Header Graphic
The Wright Brothers
Chapter Sixteen



 Shortly after they were established at Pau, the Wrights received a call from a German, Captain Alfred Hildebrandt. This was not the first time he had tried to see them. He had stopped in Dayton, on his way homeward after attending the international balloon races at St. Louis in 1907; but on reaching Dayton he learned that the Wrights were in Europe. Captain Hildebrandt came to Pau on behalf of a newspaper publisher. His principal was Herr Scherl, owner of the Lokal Anzeiger, a leading paper in Berlin. Scherl thought it would be a great stroke of advertising for his paper if he could arrange for a big public demonstration of a Wright machine, with the general public invited to be the paper’s guests. It was arranged that one of the Wrights should make a series of flights at Berlin, later that year, for a substantial fee. The brothers later decided that the Berlin flights should be made by Orville.

A move had been started in Italy to have demonstrations of the Wright plane in Rome. Dr. Pirelli, Italian tire manufacturer, who had flown with Wilbur Wright at Le Mans, was believed to have made the first suggestion that led to organizing an aviation club at Rome to buy a Wright plane. This “club” was supposed to be backed at least partly by the Italian Government, and the arrangements with the Wrights provided for the training of two lieutenants, one from the Navy, and the other from the Army.

Parts and material for six new planes had already been shipped to Europe from Dayton, and the parts for one of these were sent to Pau, where they were built into a complete machine. The machine was then taken down in sections and shipped to Rome. (The one used in the French flights became the personal property of Lazare Weiller, organizer of the French Wright company, and later it went to a museum in Paris.)

In April the Wrights returned from Pau to Paris, and after a brief stay there Wilbur went to Rome. He was joined there later by Orville and Katharine, who went to a hotel opposite the Barberini Palace. Count and Countess di Celleri, of the Italian nobility, had a cottage adjoining their villa near the flying field at Centocelle, and they offered it to Wilbur. Countess di Celleri later felt more than                                                                lt more than repaid when she had a passenger flight in the Wright plane.

When the machine shipped from Pau in sections arrived in Rome it was reassembled in an automobile factory, just outside the city limits, on the Flaminian Way. It was then moved across the city on a truck drawn by a magnificent team of gray horses to a military field in Centocelle. As the strange-looking machine was carried through Roman streets past ancient ruins, it is doubtful if amazed beholders had ever seen a greater contrast between old and new.

Almost immediately after his arrival, Wilbur began the training of the Italian flyers, naval Lieutenant Calderara and Lieutenant Savoia, of the army engineering corps. (Calderara was afterward the air attaché at the Italian Embassy in Washington; and Lieutenant Savoia became the head of the well-known Italian aviation company of that name.)

King Victor Emmanuel came to witness flights. As he strolled about the field with a folding camera suspended from his shoulder, he might have been mistaken for just one more tourist. Other sightseers who came to the field were the elder J. P. Morgan and the famous railroader, James J. Hill. Among those who made flights with Wilbur were Lloyd Griscom, the American Ambassador, and Sonnino, former Premier of Italy. Soon after that, for the first time, an operator took a motion picture from an airplane in flight.

While in Rome the Wrights established friendship with another German, Captain von Kehler, whom they had already met in Berlin, and he played an important part in steps toward forming a Wright company in Germany.

Captain von Kehler was managing director of the Studien Gesellschaft, an organization for the study of aeronautics, that had been formed after a meeting between certain outstanding German industrialists and the Kaiser, back in 1906. The Kaiser had called the representatives of the Krupps and other powerful industrialists to Potsdam to give them a big banquet at the close of which he said he thought German should be looking into the possibilities of the development of the airship (lighter-than-air). Just what should be done he did not pretend to know. That problem, he said, he would turn over to them. They knew what he meant. They, as a patriotic duty, must provide money for research and experimentation in the lighter-than-air field or else lose standing with their Kaiser. Thus did the Studien Gesellschaft come into being. The organization began experiments by building a dirigible known as the Parseval, named for its designer, Major Parseval. The Parseval turned out to be an expensive experiment. At the end of two years the subscribed funds were nearly exhausted and the project far from completion. The subscribers began to fear another invitation to dinner. Just at this time they began to hear reports about the aeroplane flights of the Wrights in France, and they became much interested. It occurred to them that experiments with the new flying-machine would perhaps be less expensive then experiments with a dirigible, and that prospects for the aeroplane might be greater than for the dirigible.

Captain von Kehler went to Rome to talk with the Wrights. He had told them that some of the wealthy men in the Studien Gesellshaft would like to form a German Wright company. Before he left Rome, a preliminary contract was signed. Its terms provided that the brothers would receive cash, a block of stock in the company, and ten per cent royalty on all planes sold. The final contract was closed in August 1909.

