Orville Wright Breaks World Flying Records

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

The Wrights had finally won an army contract to sell an airplane if they met specified performance requirements. Orville traveled to Washington in the fall of 1908 to fly their airplane while Wilbur was in France flying demonstration flights for a commercial syndicate.

Orville’s first public flight took place on September 3rd before 500 spectators at Ft. Myers, Virginia. President Theodore Roosevelt’s son was among the spectators.

This was the headline of the newspapers on September 9, 1908 provided by the United Press.


Remains in Air 57 Minutes, 31 Seconds, Traveling at Rate of 35 Miles an Hour and Turning Curves with Ease.

Wonderful Performance Means His Machine is Able to Stand Test Devised by the Government and Will Be Accepted for the Army.

To America and Orville Wright, a modest young man of Dayton, Ohio, go the honor of accomplishing the most marvelous feat in aviation yet recorded. The Wright aeroplane, operated by the aviator, whose brother Wilbur has been conducting successful tests in France, sailed today over and around the parade ground at Fort Myer, Va., for 57 minutes and 31 seconds, exceeding by more than 26 minutes the world-breaking record made last Monday by Delagrange, near Paris.

Comment: Leon Delagrange was a fashionable Parisian sculptor who was one of the early experimenters in glider and powered flight. He became one of the most colorful aviators during 1908 and was a feature attraction at air meets in Europe. He raised the world’s records for duration and distance four times in five months during 1908.

During the flight, the Wright machine maintained an average speed of about thirty-eight miles an hour or only two miles an hour less than that required under the government contract for speed on a straightaway course.

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

Could Have Remained Up Longer.

Upon alighting, Wright expressed the utmost astonishment that he had remained in the air so long a time and regrets that he had not made it an hour.

“I could have remained up ten or fifteen minutes longer,” he said. “I still had some gasoline left. The motor worked almost to perfection, there being only an occasional slip. I shall try another flight, as soon as I can load up the gasoline tank and look at the engine.”

All Conditions Favorable.

This morning’s flight started at 8:15, the aeroplane being launched as usual from a track laid upon the ground and by means of counterbalancing weights.

Weather conditions could not have been more favorable. The sun was shining brightly, the atmosphere was crisp and exhilarating, and only a slight breeze was blowing.

Big Crowd Sees Performance.

Attracted by the announcement that Wright was to try for a record flight, a crowd of army and navy officers and citizens had gathered in the parade ground.

Sailing along at express train speed, the bird-like craft responded immediately to the slightest touch of the steering lever, and maneuvered higher or lower, as the planes were managed by the operator.

Fifty-eight times Wright circled around the course, while spectators breathlessly followed its evolutions.

Cheers at Every Minute Over Record.

When it became known that Wright had broken the world’s record of 31 minutes continuous flight and there was, apparently, no desire on his part to return to earth, a rousing cheer went up. From then on, every person who owned a watch kept tab and hurrahed as the minutes sped by.

Finally, when the aeroplane gently descended and poised expectantly above the ground, the crowd rushed forward and as it came to a standstill as softly as a bird alighting, every person present shouted congratulations to the aviator.

Anemometer Goes Wrong.

Unfortunately, the anemometer, relied upon to register speed repeated itself and no exact data is available as to the rate. Observers who have witnessed previous flights express the option that it reached 38 miles an hour and computing the distance of the parade ground circuit with the rate of speed, it is estimated that during the 57 minutes and 31 seconds of his flight, Wright covered a distance close to 40 miles.

Reaches Height of 120 Feet.

Since the present tests began, on September 4th, the machine had not reached a greater altitude than half a hundred feet. Just to show its possibilities, Wright soared up occasionally to double that height and at one time reached 120 feet.

Wright Knew It Was In Machine.

While refilling his gasoline tank, Wright announced that he would fly again this afternoon and make an attempt to break this morning’s record.

“I am not at all surprised with the record,” he said, “for I knew it was in the machine. Our best previous record was a flight of thirty-eight minutes at Dayton, O. I do not know how high I went today, but think it must have been considerably over 100 feet at times, for I was above any of the trees surrounding the parade grounds.”

“Of course, I have instruments within sight that are supposed to tell me the speed, but when a fellow is as busy as I was, he does not have very much time to make observations. The only evidence of great speed that one feels while in the air is the way the tears come from his eyes.”

