Wright Brothers – Honoring the Wright Brothers

Articles relating to the honoring of the Wright Brothers.

Frank T. Coffyn left the Wright Exhibition Team in 1912 to pursue other flying opportunities. His new adventure would lead to fortifying his reputation as one of the most famous of the early pilots.

The change in vocation came about when a Detroit financier, Russell A. Alger, wanted to buy a Wright airplane and hire Coffyn as his instructor. There was one problem though and that was that the Wrights at the time were not selling airplanes to private individuals.

Alger, however, was able to persuade Wilbur to sell him an airplane. It helped that the Wright Company’s general manager, Frank Russell, was Alger’s cousin.

In addition to teaching Alger to fly, Coffyn took advantage of other opportunities. One of them was a contract to take pictures of New York City from the air for the Vitagraph Co. Initially, the head of the company, J. Stuart Blackton and other company officials were skeptical that it could be done. They thought that Coffyn might be choosing a spectacular way of committing suicide.

He assured them that he could do it.

Wilbur had flown two years earlier in the fall of 1909 during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration. His flight took him around the statue of liberty and up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb and back.

But this time it was winter and there was ice in the Hudson River and Coffyn planned to fly off the water.

To accomplish this risky task, Coffyn designed and installed pontoons on Alger’s Wright Model B airplane. Alger and his brother paid for the reconstruction. They said it was “solely in the interests of aviation.”

A crank to start the engine was also added because the airplane would be sitting in the water and no one would be able stand in the water to turn the propellers over.

On February 6, 1912 Coffyn was ready for his first flight. The machine sat on the Hudson River at the foot of 23rd St. The temperature was ten degrees and there was ice in the water so the plane had to be towed by a river tug to open water to take off.

The tug was filled with newspaper reporters. Coffyn said that it didn’t make a difference to them whether I went up or under. They had a good story either way – but “it made a difference to me.”

The take off was successful. “Underneath me the sirens of the ferry boats, tugs and other craft shrieked the city’s welcome to me.” Coffyn flew for about 20 minutes on this first trial flight.

On the second flight of the day, Coffyn flew to a height of 1500 feet and circled the Statue of Liberty several times.

Then he returned and picked up a photographer, Adrian C. Duff. The extra weight made the climb much slower and water sprayed over them from the waves. Duff suffered severely from the cold and Coffyn reported that part of him was actual ice.

Duff set two world records that day. He was the first passenger to be carried over New York Harbor and the first photographer to take pictures of it from an airplane.

Despite the extreme weather conditions, Duff took 9 pictures and obtained 5 excellent pictures including pictures of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island. The pictures were published in many newspapers.

The Wright airplane had performed extremely well despite the buffeting of the stiffest winds that Coffyn said he ever encountered.

The still pictures were such a success, Coffyn decided to take motion pictures. Taking motion pictures required the cameraman to turn a crank at a constant rate. This would be difficult task in an airplane, so Coffyn designed a little electric motor to turn the crank.

The electric motor had another advantage; it eliminated the need for a photographer and thus saved precious weight.

The flight that received the most publicity was the one in which Coffyn was the first to fly under the Brooklyn Bridge on February 13. It was another frigid day and the pontoons had frozen to the raft. They had to be chopped free.

He first flew over the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. He then returned to fly under them. At the Manhattan Bridge, Coffyn reported he misjudged his distance and almost hit the bridge. He said could see a policeman looking down at him.

At he passed under the Brooklyn Bridge he tried to compensate and flew too close for comfort to the water. He barely missed the stacks of a tug and a ferryboat. The force of nearby welcoming tugboat whistles nearly lifted him out of his seat and he dropped the camera and a precious roll of film into the water.

The flights were a great success and the films shot for Vitagraph did well and were shown all over the world.

The Wrights were pleased with Coffyn’s success. Wilbur even traveled to New York in March and witnessed some of them along with thousands of other spectators.

Coffyn said he performed some extra stunts he hadn’t performed previously in New York while Wilbur was watching because he wanted his commendation before anything else.

Wilbur told reporters, “There are great things in store for the hydro-plane in the future.”

Reference: “Flying with the Wrights,” by Frank T. Coffyn, World’s Work Magazine, Dec. 1929-Jan. 1930.

Frank Coffyn was taught to fly by Orville for about an hour and a half, than by Walter Brookins for another hour and a half, becoming the 26th pilot in America and was a member of the Wright Exhibition Team. His recollections of Orville and Wilbur provide an interesting look at their personalities.

Brookins was the first pilot taught to fly by Orville. The Wrights had known him since he was four years old. Katharine had him as a student in school.

When Frank first arrived in Dayton to begin his pilot training, he was surprised to find that many of the citizens of Dayton were only barely tolerant of the brothers. They thought that the Wright brothers’ activity with flying was a fad and wouldn’t last long.

