Wilbur Wright Circles the Statue of Liberty

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Wright Airplane Flights

It was the fall of 1909 and New York City planned a huge Hudson-Fulton Celebration to commemorate two great episodes in the history of the Hudson River. One was the 300th anniversary of Captain Henry Hudson’s upstream cruise to the future site of Albany. The other was the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s steamboat trip.

The largest gathering of some 40 naval vessels, both American and foreign, were going to participate.

Two famous American aviators, Wilbur Wright and Glen Curtiss also agreed to participate and perform air demonstrations.

The year 1909 had been a spectacular year for the Wright Brothers. Their flights were the talk of two continents. President William Howard Taft had given them medals. Wilbur’s flight over New York would be the piece de resistance.

Glen Curtiss was also doing well. He had just won the Gordon Bennett Trophy for setting a new world speed record in Rheims France. The newspapers proclaimed Curtiss the “Champion Aviator of the World.”

Both parties were in the news for another reason. The Wrights had just filed suit against Curtiss and others for violating their 1906 patent covering airplane control systems. Their exhibitions in New York would pit the two against each other in the air preceding their upcoming battle in court. One New York newspaper observed: “It is a matter of pride and supremacy with each of them.”


Just prior to the planned flights, the Aero Club of America sponsored a luncheon and reception in New York City to honor Curtiss’s victory at Rheims, France. The introductory speaker introduced Curtiss as the American who won the “greatest victory in the history of aerial effort.” Curtiss received a gold medal.

Wilbur, who was a club member, was invited but declined to attend saying that he was too busy preparing his airplane for the demonstration flights.

One of his unusual preparations was to add an ordinary red canoe to his airplane. The canoe would be a precaution in case he would have to land in the water. The canoe was tied to the bottom wing pointing fore and aft and covered with a canvas cover.

Curtiss meanwhile was dismayed to find that his partner in the Herring-Curtiss Company, Augustus Herring, without conferring with him, had contracted for $5,000 to display his Rheim’s airplane in Wanamaker department stores for two months. He would have to use an untried alternative airplane in the celebration.

The Flights

All flights would emanate from Governors Island. The island was located in the harbor a half mile off Battery Park, the southern tip of Manhattan. At the time the headquarters of the U.S. First army was located there. Two hangars, one for Wilbur and one for Curtiss were erected on the sand flats.

The flights were scheduled to begin on September 27, but rain cancelled any attempt to fly. On Wednesday morning, September 29, Curtiss was the first to take off. He had trouble getting into to the air because his wheels didn’t roll easily in the sand. It was a short flight witnessed by an Army officer and a friend.

Two hours later, Wilbur took off with the aid of a starting rail. After a short seven-minute flight, he announced he was ready for his first official public flight

Alerted, nearly a million people were massed along the docks, parks, streets and rooftops. Some forty warships from many nations filled the harbor.

He started at 8:57 a.m. Before getting into his seat Wilbur thoroughly tested his engine. He faced the west, and the wind was not as strong as when Curtiss flew.

Charles Taylor, Wilbur’s mechanic ran along with the airplane until it lifted off the ground. Orville wasn’t with Wilbur because he was in Germany near Potsdam engaged in training Captain Paul Engelhard on how to fly the Wright airplane. The German empress witnessed several flights and congratulated Orville on his success.

Turning to the left Wilbur made a wide sweep of the field and headed toward Brooklyn. He circled the Island becoming lost from view of the spectators behind a clump of trees.

He reappeared on the outer side of Fort Castle William and made a complete circle over the southern half of the airfield before coming around a second time very close to the ground. When he was about to land the left wing tip scraped the sand and whirled the machine around so that it landed sideways on its skids.

A New York newspaper reported that an upset Wilbur said, “That’s the worst landing I’ve made in a long time, and I’m not going to try anything like that again.”

“I thought surely the machine would be smashed to pieces. It is the only machine in the world that would stand such a bad landing.”

After Wilbur inspected his airplane to see if it had suffered any damage, Curtiss who had reached the field as Wilbur landed, greeted his rival familiarly and asked him, “How’s it going this morning?”

“Very good,” responded Wilbur, “but I made a very bad landing.”

Conditions for flying improved as the day progressed and a large crowd gathered at the Battery and boats surrounded Governor’s island in expectation of further exhibitions.

