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 successful negotiation of a contract by the Wrights with the U.S. Army in February 1908 was followed almost immediately with a contract with the French in March. The brothers would be introducing the Wright Flyer on two continents at almost the same time. The impact would be electrifying and make Wilbur and Orville world famous.

It would be a sharp contrast to the editorial criticism in newspapers and magazines across the country when the Signal Corps announced it had advertised for bids for a military airplane in December 1907. Typically, one magazine sarcastically said “there is not now a known flying-machine in the world which could fulfill these specifications at the present moment.”

Contracts in hand, the Wrights went to work to convert their 1905 Flyer to carrying a pilot and one passenger in a seated upright condition. No more lying flat on the lower wing as was the technique used during their experimental days. This meant seats had to be installed and a new arrangement designed for the maneuvering control levers. They also added a new more powerful engine.

The changes required that they had to get used to flying with the new controls and break in the new design. The new controls consisted of a lever for maneuvering the front elevator at the pilot’s left hand and a lever that combined wingwarping and tail rudder maneuvering in one control at the right hand located between the seats. The motions required were so different than the arrangement in the original 1905 plane that their operation had to be completely relearned.

They decided the best way to accomplish this was to return to Kitty Hawk once again to practice flying with the new controls. They had not flown at all for 2 1/2 years since October 1905. It had been five years since they last visited Kitty Hawk and the first time they had flown since the fall of 1905.

In April, Wilbur was the first to leave Dayton for Kitty Hawk and experienced the usual problems getting there. The sailboat that was to take Wilbur from Elizabeth City to Kitty Hawk was two days late. Upon arrival at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur found the building that housed the original Flyer was “pretty well wrecked” by storms. The other building that they had used as housing still stood but the roof and north end of the building was gone. Both buildings had a foot of sand covering the floor.

Vandals (allegedly boys) had ripped the burlap from the hammocks in the loft. Also, they tore the cloth that covered the wings of the 1902 glider, which had been stored there. On top of that, their water pump was gone, having been moved by the lifesavers at Kill Devil Hills.

To worsen the situation, Wilbur became ill with diarrhea. He was temporarily staying at the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station and the food he ate there was the probable cause of his distress.

Orville arrived two weeks later with the plane. By the time everything was repaired, supplies gathered and the airplane assembled, a month had gone by.

Their first flights didn’t go well because they had difficulty determining just how much movement of the hand levers produced the desired amount of control. The left control lever controlled the vertical movement and the right lever controlled turning. Practice was the only way to learn how to do it correctly.

They made a total of twenty-two flights between May 6 and May 14. On the 14th, Wilbur made the world’s first flight carrying two men. Wilbur’s passenger was Charlie Furnas, a mechanic from the Dayton area who had journeyed to Kitty Hawk ten days earlier to help the brothers.

Wilbur’s last flight of the series was also the longest lasting 7 1/2 minutes. But, it almost ended in tragedy. Wilbur pushed the elevator handle, which controls vertical motion, forward, when he meant to pull it back. The Flyer plowed into the ground at a speed estimated at in the neighborhood of 52 to 54 mph. He was thrown hard against the upper wing, which momentarily stunned him, cut the bridge of his nose and bruised his left hand, right forearm and both shoulders.

Orville was watching the flight at a distance through field glasses. All he could see was a splash of sand when Wilbur crashed. Orville became quite concerned when Wilbur didn’t quickly appear.

The brothers had a prearranged signal that in the event of a crash the pilot would immediately climb out if unhurt. Wilbur, dazed by the crash, didn’t immediately appear.

Orville and Furnas ran to the wreck and were relieved to find that Wilbur was not seriously hurt.

Newspaper reporters, who had been hiding in the weeds observing the flights, reported the “complete wreck”, which became front-page news throughout most of the country the next day. Actually only the front framing and upper surface of the machine were wrecked.

The flights ended on that down note because Wilbur had to leave for France for demonstration flights, arriving in New York on May 19. Katharine, his sister, expressed his trunk to him from Dayton.

(As a side note, when Wilbur got to France, he found a hatbox with nothing in the box. He wrote Katharine that the next time she packed a hat box to remove the lid and see if anything is inside.)

