Wright Brothers – The Military Airplane

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

Wrights Do Wonders

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

On September 17, 1908, Orville crashed when a propeller split on his plane while flying at Fort Myer. The split propeller caused his machine to go out of control. Orville was seriously injured and his passenger Lt. Selfridge died.

The Army extended the required time to qualify for selling their machine to the Army for a year to enable Orville to heal from his injuries.

Orville did return in 1909 to fly for the first time on June 29. He took four cautious flights that day to get used to the handling of the flying machine. His task was somewhat more complicated because a change in the design of the controls had been made to provide for controlling the rudder by a twist of the wrist.

Another design change provided a spark-retarding pedal on the footbar for throttling the engine.

On July 2, he flew again but ran into serious problems when the engine stopped running which caused Orville to hit a small thorn tree when he landed. He was not injured but shaken up. The incident must have brought back bad memories of the previous year. But that didn’t stop him from flying.

Wilbur saw a photographer taking pictures of the damaged plane. He reacted by grabbing a piece of wood off the ground and threw it at him while demanding the exposed film. This part of his personality was not revealed very often.

The worst part of the damage to the plane was to the fabric covering the wing. That repair mandated a trip back to Dayton by Orville for repair. He returned on July 2 and flew again on July 12. Things were going better now and on July 20 he set new records.

The July 21, 1909 Portland Daily Press carried the following article, byline Washington July 20.

Marvelous Flying by Ohio Aviators.

New Record Established.

Machine Soared and Cut Circles at Will of Operator.

A new record for aviation in America was established by Orville Wright, in the Wright aeroplane late today, at Fort Myer by a spectacular flight of one hour, 20 minutes, 45 seconds duration. The longest previous flight was in the United States was 74 minutes, made by Mr. Wright at Fort Myer last fall.

During the entire flight the machine was under perfect control, but several times appeared to the spectators to be on the point of diving to earth.

Several thousand people were given an exhibition which included the most daring feats of aviation yet accomplished and at its conclusion a mighty cheer went up.

The machine traveled a distance of about 70 miles and at one time during the flight the height attained, between 260 and 280 feet, exceeded the highest point ever reached by a heavier than air machine in this continent. The most wonderful part of the flight was the execution of three complete “figure eights,” which required careful maneuvering in directing the machine. Not the slightest mishap occurred during the flight, but there were moments when the crowd almost breathlessly, fearing the aviator was losing control of his artificial bird.

A thrill passed through the spectators as the white flyer, apparently beginning to dive to the earth would regain its equilibrium and speed onward around the oval above the parade ground. After rounding the course a half hundred times the aviator directed the machine’s course around the small double circle of a “figure eight.” It was the first time this season and the second time during his career that he has executed this maneuver.

To the amazement of the crowd the machine described a second eight and then a third one, after which it was guided back to its former course of large ovals.

After he had been in the air half an hour, making a complete round of the field each time, Mr. Wright maneuvered the machine through several short circles, some not more than 500 feet in diameter.

Having sufficiently satisfied himself that he could execute these circles, he went back to making large ovals again and continued these for some time. Than, after circling the field 54 times, the machine started cutting the “figure eights,’ much to the delight of the crowd.

When he had completed these clever maneuvers the aviator started to make a showing in regards to height. Slowly the aeroplane rose to a higher altitude on each lap until it had soared to a distance of between 250 and 280 feet from the ground. At this altitude the machine flew half a dozen rounds and then gradually descended toward the earth. Mr. Wright made a successful and easy landing after completing 83 rounds of the field.

In today’s flight, Mr. Wright met the requirements set forth by the government, except that of carrying one passenger and making the five mile straight away run. Both Wilbur and Orville Wright declared today that the machine is working much better, but that they want to have several more trials before the official test.

Wilbur Wright, replying to a comment the flight today would have covered the width of the English channel, which Herbert Latham unsuccessfully attempted to cross yesterday, said it would have been possible for his brother to have crossed from France to England and to have returned to France again without landing. He also remarked that it would have been easy to have continued today’s flight as far as Baltimore.

Comment: On July 30, he completed the final demonstration to win the Army contract. With Lt. Benny Foulois as his passenger, Orville flew a ten-mile round trip from Fort Myer to Alexandria in an average speed of 42.583 miles per hour.

Five days before, Louis Bleriot had flown 23.5 miles across the English Channel.

