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Orville and Wilbur Wright As I Knew Them


This article appeared in the Journal Herald on December 12, 1943
Orville And Wilbur Wright As I Knew Them
The First Army Pilot Tells His Story
By Brig. Gen. Frank Lahm
Editor’s Note: The following article was written some years ago, by Brig. Gen. Frank P. Lahm (retired), who has been an interested spectator along the sidelines of aviation development since early in the century.  General Lahm, in retirement, is now making his home in Cleveland.
     It was my pleasure to know the Wright brothers in the earliest days of the Air Corps, though my first meeting was entirely unofficial and in no way connected with the service.  In the summer of 1907, while recuperating from a long illness, I was lying in one of those beautiful gardens at St. Germain, outside of Paris, when my father walked in the gate with Wilbur and Orville Wright, and there began a friendship that was to continue for many years.
     My next meeting with the Wright Brothers was in Washington.  Having been detailed to the Signal Corps for aeronautical duty in September, 1907, and directed to make not to exceed two visits to London and Berlin for the purpose of investigating aeronautics, I complied with my orders, extending my investigations to Brussels and Frederickshaven, as well, then reported to the chief signal officer, General Allen, in Washington, the last day of 1907.  He directed me to report to Capt. C. de Chandler, in charge of the aeronautical division of the Signal office which he had organized on August 1 of that year.
     On Dec. 23, 1907, invitations were sent out by the chief signal officer for bids for a heavier-than-air machine.
     On Feb. 1, 1908, we opened the bids in the office of the chief signal officer and found the results not only interesting but in many cases highly amusing.  One man sent in a rough sketch on a piece of wrapping paper and said his machine would comply with the specifications.  Many were unable to meet the requirement of enclosing 10 per cent of the purchase price.  One of those who failed wrote: “Where there is money there are no brains, and where there are brains there is no money.”  He presumably came in the latter class.
     Of the many proposals received, three appeared reasonable and were accepted by the board: One from Mr. Scott of Chicago, who offered to build an airplane complying with the specifications for $1,000; one for $20,000 from Mr. A. H. Herring of New York, who had done a considerable amount of experimenting and claimed he had already made numerous flights.
     The third, for $25,000 was from the Wright Brothers.  Mr. Scott replied that he appreciated the honor of having his bid accepted but that he could go no further as he was unable to finance the construction of his machine.
In Washington
     In due time the Wright brothers appeared in Washington to arrange the details and select a place for the demonstration of their machine.  The drill ground at Ft. Myer was decided upon, a shed was erected, the pylon and starting track were set up at the upper end of the field and late in August, Orville arrived with the machine and his mechanic Charley Taylor.  Here began in intimate association with Orville which was to continue through the daily tuning up flights lasting to Sept. 9., when I had the thrill of my first ride, lasting about six and a half minutes.  Major Squier of the Signal Corps was taken up as a passenger a few days later, followed on Sept. 17 by my friend and associate, Lt. Tom Selfridge, U. S. A.
     This flight terminated in an unfortunate accident in which Mr. Wright was very seriously injured and Lieutenant Selfridge lost his life, the first of many victims who were to sacrifice themselves in the advancement and perfection of the airplane.  We put Mr. Wright in the hospital at Ft. Myer, where he lay for some weeks under the devoted care of his sister, Katharine, who came on from Dayton immediately.  In my frequent visits to the hospital, I came to know and appreciate the sterling character of this third member of the team who was with them through the vicissitudes of those early days, sharing their hopes and disappointments.
     The following summer, both Wilbur and Orville Wright came to Ft. Myer with a new flying machine, followed shortly by Katharine, and the program of the preceding summer was resumed and carried to a successful conclusion.
     By this time public interest was roused to such an extent that every afternoon large crowds visited the field.  Prominent visitors were numerous, including President Taft, members of the cabinet, foreign ambassadors and military attaches, and many other prominent people of the capital.
     The Wright Brothers had come to Washington for a purpose, that was to complete their contract with the Signal Corps and deliver their machine.  With their characteristic determination, they stuck to this purpose.  The 1909 airplane with its maximum speed of 42 miles per hour was not so maniable in the high winds which mean so little to our present day fighter planes with their normal speeds of 400 miles per hour.  Flights were made only in light winds and while large crowds and high officials were often disappointed, the Wrights were adamant in their decision not to fly unless conditions were just right.
Speed Tests
     For the speed tests we set up a series of small captive balloons over a five-mile course from Ft. Myer to Alexandria, and on July 30, Lt. Foulois as passenger, accompanied Orville Wright on the round trip over this course to determine the official speed.  We of the board and Wilbur stood on the ground during the take-off, watched the machine disappear over the treetops to the south and then waited in suspense for it to reappear.  Wilbur, with a stop watch, had accurately calculated the exact moment at which he expected to see the machine reappear coming out of the south and when it failed to do so he, as well as the rest of us, passed a very uneasy few moments until at last it came in sight and landed safely, to the cheering of the large crowd of spectators.  Then began the endurance test, in which it was my pleasure to ride with Orville one hour and 12 minutes, a world’s record at that time for two passengers.
