Wilbur at Camp d’Auvours

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

September 2, 1908 newspapers announced that Wilbur Wright, near Le Mans France, had made an endurance test of two hours the day before. However, he had to descend when “his motor gets hot.” Consequently he devoted himself to making examinations of the Bollee motor.”

The reference to a Bollee motor was an error. Wilbur made examinations of the Wright motor. Bollee made motors in his automobile factory in Le Mans where Wilbur assembled the Flyer, but Wilbur used an old Wright engine that he had brought from home for his airplane.

Two other topics of interest with regard to flying were printed in the same paper. The first is as follows:

“Interest in aeronautics created by exhibitions now being conducted by Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio, show no signs of subsiding.”

“Although the French aeroplanists acknowledge generously the superiority of the performances of Wright’s machine over the existing foreign models in the matter of equilibrium, flying qualities, flying in a wind and general control, a majority of experts still insist that the attendance of a tail and the method of launching the Wright machine constitute vital weaknesses.”

The comment about a tail demonstrates their lack of knowledge about how to fly with control.

The comment about the effectiveness of launching refers to the Wright use of dropping a weight from a pylon to catapult the Flyer off the launching rail into the air.

Later, the French must have reconsidered Wilbur’s use of the catapult launching and decided it gave him an advantage. The Aero-Club de France announced an altitude competition that contained a restriction on the use of a catapult in a disguised attempt to handicap Wilbur. He won the prize anyway on November 23 by employing an extra long launching rail that enabled him to dispense with the catapult.

The other item in the newspaper was about a proposed channel crossing. “The morning papers declare that a Russian named Prince Botoloff has decided to attempt to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane. He has commissioned the brothers Voisin, aeroplane builders, to construct a large machine in the form known as the triplane. Prince Bototoff has never made a flight.”

In October, The London Daily Mail offered a prize of $5,000 for anyone who flew across the English Channel. The paper, by private communication, offered Wilbur an additional $5,000 if he won the prize. Wilbur gave it serious consideration and wrote Orville that he was tempted if he felt sure of decent weather.

Orville, who was recovering from a serious accident at Ft. Myer in the U.S., advised against it.

“I do not like the idea of your attempting a channel flight when I am not present.” He wrote. “I haven’t much faith in your motor running. You seem to have more trouble than I do.”

Wilbur sent a cablegram to the Chicago Daily on September 1 denying reports that he planned to fly across the English Channel. He said his primary goal was to complete the demonstration flights necessary to win the contract with a private syndicate to form a French Wright Company headed by M. Lazare Weiller, a wealthy businessman in France. It was capitalized at $140,000 with the Wrights to receive the largest share of the stock, royalties on all machines constructed, and a substantial sum of cash.

The contract required Wilbur to twice fly a distance of at least 50 kilometers with a passenger. Once this requirement was satisfied, he would train three Frenchman in the operation of the Flyer.

A report in the newspaper of October 6 reports that Wilbur fulfilled the conditions of the contract.

“Wilbur Wright, who on Saturday last established a world’s record for aeroplane flights, carrying a passenger, made a new record this afternoon when under similar conditions he remained in the air for an hour, 4 minutes and 26 seconds. His best previous record with a passenger was 55 minutes 37 seconds.”

“Mr. Wright thus fulfills the conditions of the contract by him and Lazarre Weiller, regarding a syndicate. The contract calls for the payment to Mr. Wright of $100,000 by the syndicate, in return for which the syndicate secures rights of the machine in France and the colonies. M. Weiller has already given an order to a French manufacturer for 50 aeroplanes on the Wright model.”

Wilbur also wanted to win the Coupe Michelin prize offered by Andre Michlin for the longest flight of the year.

Wilbur did win the prize on the last day of the year, December 31. He made the attempt thirteen days earlier but was forced down by a clogged oil line. The last day of the year was a cold day with freezing mist and light snow on the ground. He had to make two attempts that day. A broken fuel line halted the first attempt. The second attempt won the prize with a time in the air of 2 hours 18 minutes.

It was a remarkable achievement considering Wilbur had no protection from the elements.

In addition to the prize money of 20,000 franks, the French awarded the Wright brothers the Legion of Honor. The achievement wasn’t as sensational as flying the channel but it accomplished his goal of demonstrating his absolute superiority in the air.

The following year Louis Bleriot made the first flight over the English Channel on July 26, 1909. His airplane incorporated the use of the Wright’s wing warping method for control of bank and roll. Bleriot learned about it directly from Wilbur who explained to him how it worked after witnessing Wilbur’s first public flight on August 8, 1908.

All the while Wilbur continued to live in his shed on the flying field. It had no floor or indoor toilet facilities. As his flying achievements mounted along with his status as a celebrity, crowds numbering in the thousands came to see him fly. When he was inside his shed they tried to look in his windows to get a glimpse of him. Wilbur complained that he could hardly take a shower without someone trying to see inside. One woman even bored a peephole to look into his shed.

He still managed to dress-up in a tuxedo for the many testimonial dinners he attended.

Bishop Wright wrote to Wilbur advised him to be “sympathetic to the crowds, remembering how Christ had been sympathetic to the people.”

The engine that sometimes was temperamental performed well in early October when Wilbur flew with Leon Bollee as his passenger. Bollee weighed 224 pounds and the fact that the 30-40 hp motor had gotten him off the ground created much astonishment among the spectators.

Winter had set in, so on January 2, 1909, Wilbur sent the Flyer to the French resort town of Pau in the south of France where the weather was warmer for flying. Wilbur arrived on January 14 to continue another round of spectacular flights.

During the 5 months Wilbur spent flying near Le Mans, he completed 129 flights, many of those with passengers, and set 9 world records.

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