After leaving Rome the Wrights made a brief stay in Paris and went to Le Mans to receive a bronze art piece presented by the Aero Club of the Sarthe. The work in bronze, by Louis Carvin, showed the Wright brothers at the edge of a chasm gazing upon an eagle in flight. Above them was a winged figure – the spirit of aviation.

From France the Wrights went to London. There they received gold medals from the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain and from the Aero Club of the United Kingdom at formal banquets. Before going to these dinners Griffith Brewer was describing to Wilbur  some of the people he would meet. Of one man he said: “You’ll readily recognize him, as he is the ugliest man in the Aeronautical Society.” To which Wilbur replied: “He’ll lose that distinction on this occasion, because now there will be a pair of us.”

On their arrival in New York the Wrights attended a luncheon in their honor given by the Aero Club of America. The Aero Club had awarded medals to the Wrights and these were formally presented a month later by President Taft at the White House.

After an absence of many months, the Wrights arrived in Dayton early in May. Five weeks later the city had a great celebration in their honor. The home town had now recognized the Wrights’ importance. This “home coming” for the Wrights lasted two days, June 17 and 18.

At 9 o’clock on that morning of June 17, they heard a deafening sound. It did not at once occur to them what it was. Every factory whistle in Dayton was blowing and every bell ringing – all in their honor. This continued for ten minutes. Bands were playing and cannons booming. At 10 o’clock the brothers rode in a carriage, escorted by bands to the opening events. Ed Sines, boyfriend chum of Orville, and Ed Ellis, long a friend of Wilbur, were in the carriage with them. Sines and Ellis, as a practical Joke, gleefully shook hands, as if they were the heroes, with all who tried to greet the Wrights along the route, and few knew the difference.

After reviewing a parade in their honor that afternoon, the Wrights returned to their shop. That night they had opportunity to see a display of fireworks that included their own profiles, eight feet high, entwined with an American flag.

During these two days, practically all business in Dayton was suspended – except the sale of souvenir postal cards showing the Huffman pasture, the Hawthorne Street home, the flying field at Le Mans, France, and the parade ground at Fort Myer.

On the second day, the inventors’ father, Bishop Wright, gave the invocation preceding the presentation of medals to his sons. One medal that had been ordered by act of Congress was presented by General James Allen, chief signal office of the Army; another, by the Ohio legislature, was presented by Governor Harmon; and a third from the city of Dayton was presented by the Mayor. The Wrights were alongside 2,500 school children, dressed in red, white and blue, to represent an immense American flag. Patriotic fervor ran high.

 The home folk knew now that the Wrights could fly; they knew, too, that international fame had not changed them. They were the same unassuming pair they had always been.

Before the celebration was quite over, Wilbur and Orville took a train to Washington. The time for completing those Government trials at Fort Myer was approaching and there was much to be done.

Orville made his first flight on June 28, and finished on July 30. One of the most memorable of the flights in this series was on that final day when Orville, with an Army officer, Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois, for passenger, made the first cross-country trip yet made in an airplane, a total distance of about ten miles to Alexandria and return – without any suitable landing spots if trouble had occurred. This was the speed test. The machine now used was capable of about four miles an hour greater speed than the one in the tests the previous year. The turning point in Alexandria was at Shuter’s Hill, where a Masonic temple now stands. A captive balloon floated above the hill, and a telegraph line had been run to the top of the hill where an operator was stationed to give a signal when Orville had passed that point. But a strong wind that day blew down the telegraph line and also kept the balloon so close to the ground that Orville could not see the turning point in advance and covered more than the required distance. As the plane passed out of sight for a time on the return trip, the crowd feared the worst; but when it reappeared, headed back toward the parade ground, the honking of automobile horns and excited cheering indicated that everyone knew that they had all seen an extraordinary event. The time for the ten miles was fourteen minutes, or just under forty-three miles an hour. Thus the Wrights got a bonus of $5,000 more than the basic price agreed upon – ten per cent for each complete mile per hour more than forty – and they received $30,000 for the machine.

Almost immediately after the Fort Mayer trials and formal acceptance of thee machine, on August 2, by the United States Government, Orville Wright, accompanied by his sister Katherine, set out for Berlin. Orville would start training a flyer for the German Wright company immediately after giving the exhibition arranged for by Captain Hildebrandt on behalf of the Lokal Anzeiger.

These first flights in Germany were to be made at Tempelhof field, then a military parade ground, at the outskirts of Berlin. On the day set for the initial flight, there was a terrible wind and Captain Hildebrandt, who accompanied Orville to the field, was torn between his desire not to disappoint the crowd and his fear of seeing Orville take too great a risk. Orville said he would follow Hildebrandt’s wishes.

“No,” said Hildebrandt, “don’t go up.”

