Wright Brothers – Famous Wright Airplane Flights

Articles relating to famous flights taken by the Wright Brothers.

Bird Strikes

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Wright Airplane Flights

A bird strike is what forced the US Airways Flight 1249 to crash land in the icy Hudson River. Fortunately, a skillful pilot managed to land the plane safely in the river and all 155 passengers survived.

Bird Strikes have been a known and common hazard since the Wright brothers started flying. The first recorded bird strike occurred while Wilbur Wright was flying over Huffman Prairie in Dayton in 1905.

In his diary, written on September 7, 1905, he recorded, “Twice passed over fences into Bread’s cornfield. Chased flocks of birds on two rounds and killed one which fell on top of upper surface and after a time fell off when swinging a sharp curve.”

The earliest known fatal airplane crash involving a bird took place in 1912. The plane, a Wright Model EX, which was a single-seat exhibition model version of a 1911 Wright Model B, flown by Wright trained Calbraith Perry Rodgers.

Rodgers was the first pilot to fly across country on a flight from Long Island, NY, to Long Beach, Calif. He flew over 4,321 miles with 70 landings (many crashes).

Rodgers was killed shortly after his transcontinental flight while testing a new engine. He ran into a flock of sea gulls, hit them and plunged into the surf some 500 feet from the spot where he had landed in triumph five months earlier. The engine, which had broken loose, and struck Rodgers in the back of his head, breaking his neck.

Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, where the Huffman Prairie Flying Field is located, reports that the base’s airplanes go through some 10 to 12 substantial bird strikes a year. However, not since 2005 has a collision resulted in a failed engine.

You may have seen old movies of stunt aviators that end up crashing into a chicken Coop.

It actually happened to Cal Rodgers, a 32-year-old-cigar smoking flamboyant pilot taught to fly by the Wright brothers. He was flying the second leg of the Randolph Hearst Transcontinental Race which offered a $50,000 prize to the first man to fly across the country in thirty days or less.

Cal started the race taking off from Sheepshead Bay, NY on Sept. 17, 1911 at 6:20 a.m. on the 105-mile trip to Middletown NY. His airplane was the Wright Model EX, which was a modification of the 1910 Wright Model B.

By 6 o’clock in the evening after an uneventful flight, he was in sight of the Academy Avenue Pleasure Grounds on the outskirts of Middletown where he was to land. But there was an unexpected problem. Some 9,000 spectators covered the area of the field where he was supposed to land.

After several attempts to land, the police were finally able to clear about 200 feet in which he could land. Cal said he made a good landing: “It didn’t even knock the ashes off my cigar.”

The plan was to leave the next day for Callicoon, Binghamton, Elmira and Hornell where fuel had been propositioned.

About 300 spectators had gathered early the next morning at the Pleasure Grounds to see Cal off.

It was cold that morning (low 40s) and Cal dressed with knee-high leggings and placed sheets of newspaper between his shirt and coat. He was still cold and shivered and stomped his feet to improve circulation.

Frank Shaffer, one of the mechanics, tested the engine and pronounced it ready to go. The crew then pushed the machine toward the lower end of the field and faced it northward. Cal climbed into his seat; two aids pulled through the propellers. Cal stuck a cigar into his mouth, lit it, and shouted, “Let her go, boys.”

The machine bounced along the ground for about 150 feet, lifted off, and barely cleared a four-foot high wall surrounding the grounds. As the machine rose in the air, it barely make it through two trees as the wing tips hit leaves and twigs on both sides.

Cal frantically pulled on the elevator-control lever and rose to a height of about forty feet, but looming before him next was telegraph wire. He tried to dip the biplane and gain momentum upward, but it didn’t work. As he passed over a hickory tree in the rear yard of a farmhouse, the machine caught its rudder on the upper limb of the tree and was deflected off course. Cal’s operation of the control levers had little effect.

The machine dove and smashed into a chicken coop, killing several chickens and buried itself into the ground.

Cal was hurled from his seat and fell beneath the machine, its nose crumbled, its shredded tail upright, hung on the limb of a Hickory tree. The 196-pound engine tore loose from its mountings and caromed to one side, barely missing crushing Cal’s head.

Chickens feathers settled onto the ground for several seconds, while the three surviving hens squawked their outrage at the intrusion.

Mrs. John Heddy, the owner of the smashed chicken coop, demanded payment to cover her loss. She said that she had just left the spot for her porch a few steps away when the flying machine slammed down on the chicken coop. Her heart, she said, was still palpitating from the experience.

She was paid for all damages incurred.

Miraculously, Cal’s injuries were limited to a mild concussion and cuts and bruises.

The Vin Fiz bottle, which had be tied to a forward brace, also survived intact. Vin Fiz was a new grape flavored soft drink that provided Cal a promotion fee of $3 to $5 for every mile flown. The Vin Fiz logo was displayed on the wings and tail.

