Worlds First Cargo Flight Creates New Paradigm of Transportation

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Wright Airplane Flights

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers successfully flew the first heavier-than-air powered airplane. Now the question became what could they do with their invention. Many people at the time thought airplanes had no practical value.

Originally, they pursued the problem of flight as a hobby. They had heard of the unfortunate crash and death of the German glider experimenter, Otto Lilienthal, in 1896 and speculated how man could successfully fly. Their first glider experiments at Kitty Hawk in 1900 convinced them that they were on the right track and further motivated them to continue serious pursuit of the quest.

Seven years of thought, work and money convinced them to seek profit from their investment by going into business with their invention. Initially, they pursued the only markets available to them at the time – barnstorming and selling airplanes to governments.

A unique new market opportunity arrived in the mail in 1910. The Wright Brothers received an unsolicited letter from Max Morehouse, a Columbus, Ohio department store owner inquiring “how much will you charge to bring a roll of silk ribbon from your city to our establishment?”

This inquiry led to a contact between Morehouse and the Wright Exhibition Company to fly 200 pounds of silk worth $800 from Dayton to Columbus.

The airplane to be used was the latest Wright airplane, the Model B. It was the first Wright airplane to use wheels instead of a sled design. Another significant design change was that the vertical stabilizer was moved from the front of the airplane to the rear behind the tail. The Model B had a thirty-nine foot wing span and was powered with a forty horsepower gasoline engine.

Philip Parmalee, a 24-year-old graduate of the Wright flying school, was selected as the pilot. He was trained at the Wright’s school located in Montgomery Alabama.

There were few navigational aids to guide flight in those days, so Orville gave Parmalee a map of a railroad track to follow to Columbus, which he fastened to a wing strut for ease of viewing.

At 10:45 a.m. on November 7, 1910, Parmalee took off from Huffman Prairie airfield outside of Dayton headed for Columbus. Huffman Prairie was in reality a cow pasture that the Wrights used after their experiments at Kitty Hawk. It is now a part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Parmalee’s destination in Columbus was a racetrack marked with white flags to improve visibility from the air.

Parmalee flew at an elevation of 2,000-3,000 feet sitting on the wing with no protection from the wind. The wind-chill factor that day was below zero. He would sometimes turn the plane so that he would be in the sun’s rays and clap his hands to keep warm.

Thousands of people lined the route and cheered as he flew over. Three thousand people waited at the Columbus racetrack for his arrival. Morehouse, always the businessman, charged them $1.00 for general admission and $1.25 for reserved seats. Parking was $3.00.

Sixty-six minutes after taking off from Dayton, Parmalee landed at the racetrack. He had covered the 65 miles in 66 minutes, setting a new world speed record for cross-country flight. The news of the first cargo flight was covered in newspapers around the world.

A new industry was launched, but it would be more than a decade before air cargo became commonplace. It would lead eventually to creating the present day global economy.

Morehouse, the department store owner, not only received worldwide publicity, but also made a profit on his $5,000 investment. In addition to selling tickets to the racetrack attendees, he sold swatches of the silk on a post card for five cents a card as well at lengths of silk for $1.35 a yard.

Philip Parmalee left the Wright Brother employment and flew early U.S. Air Mail. In early 1911 in San Francisco, he was the pilot of a Wright Model B that conducted the first Army experiments with dropping live bombs from aircraft. Two years after his celebrated cargo flight, he was killed in an airplane crash at Yakima, Washington.

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