(You are here.)
this is your first
visit, please stop by:
Available in Française, Español, Português, Deutsch, Россию,
日本, and others.
in Dayton, Orville was shouldering a yeoman's burden. He worked feverishly
to build an aircraft for the U.S. Army with the two Charlie's — Charlie
Taylor and Charlie Furnas. And he took over the correspondence, a job that
he hated and gladly left to Wilbur.
Nonetheless, he put his pen to paper and pumped out letters and
articles for Scientific American, Aeronautics, and other
periodicals. The best of these was a piece that he wrote for Century
magazine, "The Wright Brother's Aeroplane." It was a clear and
entertaining account of the Wright's aeronautical adventure, from the
small rubber band-powered toy their father gave the, in 1878 to the
creation of a practical airplane in 1905. Orville was so unsure of his
writing skills that he offered to return a portion of the $500 fee when he
sent the article. The editor paid the full fee, and rightly so — the Century
article remains a masterpiece of aviation literature, even today.
When the Army aircraft was complete, Orville sent the two Charlie's
ahead to Fort Myer with it while he tied up loose ends in Dayton. They
were transporting the crated aircraft from Arlington Station to a large
balloon hangar when Orville arrived on August 20, 1908. He was immediately
swept up in a whirlwind of reporters, politicians, officers, and
dignitaries who barraged him with "..ten thousand fool questions…about
the machine." A week after Orville arrived, he complained in a letter
to Katharine, "I haven't done a lick of work since I got here."
In point of fact, he had done some work. Orville and the two Charlies
worked with efficiency and focus that amazed many of the Army officials
who observed them. And they needed to focus — things did not go well.
The engine refused to run properly; it would not develop the hoped-for
horsepower. This put the screws to Orville and his assistants. One of the
requirements in the Army specifications was that the airplane fly 40 miles
per hour. If it flew slower — even by just a small amount — the
payment to the Wrights would be significantly less. That summer, Baldwin
and Curtiss had delivered a dirigible to the Army that flew 4/10 of a mile
per hour slower than specified, and they were docked $6,750!
Orville, Charlie, and Charlie nursed the sick engine back to health
with higher octane gasoline and some new oil cups. On September 3, Orville
made his first public flight. Like Wilbur's, it was short and sweet —
just a turn and a half of the Fort Myer parade grounds. The public was
unimpressed — the news story was buried on page 3 of the Washington
But they did not remain impressed for long. The flights began to get
longer and longer, and by September 9, Orville was breaking records almost
daily and remaining aloft for over an hour at a time. He also began taking
passengers, flying the aviation experts that the Army had assembled to
review the Wright airplane.
On September 17, he took Lt. Thomas Selfridge flying, and he was none
too happy about it. Although Selfridge was a member of the review board,
he was also one of Bell's Boys, a member of the A.E.A. and a potential
competitor. "I don't trust him an inch," Orville wrote to
Wilbur. "He plans to meet me often at dinner where he can pump
The flight began normally and uneventfully as Orville made climbing
circles around the grounds. Suddenly there were two loud thumps. Later,
the Wrights and the Army would learn that a propeller had split. As
Orville reached to cut off the engine, the airplane gave a violent shake
as the broken propeller caught the aircraft rigging. The craft lunged for
the ground, hitting nose first and burying the pilot and passenger in a
twisted mess of wood, wire, and cloth.
The two Charlies reached Orville first and pulled him clear , bleeding
and unconscious. It took much longer to retrieve Lt. Selfridge; he was
trapped in the wreck. When he was finally extricated, both men were taken
to the fort's hospital. Late in the evening, a doctor announced that
Orville had suffered a broken leg, broken ribs, and an injured back. His
condition was serious, but he would live — although Orville's leg and
back pained him for the rest of his days.
Lt. Thomas Selfridge was less fortunate. He died on the operating
table, the first victim of an accident in a powered aircraft.
The news of Orville's accident galvanized his sister Katharine. Without
hesitation, she took an indefinite leave from her teaching job in Dayton
and left for Fort Myer. Once there, Katharine oversaw Orville's medical
care and attended to his affairs while he was convalescing.
Katharine asked Octave Chanute to help her look after her brothers'
fledgling airplane business. Members of the A.E.A. were in town for Lt.
Selfridge's funeral and they were curious for a peek at the wrecked Wright
flying machine. They had, in fact, visited the balloon shed where the
wreckage was kept and Alexander Graham Bell had measured the wing.
When Orville was well enough, he had the two Charlies bring him bits of
the wreckage to inspect. He quickly found the cause of the accident —
one propeller had broken and clipped a bracing wire that held the tail in
place. As the tail collapsed, it sent the Flyer into a deadly dive.
Orville explained his conclusions to the Army, and the Army was quick to
assure him they would extend his contract. Although he had not yet
completed his demonstration flights, the Board of Ordinance was convinced
the Flyer would do everything the Wrights had claimed.
Their Own Words
The 1908 Wright Military Flyer at Fort Meyer.
A group of Military and civilian dignitaries
inspect the airplane.
The cockpit of the 1908 Military Flyer.
Orville readies the Flyer for a flight.
A take-off from Fort Meyer, and the beginning of one
of the first publicized flights in America.
The 1908 Military Flyer above Fort Meyer.
The Flyer seconds before the propeller breaks and
Orville loses control.
The Flyer just after the crash.
Soldiers work to free Lt. Selfridge from the
Soldiers lift the Flyer clear of Lt. Selfridge.
Orville is on the ground in the midst of the group at the right.
Orville is carried off on a stretcher. The broken
propeller can be seen just above him.
The aftermath of the crash.
Another view of the wreckage.