Their attitude changed by the time Frank left Dayton. He observed that the citizens of Dayton began to wake up to the fact that these crazy Wrights must have something in them after all. They hadn’t crashed and killed themselves. They weren’t bankrupt. And strangest of all, they hadn’t become swell-headed.

Famous people from around the world were coming to Dayton to see the Wrights. Wilbur and Orville were not big on receiving visitors who they didn’t know. Katharine Wright would often greet the guests with her charming personality.

Frank noted that the Wrights were fond of his five-year-old son. Wilbur spent a lot of time making a kite for him. He was also was kind and considerate to his Frank’s wife.

Frank did many daring things during his flying career but the only time he almost died was in an automobile crash in New York City when the car he was riding in went over a bridge. He was unconscious for 10 days, having sustained a skull fracture. Some newspapers even published a report of his death.

Wilbur visited and sat at his bedside in the Presbyterian Hospital. Frank said that he discovered a new and tender side to Wilbur. Later, after recovery was certain, Wilbur wrote him a letter.

“Dear Frank, I was immensely pleased on my return from Augusta to find a telegram from Mr. Levino stating that you were doing so well, and that you had become father of a little daughter. Please accept for yourself and Mrs. Coffyn the congratulations and best wishes of my father, my sister, my brother and myself. I hope that when you receive this you are up and flying again, but not over the sides of bridges.” (Letter on left)

One newspaper reporter described the Wrights as uncompromising, Puritan mechanics. Frank commenting on the description, said that he agreed they were Puritans, “bred in the bone.” “There never was a taint of hypocrisy about them. They held to what they believed to be a right course, and nothing could make them trim their sails.”

The Wrights rejected flattery offered by many famous people. Had they lived in Europe, honors would have been heaped upon them.

The director of the Smithsonian Institution fraudulently claimed that the original failed Langley aeroplane had flown after restoration and then displayed it in the museum with an inscription that said it was the first aeroplane that was capable of flight.

The Smithsonian asked Orville to display the 1903 Flyer adjacent to the Langley plane. Orville was outraged. Instead he accepted an offer from the South Kensington Museum in London and sent the 1903 Flyer to London for display.

Frank, commenting on this sad episode, explained that Orville was uncompromising in his attitude because he would not be false to his dead brother’s memory and his pride of achievement by letting the Flyer rest side by side with the Langley machine. The Flyer remained in London for 20 years, not returning until 1948 after the then director of the Smithsonian published a retraction of the false claims.

Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley was an eminent scientist. “He had forgotten more mathematics,” said Frank, “than the Wrights ever knew. But what about the results? The Wrights’ plane flew; Langley’s plane did not.”

“I have heard,” said Frank, “the Wrights called parsimonious and niggardly. That is not correct. They had opportunities to make a great deal more money than they amassed, but in those early days the only returns were from exhibition flights. They were not selling machines, although there were a thousand ready purchasers. They could have made enormous sums of money by catering to these enthusiasts, but money as money did not seem to interest them.”

Frank, commenting on the status of aviation in America in 1920, had this to say:

“I think we can say, without undo boasting, that as an air nation we have arrived. And I trust that in our triumphs of today and our hopes for the future, we shall never lose sight of the fact that it was Wilbur and Orville Wright who made possible man’s conquest of the air.”

Reference: “Flying with the Wrights,” by Frank T. Coffyn, World’s Work Magazine, Dec. 1929-Jan. 1930.

Frank Coffyn was one of the early members of the Wright Exhibition team. Orville and Wilbur formed the team in 1910 against their better judgment as one of the few available ways to make money building and flying airplanes.

Coffyn was an astute observer of the Wright brothers, friend of General Benjamin Foulois and an enthusiastic pilot who took many risks during his flying days including being the first to fly under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Frank was a wealthy young New Yorker; his father was the vice president of the Phoenix National Bank of New York. One of his father’s friends, Andrew Freedman, was a director of the bank and also a director for the newly formed Wright Company. Frank wanted to learn to fly so he took advantage of Freedman’s association with the Wrights and boldly asked Freedman to recommend him to the Wrights for attendance at their flight school.

Frank got his wish when Wilbur was visiting Freedman in his New York office. Freedman introduced Wilbur to Frank and got to shake his hand.

Wilbur was courteous but noncommittal. He told Frank to visit Dayton and “we will see how we like each other.”

Frank said later that he had no idea what Wilbur looked like, but was disappointed at first. He had imagined him looking like a hero built on godlike lines. Instead he found a tall, thin, middle-aged modest man with diffident manners who Instead of enunciating startling truths, was more ready to listen than to talk.