The bottle may have made it without breakage. The same cannot be said of the airplane. The airplane had to practically be rebuilt from scratch.

A message was telegraphed to the Wright factory in Dayton for a list of replacement parts expeditiously.

A request was also made for two experienced mechanics. Fortunately, Charles Taylor, the Wright brothers’ long time chief mechanic was granted a leave of absence to help out. Taylor was paid $10 per day to remain with the entourage on their trip as their chief mechanician. He did stay for most of the trip only leaving when his wife became seriously ill.

On September 21, all was ready for takeoff again. Taylor tested the engine and pronounced that it was ready. Cal mounted his seat, and as customary, lit a cigar. Fortunately, before taking any other action, he noticed that a portion of the gasoline line was missing. A hurried search found the piece and it was installed.

Then a new problem developed.

An official reviewing stand had been setup directly astride the takeoff line for the use of three judges to certify the time of take-off.

The propellers were spun and the machine began to move forward. The skids of the machine narrowly missed smashing into the reviewing stand. One judge dived six feet onto the fairground turf. The two others flattened themselves on the platform.

They did manage to record Cal’s departure as 2:20 p.m. without further incident.

Cal circled the city and dropped handfuls of Vin Fiz leaflets on the hundreds of spectators. Whistles from Middletown factories provided a farewell salute as Cal disappeared in the distance.

The crash into the chicken coop was a precursor of more accidents to come. By the time Cal reached Pasadena on November 5, he had crashed so often that the only original parts of the airplane remaining were the vertical rudder and two wing struts. Replacements included 18 wing panels, twenty skids and two engines.

He survived an exploding engine, thunderstorms, souvenir hunters and a run-in with an eagle. His plane was almost completely rebuilt twice. The principle cause of so many accidents was that he had to land on primitive fields.

He didn’t earn the 50,000 because he didn’t make the trip within 30 days, but he did earn $20,000 for his promotion of the Vin Fiz drink.

Reference: The Flight of the Vin Fiz by E. P. Stein.

The Wrights formed the Wright Company on November 22, 1909, with Wilbur as president and Orville as a vice-president. The company manufactured airplanes, engines and accessories, operated a flying school, and in 1910, formed and managed an exhibition flying team.

Orville and Wilbur were not enthusiastic about setting up an exhibition team. They deliberated about it for a long time. They were urged by others to form a team, particularly by Roy Knabenshue, who argued that the Wrights should be represented at the many air meets who were touring the country. Knabenshue at the time was involved in demonstrating dirigibles at state fairs so he was knowledgeable about the exhibition business.

The Wrights’ were hesitant about what they termed the carnival-like atmosphere at the air meets and the “fancy flying – daredevil” flying aspect of it.

They were eventually swayed by the opportunity to showcase their technology and the opportunity to make some money and keep the company profitable.

On January 17, 1910 Wilbur sent a telegram to Knabenshue inviting him to manage the new Wright Exhibition Team. The first goal was to attend the air show at the new Indianapolis speedway to be held on June 13-19.

Mabel Beck was hired as secretary to Knabenshue. She later became secretary to Wilbur, and after his death, became secretary to Orville, staying with him until his death in 1948.

To meet the June date in Indianapolis, The Wrights’ decided to move the training of their pilots down south where the weather was warmer. They chose a site near Montgomery, Alabama, (Now Maxwell Air Force Base.)

Three of the original team members were from Dayton, Ohio. One of them was Walter Brookins, who the Wright brothers had known since he was four years old. The Wrights’ sister, Katharine, had taught him in high school. The Wrights’ had a nickname for him of “Brooky.”

The other members of the team were Spencer Crane from Dayton, Clifford Turpin from Dayton, Arch Hoxsey from California, Ralph Johnstone from Kansas City, Frank Coffyn from New York, Philip Parmelee from Michigan, and Al Welsh from Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

In March, Orville and five novice pilots arrived in Montgomery. Orville trained Brookins first and he thereby became the first civilian pilot trained by the Wright brothers. Brookins completed his training on May 3rd and did so well that Orville assigned him to instruct the remaining men.

Orville returned to Dayton with Welsh on April 9. Crane followed later after deciding that becoming a pilot was not for him.

In May it was warm enough in Dayton to move the entire training camp back to Dayton as they continued to prepare for the Air Show in Indianapolis.

The night before their first performance at the Indianapolis Speedway, the new pilots were handed contracts that specified they would receive $20 per week and $50 per day of flying. The pilots were not happy with the amount, but after some bickering, accepted the terms.

They were also told that there would be no drinking, gambling, and no flying on Sunday.

Brookins was the star of the show in Indianapolis. On the first day he broke the world’s altitude record, rising to 4,939 feet. He became famous for making short turns and flying circles close to the ground with wings at angles of up to 80 degrees.

Before long the team was performing across the U.S. and the money was good, earning a profit of over $100,000 in 1910.

