Validity of 2003-2005 Wright Flights in Question

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

Many scientific people around the world, including the US Government, doubted the Wrights’ claim that they flew an airplane.

The prestigious Scientific American published an editorial in 1906 questioning the validity of the 1903-1905 flights.

Wilbur and Orville, fighting for proper recognition sent a letter outlining their experiments to the Aero Club of America on March 12, 1906. Their letter was the first public announcement in the United States that they had flown distances up to 24 miles.

The club in turn passed a resolution congratulating the Wrights for successfully developing a practical man-carrying flying machine.

As a result, The editor of the Scientific American decided to take another look at the Wrights claim to success by sending questionnaires to the alleged witnesses to the flights in Dayton.

The questionnaires were sent to 17 witnesses and eleven of them filled out the questionnaires and returned them. The positive response convinced the editor that the Wrights did do what they claimed.

The April 7, 1906 issue of the Scientific American withdrew their original story and included the Wrights’ letter to the Aero Club. The article included a letter from Charles Webbert, the Wrights bicycle shop landlord, who was a creditable eyewitness to a number of Wright flights at Huffman Prairie.

The David Beard family lived closest to the Huffman Prairie flying field and observed most of the activities that were going on. Whenever Mrs. Beard observed a hard landing of the flying machine, she would send one of her children over to the prairie with a bottle of liniment.

Other neighbors observing the activities in 1904 were the Harshmans, Millers, and Amos Stouffer, all of which had visited and talked with Wilbur and Orville.

Amos Root of Medina, Ohio, stayed with the Beards and observed Wilbur make the first complete circle in an airplane on September 20 1904. Root accurately described the flight in his publication, Gleanings in Bee Culture.

On November 9, Mr. Brown and Mr. Read, two supervisors with the interurban railroad, ordered their crew of the inspection train to hold up at Simms station so that they could watch Wilbur fly four complete circles of the field.

Webbert and C.S. Billman and his son, Charley, witnessed the October 4, 1905 flight in which Wilbur flew for 33 minutes without stopping. Billman was a West Dayton neighbor and the Secretary of the West Side Building and Loan Company.

Charley, 3 years old, ran around the house for weeks afterward with arms outstretched making a sound like an airplane. One skeptic who visited the home after observing Charley remarked, “I’m about convinced. That boy could not be a paid witness.”

Wilbur flew his longest flight the next day, October 5th. He flew 29 circles for a distance of 24 1/5-miles.

Amos Stauffer, a tenant farmer on the Huffman property who was cutting corn at the time said to a helper, “the boys are at it again.” He walked down to the fence to watch commenting, “I thought the flight would never end.”

Also on that day, William Huffman accompanied his father, Torrence, out to the flying field on the interurban train. Torrence owned Huffman Prairie and permitted the Wrights to use the land free of charge as long as they moved the cows and horses out of the way.

William Huffman and David Beard’s son sat on a farm wagon and made a mark on the wagon floor after each circle of the prairie.

The next day the Dayton Daily News reported that the Wrights were making spectacular flights. John Tomlinson of the paper, offered $50 to Henry Webbert to keep him informed when the Wrights would be flying.

The Wrights now had the practical airplane they were working for and so they began decreasing the number of times they flew as the increasing crowd of spectators made them nervous that they might compromise their secrets of flight.

Then they decided to stop altogether until they had a contract in hand. Their last flight was on October 16, 1905. They would not fly again for the next 31 months. This made marketing their airplane more difficult, but it was a price that they chose to pay to protect what they had invented.

The word of their success was beginning to spread. In Paris, Frank Lahm, a representative for Remington Typewriter Co. and a native of Ohio, was interested in aeronautics and wanted to know more about the Wrights’ activities. He asked a relative of his in Ohio to investigate.

Henry Weaver visited the Wrights in Dayton on Dec. 3rd. Orville took him to Huffman Prairie and visited with David Beard and Amos Stouffer. They also met with William Fouts, who operated a drugstore near the Wrights bicycle shop and who had witnessed Wilbur’s record breaking flight on Oct 5th at Huffman Prairie.

That evening Weaver met the rest of the Wright family at their home.

Weaver was convinced that the Wrights had flown even though he had not winnessed a flight and sent a favorable report to Lahm.

A steady stream of visitors followed Weaver.

The French Government sent a commission to Dayton. They interviewed witnesses, examined photographs and were convinced of the Wrights’ claims, but nothing more came of it.

The British sent their military attaché in Washington, LtCol. A. E. Count to Dayton. He left impressed, but nothing came of it because the British thought the price was too high.

Finally, contracts were signed on two continents at almost the same time. The US War Department contract was awarded on Feb. 8, 1908.

Three weeks later a contract was signed with Lazare Walker of France.

Wilbur wowed the French and captured the imagination of the world at Les Hunaudieres on August 8th. Orville flew at Ft. Myer, Va. on September 3rd.

Reference: What Dreams We Have: The Wright Brothers and Their Hometown of Dayton Ohio by Ann Honious.

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