The Wrights had finally won an army contract to sell an airplane if they met specified performance requirements. Orville traveled to Washington in the fall of 1908 to fly their airplane while Wilbur was in France flying demonstration flights for a commercial syndicate.

Orville’s first public flight took place on September 3rd before 500 spectators at Ft. Myers, Virginia. President Theodore Roosevelt’s son was among the spectators.

This was the headline of the newspapers on September 9, 1908 provided by the United Press.


Remains in Air 57 Minutes, 31 Seconds, Traveling at Rate of 35 Miles an Hour and Turning Curves with Ease.

Wonderful Performance Means His Machine is Able to Stand Test Devised by the Government and Will Be Accepted for the Army.

To America and Orville Wright, a modest young man of Dayton, Ohio, go the honor of accomplishing the most marvelous feat in aviation yet recorded. The Wright aeroplane, operated by the aviator, whose brother Wilbur has been conducting successful tests in France, sailed today over and around the parade ground at Fort Myer, Va., for 57 minutes and 31 seconds, exceeding by more than 26 minutes the world-breaking record made last Monday by Delagrange, near Paris.

Comment: Leon Delagrange was a fashionable Parisian sculptor who was one of the early experimenters in glider and powered flight. He became one of the most colorful aviators during 1908 and was a feature attraction at air meets in Europe. He raised the world’s records for duration and distance four times in five months during 1908.

During the flight, the Wright machine maintained an average speed of about thirty-eight miles an hour or only two miles an hour less than that required under the government contract for speed on a straightaway course.

Comment: Signal Corps Specification No. 486 required an aircraft capable of carrying two men for 125 miles at an average minimum speed of 40 mph and staying in the air for at least one hour and landing without serious damage.

Could Have Remained Up Longer.

Upon alighting, Wright expressed the utmost astonishment that he had remained in the air so long a time and regrets that he had not made it an hour.

“I could have remained up ten or fifteen minutes longer,” he said. “I still had some gasoline left. The motor worked almost to perfection, there being only an occasional slip. I shall try another flight, as soon as I can load up the gasoline tank and look at the engine.”

All Conditions Favorable.

This morning’s flight started at 8:15, the aeroplane being launched as usual from a track laid upon the ground and by means of counterbalancing weights.

Weather conditions could not have been more favorable. The sun was shining brightly, the atmosphere was crisp and exhilarating, and only a slight breeze was blowing.

Big Crowd Sees Performance.

Attracted by the announcement that Wright was to try for a record flight, a crowd of army and navy officers and citizens had gathered in the parade ground.

Sailing along at express train speed, the bird-like craft responded immediately to the slightest touch of the steering lever, and maneuvered higher or lower, as the planes were managed by the operator.

Fifty-eight times Wright circled around the course, while spectators breathlessly followed its evolutions.

Cheers at Every Minute Over Record.

When it became known that Wright had broken the world’s record of 31 minutes continuous flight and there was, apparently, no desire on his part to return to earth, a rousing cheer went up. From then on, every person who owned a watch kept tab and hurrahed as the minutes sped by.

Finally, when the aeroplane gently descended and poised expectantly above the ground, the crowd rushed forward and as it came to a standstill as softly as a bird alighting, every person present shouted congratulations to the aviator.

Anemometer Goes Wrong.

Unfortunately, the anemometer, relied upon to register speed repeated itself and no exact data is available as to the rate. Observers who have witnessed previous flights express the option that it reached 38 miles an hour and computing the distance of the parade ground circuit with the rate of speed, it is estimated that during the 57 minutes and 31 seconds of his flight, Wright covered a distance close to 40 miles.

Reaches Height of 120 Feet.

Since the present tests began, on September 4th, the machine had not reached a greater altitude than half a hundred feet. Just to show its possibilities, Wright soared up occasionally to double that height and at one time reached 120 feet.

Wright Knew It Was In Machine.

While refilling his gasoline tank, Wright announced that he would fly again this afternoon and make an attempt to break this morning’s record.

“I am not at all surprised with the record,” he said, “for I knew it was in the machine. Our best previous record was a flight of thirty-eight minutes at Dayton, O. I do not know how high I went today, but think it must have been considerably over 100 feet at times, for I was above any of the trees surrounding the parade grounds.”

“Of course, I have instruments within sight that are supposed to tell me the speed, but when a fellow is as busy as I was, he does not have very much time to make observations. The only evidence of great speed that one feels while in the air is the way the tears come from his eyes.”