     But the contract was not completed until two Army officers had been taught to fly.  Lt. Frederick E. Humphreys, corps of engineers, and myself were designated.  As the drill ground at Ft. Myer was too small, we searched the country for a larger and more suitable field.  Many offers were made and many sites were visited, but all were rejected by the Wright Brothers as not meeting the requirements.  One day while making a balloon ascension from Washington, I passed over College Park, Maryland, saw a likely looking level field, later visited it on the ground, and eventually it was rented from the owners and became our training ground.
     On Oct. 5, we moved in, built a shed for the machine, set up the pylon and track, and Wilbur began our pilot training.  At the end of about three hours’ dual, we were turned loose and made our first solo flights.  A few days later, I was even considered qualified to carry passengers and did so, taking Lt. Sweet of the Navy as my victim for a flight around the field.
     Wilbur was a patient and understanding instructor, always ready to explain anything we did not understand, always ready to help us to make easy our venture into this new field, which was not too well understood by anyone at that time.  Between flights and in the evening, we had long talks on aviation in general, on the Wright machine in particular, and on the future of aviation and flying and, while we had great confidence in its future, I admit that in our wildest dream we did not foresee the speed, safety, carrying capacity and long range of the modern machine.
Visits Dayton
     My first visit to Dayton and the Wrights’ home came in 1909 when I accompanied Gen. Allen, the Chief Signal Officer, to a two-day celebration in which the nation, the state and the city vied in showing their admiration and enthusiasm for the two pioneers of flight.  Speeches, dinners, bands, parades, and finally the presentation of three medals capped the climax of the celebration.  One medal from congress was presented by General Allen; one from the State of Ohio was presented by the governor, and one from the city of Dayton was presented by the mayor.  The attitude of the two brothers was typical throughout the two days.  Their pleasure, their appreciation were plainly apparent, but above all was that of modesty, which might have deserted them under the shower of praise and acclaim, had it not been their outstanding inherent quality.
     My next contact with the Wrights was in 1911, when it was my privilege to spend a few days as a guest at their home in Dayton.  During this visit I was to have a new experience, that of piloting an airplane under Orville’s instruction, equipped with wheels instead of the skids I was accustomed to.  This came in good stead the following two years, as three Wright machines were sent me in the Philippines, where I used them in giving flying instruction to officers of the Army in 1912 and 1913.  The 1911 visit was perhaps, the highlight of my association with the Wrights and the one on which I look back with the happiest memories.  It was a picture of the American home and family of which we are so proud and which fosters those qualities that produce the typical American citizen, the one who places culture, family, friends and the higher things of life above the trivial and passing interests which we are inclined to exaggerate in this age of materialism.
     The question was often put to me: “Which one of the two brothers really invented the airplane?”  My answer is neither one, but the two working together, checking each other, arguing out their problems step by step.
     Orville once expressed it when he said they would start to thresh out a question, one arguing on the one side and one on the other, and before they finished they had changed sides in the argument.  They approached all their problems from a strictly scientific and mathematical angle, never leaving anything in doubt, and as one of them once said” “If we knew what was wrong, we could eventually find the solution.”  The greatest difficulty was in finding out just what was wrong.  That brings back a rather amusing incident that occurred at Ft. Myer during the 1909 flights.  Several times the airplane was put on its cradle on the track, the motor speeded up, the weight released, and the machine shot forward and left the track only to lose speed and come to the ground.  Finally, Wilbur and Orville left the crowd, went out on the field by themselves, put their heads together, and evidently were having a profound discussion.  Somewhat awed, we remained at a distance to watch the proceedings, thinking it was something very serious and technical.  Finally one of the brothers walked over to the machine, looked at the spark lever, and saw that it had slipped back due to lack of friction, slowing the engine down and causing the machine to lose its flying speed.  It was all so simple when they found the difficulty, but I can imagine their experiments were full of just such occurrences.
No Claims
     The Wrights never made any extravagant claims for what their machine could do.  In their first and unsuccessful negotiations with the war department, and in the later ones, which finally led to its purchase, they asked only for remuneration based on performance and were ready to demonstrate its capabilities before receiving a penny in payment.
     Simplicity and order marked their procedure and their lives.  The camp at Kitty Hawk was a wooden shed large enough to house the machine and their living quarters, and a photograph of the interior shows it was a model of which any housewife might feel proud.  At times the nights on the coast of North Carolina were cold, but they were well supplied with bedding.  They had their own expression for temperature; that is, a “one-, two-, or three-blanket night,” depending on the thermometer reading.
     No question put to them, however unimportant it might seem, failed to have careful consideration and a well-thought answer, and you may be sure we asked many questions.
     As stated before, the Wright Brothers were primarily scientists, interested in the conquest of the air from a scientific point of view and not at all from a mercenary angle.  When, in 1905, they had flown their machine sufficiently to satisfy themselves it had reached the practical stage, they stopped further work and set out to dispose of their invention, not to the highest bidder, but to reliable organizations of associations that would exploit it for the common good.  Here was a new and revolutionary invention that was to mark the beginning of a new era in transportation, a new factor in our economic life, and while I doubt if anyone, including the Wrights, fully realized just how important it was to become and the relatively short time within which it was to prove itself, I do know that to the Wrights it meant a great deal more than merely a means to financial success.  A pertinent remark of one of them has always remained in my mind; “We want to finish up with the business end of the airplane so we can go back to our experimental work.”