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Two brothers, Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948) of Dayton, Ohio (although Wilbur was born in Indiana) are credited with designing, building and flying history’s first controllable airplane. They founded the Wright Cycle Exchange, later the Wright Cycle Company, in 1892 to sell and repair bicycles. Wilbur Wright became interested in aviation around 1896, and is considered the greater innovator of the pair, coming up with the essential ideas that made the brothers’ designs successful. They experimented with kites gliders through 1902, and then with powered designs, achieving on December 17, 1903, what are regarded as the first four controlled airplane flights in history. In succeeding years, they sought to market their flying machines to civilian and military customers and in 1909 incorporated the Wright Company for this purpose. The Wrights sold their company in 1915 and it was renamed Wright Aeronautical Corp. in 1919 after merging and then splitting with Glenn Martin’s company to briefly form Wright-Martin. Ultimately it became part of the Curtiss-Wright Company in a 1929 merger. Wright became the name of the engine division of Curtiss-Wright.
Wright Flyer I
The 1903 Flyer hangs in a place of honor in the National Air & Space Museum. It has undergone some adventures in its post-retirement life. Never flown again after December 17, 1903, it sustained damage that day and was repaired. Determined to establish the historical significance of the Flyer as the first aeroplane, the Wright Brothers kept it in their basement in Dayton, where it was submerged in a flood in 1913. By 1916, when it was first exhibited, the Flyer had been partially recovered and its engine had been replaced with a test engine. The Wrights desired to have the machine displayed in the Smithsonian, but entered into an acrimonious debate with the Smithsonian over its consideration of the possibility that other inventors may have been, or shared, credit for being first to fly. A game of brinkmanship resulted in the Flyer being shipped to London for display in Britain’s Science Museum from 1928 to 1948, with a stint in an underground vault outside of London to protect it during World War II. By this time the plane had been restored again in 1927, including a new fabric covering. Finally in 1948 the Flyer was transferred to the Smithsonian in return for the Smithsonian’s promise never to question that the Wrights were the first to build an aircraft “capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.” This has occasioned some controversy, because it goes against the spirit of historical inquiry never to question such a fact, but there has been little practical consequence of the Smithsonian’s compromising of its principles in this instance since no other claimant to the distinction has made a serious case for primacy over the Wrights, despite the best efforts of the fan clubs of several candidates. In the 1980s the Flyer was restored yet again, replacing the fabric but leaving the wood and metal parts intact.
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Wright Military Flyer
The first airplane acquired by any nation’s armed services, the Wright Military Flyer was built in 1909 in response to a 1908 request issued by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The plane was demonstrated to the Army in a series of successful flights in Virginia, marred by a tragic accident in which the plane crashed, injuring Orville Wright and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, who became aviation’s first military casualty. Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan is named after him. After the wreck, a new plane was built using the engine from the old one, and proving flights continued until the Army eventually accepted the airplane. The following year, the Army replaced this first machine with two further Wright airplanes, and in 1911 donated this one to the Smithsonian. It is displayed at the National Air & Space Museum and is said to be the most original of its three Wright airplanes.
Wright Model B
The Model B was the first airplane produced in significant quantities, although Wright had made seven examples of its previous Model A, earning that type the distinction of being the first “production” airplane. Produced from 1910 to 1914, it was Wright’s most successful airplane, with about 100 built.
1911 Bergdoll Wright B
The only surviving Wright Model B in original configuration, serial 39, was purchased by Grover Cleveland Bergdoll of Philadelphia in 1911 and was completed and delivered in 1912. Orville Wright trained Bergdoll to fly the aircraft; he then completed a remarkable 748 flights without mishap in 1912, 1913 and 1914. During World War I, Bergdoll became a notorious draft dodger, emigrating to Germany to avoid military service. He returned to face trial and imprisonment in 1939, and in the meantime his aircraft was repossessed. It was restored and flown again in 1934 (the last flight of any original Wright airplane), then placed on display in 1935 at the Franklin Institute, the city science museum of Philadelphia, where it has been ever since. The machine underwent restoration in 2001-03.
Wright Model EX “Vin Fiz”
The Wright EX was a modified Model B built in 1911 for the Vin Fiz beverage company, which sold grape soda. Vin Fiz decided to take publisher William Randolph Hearst up on his offer of a $50,000 prize for the first aircraft to fly from coast to coast of the U.S. (This would be over $1.2 million in today’s dollars, so it was definitely a worthwhile prize.) Supported by a corporate team and by Wright mechanic Charlie Taylor, pilot Calbraith Perry Rodgers successfully struggled across the country in this aircraft in 75 legs between September 17 and November 5, 1911. Unfortunately, he missed the prize deadline by 19 days and the prize money was never collected, but the publicity generated by the flight probably was worth it. The plane was donated to the Smithsonian in 1934 and today is in the National Air & Space Museum.
Many museums have constructed replicas of Wright airplanes, especially of the 1903 Flyer.
Flyer I replica, Henry Ford Museum
The Henry Ford Museum displays two replicas of the 1903 Flyer. One hangs over the ticket counters at the entrance to the museum. The other, shown here, was constructed in 2003 and taken to Kitty Hawk to be flown in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the original flights. Built to be as accurate as possible, this replica was successfully flown in the weeks prior to the December 17, 2003 anniversary, but weather conditions on the anniversary itself prevented it from flying. The experience of trying to fly an exact Wright replica furnished much information about how the original was controlled and especially about what a marginal flying machine it was. It was in no sense a practical airplane, requiring very specific weather conditions to be flown, and barely controllable in the sense of being able to maintain straight and level flight. The Wrights also built the first truly practical airplane, capable of flying in normal conditions and making controlled turns, but not until some years later.
Flyer I replica, Yanks Air Museum
This is the Yanks Air Museum Wright Flyer replica.
EX replica “Vin Fiz”, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome built this static replica of the Wright EX “Vin Fiz,” which completed the epic first cross-country air tour in 1911.