Can Carry Three Passengers.

“If I fulfill the government requirements I shall remain here for some time to instruct the officers in the use of the machine. My aeroplane will carry three passengers, but, when I put a heavier load, my flight will be considerably shortened, because it requires a great deal more gasoline to run the motor. With only one person aboard, I can carry enough gasoline to operate the machine for five hours.”

When asked whether he intended cabling his brother news of his achievement he said he guessed not, because he thought, “Wilbur would hear all about it through the press dispatches.”

Squier Thinks It’s Splendid.

“Have I anything to say?” asked George O. Squier, acting chief signal officer today, when asked for a statement of the attitude of the war department, over Wright’s record breaking flight, “well, I should say so. It is splendid. We are greatly pleased.”

Insures Acceptance of Machine.

This performance insures the acceptance of the aeroplane by the United States government at the contract price of $25,000

Under the terms of the agreement, Wright was to have until the last of September to comply with the government’s requirements, as to speed and endurance. The machine was to make an average speed of 40 miles an hour on a straightaway course of five miles and return, and was to be able to remain in the air for one hour.

Comment: The contract specified that for every mile an hour above 40-mph, the Wrights would be paid an extra $2,500. On the contrary for every mile an hour below 40-mph they would pay a penalty of $2,500. They later won a $5,000 bonus by flying 42.58-mph.

Although today’s test for endurance was not official, no one who saw the remarkable flight has any doubt that Wright can duplicate the feat at any time. His average speed today was thirty-five miles an hour, but it is believed that there is no question but that he can make 40 miles an hour on a straightaway course, whenever he cares to.

Wright was not striving for speed today and necessarily had to lower the momentum in taking the curves around the parade ground.

Comment: Wilbur flew two more flights that day. On his second flight he broke his own record by remaining airborne for 62 minutes, 15 seconds. On his third flight, he made his first passenger flight in public taking Lt. Frank Lahm for a 6-minute, 24-second spin. It set a new endurance record for a flight with a passenger.

Description of Aeroplane.

The aeroplane, which is an improvement on the one now being tested in France by Wilbur Wright, weighs in the neighborhood of 800 pounds, exclusive of fuel for passengers, and there are accommodations for the two of the latter. It measures eight feet high, forty feet in width and thirty-three feet fore and aft, and its planes have an area of 500 square feet.

The motor, especially invented by Wright Brothers, is rated at from 25 to 30 horsepower and is capable of 1,400 revolutions a minute. It operates two propellers driven in opposite directions at the rear of the machine each of which theoretically attains a speed of more than 500 revolutions a minute.

To remain in the air, the aeroplane must run at least 26 miles an hour.

The frame work of the machine is constructed of spruce and ash, strong and yet light, covered with muslin nearly as heavy as regulation balloon cloth.

The planes form what Wright calls a “heliocord,” or in other words they are twisted down on the ends. The control of the upward or downward motion of the machine is achieved by a box kite arrangement which projects a number of feet in front of the main framework. It is also covered with muslin.

In the rear, a corresponding “tail” projects nearly the same distance, forming the rudder. This, with the forward planes, are controlled by an arrangement of three levers, two of which operate the lateral movement, and the remaining one, the fore and aft.

The motor is located within a couple of feet of the operator’s seat in the center of the framework, and Wright explained that it is unnecessary to touch it after starting.

Comment, the rest of the story: Orville was not able to complete the performance trials because of a crash. On September 17, flying with a passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, his airplane crashed as a result of a broken propeller blade. Selfridge was killed and Orville was seriously injured.

The Army gave the Wrights an extension to their contract to permit them to return in the summer of 1909 to complete their demonstration flights. Orville, accompanied by Wilbur, returned to Ft. Myer in 1909 and on July 30th Orville successfully flew the final demonstration flight.

As for Delagrange, he was present to see Wilbur’s first flight at the Hunaudieres race course near Le Mans. The French said that the Wrights were a pair of “bluffeurs.” On Saturday, August 8, 1908 Wilbur flew for the first time in France. His demonstrated that he could make graceful deep turns in flight under total control. The French aviators in attendance were stunned. Delagrange admitted, “Monsieur Wright has us all in his hands. We are beaten.”

Delagrange died in a plane accident in 1910.

