Wright Brothers, Mentors of General Foulois

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Contemporaries

Major General Benjamin Foulois, a high school dropout who enlisted to serve in the Spanish-American War, worked his way up the ranks of the Army to a Major General becoming Chief, U.S. Army Air Corps. As a young Lt. He played a critical role in the history of the Wright Brothers.

The Wright Brothers had been awarded an Army Air Corps contract to build an airplane that met a number of critical requirements. The specification required an airplane capable of carrying two men at a speed of 40 mph while staying in the air for at least one hour. If successfully met, the Wrights’ would be awarded $25,000 plus $2,500 for each mph above 40. (They could also lose $2,500 for each mph below 40 mph.)

Lt. Foulois was the lowest ranking member of the five-man army aeronautical board that would monitor the Wright’s performance in accordance with the specification requirements. Foulois was fascinated with airplanes and had written a research paper while attending Ft. Leavenworth that concluded that airplanes would soon outperform balloons and dirigibles for wartime use.

While the Wrights were assembling their machine at Ft. Myer in preparation for their upcoming flights, Foulois was constantly peppering Wilbur with questions about flying. Wilbur was always courteous in answering his questions but was becoming increasingly exasperated.

One day Foulois asked Wilbur about a book he was reading on flying. Wilbur had enough of questions and answered, “There are no books worth reading on the subject of flying. You get your hands on that machine over there if you really want to learn about it.”

Foulois was delighted to help, put on work clothes and went to work.

On July 27, Orville fulfilled the specification requirement of a two-man flight for one hour, breaking the world’s record set by Wilbur in France. His passenger was Lt. Frank Lahm who had reported to the now deceased Lt. Thomas Selfridge who was killed the previous year in a flight with Orville.

The second specification requirement was for a ten-mile, two-man speed test. The board allowed Orville to select a member of the board to fly with him as an official observer. Orville chose Foulois. Orville liked him for his avid interest in aviation.

Orville chose Foulois because he had experience in map reading and, as a bonus he didn’t weigh much (126 pounds). His skill would be critically needed because the terrain in those days was rugged between Ft. Myer and Alexandria, containing three ravines and a forest. There would be no good place for an emergency landing.

Foulois laid out the course to require a 10-mile round-trip to Alexandria, Virginia and back. The turning point in Alexandria was called Shooter’s Hill where the George Washington Masonic Memorial is now located. At the time, the cornerstone had just been laid.

Foulois arranged for a sausage-shaped tethered balloon to fly above Shooters Hill to mark the turnaround point.

One has to marvel at Orville’s and Foulois’s fearlessness. Since 1902, Orville had endured five serious crashes. The previous year’s crash was nearly fatal to Orville and Army board member Lt. Selfridge was killed. But, there was no hint of any hesitancy on the part of either one.

Foulois showed up for the flight on July 30 fully prepared with two stop watches around his neck, a aneroid barometer strapped to one thigh and a box compass to the other. He stuck a map inside his belt.

They took off at 6:46 p.m. from the parade ground at Fort Myer with President William Howard Taft and a crowd of 7,000 spectators cheering them on. The Flyer climbed to 50 feet and circled the parade ground twice before heading off to Alexandria.

Orville told Foulois that if they ran into trouble he would land in a field or the thickest clump of trees he could find. Foulois said later he nodded and gulped because he knew there wasn’t any flat land available on the route.

When the Flyer flew out of sight, the crowd fell silent with apprehension. They were aware of the rugged course. Wilbur estimated what the time of travel would be, but when the Flyer didn’t appear at the appointed time, he grew concerned and beads of sweat formed on his forehead and rolled down his checks. His estimated time was too optimistic.

A spectator shouted, “he’s down!” Katharine gave him a sharp reprimand. “How do you know he’s down?” Then there were cries of “there it comes,” as the Flyer reappeared over the treetops to the south.

Orville nosed the plane down to pick up speed as it roared with a flourish over the finish line at 7:08 p.m. to the cheers of the crowd and the honking of horns. He went on to circle Arlington Cemetery, then turned off the motor and glided in for a landing. Pandemonium reigned as the two men were almost mobbed by the crowd.

On the return trip Orville flew at an altitude of 400 feet setting a new world altitude record.

President Taft congratulated Orville on the spot. Lt. Foulois said it was the only time he ever saw Wilbur smile.

The next day they learned that the Flyer’s average speed was calculated to be 42.58-mph. That meant they earned a $5,000 bonus to add to their earned 40-mph price of $25,000. On August 2, 1909 the Signal Corps accepted the Wright Flyer for military use. It was the first airplane purchased and placed in service by any government.

This model, sometimes known as Signal Corps No. 1, was Wright Model A. It was restored by the Wrights and now resides in the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. It was the only one of its type constructed by the Wrights.

The army contract also required the training of two military pilots. Lt. Frank Lahm and Lt. Foulois were selected to be the first to receive the training.

Before training could begin they needed to find a new location to fly. The commanding officer at Fort Myer requested they move because they interfered with his summer training program.