Can Carry Three Passengers.

“If I fulfill the government requirements I shall remain here for some time to instruct the officers in the use of the machine. My aeroplane will carry three passengers, but, when I put a heavier load, my flight will be considerably shortened, because it requires a great deal more gasoline to run the motor. With only one person aboard, I can carry enough gasoline to operate the machine for five hours.”

When asked whether he intended cabling his brother news of his achievement he said he guessed not, because he thought, “Wilbur would hear all about it through the press dispatches.”

Squier Thinks It’s Splendid.

“Have I anything to say?” asked George O. Squier, acting chief signal officer today, when asked for a statement of the attitude of the war department, over Wright’s record breaking flight, “well, I should say so. It is splendid. We are greatly pleased.”

Insures Acceptance of Machine.

This performance insures the acceptance of the aeroplane by the United States government at the contract price of $25,000

Under the terms of the agreement, Wright was to have until the last of September to comply with the government’s requirements, as to speed and endurance. The machine was to make an average speed of 40 miles an hour on a straightaway course of five miles and return, and was to be able to remain in the air for one hour.

Comment: The contract specified that for every mile an hour above 40-mph, the Wrights would be paid an extra $2,500. On the contrary for every mile an hour below 40-mph they would pay a penalty of $2,500. They later won a $5,000 bonus by flying 42.58-mph.

Although today’s test for endurance was not official, no one who saw the remarkable flight has any doubt that Wright can duplicate the feat at any time. His average speed today was thirty-five miles an hour, but it is believed that there is no question but that he can make 40 miles an hour on a straightaway course, whenever he cares to.

Wright was not striving for speed today and necessarily had to lower the momentum in taking the curves around the parade ground.

Comment: Wilbur flew two more flights that day. On his second flight he broke his own record by remaining airborne for 62 minutes, 15 seconds. On his third flight, he made his first passenger flight in public taking Lt. Frank Lahm for a 6-minute, 24-second spin. It set a new endurance record for a flight with a passenger.

Description of Aeroplane.

The aeroplane, which is an improvement on the one now being tested in France by Wilbur Wright, weighs in the neighborhood of 800 pounds, exclusive of fuel for passengers, and there are accommodations for the two of the latter. It measures eight feet high, forty feet in width and thirty-three feet fore and aft, and its planes have an area of 500 square feet.

The motor, especially invented by Wright Brothers, is rated at from 25 to 30 horsepower and is capable of 1,400 revolutions a minute. It operates two propellers driven in opposite directions at the rear of the machine each of which theoretically attains a speed of more than 500 revolutions a minute.

To remain in the air, the aeroplane must run at least 26 miles an hour.

The frame work of the machine is constructed of spruce and ash, strong and yet light, covered with muslin nearly as heavy as regulation balloon cloth.

The planes form what Wright calls a “heliocord,” or in other words they are twisted down on the ends. The control of the upward or downward motion of the machine is achieved by a box kite arrangement which projects a number of feet in front of the main framework. It is also covered with muslin.

In the rear, a corresponding “tail” projects nearly the same distance, forming the rudder. This, with the forward planes, are controlled by an arrangement of three levers, two of which operate the lateral movement, and the remaining one, the fore and aft.

The motor is located within a couple of feet of the operator’s seat in the center of the framework, and Wright explained that it is unnecessary to touch it after starting.

Comment, the rest of the story: Orville was not able to complete the performance trials because of a crash. On September 17, flying with a passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, his airplane crashed as a result of a broken propeller blade. Selfridge was killed and Orville was seriously injured.

The Army gave the Wrights an extension to their contract to permit them to return in the summer of 1909 to complete their demonstration flights. Orville, accompanied by Wilbur, returned to Ft. Myer in 1909 and on July 30th Orville successfully flew the final demonstration flight.

As for Delagrange, he was present to see Wilbur’s first flight at the Hunaudieres race course near Le Mans. The French said that the Wrights were a pair of “bluffeurs.” On Saturday, August 8, 1908 Wilbur flew for the first time in France. His demonstrated that he could make graceful deep turns in flight under total control. The French aviators in attendance were stunned. Delagrange admitted, “Monsieur Wright has us all in his hands. We are beaten.”

Delagrange died in a plane accident in 1910.

Reference: The Union and Advertiser, Rochester, NY, Sept, 9, 1908

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