dayton. In addition, a flying school was formed and land procured just north of downtown Dayton and named North Field.

In 1918, North field was leased to the Army and renamed McCook Field.

The new investors hoped to make Dayton the manufacturing center of the United States using modern automobile production techniques to mass produce airplanes.

Fortuitously, the United States declared war on Germany five days before the new company was incorporated. Subsequently, the Dayton-Wright Company received a contract to deliver 4,000 modified British De Havilland DH-4 combat planes and 400 J1 trainers.

The DH-4 was a 2-bay airplane with a 42-1/2 foot wing span. Its fuselage was about 30 feet long. It was armed with two Lewis guns in the rear cockpit, and one or two Marlin forward firing guns.

Experiencing engineering and production problems, the first plane didn’t reach France until August 1918. Three months later the war was over. The cooling system is one example of the problems experienced. The American version of the DH-4 replaced the British engine with a 400-hp American Liberty engine. The Liberty engine was half again as large as the British engine it replaced. The mismatch required a complete redesign of the cooling system.

The De Havilland plane indirectly still lives in Dayton through the name of “Patterson” in the name “Wright-Patterson” Air Force Base. Lt. Frank Patterson was killed in an accident flying the De Havilland plane in 1917 at the base. He was the nephew of John H. Patterson, founder of the NCR.

Another milestone occurred during 1918. Orville piloted an airplane for the last time. It was an old 1911 Wright biplane in a demonstration flight along side one of the Wright Company’s new De Havillands.

One of the more interesting projects that Kettering and Orville worked on was the aerial torpedo, pilotless gyroscopically controlled wooden biplane designed to deliver a 300-pound bomb. The bomb constituted the 10 feet long fuselage. A 2-cycle, 4-cylinder 40-horsepower Ford engine powered the plane that was launched from a track.

The vehicle was named the “Bug.” The number of engine revolutions was calculated by using target distance and forecasts of wind speed and distance. When the engine had turned the set number of times, a cam dropped into position, retracting bolts that held the wings to the fuselage. The wings then detached and the single bomb containing dynamite fell.

On one occasion the pilotless plane went out of control setting off a chase by 100 men in automobiles. The plane came down 21 miles from Dayton. When the chase party arrived, puzzled people at the site were searching for the pilot.

The Bug was demonstrated to the U.S. Army Air Corps in Dayton, Ohio, in 1918. Also, in September 1918 a somewhat larger manned version of the Bug, The “Messenger,” was test flown successfully. But WWI ended before they could be put into production.

The Bug received a patent and therefore was subject to public disclosure. The Germans in WWII obtained the plans and used them build the Fi 103 missile, better known as the V-1 “buzz bomb.”

Dayton-Wright stayed in business for a while longer designing and constructing experimental airplanes. One of planes they built was a racing plane capable of attaining 200 mph known as the RB. Built with some help from Orville, it was a monoplane with several innovations. It had a variable camber wing and a notable innovation, retractable landing gear.

The company entered the plane in the Gordon Bennett International Aviation Cup race in Paris on September 28, 1920. Unfortunately, during the race a control cable failed jamming the leading edge flap that prevented the plane from completing the race. (The RB today is on display at the Ford Museum near Detroit, Michigan.)

Another airplane involving Orville, was the O.W. Aerial Coupe. The O.W. initials represented Orville Wright. Built in 1918-19, The O.W. Aerial Coupe was an enclosed passenger plane and the last original design by Orville Wright. It carried three passengers and the pilot. The plane crashed and was totally destroyed in Indiana in 1924 after it developed engine trouble.

In 1920, Deeds and Kettering sold the company to General Motors (GM) for 100,000 shares of GM stock.

GM didn’t see any future profitability in producing airplanes after the war was over. They decided to close the Dayton Wright Airplane Company in the early 1920s. Major aircraft manufacturing never again returned to Dayton.

The Wrights had finally secured a contact from the U.S. Army to provide a flying machine. Orville traveled to Ft. Myer in 1908 to perform the required demonstration flights. This is one newspaper’s description of the event.

Springfield Republic, August 30, 1908:

Orville Wright has completed the assembly of his aeroplane, which was built by the Dayton brothers for the U. S. government.

The motor was tried out yesterday and the first preliminary flight is expected tomorrow.

Note: It took place four days later on Sept. 3rd.

The photograph shows how the Wright aeroplane looks.

The two main planes, each 40 feet long, look more than ever like a wide-stretched pair of wings. Out in front of the machine extends a skeleton framework of aluminum painted wood that curves up into the air, something like a bird’s neck, and that bears the ascending and descending planes on this end. These are operated by a lever from the aviator’s seat in the middle of the machine.

A second lever at the same point operates the inadequate looking little vertical rudder in the rear. This is simply two planes not very much bigger than open newspapers. The rudder can be tipped up and down in case there is danger of its striking when the machine makes a landing.

Almost amidship is the engine. This is a chunky affair, a little larger and more powerful than the engine that drives Capt. Baldwin’s dirigible. The gasoline tank alongside, which holds naphtha for a 125-mile flight, is about as big as the engine itself.

On the outboard side of the engine the radiator rises to the full height of six feet between the upper and lower planes. It is built of brass or copper and holds about 20 pounds of water.

Two little barrels at the top and two at the bottom not much bigger than two pairs of binoculars are joined by four upright sections of the same metal, a foot wide and less than an inch thick, set edge on to the wind. It has an immense area of cooling surface for its weight and offers very little wind resistance.

