Wright Aircraft Company

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

Today, when people think of cities where airplanes are produced, they think of Seattle, St. Louis and Ft. Worth. They don’t think of Dayton where the Wright Brothers designed and produced the first successful airplane.

At one time the Wright Brothers did produce airplanes in Dayton. This is that story.

Wright Company

The Wrights established the Wright Company in 1909. Their first factory was located about two miles from their bicycle shop. Wilbur in a letter to Octave Chanute, announcing the formation of the company, said “that we will devote most of our time to experimental work.” Unfortunately, it would not work out that way.

It was a small factory with some dozen employees. They temporarily rented manufacturing space at the Speedwell  Motor Car plant until a new factory building was completed in November 1910. The Speedwell site was located at Wisconsin and Miami Chapel Streets in West Dayton. The building no longer exists. The Model B airplane was first built in this building.

The new manufacturing factory was built on West Third St. where it is now part of the Delphi manufacturing complex. The original Wright buildings are still there and can be viewed through the entrance gate. The white buildings have a distinctive curved roofline which at one time served as the logo of the Inland Manufacturing Co. which owned them at the time.

The factory had the capacity to produce four airplanes per month, a capacity greater than any other airplane factory in the world.  One of the employee incentives was to provide each man with a pound box of chocolates for Christmas.

The planes were not cheap at $7,500 for each fully equipped machine. But, even at that price, demand exceeded supply.

Students at the Wrights’ flight school conducted at Huffman Prairie bought many of the planes. Huffman Prairie was the location of the Wrights early experimental flights in Dayton after their successful first-flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903. It is now located on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and is a national historical park.

The planes would be loaded onto an old horse drawn hay wagon at the factory and transferred to Huffman Prairie at midnight to avoid crowds and their jostling. In total, nine new types of planes were tested at Huffman.

Most of the flight instruction was delegated to others and cost $60 an hour. Orville, who was in charge of pilot training, would visit at times to check up on how things were going. He would sometimes ask students if they had done any “mushroom hunting.” Mushroom hunting referred to flying low to the ground. Orville believed that low flying showed up mistakes quickly.

Their most famous flying student was Hap Arnold, who later commanded the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He reportedly soloed after only three hours, forty-eight minutes of flying time.

Although Wilbur was president of the company, Orville was the brother who kept the closest surveillance over the factory operations. Wilbur was busy fighting violations of their 1906 patent.

The Death of Wilbur Wright

Two significant events adversely impacted the future of the Wright Company. The first was the death of Wilbur in 1912. He contracted typhoid fever while on a business trip, possibly from contaminated shellfish, and died. It didn’t help that he had been under stress at the time from the pressure of business and the legal fight defending their patent.

The second significant event was the 1914 decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the Wright’s patent as airtight

The death of Wilbur was significant because he was the businessman and visionary of the two brothers. Orville, who became president of the company after Wilbur’s death, was not that interested in the business side of the company. He was more concerned with “technical things.”

For instance, papers needing his signature would pile up in his office while he was out in the factory working on some engineering problem. He didn’t even maintain an office at the company headquarters, preferring to keep an office in the old bicycle shop.

By the time of Wilbur’s death, Wright aircraft were no longer the best airplanes flying. An estimated five year lead on the competition that the Wrights had at one time had evaporated. Much of their time had been spent in pursuing numerous lawsuits against competitors, such as Glenn Curtiss, who violated their patent and generally managed to circumvent injunctions and continue flying while their suits were pending.

Also, the management of Wright Companies formed in Europe was fraught with problems and took up valuable time. Quality of manufacturing was often poor and unauthorized alterations to designs were common.

Consequently, there was too little time to spend on research and engineering activities and as a result they lost momentum. Others were making important technical advances such as replacing wingwarping with ailerons, enclosing fuselages and utilizing single-wing design.

The Wrights did make improvements in their designs but lost leadership to the Europeans who were supported by their governments arming for the World War I. Another reason they fell behind is that the brothers may have believed that changes to basic designs would invalidate their patent.

One of the Wright improvements was the Model B. In 1911, the Wright Model B used wheels and incorporated control services in the tail. The Model B was the first Wright plane to be built in quantity. Some 80-100 were believed to have been built.

One Model B was sold to Pancho-Villa in Mexico.

In 1912, the Model C incorporated an automatic stabilizer. In 1913, The Model F, built for the U.S. Army, was built with a fuselage.

Between 1910 and 1915 the company produced ten distinct designs. Only two of them – the model B and the Model C – were manufactured in significant quantity.

Orville Sells Company

The court’s confirmation of the Wright patent in 1914 was a significant event for Orville. He felt that he had accomplished a main goal in his life by securing the recognition that the Wrights were the inventors of manned flight. That, combined with the death of Wilbur, caused Orville to lose whatever interest he had in the competitive world of business.