After tightening the wires and screws of his airplane and shifting the starting rail so that it faced directly against the wind, Wilbur took-off again using the entire 165-feet of the monorail.

Leveling out at 200 feet, the Wright Flyer circled the island once and headed out to sea in the direction of the Statue of Liberty. As Wilbur reached the Statue, he passed over the outward-bound Lusitania, the pride of the oceans. Passengers crowded the decks to watch him.

Wilbur pointed the Flyer directly at the Statue; then banked sharply and circled behind and passed within 20 feet of the metal drapery that makes up the waist. Spectators in New York thought he was going to crash as he passed out of their sight behind the statue.

On he continued, banking the Flyer as he passed under the upraised arm. Then he leveled the wings and turned toward Governor’s Island. As he passed over the Lusitania again, people were waving hats, coats and anything else they could find. There was a deafening blast in salute from the ship’s foghorn.

On the return trip Wilbur was flying with the speed of an express train. When he reached the airfield flying about 10 to 15 feet off the ground, he brought his machine head up to the wind and made a perfect landing.

“I guess I made 50-mph coming back,” Wilbur remarked.

He started the flight at 10:18 a.m. and landed back at Governor’s Island after a flight of 6 minutes and 30 seconds and was mobbed by reporters. Wilbur, as usual, showed little emotion. Some thought they saw a slight smile.

Curtiss has Problems

Bad weather prevented further flying for several days. Curtiss was anxious because he had an another contract commitment to appear in St. Louis. He saw his chance on Sunday. He knew that the Wrights never flew on Sundays because of their religious beliefs.

Late in the day the wind subsided and he made two attempts to fly. The first time he had some trouble with the engine. The second time he made a swing around Governor’s Island and landed. There were few witnesses and it didn’t count as an official flight.

He decided he had enough and that it was more important to honor his commitment in St. Louis so he left New York

Another Success for Wilbur

Wilbur wasn’t finished yet. On Monday, October 4 he took off at 9:53 a.m. and proceeded up the Hudson River. He had a life jacket tied to the lower wing at his feet. Two American flags flew from the front elevator.

First he flew past Manhattan over the wharves and warehouses. Crowds were cheering him on his way. He continued up the river. Sometimes when there were no structures in his way, he dropped low for people to see him better.

When he could see Grants Tomb in upper Manhattan, he turned left and flew across the river until he neared the Palisades. Then he turned left again and headed back south.

He flew over many battleships anchored along the New Jersey shore. It was the first time an airplane ever flew over battleships. Some of the officers on the ships may have sensed that a new day in the nature of warfare was not far away.

It would take General Billy Mitchell another fifteen years to convince the U.S. Military of that fact when he bombed and sank a ship in a demonstration of air power.

Soon Wilbur reached the harbor again near Ellis Island, turned, and landed at Governor’s Island after a 42-mile round trip to the blaring horns of thousands of ships below him.

It was a magical moment not soon to be forgotten by those who were there. It was also Wilbur’s last public flight. “The whistles of the passing tugs and ferry boats were tooting a mighty chorus and the Battery sea wall was black with people. The news was flashed over the city, and from windows of the towering buildings thousands forgot all else and watched the huge artificial bird sailing up the river.”

It was also Wilbur’s last public flight. He had planned to fly again in the afternoon. While the engine was warning up, a cylinder head blew off breaking through the motor casing. It ripped a two-foot hole in the upper wing and shot 20-feet into the air, landing within a few feet of Wilbur. Thus ended one of the most spectacular and dangerous over the water flights that anyone had ever taken up to that time.


Two men from Dayton flew a Wright “B” Flyer replica around the Statue of Liberty on Memorial Day, 2003.

Juan Trippe

Juan Trippe as a teenager witnessed Wilbur’s flight around the Statue of Liberty. Who is Trippe? Later in life he founded Pan American airways in1927. After seeing Wilbur fly, he dreamed of becoming a pilot, which he did as a military pilot in 1917.

Trippe hired Charles Lindbergh to help promote international travel by airplane. In 1945, Pan Am became the first airplane to introduce tourist class, cutting the New York to London fare by more than half and effectively launched the modern age of air travel.

Previous post:

Next post: