Wright Brothers – The Military Airplane

Articles relating to the ongoing of the Wright Brothers and the US military.

The Original Buzz Bomb

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

In 1917, Orville was back in the airplane business again in Dayton after selling the Wright Company in 1915. This time he didn’t own the company named Dayton-Wright Airplane Company, but was a technical advisor. Six Dayton businessmen formed the new company. The president of the company was Edward Deeds, a vice-president and later president of the NCR Company. The vice-president was Charles Kettering, the noted inventor. Both were good friends of Orville. A new factory was built at Moraine City, just south of Dayton. In addition, a flying school was formed and land procured just north of downtown Dayton and named North Field.

In 1918, North field was leased to the Army and renamed McCook Field.

The new investors hoped to make Dayton the manufacturing center of the United States using modern automobile production techniques to mass produce airplanes.

Fortuitously, the United States declared war on Germany five days before the new company was incorporated. Subsequently, the Dayton-Wright Company received a contract to deliver 4,000 modified British De Havilland DH-4 combat planes and 400 J1 trainers.

The DH-4 was a 2-bay airplane with a 42-1/2 foot wing span. Its fuselage was about 30 feet long. It was armed with two Lewis guns in the rear cockpit, and one or two Marlin forward firing guns.

Experiencing engineering and production problems, the first plane didn’t reach France until August 1918. Three months later the war was over. The cooling system is one example of the problems experienced. The American version of the DH-4 replaced the British engine with a 400-hp American Liberty engine. The Liberty engine was half again as large as the British engine it replaced. The mismatch required a complete redesign of the cooling system.

The De Havilland plane indirectly still lives in Dayton through the name of “Patterson” in the name “Wright-Patterson” Air Force Base. Lt. Frank Patterson was killed in an accident flying the De Havilland plane in 1917 at the base. He was the nephew of John H. Patterson, founder of the NCR.

Another milestone occurred during 1918. Orville piloted an airplane for the last time. It was an old 1911 Wright biplane in a demonstration flight along side one of the Wright Company’s new De Havillands.

One of the more interesting projects that Kettering and Orville worked on was the aerial torpedo, pilotless gyroscopically controlled wooden biplane designed to deliver a 300-pound bomb. The bomb constituted the 10 feet long fuselage. A 2-cycle, 4-cylinder 40-horsepower Ford engine powered the plane that was launched from a track.

The vehicle was named the “Bug.” The number of engine revolutions was calculated by using target distance and forecasts of wind speed and distance. When the engine had turned the set number of times, a cam dropped into position, retracting bolts that held the wings to the fuselage. The wings then detached and the single bomb containing dynamite fell.

On one occasion the pilotless plane went out of control setting off a chase by 100 men in automobiles. The plane came down 21 miles from Dayton. When the chase party arrived, puzzled people at the site were searching for the pilot.

The Bug was demonstrated to the U.S. Army Air Corps in Dayton, Ohio, in 1918. Also, in September 1918 a somewhat larger manned version of the Bug, The “Messenger,” was test flown successfully. But WWI ended before they could be put into production.

The Bug received a patent and therefore was subject to public disclosure. The Germans in WWII obtained the plans and used them build the Fi 103 missile, better known as the V-1 “buzz bomb.”

Dayton-Wright stayed in business for a while longer designing and constructing experimental airplanes. One of planes they built was a racing plane capable of attaining 200 mph known as the RB. Built with some help from Orville, it was a monoplane with several innovations. It had a variable camber wing and a notable innovation, retractable landing gear.

The company entered the plane in the Gordon Bennett International Aviation Cup race in Paris on September 28, 1920. Unfortunately, during the race a control cable failed jamming the leading edge flap that prevented the plane from completing the race. (The RB today is on display at the Ford Museum near Detroit, Michigan.)

Another airplane involving Orville, was the O.W. Aerial Coupe. The O.W. initials represented Orville Wright. Built in 1918-19, The O.W. Aerial Coupe was an enclosed passenger plane and the last original design by Orville Wright. It carried three passengers and the pilot. The plane crashed and was totally destroyed in Indiana in 1924 after it developed engine trouble.

