The First Military Airplane

April 1, 2004

Wilbur and Orville Wright decided within days of their Dec. 17, 1903, success at Kitty Hawk, N.C., that they could no longer approach the problem of flight as a hobby. To progress, they had to devote time and money to building new machines. The Wrights decided to take the risk and regard flying not only as a passion but also as a strict business proposition, at least until they had recouped their investment.

It was a long wait. Not until 1909 did they find a buyer for a Wright airplane.

In the two years after their world-changing flight, the brothers dedicated themselves to making much-needed improvements in their flying machines. In 1904, they began flying at Huffman Prairie, near their home of Dayton, Ohio, with a new aircraft replacing the one wrecked by a wind gust at Kitty Hawk. They were still paying for their flying efforts out of their own pockets, so they were tempted to go after cash prizes such as the $150,000 offered at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair for the exhibition of an aircraft in flight. They might have succeeded in such exhibitions, but the Wrights could not bring themselves to perform for thrill-seeking crowds. Neither did they want to risk damage to their machine.

They decided to stay in Dayton and develop a robust flying machine that would give them the lead over all others for several more years. They filed for European patents and, in the spring of 1904, built a second Flyer. On Sept. 20, 1904, Wilbur flew it in a controlled, full circle for the first time.

Within a month, a potential customer turned up. Lt. Col. John E. Capper of the British Army arrived in Dayton to meet the Wrights. The publicity-shy brothers nevertheless showed Capper photographs of their 1904 Flyer making its steady, successful flights. Capper advised them to make London a proposal.

However, the Wrights first wanted to offer their aircraft to the US military. In January 1905, they enlisted Congressman Robert M. Nevin to help them make such an offer to Washington. (See “The Paper Trail: ‘Lands Without Being Wrecked,’ ” September 2002, p. 101.)


In Nevin’s absence, his staff mistakenly sent the letter, without a cover note, to the US Army Board of Ordnance and Fortification. The Army was in no mood to give self-proclaimed airplane inventors a warm reception. The War Department had already spent $50,000 on the failed powered airplane experiments of Samuel P. Langley, the head of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and Congress was inquiring into the 1903 crash of Langley’s airplane. The Wrights’ offer drew, on Jan. 24, 1905, an insulting form-letter rejection from the board: “The board has found it necessary to decline to make allotments for the experimental development of devices for mechanical flight. … It appears … their machine has not yet been brought to the stage of practical operation.”

The board either had not read or had misunderstood their letter, which proclaimed that they had flown and were ready to turn over an aircraft suitable for war. The Wrights tried again to interest the US government, writing directly in October 1905 to Secretary of War William H. Taft. It would be 1907 before the US military showed any interest, however.

Meanwhile, the Wrights had offered their airplane to Great Britain. They described the Flyer as an airplane that could carry two men and fly at 30 miles per hour. Their pitch was clear. They said that any nation purchasing the Wright machine, with accompanying technical information and instruction, would be years ahead of any other government.

The Wrights’ 1905 Flyer was the first of the brothers’ aircraft capable of performing steady endurance flights. From the moment they completed it in late May, they knew they had a winner. Flights over the summer proved it. On Sept. 26, 1905, Orville spent 18 minutes in the air and ran the gas tank dry for the first time. Soon they flew more than half an hour at a time. The 1905 Flyer solved problems of power and control and enabled the brothers to make easy, controlled circles around Huffman Prairie as long as they wished.

Going Overseas

In 1905, they began a complicated series of negotiations with governments in Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, as well as various private business consortia. The brothers traveled to Europe and spent more time dealing than flying. Would-be aviators in Europe and the US kept experimenting, but, as Wilbur figured, the brothers had a five-year lead over everyone else. For the time being, they could afford to wait.

No government, though, was willing to pay $100,000 or more for an airplane they’d never seen fly. In turn, the Wrights did not want to demonstrate their aircraft and reveal its secrets until they had a signed contract.