Reference: The Union and Advertiser, Rochester, NY, Sept, 9, 1908

On September 17, 1908, Orville crashed with Lt. Selfridge as passenger during a flight at Ft. Myers, Virginia. Selfridge died soon after and Orville was left with injuries that pained him throughout the rest of his life.

They were circling the parade ground when, on the beginning of the third circle as they were headed toward the wall of Arlington Cemetery at about 100 feet off the ground, Orville heard a slight tapping at the rear of the machine.

He turned and looked behind him, but couldn’t see anything. Sensing something was wrong, he decided to cut the power as soon as he completed his turn toward the crowd. Suddenly, he heard two thumps, followed by violent shaking. He struggled with the controls as the machine dropped toward the left, causing the nose to drop. The machine hit the ground at full speed and nosed over, burying Orville and Selfridge.

The respected Scientific Journal published an article, Lessons of the Wright Aeroplane Disaster in their September 26, 1908 issue. The article, including my comments, follows below.

“Seldom has there occurred a more pitifully tragic disaster than the sudden fall of the Wright aeroplane, involving the death of that promising young officer Lieut. Thomas E. Selfridge, and inflicting shocking injuries on the talented inventor, Orville Wright.

That the disaster should have occurred at the culmination of a series of brilliant flights, and on the eye of winning that prize of government recognition for which the Wright brothers had striven, unaided, through long years of patient toil, renders the disaster extremely pathetic, and accentuates that world-wide sympathy in which the Scientific Journal so sincerely shares.

But although the accident is deplorable, it should not be allowed to discredit the art of aerospace navigation. If it emphasizes the risks, there is nothing in the mishap to shake our faith in the principles upon which the Wright brothers built their machine, and achieved such brilliant success.

The defect was purely of structural detail. The breaking off of the blades of the propeller of an airship is comparable to bursting the tire on an automobile. In each case there is the danger of an upset; but in neither should the accident be taken to indicate that the principles and design of the whole machine are at fault.”

Comment: One of the propeller blades did break off although that is not what caused the crash. Here is what really happened.

The right blade flattened when it developed a longitudinal crack. That started a sequence of events.

The blade then lost enough power to cause unequal thrust between the two blades. The resulting vibration is what Orville heard as a light tapping noise.

Next in the sequence of events was that that the vibration loosened a stay wire fastened to the tube that housed the propeller axle. The axle moved enough to bring the undamaged propeller blade in contact with the upper stay wire attached to the vertical rudder in the tail.

The wire broke and wrapped itself around the propeller blade, breaking it off, causing the loud thumping sound. That was the broken blade seen flying from the machine.

The broken blade, however, was not the cause of the crash. It was the vertical rudder that had been loosened by the loss of the stay wire. It caused the Flyer to first swerve right toward the cemetery, then to the left, so that it was heading north up the field.

At this point Orville moved the wingwarping lever to the right to straighten the wings and at the same time moved it forward to move the vertical rudder to the right in order to glide to the ground. The problem was that the rudder, without its upper stay wire, was so tilted to the horizontal that it functioned more as an elevator. This sent the Flyer into a fatal dive and ultimate crash.

Orville had been forewarned of possible trouble when on September 9, a propeller developed an 18 1/2-foot split. Orville had to have Loren ship two new blades from Dayton. The new blades had the same chord but were two inches longer.

The Scientific American continued: “Nevertheless, it must be admitted that if the demand for absolutely first-class design and material is strong in the automobile, it is doubly so in the aeroplane.

Judged by the nature of the work it has to do, and in view of the tragic penalties which may attach to the breakage of any one of its delicate and nicely calculated parts, it would seem that a broader margin of safety should be allowed in cutting down the size and weight to secure the necessary lightness.

The supporting planes (wings) with their fragile wooden struts and hair-like wires, constitute a trussed bridge, whose strength, like that of a chain, is no greater that the strength of its weakest link.

Should a single strut or wire snap, the whole fabric must collapse. Similarly, the equilibrium of the whole structure is so sensitive to disturbance, that any sudden change in the opposed forces, such as was occasioned by the snapping of one of the two propellers, must instantly upset the delicate poise, and change the aeroplane suddenly, from a self-sustaining machine to an inert mass, subject to the destructive force of gravity.

The lessons of this particular case are, first, that wood is too uncertain a material to safely endure the complicated stresses due to thrust, high centrifugal force, excessive vibration, or the possibility of contact with the machine to which a propeller is subjected; and, secondly, that the distribution of the thrust between two propellers, placed on either side of the center of gravity, constitutes, as this terrible accident has too clearly shown, a constant invitation to disaster.

