Pau Amazed at Wilbur’s Flights

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

Following Wilbur’s success at Les Hunaudiere and Camp d’Auvours near Le Mans, he moved his flying activities to the elite resort town of Pau on January 14, 1909. The weather was warmer and the flying field was much better. His major task was to train three Frenchmen to fly the airplane now that he had satisfied the airplane’s performance requirements for the French syndicate who planned to build Wright airplanes in France. He was not in Pau to set any flying records although he wowed everybody who saw him fly in Pau.

He was provided a level unfenced field almost a mile square known as Pont Long located eight miles south of Pau with a fine view of the Pyrenees Mountains. The virtual absence of trees allowed Wilbur the luxury to fly large circuits of three to four miles and not stray too far from his hangar-shed.

The shed at Pont Long was much better that the two he had at Le Mans. It was large enough that he didn’t have to dissemble the Flyer’s tail frame and front rudder every time it entered or left the shed. His living quarters were much nicer and he had his meals provided by a French chef selected by the mayor. He also had a special telephone line to Pau where Orville and Katharine were staying in a fancy hotel.

Wilbur for the first time wore a good-looking black leather motorcyclist’s jacket for flying in cold weather. It was the first leather aviation jacket.

His three student pilots were balloonist Paul Tissandier, Captain Paul Lucas-Girardville and Count Charles de Lambert. Tissandier would later be the first to fly around the Eiffel Tower.

This is how the New York Herald described his first flight at Pau on February 3, 1909:

“A constant stream of automobiles bound for the flying field was reported everywhere after one o’clock this afternoon,.. as Mr. Wilbur Wright’s preparations came to an end today and it was believed that he would make his first flight.

Early comers, however, saw nothing to indicate that a flight was being prepared, the only change being a derrick for weights in position and a long metal rail over which Mr. Wright was continually walking, testing and examining the joints. A wind from the west began to blow, a strange event in Pau, and clouds began to gather.

Several people had left when, without notice, the doors of the aeroplane shed opened slowly and a weird structure, the Wright aeroplane, came out. Its motor is a new one, made in Paris on Mr. Wright’s design. Mr. Wilbur Wright examined it with loving care, Mr. Orville Wright assisting. Miss Wright was in the crowd, looking hardly at all nervous.

Suddenly the propellers began to whirl round at a great rate. After another careful examination the Wrights announced that the motor was working well. The engine was stopped and the structure was wheeled out in front of the spectators to the starting rail. It took some time to get the machine properly balanced and to hoist the counterweight, which is about three hundred pounds heavier than that used in America.

Again the curious propeller whizzed round, and Mr. Wilbur Wright took his seat, but descended to oil another bearing. It had been thought that Mr. Paul Tissandier would go up with the aviator, but he stayed on the ground directing the men. Dr. Speakman, official timekeeper of the Aero Club took his stand by the derrick, a stopwatch in hand.

Are you ready?

Up to this there had been quite a loud hum of conversation from the people assembled, but now a hush fell on the assembly, a pause almost of dread.

Let’s go!

The weights fell, and with whirling propellers the fairylike machine tore along the rail to the end by the turn of one lever, and at twelve minutes past four it soared into the air, turning and wheeling up and down as graceful as an albatross, showing the perfect command which the aviator had over every movement and every part of the machine. It had an undulating movement of its own.

Activated by these wonderful levers, the aeroplane glided down to the ground, skimmed over it, then went up forty meters, down again, and so on. As it turned and the movement of the wings prevented the sound of the motor from being heard. All thought the machine had stopped, and an “Oh!” was heard from the whole crowd, which was fascinated by the maneuver, but there was no pause, as the aviator, wheeling on a frightfully acute angle, again circled.

And in this way he seemed to describe a couple of circles and something like a figure eight, and for a second or two the machine seemed to rest motorless against the white line of the Pyrenees. The scene was very beautiful.

Then Mr. Wright came to the ground just beside the starting point, having been in the air just under six minutes.

Mr. Wright traveled at an estimated speed of sixty-five kilometers an hour. He received a great ovation on coming down, and at twelve minutes to five again left the ground. This time he attained a far higher elevation, but there was no height balloons and no measures of length, it is difficult to give an accurate estimate.

He went away to the northwest, turned with consummate ease and came over the heads of the crowd, soaring away to the east over the crowd of automobilists, then back again toward the Aero Park and over it at a tremendous elevation, the machine looking like a thing of life.