Orville was left to make the demonstration flights for the Army at Fort Myer by himself. He arrived back in Dayton on May 23 to begin preparations for the trip to Virginia for the Army trials. It would be the first time that the brothers were apart for a major event. It would have major consequences.

Next: Orville is almost killed in a crash at Fort Meyer.

Four years after the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the brothers had still not earned a profit from their invention. Originally, inventing flight was a hobby to them. But now after investing much of their money and time, it became a business.

Business didn’t look good either in Europe or the U. S. But, just when it seemed that their negotiations on two continents were in vain, their luck changed.

In a period of six weeks in 1908, they not only received a contract from the U. S. Army Signal Corps, but also from a French syndicate to manufacture and sell their airplane in France.

The brothers were in Europe in late 1907 pursuing opportunities when they received a letter from Lt. Frank Lahm Jr., U.S. Army Signal Coops. Lahm had received permission from the U S. Army Board of Ordnance and Fortifications asking whether it was too late to make a deal. The Army at long last had awoken from their long slumber concerning airplanes.

Orville responded that he and his brother would deal with the Board if they could obtain assurances of fair treatment. Assurances granted, Wilbur returned from Europe on November 22 and stopped in Washington for a day on the way to Dayton and returned a week later to confer with members of the Board. He offered to supply an airplane capable of carrying two people for $25,000.

The board was not able to accept the offer immediately because the Army decided to advertise for bids to forestall criticism, even though the Wrights were the only source that was known to have the capability to meet their requirements.

Before the Army issued the contract, the Wrights had the opportunity to provide comments on the draft specification for a flying machine and they provided several comments by letter to General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer on December 18.

With extraordinary swiftness for the Military, the U.S. Signal Corps advertised for bids for a military heavier-than-air flying machine in accordance with Signal Corps Specification No. 486, dated December 23, 1907. Bids were to be submitted to the Board of Ordnance by February 1, 1908.

The Board did a good job of writing the specification. Unlike many of today’s military specifications, the signal corps specification was simple, one page in length; specified performance rather design requirements; and contained an incentive for performance.

I have cited this specification as a model of how to write specifications in lectures to acquisition personnel at the Defense Management System College in modern times.

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

At the time, not everyone agreed that the specifications were realistic. For instance, The American Magazine of Aeronautics wrote, “There is not a known flying machine in the world which could fulfill these specifications…” “Perhaps the Signal Corps has been much influenced by the hot air of theorizers…”

A unique feature of the specification was that it included an incentive clause that would add an extra $2,500 for each mile attained above 40 mph. (also $2,500 would be deducted for each mile below 40mph.) If the speed fell below 36mph, the offer would be rejected.

There was also a requirement that the machine be capable of easy disassembly and packed for transportation by Army wagon and that it be capable of being assembled and put in operating condition in one hour.

In addition it should be sufficiently simple in its construction and operation to permit an intelligent man to learn to fly the machine within a reasonable length of time.

The Wrights formally submitted their bid by letter of January 27, 1908

It was the only bid expected, but a surprising forty-one were submitted. All but the Wrights and Augustus Herring’s bid were quickly eliminated as having no substance. One bidder even claimed that “All things are possible through God.”

Surprisingly, the low bidder was not the Wrights, but rather Herring who bid $20,000, a significant $5,000 under the Wrights. Herring was known in aeronautical circles and therefore could not be routinely dismissed. The Signal Corps cleverly solved the problem by awarding contracts to both Herring and the Wright Brothers.

Before this could be done, however, the government procurement rules required they get approval from the President. Fortunately, President Roosevelt promptly gave his approval.

It turned out that Herring’s nefarious scheme was to subcontract the building of his machine to the Wrights. Herring made a visit to Dayton to negotiate with the Wrights and not surprisingly was quickly rebuffed.

His scheme might have worked but for the Signal Corps having the foresight to award contracts to both parties. Herring, after receiving a number of extensions of time from the Army, halfheartedly tried to build a machine himself, but failed.

On February 8, 1908, four years and three months after their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers received a contract from the U. S. Signal Corps for one heavier-than-air machine. One of the first to congratulate them was Lt. Frank Lahm.

Next, Wilbur Crashes While Using New Control Levers.

The U.S. Army had turned down Wilbur and Orville Wright not once, but twice in 1905 on their offer to sell them a “practical airplane.” They just couldn’t believe that two bicycle makers from Dayton had developed such a machine and they weren’t about to go out of their way to investigate if they had.

