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The Wright Brothers
Chapter Fourteen



The Wrights decided that Wilbur should go to France to make the demonstrations there. Orville would stay in America to build the machine for the United States Government and test it at Fort Myer, near Washington. Wilbur did not return to Dayton from Kitty Hawk but went to New York where he sailed for Europe on May 21.

Orville arrived at Fort Myer in August. Two mechanics Taylor and Furnas, who were to assist him, had reached there a few days earlier. Army officers designed a shed on the Fort Myer grounds for use in assembling and housing the plane.

Orville’s first flight was on September 3, 1908. He went from the Cosmos Club, where he was staying, to Fort Myer by street car. It is doubtful if any of the others on that car suspected that this fellow passenger was on his way to perform a miracle. When  he reached Fort Myer, Orville got the impression that not all the Army officers present thought he would succeed in meeting the tests required by the contract. The area from which the flights would be made was only about 700 by 1,000 feet. Neither of the Wrights had ever before made flights within so small a space.

Considering that this was opportunity to see the outstanding wonder of the century, the crowd that strung about the parade ground was small. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., estimated it for his father, then President, at less than one thousand. Indeed, it was probably much less than that.

Orville circled the field one and one-half times on that first test and was in the air only one minute, eleven seconds; but the crowd “went crazy.” When the plane first rose,” said Roosevelt, Jr., in a letter to this biographer, “the crowd’s gasp of astonishment was not alone at the wonder of it, but because it was so unexpected. I’ll never forget the impression the sound from the crowd made on me. It was a sound of complete surprise.”

When he landed after this flight it was Orville’s turn to be astonished. Three or four supposedly “hard-boiled newspapermen who rushed up to interview him had been so stirred by witnessing the “impossible” that each of them had tears streaming down his cheeks.

(Those who witnessed this flight might have been prepared for what they saw and less surprised, since Wilbur Wright for more than a month had been making flights in France – told about in a later chapter – and some of these were reported in the newspapers. But the brief newspaper accounts of Wilbur’s flights seldom if ever had first page display and were not treated as important news. On August 9, the day after Wilbur’s first flight, the New York Times had no mention of the event, though it gave first page space to a dispatch from Canton, Ohio, about a balloon trip, and to a dispatch from Berlin about the German Kaiser contributing to a fund for building another Zeppelin airship.)

Nor did newspapers show too much excitement about this great public demonstration of practical aviation. It was not considered front page news even by Washington papers. The New York World account was on page five and most of the report was not about the wonder of the flying-machine, but about the behavior of the crowd, described as in fear of being hit by what the World called “the vessel.”

Many thousands were present on the second day of the tests when Orville flew about three miles in four minutes, fifteen seconds. After one of these flights, a reporter, it was said, got in touch with Professor Newcomb who, a few years before, had so irrefutably explained why flying was impossible. The reporter wanted to know if Professor Newcomb thought passenger planes would be the next step.

“No” Newcomb was reported to have replied, because no plane could ever carry the weight of anyone besides the pilot.” It might have been expected that by this time Professor Newcomb would have become more cautious.

Orville made a short flight on September 7, and two flights the next day; one of eleven minutes, ten seconds; the other of seven minutes, thirty-four seconds. On the morning of September 9, he circled the field fifty-seven times in fifty-seven minutes, twenty-five seconds. Later in the day, he circled the field fifty-five times in one hour, two and one-quarter minutes. Then he surprised and delighted his friend, Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm, by inviting him to go with him for a flight. They were in the air six minutes, twenty-four seconds, and circled the field six and one-half times. All three of these flights on the ninth established new world endurance records; two of them for flights with pilot alone, and the third for pilot with passenger. Orville made a flight of one hour, five minutes, fifty-two seconds on September 10, rising to a height of 200 feet and exceeding the world endurance record made by himself the day before. On the next day he again broke the one-man endurance record by flying for one hour, ten minutes, and twenty-four seconds, while circling the field fifty-seven times and describing two figure eights. On the twelfth, he increased the two-man endurance record by taking with him Major George O. Squier, Acting Chief Signal Officer, for a flight of nine minutes, six seconds. Immediately after that, Orville made a flight alone. He circled the field seventy-one times in one hour and fifteen minutes – again breaking the endurance record for one-man flight. It was estimated that he reached a height of 300 feet.

The next and final flight, September 17, ended in tragedy. Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, a twenty-six-year-old West Point graduate, from San Francisco, had been assigned at his own request to go along as a passenger. Before they had been in the air more than three or four minutes, and while in the fourth round at a height of about 125 feet over the field, Orville heard, or felt, a light tapping in the rear part of the machine. He thought it was in the chain drive. A hurried glance revealed nothing wrong there; but he decided to shut off the power and descend. Hardly had he reached this decision when two big thumps, which shook the machine violently, followed by the machine swerving to the right, showed that something had gone wrong. He immediately shut off the motor. Directly ahead was a gulley filled with small trees, a dangerous landing spot. He decided on a half-circle to the left, to land on the parade grounds, and it was then that he discovered that the tail was inoperative. By twisting the wings to give the greatest possible resistance to the left one, he did succeed in turning the machine until it faced directly into the field. In this maneuver the machine had descended about one-third of the way toward the ground without any indication of serious trouble. Orville moved the lever to straighten the wing tips, to proceed straight ahead. Then the machine suddenly turned down in front. For fifty feet it was headed almost directly toward the ground, although the front elevator was turned to its limit. When about twenty-five feet from the ground the machine began to right itself, and if there had been another twenty feet to go, or possibly even ten feet, it might have landed safely.

But the recovery of control came too late. The machine hit the ground with such impact that Lieutenant Selfridge was fatally injured and died a few hours later. His skull had been fractured by a blow against one of the wooden uprights of the framework. Orville, though at first believed to be perhaps fatally hurt, had miraculously escaped with what appeared to be only a fractured left leg and four broken ribs. He never lost consciousness and his first concern was about Selfridge. (Not until twelve years later, after suffering severe pains, did Orville learn, from a careful X-ray examination in a famous medical clinic, that the Fort Myer accident had also caused three fractures in hip bones, besides a dislocation in one of them.)

Now that an airplane passenger had been killed, the Fort Myer demonstrations at last reached the front pages of newspapers.

The day after the accident, the mechanics, Taylor and Furnas, brought the broken propeller and some of the other broken parts to Orville’s bedside. From  these parts he was able to determine the cause of the accident. A new pair of propellers, several inches longer than any previously used, had been installed just before the flight. The trouble started when a longitudinal crack developed in one blade of the right propeller. This crack permitted the blade to flatten and lose much of its thrust, with the result that the pressures on the two blades became unequal, causing a severe vibration of the propeller shaft housing. The vibration loosened one of the stay wires that held in position the tube in which the propeller-shaft turned. Then the propeller began to swing sidewise and forward until a blade hit and tore loose the stay wire to the vertical tail, permitting the tail to take a nearly horizontal position. A pressure on the tail’s underside lifted the rear of the machine, thus causing it to dart for the ground.

While Orville was recovering from his injuries, an acquaintance, C. H. Claudy, visited him and asked:

“Has it got your nerve?”

“Nerve?” repeated Orville, not quite understanding. “Oh, you mean will I be afraid to fly again” The only thing I’m afraid of is that I can’t get well soon enough to finish those tests next year.”

The cost had been high, but one result of those incomplete tests was that widespread incredulity in the United States about the Wrights’ achievements now finally ceased. At last, everyone, including even the most skeptical scientists, was convinced that a practical flying-machine was a reality.

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