Should one propeller break, become loose, or be disconnected from its chain drive, the whole power of the engine becomes concentrated at a point several feet to one side of the center of resistance of the machine, with the result that it becomes immediately unmanageable, and is driven violently from its path; whereas the breaking of a single, centrally-placed propeller would have no greater effect upon the control than would the simple stopping of the motor.

Undoubtedly, it was the inevitable confusion created by the breaking of the propeller on the vertical rudder wire that caused the disaster; for although Wright made a gallant effort to bring the machine back to control, stopping his motor, etc., the horizontal rudders appear either to have failed or to have been pulled in the wrong direction; the aeroplane, after partially righting, taking a sudden and steep plunge to the ground.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all, however, is, that, to render the aeroplane reliable, some method of automatic control of both lateral and horizontal stability must be devised. This control should automatically hold the rudders and plane tips in the requisite position for equilibrium, any deviation therefrom being made separate manual control.”

Comment: The Wrights ignored the free advice. Wilbur was in France at the time of the accident. When he returned and had time to examine what had happened, he stated, “The splitting of the propeller was the occasion of the accident; the uncontrollability of the tail was the cause.”

In June 1909, they tested a replica of the failed 1908 propeller in a barn behind Loren’s house. The first test blade cracked after less than two minutes running. They concluded that the propeller had a weak spot on the concave side that allowed the blade to flatten and split.

The blades were redesigned and made heavier at that point and canvas was added down their concave sides. Also, the tubes supporting the propeller axles were braced so that any vibration would not cause the propellers to reach the wires bracing the vertical rudder in the tail. The problem was solved.

We are now at war and the airplane has already played a significant role in the war on terrorism. This article will look at what the inventors of the airplane, the Wright Brothers, had to say about the role of airplanes in war.

The Wrights Involvement in Warplanes

In 1909, the Wright Brothers sold the first airplane to the U.S. Army. The contract included training pilots. In the beginning, the primary role of the airplane in wartime was for observation. Before 1915, when Orville (Wilbur died in 1912) left the Wright Company, the company had sold a total of fourteen airplanes to the Army.

The notion that the airplane would put an end to war was widely held at the time. Dayton’s Mayor Edward Burkhart characterized this attitude during his presentation of medals to the Wright brothers during Dayton’s celebration of their accomplishments in June 1909.

“With the perfect development of the airplane, wars will be only an incident of past ages.”

A float in the parade that followed the presentations sponsored by the West Side Business Men’s Association, reiterated this theme with a banner that was emblazoned with the message: “The Wright Brothers Invention Should Prevent Further Wars And Insure Peace”

Not everyone shared this belief. One was Lt. Frank Lahm. Lt. Lahm was influential in arranging Orville’s 1908 trials at Fort Myer, Va. The month after the Dayton’s Celebration, Lt. Lahm was the passenger with Orville when he set a world record of one hour and 12-minutes for two-person flight at Ft. Myer. In October he was one of two officers trained to be a pilot by Orville.

Lt Lahm promoted flight to his superiors in the Army as “unquestionably having considerable military value.” He retired in 1941 as a Brigadier General one week before Pearl Harbor’s vivid demonstration of flight’s military capabilities.

In 1911, Lieutenant Henry H. “Hap” Arnold learned to fly at the Wright Flying School in Dayton. He rose to the rank of five-star general and commanded the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II and later served as the first Chief of Staff of the newly created U.S. Air Force.

Roy Brown was another pilot that trained at the Wright Flying school. He was officially credited for shooting down Captain Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, who had 80 confirmed kills in WW I. Brown, a Canadian, wanted to join the Royal Naval Air Service after graduating from high school. One of their requirements was you needed a pilot’s certificate.

He found that the only pilot school in Canada was already full, so his father paid for his training at the Wright Brothers’ school in Dayton, Ohio. The cost was $250 for 240 minutes in the air, plus living expenses that could total $600 in 1915. He received his license, number 361 on November 15, 1915.

In early 1917, a group of Dayton’s businessmen formed the Dayton Wright Airplane Company with the intention of creating a sport of aeronautics. Orville was appointed a director and consulting engineer.

On April 6, America declared war on Germany. The objective of the fledgling company now changed from the manufacture of a few sport planes to the mass production of airplanes for combat. The company received a large contract from the government to build the British de Haviland DH-4 airplane.