The operator and passenger sit on the lower edge of the forward plane alongside the engine. The double seat is cushioned, but is not much bigger than a baby carriage built for twins. There is a little footrest in the “neck of the bird” for the operator and its passenger to dig their heels into, and that is all.

Neither the operator nor the engine are exactly in the middle of the machine. They are a little off the center on each side, and intended roughly to balance each other, but — and here is the remarkable fact to the novice — there is no need for a nice adjustment of this balance. To be sure, the engine and the operator are not very far off the center, so there is not much leverage to be overcome, but there can be a discrepancy to 200 pounds in the two weights without affecting the flight of the machine.

The aeroplane will carry considerable added weight, too. This particular machine could lift about 400 or 500 pounds of added weight. That is to say, the big bird could swoop down and carry off a couple of good sized or small steer in its talons and not be more overloaded than a big eagle carrying off a small dog.

Also it could drop this weight without upsetting its flight. This is important in case it came to dropping explosives.

Mr. Wright said today he did not know that he could hit anything without a great deal of practice, but that the mere carrying of a heavy weight and letting it go suddenly would not tend to affect the machine in the least.

Both the propellers of the flying machine have been installed. They are of aluminum painted wood, smaller of diameter and broader of blade than the toothpick-like propeller of the Baldwin ship, but then each aerial propeller has to be designed for the particular work it has to do, and the two on the Wright machine have been calculated to a nicety for the particular function they are to perform. The propellers are driven by crossed bicycle chains off the main shaft of the engine.

The only two colors of the machine are white and silver, saving the gray plush aviator’s seat and the brass radiator. It is possible, after flying machines become a standard asset of the army, that there may be a special shade of paint prescribed for them, as there is now for torpedo boats and warships, as a protection against searchlights, but for the present this refinement has been reached.

The Wrights returned to Fort Myer in 1909 to complete the Army acceptance trials that had been interrupted the previous year by a crash that almost killed Orville. Wilbur accompanied Orville this time, but Orville would do all the flying.

After several days of delay, Orville first flew on Tuesday, June 29. There were four attempts to fly that day. The first three were failures; the last flight was partially successful.

The story was carried in the Virginia Pilot Newspaper. Here is that story:

After making three unsuccessful efforts to get his new aeroplane into the air today, Orville Wright made a short flight, encircling the Fort Myer aerodrome.

Lack of power, due to a loose spark control, was finally determined upon by the two Wrights as the cause of the refusal of the machine to fly for more than a few hundred feet beyond the end of the starting rail.

“A flying machine is like a horse,” said Wilbur after the trail. “If it’s new you got to get used to it before it will go just as you want it to. You have to learn its peculiarities. I am glad we learned what the trouble is, and after a few more trials you will see some fun.”

There was hardly a breath of air when the machine was taken out of its shed and placed on the starting track shortly after 5 o’clock. The motor was given a test and it worked very smoothly. The weight was then hauled to the top of the starting tower and the rope to which it is attached was fastened to the aeroplane.

Everything being in readiness, Wilbur Wright and Charlie Taylor, the mechanic, each stationed himself at one of the propellers ready to turn it, like cranking an automobile. Orville Wright turned the ignition and his brother and the mechanic gave the propellers a twist. The latter whirred around at a great fate as Orville took his place in the operator’s seat. Wilbur stationed himself at the end of the aeroplane and ran along with it when Orville released the weight, which pulls it down the track and gives it momentum.

The machine rose as soon as it left the rail, but appeared to be able to mount into the air but a few feet. The right wing veered towards the ground and struck the earth at its tip. The machine was swung around. Orville quickly stopped the motor. It was found that the canvas at the tip of the wing had been torn slightly by scraping on the ground. After the canvass had been repaired the machine was returned to the starting rail. It had traveled about 200 feet.

“I didn’t have enough power,” explained Orville. “Besides the wind is coming from behind me.” There was a slight movement of air from the north but it was scarcely noticeable.

At 6:30 the machine started again, and the first mishap was repeated, with the exception that this time the left wing scraped the ground.

The machine was returned for a third trial and the crowd cheered lustily. Wilbur contended that the weight was not sufficient in front, and he gave an illustration of his ingenuity by attaching a rather heavy vice on one of the skids, forward of the machine and an iron clamp on the opposite side. Orville stuck to his theory that the power was not sufficient.

The third attempt was even less successful, the machine refusing to rise at all. The power was increased before the machine was brought back for a fourth attempt.

At 7:45 on the final trial the machine rose to a height of about 15 or 20 feet. Shortly after it ascended from the ground it showed signs of losing headway, but Orville kept on around the field, remaining in the air about 50 seconds and landing almost immediately in front of the starting track. As he stepped out he called to his mechanic: “I found out this time what the matter was, Charlie. The spark shakes back to zero.”

Wilbur seemed to regard the difficulties encountered as rather amusing and being Orville’s big brother had a few criticisms to make of him. Wilbur refuses to make any flights at Fort Myer, saying that it is his brother’s job, but he does most of the “bossing” and most of the “tinkering.”

Bishop Milton Wright, father of the two aviators with their other brother, Reuchlin, arrived at Fort Myer in time to see the tests.

Tomorrow it is expected another flight will be attempted. (end)

Note: There were two design changes made to the control system of this aeroplane. There was a spark-retarding pedal on the footbar for throttling the engine. The other change was an addition to the wing-warping handle. The handle contained a “bent wrist” control for the rudder. The pilot could turn his wrist to activate the rudder, while moving the entire lever front or back to warp the wing.

Reference: Virginia-Pilot, June 30, 1909.