The First Military Flyer
Wilbur Wright became a national hero after his triumphant flight in France in August 1908. The French government and the Aéro-Club de France awarded the Wright brothers medals that honored them. Royalty and the wealthy came to see Wilbur fly, and he broke several distance, duration, and altitude records, winning a variety of prizes from the Aéro-Club before the end of the year. Wilbur took more than 40 people aloft with him during this time—old friends, future business contacts, an 11-year-old boy, and the first woman airplane passenger, Mrs. Hart Berg, the wife of the dealmaker who had put the Wrights in touch with the French government. He received tributes and accolades wherever he went.
Nevertheless, he picked his flights carefully. He declined to accept the challenge from the publisher of the London Daily Mail to cross the English Channel, fearing that a forced water landing would destroy the only Flyer in Europe. (This feat was achieved by Louis Blériot in July 1909.) Instead, he went after and won the Coupe Michelin for remaining aloft for a record two hours, 18 minutes, and 33-3/5 seconds on December 31—a fitting end to a glorious year. Altogether, he established nine world records by January 2, 1909.
On January 12, 1909, his sister Katharine and Orville, leaning on two canes because of his injuries from his crash at Fort Myer the previous September, arrived in France. After a few days in Paris, they joined Wilbur in Pau in the south of France, where he had gone to enjoy the warmer weather and do more flying. The press and nobility followed. The brothers and Katharine met King Alfonso of Spain, King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, and Edward VII of England. Word of their achievements flew home to Dayton, where the populace finally began to take more interest in the Wrights’ feats. Wilbur’s flights at LeMans even appeared in a newsreel at the local movie house in Dayton.
King Victor Emmanuel of Italy at left, with Orville and Wilbur Wright and their airplane, 1909.
On April 1, 1909, the Wrights traveled to Centocelle, Italy (outside Rome) to train two pilots for the Italian Army on a new plane shipped from Ohio. During one of his flights, Wilbur took a newsman up with him, who took the first motion-picture footage from a plane in flight. One of the people to see him fly in Italy was the American industrialist, J.P. Morgan. It was just a chance meeting, but it would have far-reaching consequences. Late in 1909, Morgan offered to help the Wrights set up a company in the United States to manufacture and sell Wright aircraft and helped to attract a wealthy and influential group of investors.
From Italy, the Wrights went to England for a short visit before leaving for home, where final work on their contract with the U.S. Army awaited them. While in England, they contracted with the Short Brothers, English balloon manufacturers, to build six Wright aircraft for various customers outside the French syndicate. One of these was Charles Rolls of Rolls-Royce, the first person to purchase an airplane for his own private use.
Charles Rolls in his Rolls-Royce with Orville and Wilbur Wright and their chauffeur in Shellbeach, England.
The three Wrights arrived in New York on May 11, where enormous crowds greeted them. Ships in the harbor saluted them as bands played, whistles sounded, and bells rang. When they arrived in Dayton on May 13, a similar welcome awaited them. President William Taft sent them a message requesting their presence in Washington, D.C., so the brothers could accept a medal from the U.S. government.
Plaque of the Wright brothers presented by the U.S. Congress, March 4, 1909.
But eventually, they did return to work and constructed the first American military airplane. The plane had a wingspan of 36.5 feet (11 meters), was just under 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 7.9 feet (2.4 meters) high, and weighed 740 pounds (336 kilograms). A four-cylinder Wright 30.6-horsepower (4.5-kilowatt) engine powered it. When it was finished, and after a brief delay for a parade in their honor on June 17, the brothers headed for Fort Myer, Virginia, where they would demonstrate the Military Flyer for the U.S. Army.
The plane was ready to demonstrate on June 24, but the brothers waited until they were certain everything was just right in spite of the crowd that had come to watch. They were not even rushed when the entire U.S. Senate came. Even Glenn Curtiss paid a visit.
Orville finally took to the air on June 29. He had a shaky start and flew into a tree, damaging the plane. But he repaired it and regained his composure. On July 12, he began to make trouble-free flights. On July 27, he set a new duration record, flying for one hour and 12 minutes with Lieutenant Frank Lahm on board. This exceeded one of the Army’s requirements—remaining aloft for one hour with a passenger on board.
The Wrights returned to Fort Myer in 1909 and completed the U.S. Army trials successfully.
Orville flew the speed trial on July 30 with Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois on board. He climbed steadily to 400 feet (122 meters)—another record. As soon as he saw the Fort Myer parade ground, he nosed the aircraft down slightly and began to increase his speed. Foulois stopped his watch as Orville shot past the launching derrick. He flew a victory circle around Arlington Cemetery and landed. He had averaged 42.583 miles per hour (68.5 kilometers per hour)—surpassing the Army’s 40 mile per hour (64.4 kilometer-per-hour) requirement and breaking yet another record. The Wrights qualified for a $5,000 bonus by flying two miles per hour (3.2 kilometers per hour) over the necessary speed. The first military flyer would cost the U.S. Army $30,000.
The 1909 Wright Flyer was formally accepted on August 2, 1909, and was designated Signal Corps Airplane No. 1, becoming the world’s first military airplane.
Orville Wright in a demonstration flight over Tempelhof Field in Berlin, 1909.
A week later, Katharine and Orville left the United States for a flying exhibition in Berlin, Germany, to satisfy two additional contracts. Members of the Studien Gesselschaft, the Society for Airship Studies, were interested in forming a company in Germany to produce Wright aircraft under a license agreement similar to the one they had in France. Orville made 19 flights in Germany before large crowds that included members of the royal family. Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm went up with Wilbur for a 15-minute flight, the first member of any royal family to fly. The Germans were suitably impressed, and the agreement was negotiated.
Back in the United States, following acceptance of the aircraft, the Army moved its aviation activities to College Park, Maryland, which had a larger flying field.
On October 8, Wilbur began giving flying lessons to Lieutenants Lahm and Fredrick E. Humphreys. Wilbur had installed an additional set of levers on the plane next to the student seat so that he could control the plane. The flights were quite short, although by October 21, the newspapers reported that Wright had taken Lieutenant Humphreys up for 27 minutes and Humphreys had handled the plane for most of the time.
When Lieutenant Foulois returned from France, where he had been representing the U.S. Government at a conference, Wilbur agreed to teach him to fly too, even though it was not part of the contract with the Army. Foulois’ lessons began on October 23, but they did not last long enough for him to become really proficient before he was ordered to Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Humphreys soloed on October 26, flying for two minutes and becoming the Army’s first "pilot." Lahm soloed soon after on a seven-minute flight. Both men made beautiful landings. Wilbur was so pleased with these flights that the next day he took up a friend of Katharine’s, Mrs. Van Deman, wife of Captain Ralph Van Deman of the 21st Infantry, for a ride.
Within several weeks, Lahm and Humphrey were ordered to return to duty with their respective Army units. The Aeronautical Division was left with one airplane, which had been damaged on one of the recent flights, and a handful of airplane mechanics. Lieutenant Foulois was ordered to take the airplane to Fort Sam Houston and teach himself to fly it, even though he had never soloed, or taken off, or landed during the few lessons Wilbur had given him.
Lieutenant Benny Foulois.
At Fort Sam Houston, Foulois made his first flight on March 2, 1910, and by September, had made 62 practice flights. During this period, the Wright brothers sent Foulois flying instructions by mail a few times. By early 1911, the Flyer was in poor condition, having been wrecked and rebuilt by Foulois several times, and it was retired from further service.