Wright Model C: End of the Line

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

The Model C was the standard production airplane for the Wright Co. in 1913. The Army originally purchased six Wright Model Cs and five of these airplanes had crashed killing six men. Major Samuel Reber, the officer in charge of Army aviation called for an investigation and the resulting conclusions were that the crashes were caused by design error, not pilot error.

The 1912 Model C was the successor to the popular Model B and was delivered to the Army in 1912. It replaced the prominent triangular blinkers of the Model B with vertical vanes attached to the forward end of the skids.

It employed a more powerful engine to meet the Army specifications; that the machine climb at the rate of 200 feet per second, have a fuel supply sufficient for a 4-hour flight and carry a weight of 450 pounds, including pilot and passenger. It also had a simplified control system that was difficult to learn for new pilots.

In order to help understand the problems with the Model C, I will digress a bit to provide some background.

After Wilbur’s death, Orville took over as president of the company. It was a job he didn’t want but he really didn’t have a choice. He was not a good president. His vision for the company was clouded by an obsessive desire to protect their patent rights that were under attack by Glen Curtiss. Orville and the rest of the family blamed the stress that Wilbur was under while defending the patent as a contributing factor in his death.

Even before Wilbur’s death, the Wright airplanes were technologically beginning to fall behind the competition. The Model C was such a machine. The standard model was slow and unstable and used a twin-lever control system that was confusing to operate.

The problem with the Army began on June 11, 1912. U.S. Army Lt. Leighton Hagelhurst and Wright co-pilot Arthur Welsh were killed in a Model C when they crashed at College Park, Md. Then on September 4, 1913, Lt. Moss Love was killed in a Model C at the Army’s new North Island training facility at San Diego, California.

Two months later, on November 14, Lt. Perry Rich crashed into Manila Bay, Philippines, and died. Tens days later, student pilot Lt. Hugh Kelly and chief instructor Eric Ellington were killed in a second crash at North Island.

The death of Ellington set off alarm bells in Dayton. Ellington had the reputation as one of the best pilots in the Army. He had been corresponding with Grover Loening, the Wright Company’s factory manager about problems with the Model C machine. Ellington told Loening that the machine was tail heavy and difficult to control.

Orville had hired Loening as factory manager after he had fired the former factory manager, Frank Russell, when he took over as president. Loening was a 1910 engineering graduate of Columbia. Orville knew him because Wilbur had met him the year before in New York City.

Loening was now convinced that there was a fundamental design defect in the Model C Machine. Although Orville thought highly of Loening, he emphatically disagreed with his conclusion.

Orville maintained that the problem was pilot error. The Model C had a powerful new engine and the pilots were not accustomed to it. He suspected that most of the crashes were a result of stalls caused by the pilots misjudging their angle of attack.

Orville intended to solve the perceived problem in two ways. One, he developed an angle-of-incidence indicator that detected small changes in the angle of attack that allowed the pilot to know when his climb or dive was too steep.

The more powerful engine was to be used for climbing only. If the engine was flown at full power on level flight, the angle of attack becomes critical and should be kept between 5 and 10 degrees in order to maintain the center of pressure on the wing at the proper position. Orville predicted that 90% of the accidents caused by stalling would be eliminated if they paid attention to the new indicator.

Secondly, he developed an automatic pilot that he had been working on since 1905. He received a patent for this device in October 1913 and was awarded the Collier Trophy for the device on February 5, 1914. In a performance at Huffman Prairie in December he wowed members of the Aero Club of America, when he took-off and flew seven circles of the field with his hands held over his head.

Unfortunately for Orville’s invention, Lawrence Sperry soon after adapted a balancing device to airplanes that his father had invented for counteracting the roll and pitch of a ship. The Sperry device performed the same function as Orville’s mechanical device but with gyroscopes. The Sperry device became the standard for future use.

Then it happened again. On February 9, 1914, another pilot, Lt. Henry Post died in a crash at North Island. Six men had now been killed in crashes of the Model C. The number constituted one half of all Army pilots killed in air crashes. This is what instigated the Major Reder’s call for a board of investigation. The board concluded after their investigation, that the machine’s elevator was too weak and condemned the Model C as “dynamically unsuited for flying.”

Orville disagreed with the conclusion but cooperated with the investigation. He sent several of his employees, including Oscar Brindley his leading instructor at Huffman Field, to conduct the investigation at North Field.

Brindley, in his initial report, found that aircraft maintenance was a major problem. Major Reder thereupon advertised for an engineer to oversee the airworthiness of airplanes in the Army inventory and to organize a small research and development unit.

Loening applied for the job and was hired. His first action was to declare all the Wright and Curtiss airplanes unsafe to fly. He blamed part of the problem on the pusher type (propellers in back) design. He believed that the pusher type airplanes were prone to stall and when they crashed the engine too often fell and crushed the pilot. Curtiss Machines were having as many problems if not more as the Wright machines.

Loening wrote to Orville several times, but Orville seldom answered his letters. As a result, Loening believed that Orville never forgave him for outlawing the Wright airplanes.

In the meantime Orville was fighting Glen Curtiss in the continuing patent lawsuit and also working on a plan to sell the Wright Company. The latter task he successfully accomplished on October 15, 1915.

The reorganized Wright Co. developed two new airplanes to replace the Wright Model C, the Wright Models K and L. The Model K was built for the Navy and the Model L was a light scout airplane. Both were of a completely new design, placing the propellers in the front (tractor type) and used ailerons instead of wingwarping for the first time.

The company was losing money and merged with the Glenn L. Martin Co. and the Simplex Automobile Co. in 1916 to form the Wright-Martin Co. The new company prospered as an aircraft engine builder.

Glenn Curtiss developed a tractor type machine of his own in 1944 designated the Model J. A later version became the popular JN-4D (Jenny) of World War I.

The Wright-Curtiss patent dispute wasn’t settled until 1917 when the federal government stepped in to settle it during World War II.

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