U.S. Navy Interested in Wright Airplane (1908)

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

In the fall of 1908 Orville conducted demonstration flights for the U.S. Army at Fort Myer outside Washington, D.C. His flights broke all aviation records for distance and time. As might be expected, the U.S. Navy also became greatly interested.

The Wrights had finally secured a contract from the Army to buy their airplane for $25,000 if they could meet the Army specification that required their airplane carry a pilot and passenger a distance of 125 miles at a speed of 40-mph. It must remain aloft for at least one hour and land without damage.

Orville arrived at Ft. Myer on August 20, 1908 to begin the qualification flights. Wilbur was already in France performing qualification flights for a French syndicate.

Orville flew for the first time on September 3. The crowd was sparse. Since it was his first flight at Ft. Myer, he played it safe and flew one and one-half turns around the parade ground. His flight lasted 1 minute, 11 seconds.

A similar first flight at Le Mans by Wilbur caused great excitement. In stark contrast, Orville’s flight was met with little notice. A local Washington newspaper carried the story on page 3.

There was one important person who did see the flight. It was the 21-year-old son of President Theodore Roosevelt. I’m sure he gave a first hand account to his father.

Orville flew every day over the next week and a half. His flights on September 9, began to create great excitement as he set three world records.

The first flight was for 57 minutes, 13 seconds – setting a new world endurance record.

Almost immediately he took-off again, flying for 62 minutes, 15 seconds, breaking his previous record.

Next he flew with Lt. Frank Lahm as a passenger for 6 minutes, 24 seconds – a new endurance record for a flight with a passenger. The flight lasted until dusk and could probably qualify as the first night flight.

The following day, September 10, he set another record with a flight of 65 minutes, 52 seconds at an estimated altitude of 200 feet.

Edward Burkhart, mayor of Dayton, Ohio, sent Orville a letter of congratulations.

The record-breaking flights got the attention of the U.S. Navy. The following article appeared in a Washington newspaper on September 10.

“The two aeroplane flights made by Orville Wright at Fort Myer yesterday, which broke all records for distance and time, have aroused the officers of the Navy to action. Secretary of Navy Metcalf was one of the most enthusiastic spectators and Assist Secretary Newberry has been following the Fort Myer tests closely”.

“Lt. George C. Sweet of the Bureau of Equipment has been detailed to observe the Fort Myer tests for the Navy.”

“Secretary Metcalf was asked if the Navy intended to buy an aeroplane as a beginning in the application of aeronautics to that branch of the service”.

“I cannot say what we might do,” he replied. “Of course we would need funds for that purpose. There is only one reason I can see why Mr. Wright’s machine impracticable for use in the Navy, and that is his starting apparatus. An officer has been detailed to observe the flights and what we do will depend on what is learned from these tests.”

“Lt. Sweet has been present for every flight of the Wright aeroplane at Fort Myer and was so impressed by its performance that he suggested that the Navy Department keep in close touch with the progress in aerial flight.

“The airplane would prove invaluable in naval warfare,” he remarked to an Army officer, during Wright’s flight yesterday. “Mr. Wright’s machine requires a speed of twenty-four miles an hour as an impetus to rise into the air. It would, therefore, require no launching apparatus if it were started from one of the scout cruisers, which makes twenty-two and twenty-three knots an hour or about twenty-seven miles. It could fly over the advance column of an enemy’s fleet and drop explosives or secure valuable information.”

“Instead of skids which Mr. Wright uses for land purposes the aeroplane could be fitted with two light water skids similar to rowing shells, so that it could land on water. After the machine made a flight, it could be brought alongside of the ship and pulled out of the water by means of the davits.” (End of Article)

The demonstration flights were going according to plan when tragedy struck on September 17. A propeller split during a flight with Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge as a passenger. The airplane nosed down and hit the ground at full speed from a height of 75 feet. Orville was seriously injured and Selfridge was killed.

The Army gave the Wrights an extension to their contract permitting them to return the following summer to complete their demonstration flights.

Orville, along with Wilbur, did return the following year and completed the Army requirements on July 30, 1909.

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