Frank arrived in Dayton on May 10, 1910. He was surprised to find the people of Dayton only barely tolerant of the Wright brothers. They seemed to think that the Wrights were just two hard-working local boys who had given up a good bicycle business to fool around with a fad that wouldn’t last.

The next day Frank was directed to take the streetcar to Simms Station at Huffman Prairie, some eight miles away. He was surprised to find Orville seated across from him on the same trolley. Frank noted that Orville was a quiet-looking man of around 40 years old whose eyes reminded him of Wilbur.

Frank introduced himself; “You are Orville Wright? I’m Frank Coffyn, and you’re going to teach me to fly.”

Orville smiled and said, “I like enthusiasm, you’ll need it.”

Orville was responsible for selecting and teaching members of the Wright Exhibition team. Wilbur was busy with managing the Wright Co. and handling the patent suits they were pursuing. He flew as a pilot for the last time on May 21.

Other members of the team were Walter Brookins, Archie Hoxsey, Ralph Johnstone and Al Welch. Brookins, 21, was the youngest and the Wrights’ first pupil. The Wrights had known him from childhood.

The student pilots were assigned work to do other than flying. Frank’s first job was cleaning a magneto and fixing leaks in some water pumps. He then had to clean up the mess on the field that the cows had left and to drag out tufts of coarse prairie grass.

His first chance to fly was on May 19th. He climbed in beside Orville and started down the monorail with Johnston holding the wing. But before they lifted off they ran into trouble when one wing got too low, so Orville shut off the engine.

As Frank was helping to push the plane back to the starting point he felt “vaguely troubled” by the bad start.

Orville was not troubled. The Wrights were not superstitious. They carried no mascots for good luck and knew of no unlucky days. The only day they refused to fly was on Sunday and that was because of religious belief.

Orville decided not to fly again that day because it was getting late. The next day it rained.

On 8:40 on May 21st they finally got off the ground and flew for a little over 12 minutes. Later in the day they flew for another 10 minutes.

Frank had a great time. He was just past 30 years old but found himself an enthusiastic boy again. He was surprised by the “gliding smoothness of the motion” and enjoyed his first sight of the earth from the air. They landed easily on skids.

Orville said little during the flight; the Wrights were not conversationalists.

The only complaint Frank had was that his hands had swollen painfully. Orville told him that he was gripping the controls too hard.

I believe the airplane they flew that day was a transition model sometimes referred to as a Wright Model A. The Model A had a fixed (later movable) horizontal stabilizer applied to the tail of the 1909 machine. The Wright Model B was brought out early in July 1910 and replaced the Model A. It eliminated the front elevator and wheels were attached to the skids. A single wing warping control lever was mounted between the seats on both models so that the pilot and the student could share it. (See photo of Model A at left)

Orville told Frank that he was ready for his first solo flight after 2 1/2 hours of flight training. It was not to be flown at Huffman Prairie, however, but during the Wright Exhibition team’s first show to be held in Indianapolis where the 500-mile automobile races are held.

One might think that this was a bit risky, but the Wrights believed in themselves, their airplanes and their students. Frank commenting on the situation said, “They didn’t fuss around and make one nervous; they assumed I would make good.”

Frank nearly did fail. He took off on a nice June day and proceeded to follow the racetrack. The plan was to make straightforward laps around the track.

Before he completed his first lap he felt a violent pain in his left eye and both eyes began to tear profusely. Frank thought he was going blind and would crash. Although in pain and about to crash, his main worry was he was going to let the Wrights down.

By shaking his head he managed to see some, although it was like looking through a mist. It was enough to enable him to land without incident.

Wilbur ran over and asked him what was wrong. His voice was anxious, but not scolding. Frank answered it was his eyes while thinking his flying career was over.

He removed his goggles and to his surprise there was a spider on the left lens. The spider must have crawled inside while the goggles were hanging on the wall of the flying shed.

Frank went on to fly successfully every day of the exhibition, as did the other members of the team.

Orville had flown over 250 flights in 1910 training his students, 100 of the flights were in the last three weeks of May.

More to come on Frank Coffyn in future articles.

Reference: “Flying with the Wrights,” by Frank T. Coffyn, World’s Work Magazine, Dec. 1929-Jan. 1930.

Steady winds…..Velvet sands

Determined Brothers…..Willing hands

Gifted men…..Self-taught minds.

By years of toil and eager thirst,

That from your dunes that they be first

To launch a plane by man’s own might

And ride your winds in motored flight.

From Kitty Hawk the Wrights did rise

To throttle time…..Explore the skies.

Bring nations from a distant berth

With hopes of Peace upon the earth,

That by their flight this Hallowed Date

May ground forever War and Hate

And man will strive as they once stood

To bring the World to Brotherhood.

