Coffyn Flies the Wright Model B

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

Frank Coffyn has spent many hours flying Wright airplanes and so is highly qualified to comment on their flying characteristics. His flights call into question the often heard claim that the Wright machines are difficult to fly.

In 1911 he wrote, “I flew a plane (Model B) the other day from Mines Field, Los Angles to my home near San Diego that practically handled itself, so perfect was its balance and equipment.

In 1912 he said that the Wright Model B “stood up nobly under the buffeting of stiffer winds than it had ever before encountered” while flying over New York City.

One of the best descriptions of flying in the Model B piloted by Coffyn was by Richard Harding Davis in a 1911 Collier’s Magazine. Davis was a celebrated war correspondent and novelist. Colliers commissioned him to describe a flight.

He showed he wasn’t too confident about flying when he gave two of his friends his ring, watch and money to hold for him.

Here is portion of the article.

I crawled between a crisscross of wires to a seat as small as a racing saddle, and with my right hand choked the life out of a wooden upright. Unless I clung to Coffyn’s right arm, there was nothing I could hold on to with my left but the edge of the racing saddle.

My toes rested on a thin steel crossbar. It was like balancing in a child’s swing hung from a tree. Had I placed myself in such a seat on a hotel porch, I would have considered my position most unsafe; to occupy such a seat a thousand feet in mid-air while moving at fifty miles an hour struck me as ridiculous.

“What’s to keep me from falling out?” I demanded.

Coffyn laughed unfeelingly.

“You won’t fall out!” he said.

I began to hate Coffyn and the Wright Brothers. I began to regret I had not been brought up a family man so that, like the other men of family at Aiken, I could explain I could not go aloft, because I had children to support.

Behind us the propeller was thrashing the air like a mowing machine, and Coffyn had disguised himself in his goggles. To me the act suggested the judge putting on his black cap before he delivers the death sentence. The moment had come. I tried to smile at my two faithful friends, but one was excitedly dancing around taking a farewell snapshot, and the other already was calmly counting my money.

On the bicycle wheels we ran swiftly forward across the polo field. There was no swaying, no vibration, no jar. We might have been speeding over asphalt in a soft-cushioned automobile. We reached the boundary of the polo field.

“You are in the air!” said Coffyn.

I did not believe him, and I looked down to see, and found the earth was two feet below us. We were moving through space on as even a keel as though we were touching the level turf.

Coffyn had his own sense of humor. Perhaps first with a glance he assured himself that my feet were wrapped around the steel bar and my fingers clutching the wooden upright. Perhaps he did not. In any event, when we were a thousand feet in the air, about as high as a twelve-story building, he pulled a lever and the airship dived!

The next instant a perfectly solid red clay road was rising to hit me in the face. Not even my feet obstructed my view. We were tilted so far forward that I knew my face and knees would hit at the same moment. I knew the end had come. I had time only to think that what had been Coffyn and what had been me would make a terrible mess in the red clay road.

And then when it was so near that I shut my eyes, Coffyn pulled another lever, and like a rocket, the airship shot into the skies.

Probably many times you dream you are falling from a great height and wake to find yourself in bed. Pile all the agony of all these nightmares into one, and that was how I felt.

When I looked at Coffyn he was laughing. My only desire was to punch him, just once on the tip of his square jaw. The only reason I did not was because I was afraid to let go of the wooden upright.

Coffyn said later that Davis never suggested another flight.

I flew in a modern replica of the Model B in Dayton and I thought it was a lot of fun. Of course my pilot didn’t make any steep dives to test me out and they had added a seatbelt which I wore.

The Wright Model B Flyer was the first airplane that the Wright brothers produced in quantity, with more than 100 built beginning in 1910.

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