On August 26, 1915, at 45 years of age, Orville sold the six-year old Wright Company to a group of New York investors for $250,000, just one-quarter of its initial capitalization. Orville retired to his recently completed magnificent home, Hawthorn Hill, in the city of Oakwood outside Dayton. (The Wright Family Foundation currently owns the home.)

The following year, the original Wright Company merged with the Glen L. Martin Company and became the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation. In 1917, the company headquarters was moved to New Jersey and evolved into the Wright Aeronautical Corporation.

In the 1920s the company merged with that of longtime rival, Glenn Curtiss, to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. The arrangement of names displeased Orville. Even though he had no official connection with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation, he believed the name should be Wright-Curtiss Corporation in recognition of his and Wilbur’s invention of flight. The Curtiss-Wright Aviation Division was sold to North American Aviation in 1946.

North American Aviation became North American Rockwell Corporation that subsequently became Rockwell International Corporation in 1973. Rockwell International Corporation merged with the Boeing Company in 1996. Thus, Boeing is the current legacy of the original Wright Company.

Orville Comes Out of Retirement

Meanwhile, as with many people that retire, Orville wasn’t about to go fishing. In 1916 he built a laboratory for his personal use at 15 North Broadway Street just a block away from the bicycle shop. He called it the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory. His only employee was his long time secretary, Mabel Beck. He used the laboratory to conduct fundamental scientific research and maintained the laboratory until his death in 1948. The one-story building was razed in 1976 to make room for a gas station.

The site is now a small park containing a facade of the front of the lab and a marker explaining what Orville did at the site.

In 1917, Orville was back in the airplane business again in Dayton. This time he didn’t own the company named Dayton-Wright Airplane Company, but was a technical advisor. Six Dayton businessmen formed the new company. The president of the company was Edward Deeds, a vice-president and later president of the NCR Company. The vice-president was Charles Kettering, the noted inventor. Both were good friends of Orville.

A new factory was built at Moraine City, just south of Dayton. In addition, a flying school was formed and land procured just north of downtown Dayton and named North Field. In 1918, North field was leased to the Army and renamed McCook Field.

The new investors hoped to make Dayton the manufacturing center of the United States using modern automobile production techniques to mass produce airplanes.

Fortuitously, the United States declared war on Germany five days before the new company was incorporated. Subsequently, the Dayton-Wright Company received a contract to deliver 4,000 modified British De Havilland DH-4 combat planes and 400 J-1 trainers.

The DH-4 was a 2-bay airplane with a 42-½ foot wing span. Its fuselage was about 30 feet long. It was armed with two Lewis guns in the rear cockpit, and one or two Marlin forward firing guns.

Experiencing engineering and production problems, the first plane didn’t reach France until August 1918. Three months later the war was over.

The cooling system is one example of the problems experienced. The American version of the DH-4 replaced the British engine with a 400-hp American Liberty engine. The Liberty engine was half again as large as the British engine it replaced. The mismatch required a complete redesign of the cooling system.

The De Havilland plane indirectly still lives in Dayton through the name of “Patterson” in the name “Wright-Patterson” Air Force Base. Lt. Frank Patterson was killed in an accident flying the De Havilland plane in 1917 at the base. He was the nephew of John H. Patterson, founder of the NCR.

Another milestone occurred during 1918. Orville piloted an airplane for the last time. It was an old 1911 Wright biplane in a demonstration flight along side one of the Wright Company’s new De Havillands.

Below is a rare picture of the employees of the Dayton-Wright airplane Company taken in 1918

The Original Buzz Bomb

One of the more interesting projects that Kettering and Orville worked on was a pilotless gyroscopically controlled airplane designed to deliver a 300-pound bomb. It was powered with a 2-cycle, 4-cylinder V engine.

On one occasion the pilotless plane went out of control setting off a chase by 100 men in automobiles. The plane came down 21 miles from Dayton. When the chase party arrived, puzzled people at the site were searching for the pilot.

In 1920, Deeds and Kettering sold the company to General Motors (GM) for 100,000 shares of GM stock.

Dayton-Wright stayed in business for a while longer designing and constructing experimental airplanes. One of planes they built was a racing plane capable of attaining 200 mph known as the RB. Built with some help from Orville, it was a monoplane with several innovations. It had a variable camber wing and a stowable landing gear.

The company entered the plane in the Gordon Bennett International Aviation Cup race in Paris on September 28, 1920. Unfortunately, during the race a control cable failed jamming the leading edge flap that prevented the plane from completing the race. (The RB today is on display at the Ford Museum near Detroit, Michigan.)

Another airplane involving Orville, was the O.W. Aerial Coupe. Built in 1918-19, The O.W. Aerial Coupe was an enclosed passenger plane and the last original design by Orville Wright. It carried three passengers and the pilot. The plane crashed and was totally destroyed in Indiana in 1924 after it developed engine trouble.

GM didn’t see any future profitability in producing airplanes after the war was over. They decided to close the Dayton Wright Airplane Company in the early 1920s. Major aircraft manufacturing never again returned to Dayton.

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