Orville was commissioned a major in the Aviation Section of the Signal Officers Reserve Corps. He was assigned to work with the engineers at Dayton Wright.

Orville’s Thoughts

Orville’s thoughts about the transformation were revealed in a letter dated June 21, 1917 to C. H. Hitchcock in response to an aircraft program laid out by the Aircraft Production Board:

“When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible. That we were not alone in this thought is evidenced by the fact that the French Peace Society presented us with medals on account of our invention. We thought governments would realize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks, and that no country would enter into war with another of equal size when it knew that it would have to win by simply wearing out the enemy.”

Orville went on to give his recommendations of what to do now that America was at war.

“Nevertheless, the world finds itself in the greatest war in history. Neither side has been able to win on account of the part the aeroplane has played. Both sides know exactly what the other is doing. The two sides are apparently nearly equal in aerial equipment, and it seems to me that unless present conditions can be changed, the war will continue for years.

However, if the Allies’ armies are equipped with such a number of aeroplanes as to keep the enemy planes entirely back of the line, so that they are able to direct gun-fire or to observe the movement of the Allied troops-in other words, if the enemy’s eyes can be put out – it will be possible to end the war. This is taking into account what might be done by bombing German sources of munition supplies, such as Essen (Krupp Works), which is only about one hundred and fifty miles behind the fighting lines. But to end the war quickly and cheaply, the supremacy in the air must be complete as to entirely blind the enemy.”

Orville’s intention was to promote the concept that the Allies could break the deadlock on the ground by using the airplane to gain control of the air. He believed that the stalemate between the two large armies was the result of the effectiveness of the airplane for observation.

In a letter of August 1, 1917 to Frank Harris, a magazine editor he amplified his ideas:

“An attempt to destroy the Krupp works at Essen could be undertaken successfully only in the case the Allies have a preponderance of fighting aeroplanes, so that the machine carrying bombs could be safely conveyed. I have never been a strong advocate of bombing from aeroplanes. I certainly would not like to see the Allies adopt the German’s barbarous policy of dropping bombs among the civilians where no military advantage is to be gained.”

Note: The Krupp factory developed a giant, 43-ton howitzer, which could deliver a 2,200 pound shell more than 9 miles. The weapon was called “Big Berths” after Gustav Krupp’s wife.)

Orville continued, ” In order to make bombing from aeroplanes effective, a vast number of planes would be required, and these well protected, so that the bombs could be dropped from a comparatively low height. Bombs dropped from a height of two miles or more rarely hit even near the mark for which they are intended.”

Orville’s comments received much attention in the New York Times and were the most authoritative appraisal of the strategic use of air power at the time.

World War I ended on November 11, 1919. In a letter to a well wisher, Orville commented:

“The aeroplane has made war so terrible that I do not believe any country will again care to start a war.”

Before the war ended, there were fighters, observation planes, and multi-engine bombers which could carry thousands of pounds of bombs. The Allies launched some 200,000 planes, the Germans 1/3 as many. The Allies also suffered 3 times the air casualties.

At the beginning of World War II, Orville still hoped that the airplane would be an instrument of peace. In a letter to Henry Ford of April 22, 1942, Orville wrote:

“I quite agree with you that the aeroplane will be our main reliance in restoring peace to the World.”

In a letter of September 7, 1943 to Edward D. Smith, an executive with NCR Corporation, he wrote:

“It was air power that made such a terrible war possible, but it also is air power that we will have to depend upon to stop it.”

President Truman honored Orville with the Award of Merit for distinguished service to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics during the World War II.

On the occasion of his seventy-fourth birthday, Orville’s life-long optimism about the role of the airplane as an instrument of peace began to fade. In an answer to a friend, Lester Gardner, of August 28, 1946, Orville wrote:

“I once thought the aeroplane would end wars. I now wonder whether the aeroplane and the atomic bomb can do it. It seems that ambitious rulers will sacrifice the lives and property of all their people to gain a little personal fame.”

Orville’s crash at Fort Myer on September 17, 1908 resulted in the death of his passenger, Lt. Selfridge. Although the unfortunate accident was frightening to the brothers, it was not entirely unexpected. Flying was still a dangerous occupation.