Frank Lahm found a new field they could use in Maryland near what is now the University of Maryland. The field, College Park Airport, is sill in use.

At the last minute, Foulois was given orders to attend the International Conference of Aeronautics at Nancy, France and an aeronautical exhibition in Frankfort, Germany. Foulois was being punished for being too negative on the future of the dirigible.

Lt. Humphreys was selected to take the place of Foulois.

When Foulois returned, he first flew with Wilbur on October 23. Three days later Humphreys and Lahm made their first solo flight, becoming the first military pilots in American history.

On November 5, Lahm and Humphreys crashed their airplane while flying together. They were not hurt but there were no parts locally available to make repairs. Besides, the weather was turning cold with hazardous crosswinds.

The army decided to move operations from College Park to a warmer climate at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Lahm and Humphreys were given orders to return to their former non-flying assignments.

Foulois argued hard to be the one to take the plane to Texas. A senior officer who disapproved of Foulois and his campaign on behalf of the airplane, approved of Foulois going to Texas, saying, “Let him have it. He’ll break his neck, and that’ll be the end of this nonsense.”

Foulois and nine mechanics were ordered to take the repaired Wright machine No. 1 to Fort Sam Houston.

Foulois had time for only three flying lessons from Wilbur and that was not sufficient to be able to solo. When Foulois mentioned this to his superiors, he was told to “take plenty of spare parts and teach yourself to fly”

His orders to Texas were amended to divert their travel to Chicago to attend an electrical trade exhibition to show off their airplane.

The machine was hung from the ceiling of the exhibition hall. An electric motor was rigged to the propellers so they could spin as if in flight. The opening night a popular singer appeared on a small balcony which just happened to be directly in the airflow from the propellers spinning at 400 rpm. Foulois reported that “when she opened up her tonsils with the hit song of the day, “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers,” the blast from the props blew most of the song down her throat and her dress up around her necklace.”

Foulois arrived in Texas in February 1910 and commenced to erect a small hanger and begin teaching himself to fly by trial and error. He received help from Orville and Wilbur who answered his questions and provided instructions through correspondence. On March 2, he made his first solo, reporting that “I made my first solo, landing, takeoff and crash.”

He only was allotted $150 for maintenance of the airplane, but the repairs from his first four months of flying exceeded his appropriation so he had to spend $300 of his own money for the repairs.

Foulois liked to say that he was the first correspondence-school pilot.

Wilbur was disturbed by the many accidents Foulois was having. He sent Frank Coffyn, a member of the Wright Exhibition Team, down to Texas to find out what the problem was.

Coffyn soon diagnosed the problem as “ground shyness.” This was the term used to describe a pilot that “landed” about sixty feet above the earth, where he often stalled his airplane and fell to the earth. It is one of the mental hazards of flying and by no means rare.

In 1914, Foulois became the first commander of a tactical air unit, the “1st Aero Squadron.” This was the army’s first air force. Their first military action was to provide support to General’s Pershing’s incursion into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa.

Foulois would later become the first Chief of the U.S. Army Air Service, The Chief of the Materiel Division at Wright Field in Dayton and Chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1931 to 1935 and rise to the rank of a major general.

During his tour at Wright Field in 1929-1930, he lived on a house built by my great-great grandfather (Henry Hebble). The house is now known as the Foulois House and is used as the base commander’s residence.

During this period at Wright Field, Orville Wright most likely visited him. There is no record of this but there is a record that Orville visited Major Henry “Hap” Arnold who lived in a house a short distance away during the same time frame. Incidentally, the house that Arnold lived in as known as the Arnold house. It is the oldest building on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and was also built by Henry Hebble.

Hebble also built a number of covered bridges in the vicinity of Wright Field. Only two still exit. One is near Antioch College (on the left), and the other is near Wilberforce College (on the right).

One other anecdote about Foulois: It involved Babe Ruth in a publicity stunt in 1925 and was covered by the press, radio and motion pictures. The idea was to have Babe Ruth catch a baseball dropped by an airplane.

Foulois said, “I had a pilot, Captain Harold McClelland, go up with three baseballs and bomb the “Babe” with them from 250 feet. The first two balls knocked him flat, but he held onto the third one and gave it to me as a souvenir.”

Foulois was a forceful and outspoken advocate for a strong and separate air force. In the process he alienated his military superiors and some members of Congress. As a result he was forced into retirement in 1935. Shortly before retirement he proudly admitted to General Douglas MacArthur, a friend and baseball teammate years ago at Fort Leavenworth, that he had been using unorthodox language against the War Department General Staff since 1908.

On Christmas day just before retirement he flew for the last time:

“I had a strange feeling as I looked down at a flattened place in the dunes from the beach. There was the skeleton of an old shack there and I suddenly knew where I was. I began to circle. Below me was Kill Devil Hill, really only a mound of sand about 100 feet above the water level. Like a pilgrim going to Mecca, I had been drawn inexorably to that small deserted spot where aviation had been thirty-two years before. This is where it all began, I said out loud to myself. This is where it all began.”

Reference: “From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts” by Benjamin D. Foulois

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