Wright Brothers – Honoring the Wright Brothers

Articles relating to the honoring of the Wright Brothers.

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