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of Farman capturing the Grand Prix de Aviation held little
importance for the Wright brothers. They had at last achieved what they
had set out to do in 1905 — they had sold an airplane. In fact, they had
sold more than one. On December 23, 1907, the United States Army Board of
Ordinance and Fortification issued Signal Corps Specification No. 486, an
"Advertisement and Specification for a Heavier-Than-Air Flying
Machine." The specs were based on what the Wrights had told the Army
they could provide. It required that the machine carry a pilot and a
passenger for 125 miles at a speed of 40 miles per hour. It had to remain
aloft for at least one hour at a time, and land without damage. It had to
be transportable on an Army wagon. And it should be designed to permit
"an intelligent man to become proficient in its use in a reasonable
length of time."
Most surprising, Hart Berg had clinched a deal with the French — not
with the government, but with a group of financiers who came together to
form a company to manufacture and sell Wright aircraft in France — La
Compagnie Generale de Navigation Aerienne. The new company agreed to
purchase the Wright French patents and the right to market their airplanes
in that country. They asked that the Wrights make a series of
demonstration flights, and they would purchase the demo aircraft for
500,000 francs and 50 percent of the founder's shares in the new company.
They would also pay 20,000 francs apiece for an additional four aircraft.
The Wrights decided that they would have to split their efforts once
again. Wilbur would make the demonstration flights in France while Orville
readied an airplane for the Signal Corps. But before that, they needed
some practice — they had not flown since 1905. More importantly, they
needed a machine that would do what they said it could do — carry a
passenger at 40 miles per hour. The Wright Flyer III, the last plane
that they had flown, had never carried more than one person on a flight,
and had to strain to make 35 miles per hour.
The Wrights began to adapt the Flyer III to their "Model
A" configuration, with two seats, stick controls, and a powerful
35-horsepower motor. But the decision of the Army to purchase an airplane
had stirred the interest of the newspapers, and the Wrights could scarcely
move without tripping over a reporter. Flying at Huffman Prairie was out
of the question. It was too open and accessible. The Wrights needed
seclusion, but not because they were concerned that a rival would steal
their secrets. Their work was now protected by patents. They were more
concerned about interruptions and inaccurate newspaper stories. Their
actions had been badly misrepresented by the press in the past, and there
was every reason to think it would happen again. A small accident, a bad
flight, or a minor setback might be blown out of proportion, causing
concern among potential customers in both the United States and France.
The Wright determined to once again fly at Kitty Hawk.
Wilbur left for Kitty Hawk on April 6, 1908. The plan was for Wilbur to
put the camp in order, and Orville would bring the airplane a few weeks
later. Arriving at Kitty Hawk, he found the camp a shambles. The roof of
one shed had collapsed, the other had blown away completely in a storm.
Parts of gliders and airplanes — the flotsam and jetsam of four years of
aeronautical experimentation — littered the sand. Will hired two local
men to help him make repairs and put up a new building. But just as
construction was getting under way, Will came down with intestinal flu.
As happens so often throughout the Wright story, Will was saved by the
kindness of another. On April 15, Charlie Furnas showed up unexpectedly at
Kitty Hawk. Charlie was a mechanic from West Milton, a small town near
Dayton, Ohio. He had become fascinated with the Wrights and their airplane
when they were flying at Huffman Prairie. He repeatedly badgered the
Wrights for a job, and with the pressure on to get ready for demonstration
flight in Europe and America, they had begun to give him part-time work.
They told him they would not need him while they were at Kitty Hawk, but
Charlie knew otherwise. They needed all the help they could get, but their
funds were getting low and they couldn't afford to pay his salary. Without
consulting the Wrights — perhaps because he knew they'd say no — he
bought a train ticket with his own money and made his way to Kitty Hawk.
He arrived in camp and told Wilbur he didn't expect to be paid, he just
wanted to help. That kind and generous act would earn him a special place
in aviation history a few weeks later.
Will put Charlie in charge of construction while he recuperated. They
slept at the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, where surfman Bob
Wescott described in excruciating detail his plans for a perpetual motion
machine. By the time Orville arrived on April 25 with the modified Flyer
III, the Will and Charlie had their fill of perpetual motion, but the
camp was in good order. The airplane went together quickly, and the
Wrights were ready to fly by May 6.
Word had gotten out that the Wrights were back in Kitty Hawk. The Virginia
Pilot published a bogus story on May 1, describing a ten-mile flight
over the ocean. Reporters gathered on the island, peaking at the Wright
from a little clump of trees close to their camp. The Wrights began by
making short, straight flights to get a feel for the new control system.
Wilbur seemed to have the most trouble with it; he repeatedly moved the
levers in the opposite direction of what he intended. But slowly and
cautiously, the Wrights extended their flights from a few hundred feet to
half a mile.
During these initial flights, the Wrights carried a bag of sand in the
right seat to mimic the weight of a second person. On May 14, 1908 they
decided it was time to test the airplane with a real person in the seat,
and they asked Charlie Furnas to do the honors. Will took him up first,
making a short hop of 656 feet — the first powered flight to carry two
people. Charlie Furnas became the first airplane passenger. Orville took
him a second time, flying a circular course and covering the better part
of a mile in 4 minutes. After lunch, Wilbur made a solo flight. After
traveling almost 9000 feet in 7 minutes, he threw the elevator lever
forward when he should have pulled it up, and the plane dived into the
ground at 40 miles per hour. Will was not hurt, but the plane was wrecked.
That was the last flight of the Flyer III, the world's first
While they were testing their new design at Kitty Hawk, disturbing
cables came in from France. La Compagnie Generale de Navigation Aerienne
looked like it might fold before it produced it's first airplane. Flint
advised the Wrights to make a demonstration flight in Europe yesterday, if
not sooner. The brothers decided that one of them needed to travel France
immediately and demonstrate the aircraft they had left still packed in
crates. Wilbur determined to go, leaving straight from Kitty Hawk on May
17 — he would not even go home to Dayton to pack. Orville and Charlie
went back to Dayton a few days later to prepare an airplane for the
government trials that were scheduled in just a few months. The time had
finally come for the Wrights to show the world they could fly.
Their Own Words
Wilbur Wright and Hart O. Berg in France.
This is the sight that greeted Wilbur when he
returned to the Wright camp near Kill Devil Hills in 1908. The ragged wing
you see in the nearly-collapsed shed is the remains of the 1902 glider.
Charlie Furnas in 1906, about the time he began to
bug the Wright brothers for a job.
The Wright Flyer 3 at Kittyhawk in 1908.
Wilbur made this sketch of the first passenger
flight in his diary.