Orville has Nine Cat Lives

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

Flying early gliders and aircraft was dangerous business and Orville Wright survived a number of crashes. Had he been a cat, one could say that he came close to losing all of his nine lives.

Orville’s first crash occurred on September 23, 1902 at Kitty Hawk. Wilbur, looking after the welfare of his younger brother, didn’t permit Orville to learn to fly until 1902. It wasn’t until then that Wilbur believed that they had a glider safe enough for Orville to learn to fly on.

Orville and Wilbur made a few short glides on Little Hill in the morning and then moved to the steeper slope of Big Hill (site of the current Wright Memorial). Orville made a couple of glides without any problems and then on either his third or fourth glide, he noticed that one wing was too high.

He became so absorbed in making a correction by shifting the hip cradle that controls wingwarping, that he failed to notice he had forgotten to adjust the rudder. The result was the nose of the glider pointed up at a sharp angle and initiated a steep stall.

Dan Tate and Wilbur shouted a warning but they couldn’t be heard over the noise of the wind.

By the time that Orville noticed his predicament, he was 30 feet over the hill and rapidly slipping backward toward the sand. Orville reported the crash in his diary as, “a heap of flying machine, cloth, and sticks in a heap, with me in the center without a bruise or a scratch.”

Plenty of sand to provide a soft landing was one of the reasons they had picked Kitty Hawk. It was a decision that saved Orville from injury that day.

Orville’s second crash was on August 24, 1904 at Huffman Prairie outside Dayton. Orville and Wilbur were using Huffman Prairie as a test ground as they were developing the Flyer into a practical airplane.

They had flown 23 times during the month without incurring any serious crashes. The 24th flight, flown by Orville, would end in a crash that could have caused serious injury.

Orville had just taken off when a sudden gust of wind caused the flyer to dive toward the ground. Instead of moving the lever to turn the elevator up, he moved it down. The flyer hit the ground with the tail sticking up in the air.

Orville ended up lying on the ground with a splintered front spar from the upper wing across his back. Fortunately, the impact of the crash created a two-foot gap in the center of the spar. Otherwise his back may have been broken. He ended up with nothing worse than a scratched hand and bruises.

This incident caused the Wrights to develop the catapult launching system as an assist for take-off.

Orville’s third accident occurred on November 1, 1904 at Huffman Prairie. He started the engine and was in the process of conducting a preflight inspection when the stake to which the restraining wire was anchored pulled out of the soft ground. The flyer started down the track without Orville. He leaped onto a skid and managed to depress the elevator lever. That stopped the Flyer and limited damage to a few broken struts. Orville sustained a sprained shoulder.

The fourth accident occurred on July 14, 1905 at Huffman Prairie. Orville was making a test flight. Both Wilbur and Orville had been having trouble with the control system and were making design modifications. He was only in the air 23 seconds when the machine started wobbling and undulating and as a result Orville lost control of the elevator. The flyer hit the ground while moving at 30-mph, bounced three times down the field and upended on the front edges as it slid to a stop.

Orville was catapulted out of the wingwarping cradle and through a broken section of the upper wing. He emerged dazed and bruised but otherwise without a scratch.

Orville’s fifth accident was his worse. It occurred during U.S. Army qualification tests at Fort Myer, VA on September 17, 1908.

Orville was on the fourth circuit of the parade grounds before some 2,000 spectators at around 5:00 p.m. with Lt. Tom Selfridge as a passenger when he heard a strange tapping sound in the rear. He was flying at an altitude of at least 100 feet at the time. He turned and saw nothing, but thought it best to immediately prepare to land.

Suddenly, there were two loud thumps and the machine began to shake. Orville shut off the engine but found that the control levers didn’t work. The machine turned to the left, paused a moment, made a complete turn and went into a dive. About 25 feet from the ground it seemed that he had regained some control and the plane started to right itself, but it was too late.

The Flyer hit the ground with a terrific force near the gate in the cemetery wall. Orville and Selfridge were pinned under the wreckage, unconscious, with their faces buried in the dust. Soldiers and spectators ran across the field and assisted in lifting Orville and Selfridge from under the tangled mass of machinery, wires and shreds of muslin.

At the hospital it was found that Orville had fractured several ribs, fractured his left thigh including a dislocation, and suffered a scalp wound. While serious, miraculously, it was not life threatening, although it left him with frequent back pain for the rest of his life and his left leg 1/8-inch shorter than the other.

Unfortunately, Lt. Selfridge died of his injuries.

Orville’s sixth accident was also at Fort Myer the following year on July 2, 1909. Wilbur and he had returned to complete their qualification requirements that had been interrupted by the previous year’s accident.

Orville had been in the air less than eight minutes when the engine stopped. He was gliding for a routine landing when he hit a small dead thorn tree at the south end of the parade ground. The tree ripped through the fabric, broke several ribs and two skids were also broken when the Flyer hit the ground hard. Orville was shaken but uninjured.

The crowd ran to the site and began ripping off branches of the tree as souvenirs. Wilbur spotted a photographer taking a picture of the damaged Flyer and became incensed. He picked up a piece of the Flyer’s broken frame and threw it at him while demanding the photographic plate. This was the second incident like this for Wilbur. He had done the same thing in France after his second flight in 1908.

In the fall of 1911 Orville returned to Kitty Hawk with a glider to test an automatic-stabilizer he had designed. Accompanying him were his brother Lorin, Lorin’s son and an Englishman, Alexander Ogilvie.

They soon observed that photographers were around so they flew for sport only.

On October 17, Orville had his seventh accident. He flew the glider straight into the side of a sand hill. The left side of the glider was smashed but Orville was not injured.

Just six days later on October 23, Orville had his eighth accident. Just after Lorin and Ogilvie released the glider for Orville, it reared up and flipped over on its back. The glider was badly damaged but Orville emerged without injury.

By this time Orville had used up eight of his nine “cat lives.” He didn’t have any more airplane accidents, but he did have one on a train.

On January 16, 1909 Orville was involved in a train wreck in France. Orville and his sister Katharine were in France to be with Wilbur. They were traveling on the train from Paris to Pau where Wilbur was flying exhibitions when the wreck occurred.

Orville and his sister were in a sleeper car of an express train when 30-miles from Pau it collided with a slower local train. Many people were injured and two were killed. Orville and Katharine emerged without injury.

Orville “nine lives” were now used up. He rarely flew as he got older because the vibration bothered his back – a legacy of his tragic accident at Ft. Myer in 1908.

He must have thought that his days of high-risk travel were over because he didn’t bother to have insurance on his automobile even though he often broke the posted speed limit in the city of Oakwood where he lived.

A heart attack in 1948 did take Orville’s life. His funeral was held on January 30, 1948, at the First Baptist Church in Dayton. Burial was held in Woodland Cemetery. The pastor Dr. Charles Seasholes proclaimed, “Orville Wright: Simple Man of Genius.”

References: Bishops Boys by Tom Crouch, Wilbur and Orville by Fred Howard

Previous post:

Next post: