Orville Wright's Demonstration Flight

Sep 17, 2012

In the summer of 1908, Wilbur Wright astonished the world, demonstrating the Wright Flyer in France.  No one had ever flown as long and with such control.  The world took notice.

Back here in the states, that same summer, Orville Wright was making demonstration flights, too, for the US Army's Signal Corps, trying to get a contract to sell planes to the US government.  Dayton aviation historian and photographer Dan Patterson tells the story.

The Signal Corps required that the plane be able to fly 40 miles per hour.  The engine had to perform without a miss.  There would have to be cross country demonstration, and that plan had to be able to carry a passenger.

Orville would fly a plane identical to what Wilbur was flying in France, and he traveled to Fort Myer in Virginia, an army post just across the river from Washington DC, to demonstrate it.

The marker at Ft. Myer commemorating the flights near where Orville took off in September 1908.
The marker at Ft. Myer commemorating the flights near where Orville took off in September 1908.
Credit Dan Patterson

He arrived by rain on August 20 and went to work assembling the plane with his mechanics, complaining in letters to his sister and brother that he couldn't get any work done. 

"I have to give my time to answering the ten thousand fool questions people ask about the machine," he said.

But finally, on September 3 he took to the air, flying slow easy circles over the army parade ground and the Western edge of Arlington cemetery.  At first, the public paid very little attention.  The Washington Star carried the news on page three.

But as Orville flew day after, longer and higher, with two passengers, word got out.  The crowds grew.  On September 9, the broke the records Wilbur had set in France that summer.

On September 17, Orville was to take up a Signal Corps officer, Lt. Thomas Selfridge.  Orville said he didn't trust him an inch.  He was a supporter of the Wrights keenest rival, Glenn Curtis.

He cut the engine and struggled with the Flyer, which was weaving back and forth before it plunged almost straight down.

They started the engine.  Selfridge took off his jacket and hat.  Orville wore a suit as usual.  The Flyer left the ground and was flying just fine.  They made three circles of the parade ground when Orville heard a tapping sound and decided to land, but the tapping became loud knocks and the flight controls betrayed him.  He cut the engine and struggled with the Flyer, which was weaving back and forth before it plunged almost straight down.  Orville said later, and observers confirmed, the Flyer was just about to pull out but ran out of air.

It struck the ground very hard.  Selfridge suffered a skull fracture.  Orville's leg was broken.  Selfridge died that night.

In France, Wilbur was preparing to fly when he received a telegram about the crash.  He was mortified and blamed himself for not being there to help his brother.  He understood how Orville could have been distracted and not paid proper attention to the assembly of the plane. 

"A man cannot take sufficient care when he is subject to continual interruptions and his time is consumed in talking to visitors," he wrote to his sister as stayed at Orville's side.

But the Signal Corps was satisfied.  Orville had exceeded their requirements and they invited him to return with a new plane once he was healed.

The following summer the city of Dayton held a huge celebration to honor the Wrights with parades, band concerts and fireworks.  The next morning, the brothers boarded a train for Fort Myer together to finish the job Orville had begun.


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