In the first few years after their landmark flight in 1903, the Wright Brothers still had a great deal of work to do. They tinkered with their design, made more test flights, and began to show off their aircraft in public. Soon enough, the U.S. government got interested, and by 1908, the Wrights were in the running to meet the War Department's new specification for a heavier-than-air flying machine. Their efforts paid off 100 years ago this month, when the 1909 Wright Flyer was selected to be Signal Corps Airplane No. 1--and thus the world's first military airplane.
This image shows a slightly earlier edition of the Flyer in September 1908, in a key demonstration at Fort Myer, Va., that helped lead the way to winning the government contract. On September 9 of that year, Orville Wright kept the plane in the air for more than an hour, which was one of the War Department's requirements. The other requirements included carrying a passenger for at least 125 miles at a speed of 40 miles per hour, being steerable in all directions at all times, and landing without damage.
Spectators gathered at Fort Myer in September 1908 to see the Wright Flyer up close--and up in the air. In a separate round of demonstrations at about the same time, Wilbur Wright was dazzling crowds in France, where he won the Coupe Michelin after a flight in December that set a record for endurance: 2 hours, 18 minutes, 33.5 seconds. (Those propellers, by the way, are mounted to the rear and thus push the Flyer, rather than pulling it as with most modern airplanes.)
Until the Wright Flyer came along, military aviation, such as it was, had been limited to lighter-than-air vehicles, primarily balloons. (In August 1908, the Army Signal Corps acquired its first dirigible, but wouldn't get another until after World War I.) Here, the Wright Flyer arrives by wagon at Fort Myer on September 1, 1908. Another of the War Department's requirements for a heavier-than-air machine was that it be easily transportable.
For all the progress the Wrights were making, they endured a number of crashes in their early planes. One of those crashes occurred on September 17, 1908, in a flight at Fort Myer when the Flyer's propeller split; this image shows the wreckage. The passenger, Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge died as a result of his injuries. Orville Wright sustained a broken leg and injuries to his back and ribs, and would not fly again until the following summer.
Orville Wright makes a pass over Fort Myer on July 1, 1909. On August 2 of that year, the U.S. government formally accepted the Wright Flyer at a price of $30,000 and designated it Signal Corps Airplane No. 1.
The two men here aren't just any spectators. On the left is Army Lt. Frank Lahm, who was a member of the panel that evaluated the Wright Flyer; he flew as a passenger during the trials, and later in 1909 got flying instructions from the Wrights. On the right is aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. In 1911, a Curtiss aircraft would become Signal Corps Airplane No. 2--a month after the Army retired the well-worn Wright Flyer.
This reproduction of the Wright Flyer, built in 1955, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The original Flyer's primary pilot during its short tenure in service was Lt. Benny Foulois, who on the Army's orders had taken the plane to Fort Sam Houston in Texas--and who, after some very preliminary in-person instructions by Wilbur Wright, was largely self-taught as a pilot.
Another important early aircraft from 1909 was the Bleriot XI monoplane, seen here in a replica. Louis Bleriot of France used his monoplane in July of that year to make the first flight across the English Channel. Wilbur Wright, who had been in France the year before, had declined to try his luck at that crossing, for fear of losing his only airplane in Europe.
The Curtiss Model D Type IV was the second aircraft purchased by the Signal Corps, as part of a $125,000 appropriation made by Congress in the early spring of 1911. It had a 60-hp V-8 engine and could fly up to 2.5 hours at a top speed of 50 mph. The 700-pound plane had a wingspan of 38 feet, 3 inches, and was 29 feet, 3 inches long and 7 feet, 10 inches tall. As was the case with the Wright Flyer, the rear-mounted propeller "pushed" the plane.
Also purchased in spring 1911 was another Wright brothers aircraft, the Model B Flyer, which became Signal Corps Airplane No. 3. This was the first model that the Wrights produced in quantity. The aircraft on display here at the National Museum of the Air Force dates from about 1916 and last flew in 1924.