In 1920, Deeds and Kettering sold the company to General Motors (GM) for 100,000 shares of GM stock.

GM didn’t see any future profitability in producing airplanes after the war was over. They decided to close the Dayton Wright Airplane Company in the early 1920s. Major aircraft manufacturing never again returned to Dayton.

The Wrights had finally secured a contact from the U.S. Army to provide a flying machine. Orville traveled to Ft. Myer in 1908 to perform the required demonstration flights. This is one newspaper’s description of the event.

Springfield Republic, August 30, 1908:

Orville Wright has completed the assembly of his aeroplane, which was built by the Dayton brothers for the U. S. government.

The motor was tried out yesterday and the first preliminary flight is expected tomorrow.

Note: It took place four days later on Sept. 3rd.

The photograph shows how the Wright aeroplane looks.

The two main planes, each 40 feet long, look more than ever like a wide-stretched pair of wings. Out in front of the machine extends a skeleton framework of aluminum painted wood that curves up into the air, something like a bird’s neck, and that bears the ascending and descending planes on this end. These are operated by a lever from the aviator’s seat in the middle of the machine.

A second lever at the same point operates the inadequate looking little vertical rudder in the rear. This is simply two planes not very much bigger than open newspapers. The rudder can be tipped up and down in case there is danger of its striking when the machine makes a landing.

Almost amidship is the engine. This is a chunky affair, a little larger and more powerful than the engine that drives Capt. Baldwin’s dirigible. The gasoline tank alongside, which holds naphtha for a 125-mile flight, is about as big as the engine itself.

On the outboard side of the engine the radiator rises to the full height of six feet between the upper and lower planes. It is built of brass or copper and holds about 20 pounds of water.

Two little barrels at the top and two at the bottom not much bigger than two pairs of binoculars are joined by four upright sections of the same metal, a foot wide and less than an inch thick, set edge on to the wind. It has an immense area of cooling surface for its weight and offers very little wind resistance.

The operator and passenger sit on the lower edge of the forward plane alongside the engine. The double seat is cushioned, but is not much bigger than a baby carriage built for twins. There is a little footrest in the “neck of the bird” for the operator and its passenger to dig their heels into, and that is all.

Neither the operator nor the engine are exactly in the middle of the machine. They are a little off the center on each side, and intended roughly to balance each other, but — and here is the remarkable fact to the novice — there is no need for a nice adjustment of this balance. To be sure, the engine and the operator are not very far off the center, so there is not much leverage to be overcome, but there can be a discrepancy to 200 pounds in the two weights without affecting the flight of the machine.

The aeroplane will carry considerable added weight, too. This particular machine could lift about 400 or 500 pounds of added weight. That is to say, the big bird could swoop down and carry off a couple of good sized or small steer in its talons and not be more overloaded than a big eagle carrying off a small dog.

Also it could drop this weight without upsetting its flight. This is important in case it came to dropping explosives.

Mr. Wright said today he did not know that he could hit anything without a great deal of practice, but that the mere carrying of a heavy weight and letting it go suddenly would not tend to affect the machine in the least.

Both the propellers of the flying machine have been installed. They are of aluminum painted wood, smaller of diameter and broader of blade than the toothpick-like propeller of the Baldwin ship, but then each aerial propeller has to be designed for the particular work it has to do, and the two on the Wright machine have been calculated to a nicety for the particular function they are to perform. The propellers are driven by crossed bicycle chains off the main shaft of the engine.

The only two colors of the machine are white and silver, saving the gray plush aviator’s seat and the brass radiator. It is possible, after flying machines become a standard asset of the army, that there may be a special shade of paint prescribed for them, as there is now for torpedo boats and warships, as a protection against searchlights, but for the present this refinement has been reached.

The Wrights returned to Fort Myer in 1909 to complete the Army acceptance trials that had been interrupted the previous year by a crash that almost killed Orville. Wilbur accompanied Orville this time, but Orville would do all the flying.

After several days of delay, Orville first flew on Tuesday, June 29. There were four attempts to fly that day. The first three were failures; the last flight was partially successful.

The story was carried in the Virginia Pilot Newspaper. Here is that story:

After making three unsuccessful efforts to get his new aeroplane into the air today, Orville Wright made a short flight, encircling the Fort Myer aerodrome.

