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.