The U.S. Army Belatedly Buys a Wright Airplane Part 7

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

In the fall of 1908, The Wright Brothers were scheduled to perform demonstration flights in France and at the U.S. Army’s Fort Myer, Virginia, at the same time. Wilbur went to France and Orville went to Fort Myer. It was the first time that the team was not together for a major event. It may have had played a role in Orville’s almost fatal crash.

Orville’s Military Flyer was delivered to Fort Myer eight days before the Army’s contract deadline of August 20 for required demonstration flights.

On September 1, the first demonstration was successfully concluded. The demonstration consisted of the airplane being successfully moved to the parade ground in an Army combat wagon. Portability was one of the Army’s specification requirements.

The first public flight of the Flyer in America took place on September 3 before some 500 spectators. President Theodore Roosevelt’s son was among them.

The Flyer took off from the parade ground. As it reached the south end of the field, Orville turned east toward Arlington Cemetery and followed the cemetery wall back toward the parade ground. In attempting to make a second circuit of the field, Orville pulled his steering lever the wrong way, necessitating a quick landing to avoid hitting the top of a tent. He came down just in time, damaging both landing skids of the airplane, but otherwise unhurt.

No matter, the spectators cheered. The Scientific American enthusiastically reported the event: “The Wright Brothers have followed closely the soaring birds in the method of steering and maintaining their transverse equilibrium; and that this method works goes without saying.”

On September 9, Orville set a new world’s record for passenger flight carrying Lt. Frank Lahm on a six minute flight circling the field 6 1/2 times. Lieutenant Lahm was the one who had first interested the Army in the Wright plane. He later rose to the rank of brigadier general in 1926 and became commander of the Army Air Corps.

Three days later Orville set two new records. Flying with a passenger, he flew nine minutes. Then flying alone, he achieved a new distance record by circling the field 71 times in one hour, 14 minutes and 20 seconds.

Summing up his successes, he had set nine new world records. His speed was officially clocked at 38 mph.

That was the end of the good news. On September 17, Orville was preparing to take-off with Charlie Taylor, his long time mechanic, when a senior Army officer asked if he wouldn’t mind taking along an Army observer instead. Taylor, who was already seated in the passenger seat, jumped out. The new passenger was Lieutenant Tom Selfridge.

Lt. Selfridge was a member of the review committee, so Orville didn’t have much choice in the matter. He wasn’t pleased because he didn’t trust Selfridge. He was a member of a group (Aerial Experimental Association) that included Alexander Graham Bell and Glen Curtiss, who were developing their own airplane. In an unusual arrangement, President Theodore Roosevelt, at the request of Bell, had assigned Lt. Selfridge to the project.

On the fourth circuit of the parade grounds before some 2,000 spectators at around 5:00 p.m., Orville 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.

Charlie Taylor leaned against the wrecked Flyer, buried his face in his arms and cried after helping to remove the two men.

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.

Lt. Selfridge was not as lucky. His head was covered with blood as he was lifted from the wreckage. He had been crushed under the plane and died three hours later following surgery without gaining consciousness. Selfridge, a 1903 West Point graduate, was buried with appropriate military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. He had the dubious distinction to be the first person to die in the crash of a propeller-driven airplane.

Wilbur in Le Mans, France, when he heard the news of the crash, blamed himself for not being there. He wrote his sister Katharine, “— I cannot help thinking over and over again if I had been there, it would not have happened.”

Wilbur, on September 21, determined to try for a record flight, believing he could cheer his brother. He did. Before 10,000 spectators he flew 1 hour, 31 minutes, 25 seconds covering 61 miles for a new record.

At year’s end Wilbur won the Michelin prize of 20,000 francs and a trophy. The prize was established by industrialist Andre Michelin to be awarded for the longest flight of 1908.

Next: Orville recovers and successfully completes Army trials.

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