Lack of power, due to a loose spark control, was finally determined upon by the two Wrights as the cause of the refusal of the machine to fly for more than a few hundred feet beyond the end of the starting rail.

“A flying machine is like a horse,” said Wilbur after the trail. “If it’s new you got to get used to it before it will go just as you want it to. You have to learn its peculiarities. I am glad we learned what the trouble is, and after a few more trials you will see some fun.”

There was hardly a breath of air when the machine was taken out of its shed and placed on the starting track shortly after 5 o’clock. The motor was given a test and it worked very smoothly. The weight was then hauled to the top of the starting tower and the rope to which it is attached was fastened to the aeroplane.

Everything being in readiness, Wilbur Wright and Charlie Taylor, the mechanic, each stationed himself at one of the propellers ready to turn it, like cranking an automobile. Orville Wright turned the ignition and his brother and the mechanic gave the propellers a twist. The latter whirred around at a great fate as Orville took his place in the operator’s seat. Wilbur stationed himself at the end of the aeroplane and ran along with it when Orville released the weight, which pulls it down the track and gives it momentum.

The machine rose as soon as it left the rail, but appeared to be able to mount into the air but a few feet. The right wing veered towards the ground and struck the earth at its tip. The machine was swung around. Orville quickly stopped the motor. It was found that the canvas at the tip of the wing had been torn slightly by scraping on the ground. After the canvass had been repaired the machine was returned to the starting rail. It had traveled about 200 feet.

“I didn’t have enough power,” explained Orville. “Besides the wind is coming from behind me.” There was a slight movement of air from the north but it was scarcely noticeable.

At 6:30 the machine started again, and the first mishap was repeated, with the exception that this time the left wing scraped the ground.

The machine was returned for a third trial and the crowd cheered lustily. Wilbur contended that the weight was not sufficient in front, and he gave an illustration of his ingenuity by attaching a rather heavy vice on one of the skids, forward of the machine and an iron clamp on the opposite side. Orville stuck to his theory that the power was not sufficient.

The third attempt was even less successful, the machine refusing to rise at all. The power was increased before the machine was brought back for a fourth attempt.

At 7:45 on the final trial the machine rose to a height of about 15 or 20 feet. Shortly after it ascended from the ground it showed signs of losing headway, but Orville kept on around the field, remaining in the air about 50 seconds and landing almost immediately in front of the starting track. As he stepped out he called to his mechanic: “I found out this time what the matter was, Charlie. The spark shakes back to zero.”

Wilbur seemed to regard the difficulties encountered as rather amusing and being Orville’s big brother had a few criticisms to make of him. Wilbur refuses to make any flights at Fort Myer, saying that it is his brother’s job, but he does most of the “bossing” and most of the “tinkering.”

Bishop Milton Wright, father of the two aviators with their other brother, Reuchlin, arrived at Fort Myer in time to see the tests.

Tomorrow it is expected another flight will be attempted. (end)

Note: There were two design changes made to the control system of this aeroplane. There was a spark-retarding pedal on the footbar for throttling the engine. The other change was an addition to the wing-warping handle. The handle contained a “bent wrist” control for the rudder. The pilot could turn his wrist to activate the rudder, while moving the entire lever front or back to warp the wing.

Reference: Virginia-Pilot, June 30, 1909.

The September 11, 1908 edition of the newspapers carried a story about Orville’s flights at Ft. Myer outside Washington D.C.

The article contains several interesting items in addition to Orville’s record-breaking flights. It notes a race with a pigeon. Wind forces its way under Orville’s goggles and inflames his ideas. Orville receives a cable from Wilbur that is written in code. Orville is quoted predicting aeroplanes will carry up to seven passengers and perform loops the loops. Augustus Herring requests an extension of time to submit his aeroplane, and Orville declines to fly at amusement parks.

Concerning Herring, to everyone’s surprise, Herring was the low bidder for providing a Heavier-Than-Air Machine for the Army Signal Corps. He bid $20,000. That was $5,000 under the Wright brothers’ quote. The Army solved a possible dilemma by accepting both proposals.