Investigation of his Fort Myer crash revealed that the basic cause was a longitudinal crack in one blade of the right propeller. The damaged blade not only lost power, it also caused a vibration that ultimately brought the other undamaged blade in contact with a stay wire leading to the vertical rudder in the tail. The wire was cut and wrapped itself around the blade causing it to break off. The rudder without the stay wire tilted over horizontally. In this position it functioned as an elevator causing the Flyer to nose over into the fatal dive.

From his hospital bed, Orville, with sister Katharine’s help, requested an extension to their Army contract, which the Army quickly approved. Both brothers returned in June 1909 to fulfill the terms of the Army Signal Corps Specification. This time Wilbur went along to help with the preparations.

The specification required an airplane capable of carrying two men at a speed of 40 mph while staying in the air for at least one hour. If successfully met, the Wrights’ would be awarded $25,000 plus $2,500 for each mph above 40.

The Army Signal Corps Flyer they brought with them in 1909 not only had strengthened propeller blades, but also a reduced wing area to increase speed, and a redesigned control lever used for turning. The control lever was split into two controls that allowed a separate fine-tuning of the rudder by turning the wrist.

Flying commenced on Tuesday June 29, but quickly ran into trouble. Orville had three aborted takeoffs and two minor accidents in three days. On Friday, Orville almost suffered another significant injury when the engine suddenly stopped while flying.

What should have been a routine glide in for a landing ran into trouble when the right wing snagged a small dead thorn tree at the end of the parade ground. The tree ripped through the fabric and broke several of the wing’s ribs. The Flyer made a hard landing that collapsed both landing skids.

Orville was stunned, but uninjured. It had been only nine months after his near fatal crash the year before.

When Wilbur reached the scene, he found a photographer taking pictures of the damaged airplane. Angered, he grabbed a piece of wood off the ground and hurled it at him; then demanded the photographic plate.

After the bad start, events turned for the better. On July 27, Orville fulfilled the specification requirement of a two-man flight for one hour, breaking the world’s record set by Wilbur in France. His passenger was Lt. Frank Lahm who had reported to the now deceased Lt. Thomas Selfridge.

The second specification requirement was for a ten-mile, two-man speed test. The course was laid out to require a round-trip to Alexandria, Virginia and back. The turning point in Alexandria was called Shooter’s Hill where the George Washington Masonic Memorial is now located. At the time, the cornerstone had just been laid.

Orville’s passenger this time was Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois.

(In 1916, Foulois commanded the “1st Aero Squadron,” the army’s first air force. Their first military action was to provide support to General’s Pershing’s incursion into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. Foulois would later rise to the rank of a major general.)

Orville chose Foulois because he had experience in map reading and, as a bonus he didn’t weigh much (126 pounds). His skill would be critically needed because the terrain in those days was rugged between Ft. Myer and Alexandria, containing three ravines and a forest. There would be no good place for an emergency landing.

One has to marvel at Orville’s fearlessness. Since 1902, he had endured five serious crashes. Last year’s crash was nearly fatal. But, there was no hint of any hesitancy of going again.

Orville and Lt. Foulois took off from the parade ground at Fort Myer on July 30th with President William Howard Taft and a crowd of 7,000 spectators cheering them on. The Flyer climbed to 50 feet and circled the parade ground twice before heading off to Alexandria.

When the Flyer flew out of sight, the crowd fell silent with apprehension. They were aware of the rugged course. Wilbur estimated what the time of travel would be, but when the Flyer didn’t appear at the appointed time, he grew concerned and beads of sweat formed on his forehead and rolled down his checks.

A spectator shouted, “he’s down!” Katharine gave him a sharp reprimand. “How do you know he’s down?” Then there were cries of “there it comes,” as the Flyer reappeared over the treetops to the south.

Orville nosed the plane down to pick up speed as it roared with a flourish over the finish line to the cheers of the crowd and the honking of horns. He went on to circle Arlington Cemetery, then turned off the motor and glided in for a landing. Pandemonium reigned as the two men were almost mobbed by the crowd.

President Taft congratulated Orville on the spot. Lt. Foulois said it was the only time he ever saw Wilbur smile.

The next day they learned that the Flyer’s average speed was calculated to be 42.58-mph. That meant they earned a $5,000 bonus to add to their earned 40-mph price of $25,000. On August 2, 1909 the Signal Corps accepted the Wright Flyer for military use. It was the first airplane purchased and placed in service by any government.

This model, sometimes known as Signal Corps No. 1, now resides in the Smithsonian Institution and is the only one of its type constructed by the Wrights.