This poem appeared on the program for the 61st anniversary of the first flight held at the Wright Brothers National Memorial on Thursday December 17, 1964.

Howerton Gowen of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, wrote it. Mr. Gowen owned an oil and chemical business for many years.

Mr. Thomas E. Myrick of Roanoke Rapids brought the poem to my attention.

The Kill Devil Memorial Hills Association, The National Park Service, The National Aeronautic Association and The Air Force Association sponsored the event in 1964.

The Kill Devil Hills Association was organized formally in 1927 to preserve and honor the original site of the Wright brothers’ flights of December 17, 1903.

In 1966, the association was rekindled as the First Flight Society. The society supports the Park Service including the annual ceremony honoring the Wright brothers held at the park on December 17th.

Orville liked to play practical jokes. It started at an early age.

He stopped attending kindergarten after the first day of class. His mother did not suspect the truth because he continued to leave the house each morning at the appointed time for school and return on time. All the while, he was playing with his friend Ed Stine.

This charade went on for several weeks until his mother, Susan Wright, stopped by the school to see how Orville was doing. She home schooled him after that until the second grade.

In the second grade he won the teachers approval to move on to the third reader by taking a test. The test the teacher gave was to select a passage at random out of the second reader for Orville to read. Orville not only rapidly read the passage, but also did it with the book held upside down.

On another occasion, he and some friends dumped a package of hot pepper in his classroom’s hot air register to force the dismissal of class. Nothing happened until several days later when the pepper got hot enough to send fumes into the classroom. Their plan backfired when their teacher, unfazed, apologized to the class, opened the windows and continued with lessons while the students sat sneezing and wiping their eyes

He was sent home from school in the sixth grade for some unreported mischief. His eighth-grade teacher sat him in the front row in order to keep a watchful eye on him.

As an adult, Orville continued his pranks. Nephews were often targets.

One of the nephews liked mashed potatoes. One Sunday Orville pasted a thread to the bottom of a nephew’s plate. At the appropriate time Orville commented that it seems funny how Bus’s plate always made for the mashed potatoes as Orville moved the plate towards the mashed potatoes he was serving.

He used the thread trick in other ways. One of the family was having lunch with Orville when a big cockroach ran from under his plate. It turned out to be a tin cockroach attached to a thread manipulated by Orville.

Dayton put on a grand celebration for the Wright Brothers in 1909. Orville and Wilbur rode in a carriage in the parade with Ed Sines, boyhood friend of Orville and Ed Ellis, friend of Wilbur. All along the route people reached out to the carriage to shake hands with the famous Wrights. As a practical joke Sines and Ellis did much of the handshaking as if they were the heroes.

One night an English writer friend of Orville’s was visiting at Hawthorn Hill. After dinner Brewer committed, “you know, I have often thought after you and your brother learned to fly, the problem that baffled men for centuries suddenly seemed most simple. You’d think anyone could have done it. There is a passage of poetry that expresses that very well. I have been trying to think of it for years. All I can remember is “…so easy it seemed once found, which yet unfound most would have thought impossible.” There is more to it about invention. I wish I could find the whole passage. Do you know it?”

“No, I think not,” answered Orville, “but I have an extensive collection of poetry in the library. Let’s look.”

The two men spent several hours hunting for the lines, but the passage eluded them.

The very next morning one of the coincidences so common in life happened. A letter asking for Orville’s autograph arrived and in the letter the writer included the very quotation Brewer had asked about and gave the information that it came from Paradise Lost, Book VI. Orville took down his Milton and began to search. Finally at line 499 he came to the passage, which began

Th’ invention all admired, and how he

To be th’ inventor missed;…

It concluded as Brewer had quoted.

Orville put the book back on the shelf, at the same time pulling the book directly above it out from the shelf a shade of an inch.

When dinner ended that night, Orville said, “I’d still like to find the passage of poetry we talked about last night. I have never told you before, but I am somewhat psychic.”

“I thought I might try to locate the passage by using my psychic powers. I’ll blindfold myself, run my fingers along the books and perhaps my psychic genius will guide them to the book.”

“Amazing,” said Brewer. “Let’s try it.”

After blindfolding himself, Orville ran his fingers along the shelves. At last his fingers stopped at one book and pulled out a volume. He took off the blindfold. “H’mmmm. Milton. Something tells me this is the book.”

Brewer looked at the book. “Milton? I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like Milton to me.”

“There must be a reason why my fingers were led to this book.” Orville leafed through the pages long enough to make his act look good. Then he handed the volume to Brewer and pointed to the lines.

Brewer looked at Orville with astonishment showing on his face. Orville placed the book back on the shelf. He never did tell Brewer how his psychic powers worked.

References: Tom Crouch, Fred Kelley, and Rosamond Young