Frank Coffyn Observes the Wright Brothers

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

Frank Coffyn was taught to fly by Orville for about an hour and a half, than by Walter Brookins for another hour and a half, becoming the 26th pilot in America and was a member of the Wright Exhibition Team. His recollections of Orville and Wilbur provide an interesting look at their personalities.

Brookins was the first pilot taught to fly by Orville. The Wrights had known him since he was four years old. Katharine had him as a student in school.

When Frank first arrived in Dayton to begin his pilot training, he was surprised to find that many of the citizens of Dayton were only barely tolerant of the brothers. They thought that the Wright brothers’ activity with flying was a fad and wouldn’t last long.

Their attitude changed by the time Frank left Dayton. He observed that the citizens of Dayton began to wake up to the fact that these crazy Wrights must have something in them after all. They hadn’t crashed and killed themselves. They weren’t bankrupt. And strangest of all, they hadn’t become swell-headed.

Famous people from around the world were coming to Dayton to see the Wrights. Wilbur and Orville were not big on receiving visitors who they didn’t know. Katharine Wright would often greet the guests with her charming personality.

Frank noted that the Wrights were fond of his five-year-old son. Wilbur spent a lot of time making a kite for him. He was also was kind and considerate to his Frank’s wife.

Frank did many daring things during his flying career but the only time he almost died was in an automobile crash in New York City when the car he was riding in went over a bridge. He was unconscious for 10 days, having sustained a skull fracture. Some newspapers even published a report of his death.

Wilbur visited and sat at his bedside in the Presbyterian Hospital. Frank said that he discovered a new and tender side to Wilbur. Later, after recovery was certain, Wilbur wrote him a letter.

“Dear Frank, I was immensely pleased on my return from Augusta to find a telegram from Mr. Levino stating that you were doing so well, and that you had become father of a little daughter. Please accept for yourself and Mrs. Coffyn the congratulations and best wishes of my father, my sister, my brother and myself. I hope that when you receive this you are up and flying again, but not over the sides of bridges.” (Letter on left)

One newspaper reporter described the Wrights as uncompromising, Puritan mechanics. Frank commenting on the description, said that he agreed they were Puritans, “bred in the bone.” “There never was a taint of hypocrisy about them. They held to what they believed to be a right course, and nothing could make them trim their sails.”

The Wrights rejected flattery offered by many famous people. Had they lived in Europe, honors would have been heaped upon them.

The director of the Smithsonian Institution fraudulently claimed that the original failed Langley aeroplane had flown after restoration and then displayed it in the museum with an inscription that said it was the first aeroplane that was capable of flight.

The Smithsonian asked Orville to display the 1903 Flyer adjacent to the Langley plane. Orville was outraged. Instead he accepted an offer from the South Kensington Museum in London and sent the 1903 Flyer to London for display.

Frank, commenting on this sad episode, explained that Orville was uncompromising in his attitude because he would not be false to his dead brother’s memory and his pride of achievement by letting the Flyer rest side by side with the Langley machine. The Flyer remained in London for 20 years, not returning until 1948 after the then director of the Smithsonian published a retraction of the false claims.

Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley was an eminent scientist. “He had forgotten more mathematics,” said Frank, “than the Wrights ever knew. But what about the results? The Wrights’ plane flew; Langley’s plane did not.”

“I have heard,” said Frank, “the Wrights called parsimonious and niggardly. That is not correct. They had opportunities to make a great deal more money than they amassed, but in those early days the only returns were from exhibition flights. They were not selling machines, although there were a thousand ready purchasers. They could have made enormous sums of money by catering to these enthusiasts, but money as money did not seem to interest them.”

Frank, commenting on the status of aviation in America in 1920, had this to say:

“I think we can say, without undo boasting, that as an air nation we have arrived. And I trust that in our triumphs of today and our hopes for the future, we shall never lose sight of the fact that it was Wilbur and Orville Wright who made possible man’s conquest of the air.”

Reference: “Flying with the Wrights,” by Frank T. Coffyn, World’s Work Magazine, Dec. 1929-Jan. 1930.

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