The June Bug
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the summer of 1908, the Wright brothers were light years ahead of any
other group of aeronautical engineers on the planet with a practical,
passenger-carrying airplane. Nonetheless, the next important aviation
milestone was not passed by the Wrights, but by the new kids on the
aviation block, the Aerial Experiment Association.
Mindful of how prizes had helped spur European aviation, the Aero Club
of America and Scientific American magazine offered their own
incentive — a silver sculpture called the Scientific American Trophy.
They would award this trophy each year to recognize a significant
achievement in aviation. When they unveiled the prize in 1907, the Aero
Club announced that they would award it for the first time to the first
individual to fly a kilometer in a straight line.
This was a "gimmee" for the Wright brothers, or so the donors
thought. Scientific American magazine had initially been skeptical
of the Wright claims, and the editors were now anxious to mend fences with
the inventors as their work drew more attention. The Aero Club had been
supportive of the Wrights since the club's outset. Allan Hawly, the
president of the club, counted himself a good friend of the Wrights. He
had treated Wilbur to a balloon ride when they met in France.
Bell's Boys completed their third aircraft in the late spring of 1908,
the first designed by Glenn Curtiss. Like the White Wing, it had
ailerons, a rudder, and front and back elevators. Unlike previous A.E.A
aircraft, it wasn't called after the color of the cloth used to cover the
wings. Instead, Glenn Curtiss gave the honor of naming the aircraft to
Mrs. Malinda Bennitt, a friend who had helped him out when he was just
starting his manufacturing business. The gesture so flustered her that
"my old head just wouldn't work." Alexander Graham Bell came to
her rescue, and for reasons lost to history, he picked "June
Curtiss made three successful flights in the June Bug on June
21, and within a week he was breaking his own records with flights of over
1000 yards. The A.E.A., satisfied that they could capture the Scientific
American Trophy, cabled the Aero Club that they would make a run for it on
The request caught the Aero Club by surprise, and the secretary, August
Post, informed Charles Munn, the publisher of Scientific American. Munn
cabled Orville, offering to postpone the A.E.A attempt if Orville wanted
to try for the trophy himself. Orville, unfortunately, was swamped. He,
Charlie Taylor, and Charlie Furnas were working around the clock trying to
get an aircraft ready to fly for the U.S. Army trials. On top of that,
Wilbur had asked him to write
an article for
The Century magazine that
would help establish their position as the first to make a controlled,
sustained flight in a powered aircraft. Finally, the Aero Club rules said
the plane had to make an unassisted take-off. With everything else
he had to do, Orville would have to put wheels on his airplane and find a
field big enough to make a take-off run. He declined.
Twenty-two members of the Aero Club arrived in Hammondsport, New York
on July 4 to witness Curtiss's flight. The weather was uncooperative;
winds and rain delaying the flight until well into the evening. At 7:00
p.m., Curtiss took off in the June Bug, climbed to an altitude of
40 feet, and landed immediately — the airplane had been rigged
incorrectly, making it impossible to keep the nose up. After adjusting the
rigging, he flew again, traveling 5,360 feet in 1 minute and 40 seconds.
Glenn Curtiss captured the Scientific American trophy, and was the toast
of both the American and European newspapers.
The Wrights, even though they had declined to compete for the trophy,
did not fail to take notice. Orville wrote a stern note to Curtiss on July
20, reminding him that he and Wilbur had shared information with the A.E.A.
freely. The Wrights would allow them to use the patented control system
for experimentation, but Orville warned, "We did not intend to give
permission to use the patented features of our machines for exhibitions or
in a commercial way." It was the first of many such communications
that the Wrights would exchange with Curtiss.
A Scientific American
magazine from 1908 shows Wilbur flying in France.
Assembling the June Bug in a tent hangar.
Rolling out the completed June Bug.
The June Bug in flight on July 4, 1908.
Curtiss and other "Bell's Boys" gathered
around the June Big after a triumphant flight.
The Scientific American article about the
1-kilometer flight of the June Bug.