(You are here.)
this is your first
visit, please stop by:
Available in Française, Español, Português, Deutsch, Россию,
日本, and others.
Wilbur and Orville were in Europe, a group of aviation enthusiasts came
together in America that would give the Wrights a run for their money.
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, had a passionate
interest in aviation and had experimented with scientific kites since
1891. He was also a good friend of the Dr. Samuel P. Langley, the lately
deceased head of the Smithsonian and builder of the unsuccessful Aerodrome.
In many ways, Bell was Langley's successor — a Washington insider
determined to develop a practical airplane with the apparent blessing of
the U.S. Army.
In September of 1907, he organized the Aerial Experiment Association to
build a practical airplane. It was a small group. Bell and his wife first
enlisted engineering student John McCurdy and balloonist Fredrick Baldwin.
Next came Army aviation expert Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who was
actually reassigned by the Army to the A.E.A. — proof that Bell had the
Army's support. (And surprising when you consider the Army insisted to the
Wright brothers that it had no requirements for a flying machine.) The
last to join was motorcycle manufacturer Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss had
recently build several motors for both Bell and Baldwin to use in aviation
projects. He had offered his motors to the Wright Brothers in 1906, but
they had turned him down.
"Bell's Boys," as they became known, began work by building a
small glider patterned after the Wright design, as well as a modified
Chanute-Herring glider. They also gathered all the information they could
on aviation and aeronautical engineering. In December of 1907 and January
of 1908, Curtiss and Selfridge wrote to the Wright brothers, asking
advice. The Wrights were candid — they answered question about
engineering and materials, and directed the members of the A.E.A. to
published papers and patents for more in-depth information. They thought
well of Alexander Graham Bell — as he did of them — and it impressed
Wilbur and Orville that he was in charge of this little group.
The A.E.A. tested their first powered aircraft, the Red Wing (so-called
for the color of the fabric used to cover the wings), in March 1908. It
was a biplane, built after the Wright pattern with an elevator in front
and a rudder in back. However, the designer — Selfridge —added a
second elevator in back. He trussed the wings so the top wing curved down
and the bottom wing curved up so the wing tips almost met. This was
supposed to provide greater stability, as the airplane had no roll
controls. It made just two short hops on an ice-covered lake near
Hammondsport, New York, the second covering 318 feet before it
Encouraged, the A.E.A. began work on their second airplane, the White
Wing, designed by Baldwin. Similar to the first, Baldwin added
ailerons for roll control. He also installed wheels on the skids, as the
ice was fast disappearing in Hammondsport. Baldwin, Selfridge, McCurdy,
and Curtiss all flew it in May of 1908. Curtiss turned in the best
performance, flying 1017 feet. The White Wing was wrecked shortly
thereafter, and the group gamely began work on a third airplane.
In Their Own Words
- Letter to Mabel --
Alexander Graham Bell was keenly interested in the Wright brothers
long before he began the Aerial Experiment Association, as this letter
to his wife in 1906 shows.
AEA members experiment with their first glider --
a copy of a Wright glider -- in 1907.
The Red Wing from the front (above) and the
The White Wing in flight on May 23, 1908.
A close-up of the White Wing, showing its
By the time he joined the AEA, Curtiss was already
manufacturing motor designed for aeronautics, as this 1908 ad shows.