Orville and Wilbur knew Herring very well. He had attended the Wrights’ glider experiments at Kitty Hawk in 1902.

Herring said he would provide an airplane and fly it to Washington. After the Army had given him numerous extensions of time, Herring stopped the charade by formally requesting his contact be voided for reasons of non-delivery.

Here is the article: “Under adverse conditions Orville Wright, the aviator, yesterday placed the world’s record for continuous flight in heavier-than air machines a notch higher by remaining in the air for one hour, five minutes and fifty-two seconds.

Comment: He also flew two figure eigths.

He has performed the unequaled feat of breaking the world’s record three times in two days. The general opinion in Washington is that the present record will remain untouched until one of the Wright brothers makes up his mind to surpass it. It is believed that no aviator except the Wrights will be able to equal it for some time.

Comment: The next day (12th) Orville broke his own record, circling 71 times and set a duration record for the longest flight of 1908.

A light wind was blowing when the aeroplane was launched from the track on the Fort Myer grounds, but it did not interfere with the ascent of the machine. At 5:08 o’clock the launching weights were loosened and the aeroplane slid down the track. In spite of the wind, Mr. Wright made wider circles than he has before attempted since he began his experiments here.

Frequently he ventured off the parade ground toward an open field adjoining the Arlington National Cemetery. Each time, however, he made a broad turn to come back up to the parade ground before starting on his next circuit.

Mr. Wright also sought higher altitudes yesterday than he did in the earlier flights. Once or twice the aeroplane reached a height of about 160 feet. He made no attempt to remain so high in the air for any length of time, but usually dropped back to his normal height of about fifty feet.

During one of the circuits of the parade ground a pigeon tried to keep pace with the aeroplane, but it was soon distanced.

The engine did not work as well yesterday as it did in the two record-breaking flights Wednesday. It missed about four explosions every minute. This small percentage, however, did not affect the length of the flight. When the machine landed near the starting point the bearings of the engine showed no signs of overheating, and there was still sufficient fuel in the gasoline tank to have enabled Mr. Wright to continue his flight some time longer.

One reason he descended was that the wind had forced its way under his goggles and inflamed his eyes. The wind gradually increased and at the conclusion of the flight it was blowing at the rate of about twelve miles an hour. The sky was cloudy and the air a bit cool.

The aeroplane made a total of fifty-eight circuits over the parade grounds. They were much larger in diameter, however, than those of Wednesday. It is estimated that the aeroplane covered about forty-five miles yesterday at an average speed of approximately thirty-eight miles an hour.

Messages and telegrams of congratulation on his record smashing achievements poured in upon Mr. Wright yesterday. Just as he climbed out of the machine yesterday afternoon, a package of telegrams was handed to him by Charles Taylor, his mechanic.

One was from the Aero Club of America. Another was from the Aeronautic Society of America.

Mr. Wright said he had received a cablegram from his brother, Wilbur Wright, who is in France, but he said it was written in code and in French and he had not been able to decipher all of it. All he could understand, he said, were the two French words “tres bien.”

The official trials will probably not be held until next week. Mr. Wright wants to fly more trials with an additional passenger before submitting his aeroplane to the official trials. He will probably devote today and tomorrow to this practice.

Mr. Wright expected to make only a ten-minute flight this afternoon. The anemometer attached to the machine is graduated in the metric system and can only register a maximum distance of ten kilometres.

“Aeroplanes to carry six or seven passengers can now be built,” said Mr. Wright, in speaking of the observations which he has made during his flight and experiment, “and it will not be long before some aviator will be able to loop the loop in the air. In fact, some may do it without intending to. Our machine is perfectly safe, the only danger being in the way we handle it.”

The chief signal officer of the Army received a telegram today from A. M. Herring, who is under contract to deliver an aeroplane at Fort Myer, for which he will receive $20,000, if the same conditions which Orville Wright will have to fulfill are satisfactorily accomplished. Mr. Herring asked for an extension of thirty days in which to do a little shop work on his machine.

It is very likely that the Secretary of War will grant Mr. Herring ‘s request, as it would be impracticable to conduct the tests of both the Wright brothers and the Herring aeroplanes at the same time.

