Learning to Fly the 1911 Wright Type B Airplane

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

A Wright Type B airplane will participate in the World famous Farnborough (England) International Airshow in July 2008. The airplane is a civilian version of the authentic replica of the Model B located at the Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania.

The flights at the Airshow will help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first flight in the United Kingdom.

The replica was built by a group of volunteers in Dayton, Ohio. A spokesman said that this replica has many refinements and safety improvements that do not detract from its authenticity, but enhance its beauty and flying safety. The plane essentially operates under the same horsepower, weight and controls used by the Wright brothers.

In 1911, the Wrights received a contract from the U.S. Signal Corps for two Type B Aircraft. They built a factory on the West-side of Dayton to build these and other airplanes. Some twenty people were involved in construction of the Army’s Model B.

If you were interested in the “Art of Aviation” and becoming a “birdman” (pilot), the usual procedure was to meet with Orville in his office at the factory. Although, the first meeting might take place at their Huffman Prairie Flying Field, reachable by the interurban train from Dayton to the flying field at the Simms Station stop. Orville spent a lot of time at the flying field because he enjoyed being involved in the flying activities more than working in the office.

Lessons at the Wright School cost $60 per hour of direct training provided in 15-minute intervals. There was a potential large cost saving at the Wright School because there was no charge for breakage of the machine. Most other flying schools required the student to pay for breakage.

New students were considered to be “ground huggers” by the birdman and their associates. Orville would counsel nervous students, “Don’t be nervous, it’s just like learning to ride a bicycle.”

The student would then be assigned to his instructor and to the Wrights’ chief mechanician, Charley Taylor. Both men were professional and had a low tolerance for foolishness.

Before taking to the air the student would be tutored in the Wright techniques for construction and maintenance of airplanes and in the fundamental principles of flight. This included the means for lifting and dropping the machine by angling the elevator surfaces and the means for turning by coordinating movements of the rudder surfaces with wing warping.

In one room of the factory the Wrights’ had built a flight simulator, named the “kiwi bird.” The simulator was a Type B without an engine and tail assembly. It was cradled to allow lateral movement only.

An electric motor driving a cam continuously changed the angle of the planes about the longitudinal axis. As the student pilot manipulated the combination warp and rudder lever properly, the planes were returned to a level attitude.

Usually it required the student to spend several hours over three or four days seated on the kiwi bird, practicing until correction of lateral imbalance became instinctive.

Once this phase is completed the student pilot journeyed to the Simms Station Field for flight training. The field was a converted cow pasture, bare except for a thorn tree at one end and a large wooden shed at the other. The field was over 300-feet long, which was long enough to accommodate even inept students.

The students first task was to help pull the 1,250 pound Model B from the shed. The machine rode on wheels and skids that replaced the steel track that was used on earlier models.

The model B had its control surfaces at the rear of the machine unlike previous Wright models. A 35-hp water-cooled engine powered eight-foot propellers to turn at about 45-rpm.

The first procedure, which the student was taught to perform every time before flight, was the ground check. It included a walk around that included inspecting its fitness, checking patches of fabric and testing the webwork of wires.

If everything checked out to be ok, the instructor and student would climb into two side by side wicker seats lined with corduroy, perched on the forward edge of the lower plane.

Between the two seats stood the wing-warping lever with a hinged upper section for independent rudder control. By rotating the top portion of the lever the pilot could add or subtract rudder action by a somewhat difficult wrist-twisting movement.

To make the task easier, a right-handed pilot was trained in the left seat so that his “better” hand could be used.

There was another lever at the outside of each seat to use to change altitude.

A spring-loaded foot treadle that was reachable from either seat adjusted speed. Pressing on the foot treadle advanced or retarded the ignition spark, providing a range of engine power.

To start the engine, one man primed the intake manifold from an oil can filled with gasoline. The engine was then started with the compression released; otherwise, you would need two heavyweight wrestlers to turn the propellers.

Two other men swung the propellers; the engine fired in a blast of smoke as they ran to grasp the wing tips. The pilot than turned the compression-release lug and switched on the fuel-tank value. The spark-retard was not released until the engine was running smoothly.

At that point the pilot would wave the assistants to let loose of the machine. The pilot kicked at the treadle and pushed the elevator-control lever. The machine bounced along the ground as the machine gained speed. The tail assembly raised and its skids left the ground as the “B” wobbled into the air.

It was customary at the Wright school for the novice student to only act as an observer on his first flight. After landing, the aviators, mechanicians, and workman on the ground would go through a ritual of carefully examining the machine to see if the student passenger “had squeezed the paint off.”

A typical flight-training schedule would consist of a 15-minute airborne period per day over several days. The first couple of days the student would learn to perform left and right turns and then figure eights. The task of the student was to maintain level flight, as well as perform aerodynamic turns without slipping and skidding. It was like balancing on a knife-edge. One mishap, one lapse of concentration, could result in a plunge into oblivion.

By the third, flight the student was participating in takeoff and landing maneuvers. One helpful bit of advice given to the student on taking off and landing was to “look at your shadow. When it leaves you, you’re in the air; when it reappears again, you’re down.” Landing too hard was hazardous to skids and wheels.

By the sixth day, the student had operated the machine under his own skills through a complete cycle.

Generally student flight was restricted to afternoons and then only in still air. Orville established this rule. He said, “Otherwise we can’t tell whether the wind or the student is knocking the machine about.”

Orville would often observe the training dressed in his derby and dark business suit. He would admonish his students against foolhardy thoughts or acts. He emphasized the maxims of safety. Caution and concentration were bywords expressed to students for survival.

Orville would often tell of the horse-drawn carriage waiting on the road that bounded the pasture, its driver, a somber gentleman with tall black hat, following with keen interest each day’s flights. That man, Orville said ominously, was the local undertaker.

Once the instructor and teacher were satisfied that the student was ready to solo, Orville as well those other present would gather to watch the solo flight. After a successful flight, the observers would cheer while the pilot was proclaimed a master of airplanes — a “birdman.”

After qualifying as an aviator, the Type B could be purchased for $5,000.

An extra benefit of being a student at the Wright School was that Orville would regularly invite most of his students to his Hawthorne Street home for dinner with his father, Bishop Milton Wright, his sister, Katharine, and his brother Lorin.

Reference: Fight of the VIN FIZ by E. P. Stein

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