First Flight Demonstration at Fort Myer in 1909, Not Impressive.

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

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.

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