Wilbur and Orville had exclusive rights to the invention of the century, but they could not sell it. The impasse continued. Octave Chanute, a friend and mentor, told them in late 1907 that it appeared government officials in Europe wanted to stall until Wright competitors could catch up, driving the price down.

The breakthrough marketing boost came in a time-honored way—through personal connections. Wilbur met the head of the Aero Club of America on one of his visits to New York to pursue European business. The club president asked his brother-in-law, Congressman Herbert Parsons, to look into the US Army’s rejection of the Wright offer. Parsons sent a package about the Wrights straight to President Theodore Roosevelt. With Roosevelt’s direct endorsement, the Army soon asked the Wrights to submit a bid price for their airplane.

Orville’s answer caused sticker shock. The price was $100,000, and with European deals pending, there was no guarantee of exclusive rights for the Army. The brothers’ European negotiations ranged from $100,000 to $500,000, and they had never wanted to give up all rights to their invention.

It looked like there would be no deal. Wilbur wrote his father en route home from England that they would probably spend the winter working on more machines and, by spring, might have to announce a reduction sale.

Time was running out. French aeronauts such as Henri Farman and Ferdinand L. Delagrange had made short flights near Paris in their own airplanes. While the Wright brothers knew they were still far ahead of the competition, the chance to get their American-made Flyer into the hands of the US government would not last indefinitely.

It took a young US Army officer to help break the deadlock. Lt. Frank P. Lahm had been at cavalry school in France and was returning home to a job in the new aeronautics section of the Army’s Signal Corps. Lahm’s boss was Brig. Gen. James Allen, who was the Chief Signal Officer and the man with final authority on procuring balloons and the like.

Lahm could not bear to see the Army pass up the opportunity to acquire the Wright Flyer. In a letter to Allen, Lahm expressed his dismay that the US Army might not be the first to acquire this American invention, with its obvious military value.

Allen was a skeptic who believed dirigibles fulfilled the Army’s current requirements for dominance of the air. Air Force Historian Robert F. Futrell quoted an October 1907 letter Allen sent to the board. In it Allen said a “high-speed aeroplane” was hardly suitable for dropping explosives on the enemy because “even after considerable practice, it is not thought a projectile could be dropped nearer than half a mile from the target.”

The Army Reconsiders

However, Lahm’s letter—and Roosevelt’s pressure—worked. On Oct. 5, 1907, the Army wrote again to Orville. Years of patent filings and fruitless international wheeling and dealing with kings and tycoons had taken their toll. Orville responded to the board that he and Wilbur were more concerned about receiving fair treatment than a high price for their first machine. They reasoned that, if their patent held, they would be in a good position to gain revenues from aircraft manufacturing. The key was to get the initial sale, and, in their hearts, the brothers wanted to make that sale where they’d first offered it: to the US government. All their offers to European governments had contained a proviso waiving any restriction on the Wrights’ ability to furnish machines to the US government.

The gap finally closed when Wilbur met with Army officials in late November and early December 1907. He suggested a price of $25,000 and outlined for the board what a Wright Flyer could do. Yet his tin ear for business almost ruined the deal. Wilbur came away from the 1907 meetings convinced the Army officials were just being courteous to him.

Wilbur was wrong. The Army board was truly impressed with his presentation. They moved fast to tap a fund left over from the Spanish–American War, and, on Dec. 23, the Signal Corps issued its “Advertisement and Specification for a Heavier-Than-Air Flying Machine.”(See “The Paper Trail: No Extra Charge ‘for Training,’ ” October 2002, p. 67.) The Army took Wilbur at his word and wrote the specification to stipulate that the aircraft would complete a trial endurance flight of at least one hour, speed of at least 40 mph, and carry two persons weighing a total of 350 pounds.

When the requirements hit the press, skeptics suspected the Signal Corps had lost its senses. “Nothing in any way approaching such a machine has even been constructed,” objected the New York Globe.