Since making his record-breaking flights at Fort Myer, Orville Wright has declined numerous offers from amusement managers for public flights. “I’m not in that sort of business,” said Mr. Wright.”

In the fall of 1908 Orville conducted demonstration flights for the U.S. Army at Fort Myer outside Washington, D.C. His flights broke all aviation records for distance and time. As might be expected, the U.S. Navy also became greatly interested.

The Wrights had finally secured a contract from the Army to buy their airplane for $25,000 if they could meet the Army specification that required their airplane carry a pilot and passenger a distance of 125 miles at a speed of 40-mph. It must remain aloft for at least one hour and land without damage.

Orville arrived at Ft. Myer on August 20, 1908 to begin the qualification flights. Wilbur was already in France performing qualification flights for a French syndicate.

Orville flew for the first time on September 3. The crowd was sparse. Since it was his first flight at Ft. Myer, he played it safe and flew one and one-half turns around the parade ground. His flight lasted 1 minute, 11 seconds.

A similar first flight at Le Mans by Wilbur caused great excitement. In stark contrast, Orville’s flight was met with little notice. A local Washington newspaper carried the story on page 3.

There was one important person who did see the flight. It was the 21-year-old son of President Theodore Roosevelt. I’m sure he gave a first hand account to his father.

Orville flew every day over the next week and a half. His flights on September 9, began to create great excitement as he set three world records.

The first flight was for 57 minutes, 13 seconds – setting a new world endurance record.

Almost immediately he took-off again, flying for 62 minutes, 15 seconds, breaking his previous record.

Next he flew with Lt. Frank Lahm as a passenger for 6 minutes, 24 seconds – a new endurance record for a flight with a passenger. The flight lasted until dusk and could probably qualify as the first night flight.

The following day, September 10, he set another record with a flight of 65 minutes, 52 seconds at an estimated altitude of 200 feet.

Edward Burkhart, mayor of Dayton, Ohio, sent Orville a letter of congratulations.

The record-breaking flights got the attention of the U.S. Navy. The following article appeared in a Washington newspaper on September 10.

“The two aeroplane flights made by Orville Wright at Fort Myer yesterday, which broke all records for distance and time, have aroused the officers of the Navy to action. Secretary of Navy Metcalf was one of the most enthusiastic spectators and Assist Secretary Newberry has been following the Fort Myer tests closely”.

“Lt. George C. Sweet of the Bureau of Equipment has been detailed to observe the Fort Myer tests for the Navy.”

“Secretary Metcalf was asked if the Navy intended to buy an aeroplane as a beginning in the application of aeronautics to that branch of the service”.

“I cannot say what we might do,” he replied. “Of course we would need funds for that purpose. There is only one reason I can see why Mr. Wright’s machine impracticable for use in the Navy, and that is his starting apparatus. An officer has been detailed to observe the flights and what we do will depend on what is learned from these tests.”

“Lt. Sweet has been present for every flight of the Wright aeroplane at Fort Myer and was so impressed by its performance that he suggested that the Navy Department keep in close touch with the progress in aerial flight.

“The airplane would prove invaluable in naval warfare,” he remarked to an Army officer, during Wright’s flight yesterday. “Mr. Wright’s machine requires a speed of twenty-four miles an hour as an impetus to rise into the air. It would, therefore, require no launching apparatus if it were started from one of the scout cruisers, which makes twenty-two and twenty-three knots an hour or about twenty-seven miles. It could fly over the advance column of an enemy’s fleet and drop explosives or secure valuable information.”

“Instead of skids which Mr. Wright uses for land purposes the aeroplane could be fitted with two light water skids similar to rowing shells, so that it could land on water. After the machine made a flight, it could be brought alongside of the ship and pulled out of the water by means of the davits.” (End of Article)

The demonstration flights were going according to plan when tragedy struck on September 17. A propeller split during a flight with Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge as a passenger. The airplane nosed down and hit the ground at full speed from a height of 75 feet. Orville was seriously injured and Selfridge was killed.

The Army gave the Wrights an extension to their contract permitting them to return the following summer to complete their demonstration flights.

Orville, along with Wilbur, did return the following year and completed the Army requirements on July 30, 1909.