Another important Air Show to the Wright brothers was the International Aviation Tournament at Long Island’s Belmont Park. The specific event that attracted the Wrights’ was the Gordon Bennett speed competition. Their archival Glenn Curtiss had won the speed prize the year before. The Wrights’ wanted to win this year to demonstrate to the world the superiority of the Wright airplanes.

The Wrights’ decided to design a new airplane for the race that was built for speed. They named it the “Baby Grand.” Orville flew it in a test before the big race and attained a speed of 78-mph.

Orville chose Brookins to fly the airplane for the actual race. On Brookins’s first pass before the grandstand with Wilbur, Orville and the entire racing team intently watching, the engine started making a strange sound. The airplane began coming down too fast and although Brookins was able to level the machine, it hit the ground hard. The Baby Grand was destroyed. It turned out that the cause of the accident was that the engine had lost four of its eight cylinders.

Brookins was badly bruised, but not serious injured. The winner of the race, it turns out, flew 10-mph slower than the Wrights’ machine had flown before the race.

The Wright team also experiences an unusual event at Belmont Park. Johnstone and Hoxsey were competing with each other to establish a new altitude record. The winds were fierce that day and when the two pilots turned into the wind they were blown backwards. Hoxsey landed 25-miles from the airport. Johnstone was blown even farther backwards and landed 55-miles away. Johnstone did achieve a new altitude record.

The Wright airplanes were attracting a lot of publicity with their daredevil stunts, but Wilbur and Orville were becoming concerned about the dangerous showmanship.

Wilbur pulled Hoxsey and Johnson aside and warned them: “I am very much in earnest when I say that I want no stunts and spectacular frills put on the flights — Anything beyond plain flying will be chalked up as a fault and not a credit.”

The warning had little effect. On New Years Eve in Los Angles, Hoxsey had started to descend at a steep angle of about 80 degrees from the 100-foot level and never pulled up before hitting the ground. Hoxsey was killed.

Hoxsey will be remembered for taking President Theodore Roosevelt for his first airplane ride in October 1910.

The Wrights’ began to question whether they should continue the exhibition business. Even Katharine was upset. She commented, “New Year’s day was a night-mare for all. I am so sick of this exhibition business. It is so absolutely wrong.”

By mid year Orville reviewed the exhibition business and concluded that the profits were down. Wilbur responded that, “If it appears the exhibition business is not really profitable, my idea would be to get out of it as soon as possible.”

In November 1911 they closed the exhibition business.

Pilots are having trouble flying replicas/reproductions of Wright brothers’ airplanes. There have been three such recent accidents subject to FAA crash investigation.

Ken Hyde of the Wright Experience in Warrenton, Va. flew his 1911 reproduction Model B into a tree on May 2003 and sustained some injuries, but none life threatening.

Later that year in November one of his pilots crashed a 1903 Flyer.

During the 102nd anniversary in 2007 of the first successful flight of a practical airplane, the 1905 Flyer crashed at Huffman Prairie in Dayton. Mark Dusenberry hit the ground with a wing while making his first turn and crashed his replica.

The modern pilots shouldn’t be surprised. The Wright brothers had many accidents. Orville had the most with eight major crashes.

His first was with a glider at Kitty Hawk on Sept. 23, 1902.

His second crash was with the 1904 Flyer at Huffman Prairie on August 24, 1904.

His third crash was also at Huffman Prairie on Nov. 1, 1904.

His fourth was again at Huffman Prairie flying the 1905 Flyer on July 14, 1905.

His fifth accident almost filled him; it did kill his passenger, Lt. Tom Selfridge. It occurred during the Army trials at Fort Myer on July 2, 1908.

His sixth accident was also at Fort Myer a year later on July 2, 1909.

His seventh accident was years later in the fall of 1911. He was back at Kitty Hawk with a new larger glider. He flew it into the side of a sand hill.

Just six days later he crashed again at Kitty Hawk with his new glider when it flipped over on its back just after release. That was his eighth accident.

In the fall of 1908 Wilbur was making demonstration flights and setting new records before crowds of spectators at Camp d’Auvours in France. One of those records did not involve prizes. Rather it was the occasion of the flight of the first woman to fly.

On October 7, he granted Mrs. Hart Berg the distinction of being the first woman to fly in a heavier-than-air machine. Mrs. Berg was the wife of Hart Berg who was the wife of Wilbur’s European agent.

The short ride was quite notable and brought her considerable fame as a style leader of the day.

This distinction was achieved accidentally. Just before the flight her husband, concerned about her modesty, tied a short piece of rope around the hem of her skirt to hold her dress securely in place in the wind.

In her excitement after the flight she forgot to untie the rope and hobbled around for awhile with the rope still tied to the hem of her dress. It just so happened that a leading French dressmaker was one of the spectators that day. She rushed back to Paris and sewed a new skirt design that quickly found favor with the fashion-conscious.

In this way the “hobble skirt” was born. It became the vogue the world over.