The U.S. Army Belatedly Buys a Wright Airplane Part 6

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

The successful negotiation of a contract by the Wrights with the U.S. Army in February 1908 was followed almost immediately with a contract with the French in March. The brothers would be introducing the Wright Flyer on two continents at almost the same time. The impact would be electrifying and make Wilbur and Orville world famous.

It would be a sharp contrast to the editorial criticism in newspapers and magazines across the country when the Signal Corps announced it had advertised for bids for a military airplane in December 1907. Typically, one magazine sarcastically said “there is not now a known flying-machine in the world which could fulfill these specifications at the present moment.”

Contracts in hand, the Wrights went to work to convert their 1905 Flyer to carrying a pilot and one passenger in a seated upright condition. No more lying flat on the lower wing as was the technique used during their experimental days. This meant seats had to be installed and a new arrangement designed for the maneuvering control levers. They also added a new more powerful engine.

The changes required that they had to get used to flying with the new controls and break in the new design. The new controls consisted of a lever for maneuvering the front elevator at the pilot’s left hand and a lever that combined wingwarping and tail rudder maneuvering in one control at the right hand located between the seats. The motions required were so different than the arrangement in the original 1905 plane that their operation had to be completely relearned.

They decided the best way to accomplish this was to return to Kitty Hawk once again to practice flying with the new controls. They had not flown at all for 2 1/2 years since October 1905. It had been five years since they last visited Kitty Hawk and the first time they had flown since the fall of 1905.

In April, Wilbur was the first to leave Dayton for Kitty Hawk and experienced the usual problems getting there. The sailboat that was to take Wilbur from Elizabeth City to Kitty Hawk was two days late. Upon arrival at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur found the building that housed the original Flyer was “pretty well wrecked” by storms. The other building that they had used as housing still stood but the roof and north end of the building was gone. Both buildings had a foot of sand covering the floor.

Vandals (allegedly boys) had ripped the burlap from the hammocks in the loft. Also, they tore the cloth that covered the wings of the 1902 glider, which had been stored there. On top of that, their water pump was gone, having been moved by the lifesavers at Kill Devil Hills.

To worsen the situation, Wilbur became ill with diarrhea. He was temporarily staying at the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station and the food he ate there was the probable cause of his distress.

Orville arrived two weeks later with the plane. By the time everything was repaired, supplies gathered and the airplane assembled, a month had gone by.

Their first flights didn’t go well because they had difficulty determining just how much movement of the hand levers produced the desired amount of control. The left control lever controlled the vertical movement and the right lever controlled turning. Practice was the only way to learn how to do it correctly.

They made a total of twenty-two flights between May 6 and May 14. On the 14th, Wilbur made the world’s first flight carrying two men. Wilbur’s passenger was Charlie Furnas, a mechanic from the Dayton area who had journeyed to Kitty Hawk ten days earlier to help the brothers.

Wilbur’s last flight of the series was also the longest lasting 7 1/2 minutes. But, it almost ended in tragedy. Wilbur pushed the elevator handle, which controls vertical motion, forward, when he meant to pull it back. The Flyer plowed into the ground at a speed estimated at in the neighborhood of 52 to 54 mph. He was thrown hard against the upper wing, which momentarily stunned him, cut the bridge of his nose and bruised his left hand, right forearm and both shoulders.

Orville was watching the flight at a distance through field glasses. All he could see was a splash of sand when Wilbur crashed. Orville became quite concerned when Wilbur didn’t quickly appear.

The brothers had a prearranged signal that in the event of a crash the pilot would immediately climb out if unhurt. Wilbur, dazed by the crash, didn’t immediately appear.

Orville and Furnas ran to the wreck and were relieved to find that Wilbur was not seriously hurt.

Newspaper reporters, who had been hiding in the weeds observing the flights, reported the “complete wreck”, which became front-page news throughout most of the country the next day. Actually only the front framing and upper surface of the machine were wrecked.

The flights ended on that down note because Wilbur had to leave for France for demonstration flights, arriving in New York on May 19. Katharine, his sister, expressed his trunk to him from Dayton.

(As a side note, when Wilbur got to France, he found a hatbox with nothing in the box. He wrote Katharine that the next time she packed a hat box to remove the lid and see if anything is inside.)

Orville was left to make the demonstration flights for the Army at Fort Myer by himself. He arrived back in Dayton on May 23 to begin preparations for the trip to Virginia for the Army trials. It would be the first time that the brothers were apart for a major event. It would have major consequences.

Next: Orville is almost killed in a crash at Fort Meyer.

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