In April 1906, a new opportunity presented itself. Godfrey Cabot, a relative of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, wrote Lodge telling him of the dreadful treatment the brothers had received from the Army. Senator Lodge forwarded the letter to the Secretary of War William Howard Taft, who in turn sent it to the Army’s Board of Ordnance and Fortification. This was the same board that had turned the Wrights down twice before.

This time, however, there was a difference; Cabot paid a visit to the chairman of the board, General William Frazier. Under political pressure, General Frazier assured Cabot that any future submissions from the Wrights would receive careful consideration. It was an answer, but not one that required any action by the Board.

The Wrights answered Cabot with courteous thanks for his effort, but “we naturally have no intention of taking the initiative again.” The brothers were still miffed because they perceived the Army rejections as a personal attack on their integrity.

Some people might think that the brothers were naïve in their business dealings by taking this attitude. But the Wrights had been brought up in a strict moral household. Their father was a Bishop in the United Brethren Church. They didn’t drink, smoke or fly on Sundays. Their word was their honor. They ran their printing and bicycle business using the Protestant Ethic and they had no intention of changing now with their airplane business.

The insult of the Army turndown still bothered the brothers. In early 1907, the Wrights decided to try something extraordinary to get their attention. A grand celebration was planned in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown English settlement in Virginia. Ships of the Atlantic fleet would be there. The Wrights had the idea of flying their airplane over the anchored fleet unannounced. That would certainly be sensational and prove that their airplane had reached the stage of practicality.

Their plan was to fit their airplane with pontoons and take off and land in the water of Currituck Sound near Kitty Hawk. They began experiments with a pontoon-rigged machine on the Miami River in Dayton on March 20. A story and photograph appeared in the Dayton Herald the next day.

Unfortunately, It soon became apparent that taking off from the water was more complicated than they at first estimated and they abandoned the project.

Soon after, an unexpected influential person stepped forward to intercede with the War Department on their behalf. It was New York Congressman Herbert Parsons, who was a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. He had met Wilbur Wright through his brother-in-law, who was president of the Aero-Club of America. Parsons became interested in the Wrights’ cause and wrote to President Roosevelt on their behalf. Roosevelt forwarded the letter to Secretary of War Taft with a recommendation to investigate the Wright claims.

Again, the letter bounced down the now familiar chain of command to the Board of Ordnance and Fortifications. This time the Board, under increasing political pressure, and after an exchange of letters with the Wrights asked the Wrights, for a formal proposal on May 22. Orville responded on May 31, quoting a price of $100,000 for one machine and instructions in its operation.

The Board countered on June 8 wanting to know if the United States would have exclusive rights to the machine. Orville responded on June 15 that an exclusive contract was no longer possible “since a recent contract precludes our offering such right.” (At the time the Wrights’ had a contract with an agent who was representing them in Europe). The Board did not respond and once again the door seemed to be closed.

It was now four years after the Wrights’ first flight at Kitty Hawk; negotiations were ongoing to sell their airplane in European, and the U.S. Army was still asleep at the switch.

Then, when least expected, a break occurred. The Army set up a new Aeronautical Division under the U. S. Army Signal Corps in August of 1907 and a Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm was assigned to the new office. Lahm would become the change agent that would ultimately result in the Army buying the Wright airplane.

Lahm’s father, a wealthy American businessman from Ohio, was a famous international balloonist and dean of balloon pilots of the Aero-Club de France. He had visited Wilbur and Orville in Dayton in 1906. He was so impressed after the visit, he had written a letter to the Paris Herald vouching for the claims of the Wrights.

The young Lt. Lahm was in Paris in August 1907 when his father bought with him two guests for lunch – Wilbur and Orville. As they say, the rest was history.

Lt. Lahm sent a letter to Brigadier General James Allen, the Chief Signal Officer and second-highest member of the Board of Ordnance and Fortification. Lahm strongly recommended the Board’s approval of Orville’s proposal. “It would be unfortunate if the United States should not be the first to take advantage of the unquestioned military value of the Wright Flyer.”

Lt. Lahm’s letter worked. In October, the Board belatedly responded to Orville’s letter of June 15 that they were interested in the Wright’s proposal.

In the next article, the Wrights finally receive a contract from the Army.