Commentary
6:35 am
Wed August 8, 2012

Wilbur Wright's First Public Demonstration Flight

This year is the 100th anniversary of the death of Wilbur Wright, whose life and accomplishments are so much a part of the story of Dayton.  Local aviation photographer Dan Patterson has traveled all over the world, making pictures of the places where aviation history was made, especially the places where the Wright brothers made their mark.  On this day in 1908, not quite five years after the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur Wright made the very first public demonstration flight in history in France.

After the Kitty Hawk flight, the brothers perfected their plane at Huffman Prairie, flying circles over a cow pasture for two years.  By 1905 they had a design they thought they could sell.

There were others trying to build flying machines, especially in Europe.  The Wrights knew they'd have to demonstrate their plane in order to sell it.

So they build two of them.  Orville would demonstrate one for the US Army.  Wilbur would take one to France.

The grandstand that was at the LeMans racetrack in 1908 is still in use.
Credit Dan Patterson

Their European agent made arrangements for Wilbur to fly at a horse racetrack near LeMans, west of Paris.  They packed up one of the two very fragile planes and shipped it across the Atlantic.

But French customs workers damaged the flyer, and Wilbur was furious.  He painstakingly rebuilt the plane, working alone every day in a shed near the racetrack.  He slept on a cot.  He befriended a stray dog he named Flyer.  He ate simply, kept to himself and wrote lots of letters home.

The French had convinced themselves that they had conquered the air.  They could fly in one direction and sort of make a turn, skidding across the sky, sometimes flying ten miles before they could reverse directions.  The Wrights of course knew how to fly in controlled circles and figures of eight.

Early in the evening on August 8, 1908, Wilbur decided, as he wrote later, "to do a little something."  As sixty onlookers watched, Wilbur climbed into his flyer and helpers started the engine.  The silver propellers whirled into a shiny disk.

He made two circuits of the track and landed where he had taken off, the landing skids of the flyer whispering across the grass.

He started his takeoff halfway down the homestretch of the track, flew straight toward some tall trees but banked gracefully into the first turn, and just like that he was flying in the opposite direction.   He made two circuits of the track and landed where he had taken off, the landing skids of the flyer whispering across the grass.

The press reported the news, and it circled the globe overnight.  The Wrights were international celebrities, and Dayton, Ohio was on the map.

Two days later, he flew again.  This time thousands were there.  An observer wrote, "compared to the Wrights, we are but children."

The French aviators who had seen the flight begged Wilbur to join them that night in Paris for dinner.  

But he declined and instead went back to the shed to work and that night slept on a cot next to his machine.

A month later, Orville flew in Virginia.  The secret was out.  Dayton's story was re-written forever.