Commentary
7:06 am
Wed October 3, 2012

Wilbur Wright Flies in New York

Last year, Governor Kasich proclaimed October fifth Wright Brothers Day in Ohio. On that day, in 1905, Wilbur Wright flew the Wright Flyer for nearly 40 minutes at Huffman Prairie. It was proof that flight was practical.

Four years later, the Wright Brother were international celebrities and they were invited to fly in New York for a huge celebration called the Hudson Fulton Celebration. It was an international event. Navy ships from around the world gathered in New York harbor and the great new passenger ships which were crossing the Atlantic were there too. Dayton aviation photographer and historian Dan Patterson tells the story:

Wilbur Wright agreed to fly in New York, and the Wrights' biggest rival Glenn Curtiss would fly too.

Curtiss crowed to the press about the bold route he would fly: up the Hudson and back, 20 miles over open water.

During the two week celebration, Wright and Curtiss both kept their planes in hangars on Governors Island at the foot of Manhattan.  Curtiss flew infrequently, blaming the weather, but Wilbur had confidence in his plane and was determined to fly.

Wilbur flies around the Statue of Liberty
Wilbur flies around the Statue of Liberty
Credit wright-brothers.org

On the morning of September 29, Wilbur took off from Governors Island, flew over New York Harbor, and then circled the waist of the Statue of Liberty and right over top of the ocean liner Lusitania, which was heading out to sea.  She let out a mighty blast from the horn.  Seven minutes after taking off, as he returned to the landing ground, he saw upturned faces and open mouths.

October 2nd was the last day that Glenn Curtiss was contracted to fly, but he didn't, feeling sure that Wilbur wouldn't fly either because of a long standing promise made to his father not to fly on the Sabbath.  So Curtiss left from an appearance in St. Louis.

The next morning, Sabbath or not, Wilbur decided to fly the route that Curtiss had bragged about.  At 10 am, he flew between the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island again, but this time he turned up river.

The ships of the world anchored in the harbor began to blow their whistles and horns as he passed above, and a wave of sound moved up the river with the Flyer.  A reporter commented that "people seemed to spring out of the pavement and walls," that "no one could see the hordes moving at the bottom of the canyon streets and remain indifferent."

Flying against the wind, Wilbur climbed to about 200 feet, heading North along the Palisades on the New Jersey side of the river.  He had scoped it out.  He knew he had to avoid turbulence created by the winds blowing between the tall buildings of Manhattan.  Even so, as passed over the ships below, he could feel the updrafts from their smokestacks and the Flyer rocked with the rising heat.

He had flown 33 minutes. Millions had seen an aeroplane for the first time.

He banked into a graceful sweeping turn around Grant's Tomb ten miles upriver and now with the wind behind him, he returned to Governors Island in half the time.  A reporter said "a mild form of hysteria" settled onto the crowd as he landed.  He had flown 33 minutes.  Millions had seen an aeroplane for the first time.

A longer flight was announced for later that day, but when the engine was started, there was an explosion and one of the engine cylinders shot straight up, tore a hole in the wing and crashed to the ground a few feet away.

Wilbur picked it up, shrugged, smiled and said, "It is all over gentlemen."

The next morning, he got on a train and went back to work.