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After the First Flight

After 1903, the Wrights carved brilliant careers in aeronautics and helped found the aviation industry. The successful flights made at Kill Devil Hills in December 1903 encouraged them to make improvements on a new plane called Flyer No. 2. About 100 flights were flown near Dayton in 1904. These totaled only 45 minutes in the air, although they made two 5-minute flights. Experimenting chiefly with control and maneuver, many complete circuits of the small flying field were made.

A new and improved plane, Flyer No. 3, was built in 1905. On October 5 they made a record flight of 24-1/5 miles, while the plane was in the air 38 minutes and 3 seconds. The era of the airplane was well on the way. The lessons and successes at Kill Devil Hills in December 1903 were fast making the crowded skies of the Air Age possible.

Flight 85, 1904
Orville Wright in 1904 flight 85 at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, November 16. Distance: approximately 1,760 feet; time: 45 seconds.

Flight 41, 1905
1905 flight 41—Orville's 12-mile flight of September 29.

Flight 46, 1905
1905 flight 46, October 4—20.8 miles in 33.3 minutes, the second longest flight of 1905. It was exceeded only by the 24-mile flight of October 5. The era of the airplane was well on its way.

Believing their invention was now perfected for practical use, the Wrights wanted the United States Government to have a world monopoly on their patents, and more important, on all the aerodynamic, design, and pilotage secrets they knew relating to the airplane. As early as 1905 they had received overtures from representatives of foreign governments. The United States Army turned down their first offers without making an effort to investigate whether the airplane had been brought to a stage of practical operation. But disbelief was on the wane. In February 1908 the United States War Department made a contract with the brothers for an airplane. Only 3 weeks later the Wrights closed a contract with a Frenchman to form a syndicate for the rights to manufacture, sell, or license the use of the Wright airplane in France.

During their Dayton experiments, the Wrights had continued to pilot their airplanes while lying prone with hips in the cradle on the lower wing. Now they adopted a different arrangement of the control levers to be used in a sitting position and added a seat for a passenger. The brothers brought their airplane to Kill Devil Hills in April 1908 to practice handling the new arrangement of the control levers. They wanted to be prepared for the public trials to be made for the United States Government, near Washington, and for the company in France.

They erected a new building at Kill Devil Hills to house the airplane and to live in, because storms the year before had nearly demolished their 1903 camp buildings. Between May 6 and May 14, 1908, the Wrights made 22 flights at their old testing grounds. On May 14 the first flight with two men aboard a plane was made near West Hill; Wilbur Wright being the pilot, and Charles Furnas, a mechanic, the passenger. Orville and Furnas then made a flight together of over 2 miles, passing between Kill Devil Hill and West Hill, and turning north near the sound to circle Little Hill before returning over the starting point close to their camp to land near West Hill on the second lap.

Orville Wright
Orville Wright (1871—1948)
taken about 1908.
Wilbur Wright
Wilbur Wright (1867—1912)
taken about 1908.

Byron R. Newton, a newspaper reporter, was concealed in the woods with other newsmen near camp to watch the Wrights fly. Newton predicted in his diary just after seeing his first flight: "Some day Congress will erect a monument here to these Wrights." Nineteen years later the Congress established the area as a National Memorial.

Wilbur journeyed to France after completing the tests at Kill Devil Hills, while Orville returned home to complete the construction of an airplane for the United States Government. As Wilbur set about methodically to assemble his airplane at Le Mans, some 125 miles from Paris, skeptics greeted the delay by accusing him of bluffing. But Wilbur refused to hurry. "Le bluff continue," cried a Paris newspaper. However, when Wilbur took off on August 8, circling the field to come in for a perfect landing, the crowd could scarcely believe its eyes. Skeptics were confounded, and enthusiasm was uproarious.

Wilbur's complete lack of conceit, together with his decency and intelligence, won from the French people a hero-worship attitude, while the press was unsparing in its praise and lamented having called him a bluffer. The Figaro commented, "It was not merely a success but a triumph; a conclusive trial and a decisive victory for aviation, the news of which will revolutionize scientific circles throughout the world." It was a statement to the press by a witness, Maj. B. F. S. Baden-Powell, president of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, that is most often quoted: "That Wilbur Wright is in possession of a power which controls the fate of nations is beyond dispute." One of Wilbur's sayings in France became famous: "I know of only one bird, the parrot, that talks," he said, "and it can't fly very high."

Army speed test flight
Orville and his passenger, Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois, round the captive balloon which marked the turning point of the Army speed test flight from Fort Meyer, July 30, 1909. The flight was just under 43 miles an hour.
Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution.

Orville's first public flight was on September 3, 1908 at Fort Myer. He circled the field one and one-half times on the first test. "When the plane first rose," Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., recorded "the crowd's gasp of astonishment was not alone at the wonder of it, but because it was so unexpected." Orville's final flight at Fort Myer in 1908 ended in tragedy. The airplane crashed, killing Lt. Thomas Selfridge, a passenger flying with Orville. Orville suffered broken ribs, a fractured leg, and hip injuries.

In 1909, Orville completed the Government test flights by flying 10 miles in 14 minutes, or just under 43 miles an hour. The United States Army formally accepted its first airplane from the Wrights on August 2, 1909. During the same year both brothers made further flying triumphs in Europe where they became famous flying in France and Italy. While Orville was making sensational flights in Germany (as required for the formation of a Wright company in that country), Wilbur, in America, made spectacular flights at New York City where more than a million New Yorkers got their first glimpse of an airplane in the air.

Commercial companies were formed in France and Germany to manufacture Wright planes before the Wright Company was organized in the United States with Wilbur as president and Orville vice president. In financial affairs the Wrights were remarkably shrewd—a match for American and European businessmen. They grew wealthy as well as famous, but they were not happy as businessmen and looked forward to the time when they could retire to devote themselves again to scientific research.

Orville returned to Kill Devil Hills in October 1911 to experiment with an automatic control device and to make soaring flights with a glider. The new device was not tested because of the presence of newspapermen at the camp each day. Orville set a new world's soaring record of 9 minutes and 45 seconds on October 24. This remained the world's record until it was exceeded 10 years later in Germany. On May 30, 1912, Wilbur Wright, aged 45, died of typhoid fever. Orville survived him by 36 years.


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