After the Wright Brothers Took Flight, They Built the World’s First Military Airplane

After the Wright Brothers Took Flight, They Built the World’s First Military Airplane

The 1909 Military Flyer is the centerpiece of the “Early Flight” exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum

When visitors enter the newly revamped "Early Flight" gallery at the National Air and Space Museum they will see something that they may have overlooked before—the Wright Military Flyer. The world’s first military aircraft, designed and manufactured by the Wright brothers, was previously suspended high-up near the gallery’s ceiling.

The 1909 Wright plane is notable not just for being the first airplane designed to assist in warfare. It’s also “the most original of the three Wright brothers airplanes we have, because it still has the original fabric from when it flew at Fort Myer in 1909 and with the Army in 1910 and 1911,” says Peter Jakab, a curator at the museum and a Wright brothers scholar.

Given how flying machines have come to dominate warfare, it’s hard to imagine a time when battles were conducted without them. The prescient Wrights had a sense that eventually their aircraft would be much sought-after by the world’s militaries.

Not long after they invented their first plane in 1903, they came up with the blueprint for the Military Flyer. It was ostensibly in response to a 1908 U.S. Army Signal Corps request for bids. But the request was geared in a way that no one but the Wright brothers would have been able to fulfill the requirements, says Jakab.

Before airplanes, militaries kept track of troop movements and scouted ahead using soldiers on foot or on horseback. The U.S. Army had also used balloons for reconnaissance. The Signal Corps was seeking competitive bids for a plane that could carry two people, hold enough fuel to power flight for 125 miles (200 kilometers), be able to reach a speed of at least 40 miles per hour in still air, be able to be aloft for at least an hour, and land without being damaged on impact. The craft also needed to be easily assembled and disassembled so it could be transported by an Army wagon. Its design also had to be simple enough so that someone could become proficient as a pilot relatively quickly.

The Wright’s Military Flyer seemed to fit the bill. The Army invited the Wrights in September 1908 to come test their plane on the parade ground at Fort Myer (now known as Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall), just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Younger brother Orville—37 at the time—conducted the test flights and piloted the plane, which had a bi-plane wooden structure (a canard) mounted in front to help with longitudinal stability and control during flight. It was powered by a single 30-40-horsepower four-cylinder engine that used chains and sprockets to drive two wooden propellers.

In moving prose, Smithsonian's Tom Crouch and Peter Jakab explain the Wrights' achievements and the moments of their great successes, and they paint a masterful personal portrait of the two sometimes erratic, genius personalities.

The plane performed well over the first few days. Visitors to the museum’s "Early Flight" gallery will be able to see a historic motion picture of one of those Fort Myer test flights. But one day a propeller split while the plane was at 150 feet. In the subsequent crash, Orville broke his hip and other bones, but his passenger, Army observer Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, was killed—the first person ever to die in a powered aircraft.

Though the crash did not daunt the Wrights or the Army, it was a fateful one for Orville. The pain from the injuries he sustained followed him the rest of his life, says Jakab. Orville only flew a few more times after that—as a pilot or passenger. Jakab calls it a “great tragic irony,” that “one of the inventors of the airplane for much of his life couldn’t fly because it was too painful for him.”

The Wrights went back to Fort Myer in June 1909 with a slightly modified new plane. It met the Army’s specifications and then some, exceeding a speed test, which brought them a $5,000 bonus payment. The Army purchased the Military Flyer for $30,000. “It was an enormous sum in those days,” says Jakab.

The Army went on to test the craft and train pilots at an airfield in College Park, Maryland, and then took those trained pilots to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to teach others to fly.

Over the course of those training flights during 1910 and 1911, the Army modified the plane some more—adding wheels to the ski-like skids that constituted the original landing gear, says Jakab. Still, landings on the harsh Texas soil had begun to wreak havoc on the plane. “By 1911, the Military Flyer had gotten pretty beaten up,” he says.

The Wright brothers had come up with an improved plane, the Wright Model B, which caught the Army’s eye. The Military Flyer went back to the Wrights' factory in Dayton, Ohio, to remove some of the Army’s modifications and to prep it for donation to the Smithsonian.

Collum, the conservator, is giddy with the anticipation of unveiling the newly-restored Military Flyer. “Your first impression is, holy cow, that is a survivor from ancient history. It looks like something plucked from the history pages, and it just has the romantic allure of authenticity—you cannot fake it,” he says.

Over the last year-and-a-half, he and his team have been working to restore the plane’s grandeur without removing the patina that gives it its authenticity. “All of these little stories of its operational history are still evident in the aircraft we see today,” Collum says.

For instance, dark spots on the wing tips are the result of several years’ worth of direct handling by on-ground crews wrestling the plane onto a cart or into a storage shed. The 200-thread-per-inch cotton fabric, favored by the Wrights for its fine weave that helps with aerodynamics and lift, also had been exposed to air, sunlight and the occasional roof leak. And it contained contaminants such as corrosion from the iron elements on the wings’ trailing edges, says Collum.

To brighten the fabric, conservators sprayed a fine mist of deionized water. They then dragged microfiber cloths along the wet fabric to wick out stains and contaminants. The process was repetitive and “nerve-wracking,” Collum says. They deftly used the technique—relatively new in the textile conservation world—to bring the fabric back to its early 1900s look.

Collum was in charge of “refreshing” the original conservation of the engine, including the ignition system, the chains that drove the propellers and the fuel system. “Everything in there is still operational,” he says. Maintaining that is part of the overall preservation philosophy, he says. “We’re not only making it look like it’s well-preserved, but its original intended function is still preserved as well,” says Collum.

Few actually would likely want to fly in this craft, however. The pilot sits directly next to the engine, which had almost no exhaust system, Collum says. “Little barks of flame would shoot out the side of the engine,” he says. Plus, they’re sitting on the leading edge of the plane, without a seat belt, in the wind, looking straight down from maybe a few hundred feet up, says Collum.

Still, he adds, "it would have been exhilarating to get in that thing.” 

The Wright Military Flyer was—and still is—structurally sound. “The whole wing structure is a symphony of compression and tension,” Collum says, noting that the struts that link the upper wing to the lower wing are made out of wood and that each end of a strut is connected to the other strut with a cross-braced steel wire.

It’s a “seemingly delicate and seemingly flimsy kind of construction that when it’s all put together and it’s all intact, makes a strong united structure,” he says. “The entire aircraft is designed to be sort of organic. It moves and flows and absorbs tensions and compressions and landings. And that’s how it all stays together,” says Collum.

The Military Flyer was not capable of carrying bombs or guns, nor was the Army seeking such capability in 1909, says Jakab. But the aircraft’s evolution into a machine of war was swift. Many nations employed reconnaissance aircraft in the early World War I. By the end of the war in 1918, “you had 100-foot-wingspan bombers and military fighters that could fly 150 miles an hour,” says Jakab.

The Wright brothers did not set out to create havoc-wreaking technology, but the military was an obvious customer, Jakab says.

Orville, who died in 1948, was asked during WWII if he had any regrets about inventing the airplane, given its capability for death and destruction. According to Jakab, he said that he likened “the invention of the airplane to the discovery of fire.” Fire destroys, but is also an important element for the development of civilization, Orville opined.

“So he saw the technology of flight as having its negative consequences particularly with the military application,” says Jakab, “but in general terms he thought the development of aviation was a positive good for humankind.”