The U.S. Army Belatedly Buys a Wright Airplane Part 8

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

Orville’s crash at Fort Myer on September 17, 1908 resulted in the death of his passenger, Lt. Selfridge. Although the unfortunate accident was frightening to the brothers, it was not entirely unexpected. Flying was still a dangerous occupation.

Investigation of his Fort Myer crash revealed that the basic cause was a longitudinal crack in one blade of the right propeller. The damaged blade not only lost power, it also caused a vibration that ultimately brought the other undamaged blade in contact with a stay wire leading to the vertical rudder in the tail. The wire was cut and wrapped itself around the blade causing it to break off. The rudder without the stay wire tilted over horizontally. In this position it functioned as an elevator causing the Flyer to nose over into the fatal dive.

From his hospital bed, Orville, with sister Katharine’s help, requested an extension to their Army contract, which the Army quickly approved. Both brothers returned in June 1909 to fulfill the terms of the Army Signal Corps Specification. This time Wilbur went along to help with the preparations.

The specification required an airplane capable of carrying two men at a speed of 40 mph while staying in the air for at least one hour. If successfully met, the Wrights’ would be awarded $25,000 plus $2,500 for each mph above 40.

The Army Signal Corps Flyer they brought with them in 1909 not only had strengthened propeller blades, but also a reduced wing area to increase speed, and a redesigned control lever used for turning. The control lever was split into two controls that allowed a separate fine-tuning of the rudder by turning the wrist.

Flying commenced on Tuesday June 29, but quickly ran into trouble. Orville had three aborted takeoffs and two minor accidents in three days. On Friday, Orville almost suffered another significant injury when the engine suddenly stopped while flying.

What should have been a routine glide in for a landing ran into trouble when the right wing snagged a small dead thorn tree at the end of the parade ground. The tree ripped through the fabric and broke several of the wing’s ribs. The Flyer made a hard landing that collapsed both landing skids.

Orville was stunned, but uninjured. It had been only nine months after his near fatal crash the year before.

When Wilbur reached the scene, he found a photographer taking pictures of the damaged airplane. Angered, he grabbed a piece of wood off the ground and hurled it at him; then demanded the photographic plate.

After the bad start, events turned for the better. On July 27, Orville fulfilled the specification requirement of a two-man flight for one hour, breaking the world’s record set by Wilbur in France. His passenger was Lt. Frank Lahm who had reported to the now deceased Lt. Thomas Selfridge.

The second specification requirement was for a ten-mile, two-man speed test. The course was laid out to require a round-trip to Alexandria, Virginia and back. The turning point in Alexandria was called Shooter’s Hill where the George Washington Masonic Memorial is now located. At the time, the cornerstone had just been laid.

Orville’s passenger this time was Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois.

(In 1916, Foulois commanded the “1st Aero Squadron,” the army’s first air force. Their first military action was to provide support to General’s Pershing’s incursion into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. Foulois would later rise to the rank of a major general.)

Orville chose Foulois because he had experience in map reading and, as a bonus he didn’t weigh much (126 pounds). His skill would be critically needed because the terrain in those days was rugged between Ft. Myer and Alexandria, containing three ravines and a forest. There would be no good place for an emergency landing.

One has to marvel at Orville’s fearlessness. Since 1902, he had endured five serious crashes. Last year’s crash was nearly fatal. But, there was no hint of any hesitancy of going again.

Orville and Lt. Foulois took off from the parade ground at Fort Myer on July 30th with President William Howard Taft and a crowd of 7,000 spectators cheering them on. The Flyer climbed to 50 feet and circled the parade ground twice before heading off to Alexandria.

When the Flyer flew out of sight, the crowd fell silent with apprehension. They were aware of the rugged course. Wilbur estimated what the time of travel would be, but when the Flyer didn’t appear at the appointed time, he grew concerned and beads of sweat formed on his forehead and rolled down his checks.

A spectator shouted, “he’s down!” Katharine gave him a sharp reprimand. “How do you know he’s down?” Then there were cries of “there it comes,” as the Flyer reappeared over the treetops to the south.

Orville nosed the plane down to pick up speed as it roared with a flourish over the finish line to the cheers of the crowd and the honking of horns. He went on to circle Arlington Cemetery, then turned off the motor and glided in for a landing. Pandemonium reigned as the two men were almost mobbed by the crowd.

President Taft congratulated Orville on the spot. Lt. Foulois said it was the only time he ever saw Wilbur smile.

The next day they learned that the Flyer’s average speed was calculated to be 42.58-mph. That meant they earned a $5,000 bonus to add to their earned 40-mph price of $25,000. On August 2, 1909 the Signal Corps accepted the Wright Flyer for military use. It was the first airplane purchased and placed in service by any government.

This model, sometimes known as Signal Corps No. 1, now resides in the Smithsonian Institution and is the only one of its type constructed by the Wrights.

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