All this furor was due to the fact that the Wrights had not given public demonstrations. The world at large had never seen aviators perform to the standards now being demanded by the Signal Corps. Meanwhile, others besides the Wrights did have flyable aircraft. The Frenchmen Delagrange, Farman, and Louis Bleriot were winning prizes for short flights. Up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a team led by Alexander Graham Bell was trying to progress from kites to gliders to airplanes, with the help of enthusiastic Army Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge and enterprising motorcyclist Glenn H. Curtiss.

Only Wilbur and Orville knew that the capabilities of their rivals paled before those of the Wright Flyer.

The Army solicitation attracted more than 40 responses by the February 1908 deadline. Most were from quacks, but one credible bidder underbid the Wrights’ price of $25,000 by offering a machine for $20,000. The rival bid was not a technical threat, for no one had ever seen this bidder with an airplane. The brothers were confident because the details of the Army’s one-page solicitation were tailored to what they had already demonstrated in late 1904 and 1905.

The French Sign Up

In late March 1908, meanwhile, the Wrights also signed an agreement with a French syndicate. Wilbur had spent much of 1907 setting up a base camp for the Flyer in France, and now the brothers were committed to fly in France in 1908. Ultimately, they agreed that Wilbur would go back to Europe, while Orville handled the US Army deal.

First, the brothers had to go back to their testing ground at Kitty Hawk for flight practice before undertaking the official trials at Washington and in France. Their Flyer included new innovations of upright seating, room for a passenger, and hand-lever controls. All this and more had to be tested before they went public. Kitty Hawk’s remote endless sands served them well once again.

After weeks of preparation, they began flying in early May. The new controls were difficult for them. One day’s flying left them too sore to take the machine out the next day. However, Kitty Hawk again worked its magic, and soon they were flying circuits around the dunes as easily as they had at Huffman Prairie. Then, just when they started to log long flights, Wilbur mishandled the new levers and crashed. There was no time left to make repairs and fly again. Wilbur departed immediately for France, while Orville packed up to return to Dayton and prepare a Flyer for the Army trials.

Orville swung through Washington, D.C., on his way home from Kitty Hawk. Ft. Myer, Va., just outside Washington, was home to balloon sheds for the Army’s other aeronautical activities and seemed the logical place to try out the heavier-than-air machine. To Orville’s dismay, he found the Ft. Myer parade ground to be difficult terrain and much smaller than Wilbur had reported. He realized he would have to make some tests at the site fairly soon.

The summer of 1908 was to bring the Wright brothers aeronautical success and international fame far beyond their 1903 achievements. It was also a challenging time for them. Unlike 1903, they were working and flying separately—an ocean between them. Wilbur labored to uncrate a Flyer shipped to Le Mans, France, and get it into working order. He suffered severe steam burns from an engine in July and worked the rest of the summer with fist-sized blisters on his arms. Orville had no less a challenge preparing a machine for the Army demonstration. Around them, the world remained skeptical and much entranced with the doings of the Bell group and others such as Bleriot, who logged an eight-minute flight in his monoplane in July 1908.

Patent infringements were becoming a constant worry since the Wrights had yet to earn a dime from flying. For the first time, the brothers actively set out to get the public on their side. Orville penned an article for a popular magazine, telling the story of Kitty Hawk and the brothers’ long fascination with flight. The article was published just before the Army trials in September.

What carried the day for them, however, was the astonishing superiority of their flights. Wilbur went first. By early August 1908, his Flyer was ready, his burns were healing, and the weather at Le Mans was fair. Wilbur wrote to Orville afterward that he thought he should do something more than just a level flight. The crowd at Le Mans included knowledgeable aeronauts who by then were used to seeing airplanes with wheels take off and make wide, skidding turns. They scoffed at the Wrights’ rail launch system.

Wilbur awed them with a two-minute flight on the evening of Aug. 8, 1908. The Flyer leapt into the air and headed straight for a grove of trees. Then, with perfect ease, Wilbur executed the first tight, controlled banking turns the world had ever seen. “It had taken only two circuits of a provincial racecourse to convince the members of the French Aero Club,” wrote historian Fred Howard in his book Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. According to Howard, one spectator at the French demonstration said, “We are as children compared to the Wrights.” He also quoted Bleriot, who declared that “a new era in mechanical flight has commenced.”