Then, to show his power, Mr. Wright made several circles with an extremely small radius, the aeroplane heeling over to an angle of forty-five degrees, after which it descended, coming down as gently as any bird. He spent more than five minutes in the air.

The Mayor congratulated Miss Wright gracefully on the marvelous skill of her brother, and the universal expression was one of wonder at the immense reserve of power Mr. Wright possesses. He never seemed to exert himself. It was the most marvelous performance ever seen at Pau.”

New students who were being trained to fly first flew as a passenger. The student first learned to manipulate the horizontal front rudder (elevator) in straight-line flight. Then he was allowed to manipulate the warping and rudder control stick located between the two seats. Wilbur would sit with his hands on his knees ready to react to any mistakes.

Wilbur explained the operation of the lever located between the seats to a journalist:

“You see by moving this lever forward, you warp the right wing downward into a greater angle of incidence and lessen the angle of the opposite wing. That throws a greater resistance on this side, and he pointed to the end of the right wing. It tends to turn the machine, but when I move this lever forward, see, the rear rudder (vertical tail) moves to the left and counters any turning effect. The wings are warped with a fore and aft movement, and with the same hand the top of this lever can be bent to the right or left and the rear rudder turned to steer in a corresponding direction. When desired, by bending over this lever to the right or left, the rudder can be worked independently of the wing warping.”

Student pilots were designed either right-handed or left-handed pilots. The pilots trained by Wilbur (or Orville) sat on the right and learned to manipulate the wing warping rudder lever, located between the two seats, with their left hand. These were called left-handed pilots.

When a left-handed pilot trained another pilot, the student sat in the seat at the left and learned to manipulate the lever with his right hand and was therefore known as a right-handed pilot.

Orville once attempted to fly a Wright machine as a left-handed pilot, that is sitting in the seat at the right and manipulating the wing warping-rudder stick with his left hand. He said, “that was the wildest flight of my life. I never again attempted to pilot using the let-hand controls.”

Wilbur missed his family and convinced Orville and Katharine to visit him in France. They joined Wilbur in Pau after first spending two days in Paris. They almost didn’t make it to Pau because they were involved in a serious train wreck thirty miles outside of Pau. The express train they were on collided with a slow local train. Two passengers were killed and many injured. Fortunately Orville and Katharine both escaped with no injuries.

Many famous people came to watch Wilbur fly at Pau. One of these was King Alfonso XIII of Spain. He was greatly interested in the Flyer and asked all kinds of questions of Wilbur. He didn’t fly, although he greatly wanted to, because his wife and senior advisors told him not to.

Katharine later heard about it and commented that King Alfonso was a “good husband” for keeping his promise to his wife that he would not fly.

That didn’t stop Katharine from flying. Just as night was beginning to fall on February 15, she flew with Wilbur for seven minutes and four seconds. That was the first flight she had ever been on. On March 17 she flew again for 12 minutes 22 seconds. This time it was in front of King Edward VII on one of the two flights that he observed. He vigorously waved his hat and cheered as they flew by the stands. He proclaimed that she was the “ideal American.”

Katharine made a big impression on everyone and some of what they wrote about her was exaggerated. Such as, she helped her brothers financially and solved difficult mathematical problems for them. She exclaimed, “I did no pioneer work in connection with the invention of the airplane.”

Wilbur was also subjected to false statements. He was named co-respondent in a divorce suit filed by a lieutenant in the French Army. It turned out that a newspaper reporter substituted Wilbur’s name for the real person in order to get publicity.

The day before Wilbur made his final flight at Pont-Long, Tissandier and de Lambert each made solo flights of more than 20 minutes each. These flights served to silence the skeptics who claimed that you had to have acrobatic ability to fly the Wright machine.

Wilbur made his last flight at Pont-Long on March 20 and then headed for Rome where he had accepted an offer of $10,000 from the Aeronautical Society of Rome for a Flyer and the training of a pilot to fly it.

He made sixty-four flights during his stay at Pau. Some of his flights were recorded on movie film; the first films ever made of Wilbur flying.

The airfield site at Pont Long is still used today as the airport for Pau.

Wilbur gave the four-year old Flyer he flew at Pau to Lazare Weiller and members of the French syndicate. He had a new machine shipped from Dayton that he forwarded on to his next stop in Rome.

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