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Things Are Looking Up

During 1906, the Wright brothers had been approached about selling their airplane, but nothing definite had been arranged. Most of 1907 passed in the same way. A U.S. dealmaker, Hart O. Berg, had asked the Wrights to meet with possible buyers in Europe. Wilbur went to Europe, but neither Great Britain nor Germany was interested in buying a plane from the brothers. France seemed a little more interested, but here too, politics got in the way of progress. Orville shipped several crated planes to Europe, but he concluded that they would have to demonstrate the planes in order to sell any. The Wrights returned home to Dayton, Ohio, in November 1907, leaving their planes in Europe.

While in France, though, they had made an important contact—Lieutenant Frank Lahm of the new aeronautical section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Lahm wrote to his commander, Brigadier General James Allen in early fall 1907 that it was "…unfortunate that this American invention, which unquestionably has military value, should not first be acquired by the United States Army." The letter persuaded the Army to pressure the Board of Ordinance to move things along. The Board wrote to the Wrights in Europe requesting a meeting. When they docked in New York on November 22, 1907, Wilbur caught a train for Washington, D.C.

On December 23, 1907, the U.S. War Department issued Specification No. 486 for a “Heavier-than-air Flying Machine.” It stated that the aircraft must be able to carry two men for a distance of 125 miles (201 kilometers) at a minimum speed of 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour). It must be able to stay aloft for one hour between refuelings, land without damage, be transportable on an Army wagon, easily steerable in all directions, and at all times be under perfect control and equilibrium. These were, in fact, the specifications that the Wrights had earlier told the War Department they could meet.

On January 27, 1908, the Wrights submitted their formal bid to the War Department for one aircraft that would cost $25,000. This was considerably less than the $200,000 they had wanted to charge the French government the year before. Only one other bid would be considered—from Octave Chanute’s old partner and their acquaintance, Augustus Herring.

In France, business was also improving. The Wrights had finally signed a contract with a French business group that had formed La Compagnie Generale de Navigation Aerienne to manufacture and sell Wright aircraft in France. The Wrights would provide four airplanes that could seat two people, carry out four demonstration flights of 31 miles (50 kilometers) each while carrying a passenger, and teach three men to fly and solo. The Wrights quoted a price of 20,000 francs (about $4,000) each and also received 500,000 francs (about $100,000) cash for the demonstration aircraft and half-ownership in the French company.

As before, the French were disdainful. They thought the requirements would be impossible to meet and the Wrights would fail. They especially scorned the Wrights because the brothers had not competed with the French aviator, Henri Farman, for the Archdeacon Cup.

Farman was the son of a prominent journalist who had become an aviation enthusiast. He began to fly with a customized Voison-Farman I plane on September 30, 1907, flying just 100 feet (30 meters). He modified the plane and began to fly a little farther. On October 26, 1907, Farman flew 2,350 feet (712 meters) and won the second Archdeacon Cup for making the longest flight during the year. On January 13, 1908, he won the Grand Prix de Aviation and its 50,000-franc purse by flying a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) circular course. But the Wrights did not care. They were happy because they had sold an airplane and had work to do.

The Wrights began to adapt the 1905 Flyer to their new Flyer A configuration, fitting it with upright seats and upright controls. But the Wrights were getting too much attention to be able to work. They shipped the Flyer to Kitty Hawk and traveled there on April 6, 1908, so they could work in peace and also regain their flying skills. There, with the help of a mechanic from Dayton, Charlie Furnas, who was eager to lend a hand, they rebuilt their wrecked camp. They practiced flying with a passenger-a bag of sand-in the right seat of the Flyer.

On May 14, 1908, they were ready for a real passenger. Charlie Furnas became the Wrights’ first airplane passenger. They made several flights that day, but in a solo flight, Wilbur made an error with the elevator lever, and the plane dove into the ground at 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour). He was unhurt, but the plane was wrecked.

The Wrights decided that they had to separate—Orville would work on the plane for the Signal Corps while Wilbur would make the demonstration flights in France.

In France, Wilbur set up shop on a field near LeMans that the French automobile manufacturer Leon Bollée provided, and Wilbur began working on the planes they had shipped to France at the end of 1907. They were in terrible shape—French Customs had repacked them poorly. It took him six weeks to assemble an airplane, even with the help of the mechanics that Bollée provided. When it was completed, his flight was further delayed because of bad weather. In the meantime, the French press ridiculed him.

Wilbur Wright in one of his first public flights, LeMans, France, 1908

Wilbur Wright in one of his first public flights, LeMans, France, 1908.

On August 8, 1908, the weather cleared. In front of small crowd that included the aviator Louis Blériot and aviation backer Ernest Archdeacon, he made a brief but perfect flight that astounded his audience. He followed with several more flights—each longer than the last. The flightworthiness of his airplane and his skill as a pilot far eclipsed anything that had been accomplished in France. Blériot exclaimed: “I would have waited ten times as long to see what I have seen today….Monsieur Wright has us all in his hands.” Even Archdeacon, one of the Wrights’ harshest critics, agreed: “For too long, the Wright brothers have been accused of bluffing. They are hallowed today in France, and I feel an intense pleasure in counting myself among the first to make amends….” Perhaps two small boys said it best. Racing back to LeMans on their bicycles after witnessing the flights, they shouted “Il vole! He flies!”

Wilbur became a national hero. Many people came to see Wilbur fly while he fulfilled the terms of his contract. He moved from LeMans to a larger field at Hunandiéres and then to Camp d’Auvours near Paris.

Meanwhile, back in Dayton, Orville was busily working on the plane for the Signal Corps with his two helpers—Charlie Taylor and Charlie Furnas. He was also writing letters and articles for Scientific American, Aeronautics, Century magazine, and other journals.

When the Army aircraft was complete, Taylor and Furnas, along with the aircraft, left for Fort Myer, Virginia, where the tests would take place. Orville followed on August 20, 1908. He began the flights, and after tuning the engine so that it would generate enough horsepower to fly at 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour), Orville made a short public flight on the parade grounds. Each flight was longer than the last. By September 9, Orville was remaining aloft for more than an hour. He also began taking passengers.

The Wright Military Flyer above Fort Myers, Virginia.

The Wright Military Flyer above
Fort Myers, Virginia.

 

Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge prior to take-off on his final flight, September 17, 1908

Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge prior to
take-off on his final flight, September 17, 1908.

On September 17, tragedy struck. He took Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge up with him. The propeller split, and the plane crashed. Orville broke his leg, some ribs, and injured his back. Selfridge was less lucky. He died on the operating table at the Fort’s hospital—the first passenger fatality in an airplane. 

the crash of the 1908

Immediately after the crash of the 1908, which injured Orville Wright seriously and killed
Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge. It was the first passenger fatality in an airplane accide
nt.

Orville’s sister Katherine came to Virginia to care for him. While he was recuperating, he examined the wreckage, found the cause of the accident, and explained his conclusions to the Army. His flights up to that time had been so successful that the Army was confident that the Wright machine could fly. It extended the contract due date for flight demonstration until Orville could fly again. Flight-testing was successfully completed in 1909, and the competition won.

—Judy Rumerman

Educational Organization

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Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting, research and development, innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

N/A

Funding influences the direction of science by virtue of the decisions that are made on which research to support.

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to process information.