Wilbur was gratified and amused at the gasps of the French aviators. Over the next several days, he continued to amaze France and the world with figure eights and flights at 75 feet and above, far higher than anything ever seen. The ease, control, and consistency of the Wright Flyer put it head and shoulders above any other aircraft. Only Wilbur and the Flyer could turn tight. Endurance and altitude records were his for the taking.

The Army Trials

The terms of the Signal Corps solicitation called for several test events culminating in cross-country passenger flights. Orville first tested his Flyer on the tight parade ground circuit with short flights, then set out to fulfill the hour-long endurance requirements. Orville had the advantage of quality help from young Signal Corps officers. His personal favorite was Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois, whose slight build—he weighed only 130 pounds—was a real asset in a passenger.

However, Foulois was a heavyweight in terms of vision and one of the first to picture air campaigns. His 1907 thesis at Army Command and General Staff College had discussed future operations where opposing air fleets would operate ahead of ground forces. For the young officers assisting Orville, the demonstration of the Flyer was opening a world of technical and tactical marvels.

On Sept. 3, 1908, Orville took to the air for a little over a minute for the first Army demonstration flight. The series of short flights went exactly as Orville planned. Yet, the news from France, just three days later, featured French aviator Delagrange who had made a half-hour flight on a straight course at Issy.

The race that provided aviation’s most stunning moments, though, was between Wilbur in France and Orville at Ft. Myer. On Sept. 10, Wilbur flew 22 minutes and set a new European altitude record at 120 feet. Hours later, at Ft. Myer, Orville took off for a one hour and six minute flight and shattered all known endurance records. He set a new altitude record of 200 feet. By the end of the week, Orville was flying well over an hour and up to 310 feet. Crowds flocked to Ft. Myer to watch the spectacle.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the Wright brothers proved their dominance. It was a time of great satisfaction for them. By the end of September, Wilbur was flying up to 90 minutes at a time. He reveled in Orville’s success and acclaim in America, telling his brother in one letter how Orville had supplanted him in the eyes of the French press.

The next step in the Army tests was for Orville to carry passengers. He took off on Sept. 17, 1908, with 175-pound Selfridge beside him. After takeoff and several circuits around the field, Orville was beginning a turn when a tapping noise alarmed him. An instant later, a propeller split, throwing a section into the wire controlling the rudder and cutting Orville’s controls. The Flyer crashed in a cloud of dust.

Orville and Selfridge were pulled from the wreckage, bleeding. Selfridge was unconscious and was rushed to surgery, but died within hours, the first to die in an airplane accident. Orville’s injuries were not life threatening, but they were life changing. He broke his leg and several ribs, sustained head wounds, and damaged a sciatic nerve. For the rest of his life, Orville was plagued by the aftereffects of the injuries.

The crash had little effect on the customer. The Army’s reaction was a testament to Orville’s success so far. The board did not hesitate to extend the trial for a year to give the Wrights time to fulfill the two remaining test requirements.

The Wright brothers’ discoveries, as laid out in patents and the demonstrations of 1908, were absorbed by the early aviation community. Other aviators were now able to make breakthroughs on their own. On July 25, 1909, Bleriot flew across the English Channel. In August, the Wrights reluctantly began a patent suit against fellow aviator Glenn Curtiss that would consume their attention for years.

However, during one golden week in the summer of 1909, the Wrights put the final touches on their contribution to the history of aviation. On July 27, Orville and Lahm flew 79 circles around the Ft. Myer parade ground and logged more than one hour in flight. On July 30, Orville tackled the last remaining test. He took Foulois up as his navigator and completed a cross-country flight to Alexandria, Va., and back, some 10 miles over ravines and streams.

The Signal Corps calculated the official speed of the flight at 42 miles per hour—earning the Wrights a $5,000 bonus over the $25,000 base price. The Army accepted the Flyer on Aug. 2, 1909, and America had its first military aircraft.

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “Dixon,” appeared in the March issue.