The next day even more people were present. Orville made a flight of fifteen minutes. When he landed it was difficult to keep the crowd from almost smothering him with adulation. People clamored for a chance not only to look at him up close, but to touch him. Men, women, and children struggled to lay gentle hands on him, even to touch his sleeve or the hem of his coat. Evidently it was some kind of belief in the desirability of physical contact with a miracle man.

After a later flight, when Orville stayed in the air fifty-five minutes, the crowd about him and Katharine, who were accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Flint, was so dense that Orville felt duty bound to move as fast as he could away from his party, to relieve the pressure on them. Thereafter a hollow square of German soldiers kept the crowd at a safe distance.

The German Crown Prince, Frederick Wilhelm, sought to get in touch with Orville to ask the privilege of seeing a flight. He telephoned to the Wright’s suite at the Hotel Esplanade, and the call was answered by a young German woman whom Katharine Wright had employed as interpreter when shopping.

When the girl discovered that the voice over the phone was that of a member of the royal family, she dropped the telephone receiver and almost fainted. Members of the hotel staff were not much less agitated when they learned that royalty might be calling on two of their guests.

Orville Wright and his sister were invited by Kaiser Wilhelm himself to be present – the only civilian guests – on August 29, when Count von Zeppelin would make the first trip in his latest model airship from Friedrichshafen, and land at Tegel field, Berlin.

When he met Count van Zeppelin, Orville offered to take him for an airplane ride the next day. The Count, after expressing his appreciation, pleaded lack of time. But he invited Orville to accompany him in the airship on a trip, September 5, from Frankfort to Mannheim and Orville accepted. In the course of that trip, Orville, by using a stopwatch in his pocket and counting telephone poles, was able to tell if the reported speed of the ship was correct. (When the Wrights were in Europe in 1907, they had seen flights by government-owned dirigibles in more than one country, and had noted that the German ship, Der Gross was the only one that made the speed claimed for it. All they needed to learn was the length of the airship. Then by sighting on the corner of a building while using a stop-watch, they could tell to the fraction of a second how long it took for the ship to travel its own length.)

On the airship’s arrival at Mannheim, the crowd was so great that Orville soon became separated from Captain Hildebrandt, who had come along as his interpreter. Here he was, not knowing much German, supposed to be guest of honor at a luncheon, and he didn’t even recall the name of the hotel where the affair was to be held. A member of the committee in charge of the luncheon decided that Orville would doubtless make his way to the center of the city, in search of the right hotel, and that there was just one way to locate him – to drive about the principal streets until he caught sight of him. This man had never met Orville but he felt sure he would recognize from pictures he had seen. The plan, to Orville’s immense relief, succeeded.

On September 16, Orville raised the world’s altitude record from 100 to 172 meters. Two days later, he made a new world’s record for a flight with a passenger. Accompanied by Captain Paul Englehardt, he flew for one hour, thirty-five minutes, forty-seven seconds.

Toward the end of his stay in Germany, Orville’s flights were at Bornstedt field, near Potsdam. It was there that he trained two pilots for the German Wright company – Captain Englehardt and Herr Keidel.

Since his first meeting with Orville, the German Crown Prince had made no secret of his eager desire to fly as a passenger. As early as September 9, Orville had made a special flight of fifteen minutes for the Crown Prince to witness. Though he was willing enough to oblige the Crown Prince by taking him for a passenger flight, he hesitated to do so, lest it might be disapproved by the Kaiser, and he made one excuse after another for delay. He had been warned that if he took the Crown Prince as passenger against the Kaiser’s wishes, then he might immediately become persona non grata. The prudent thing to do, it seemed to Orville, was to give members of the royal family plenty of notification. Different members of the family came to Bornstedt field from time to time, and when he met any of them Orville was sure to remark that he and the Crown Prince were going to have a flight together before long. As no one made any objection, the German Crown Prince finally became, on October 2, the first member of a royal family ever to ride in an airplane. On landing, the Crown Prince handed to Orville, as a token of appreciation, a jeweled stick-pin – a crown set in rubies, with a “W” in diamonds. (The “W” was not for Wright, but for Wilhelm, the Crown Prince’s name.)

On that same day, Orville ascended 1,600 feet for a new – though unofficial – world’s altitude record.

Orville’s farewell ascent in Germany was a twenty-five-minute flight, October 15, for Kaiser Wilhelm to see. The Kaiser was enthusiastic and frankly so. He was outspoken in expressing his belief that the airplane might revolutionize warfare, and talked about the different military used to which the machine could be put. One thing that impressed him was the maneuverability of the plane. Orville had made complete turns within a space of not much more than 100 feet wide.

Now, during the time that Orville was making these sensational demonstrations in Germany, Wilbur Wright, in America, had been doing his share to glorify the brotherly partnership. On September 29, in connection with the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, Wilbur made spectacular flights witnessed by millions of people. Two of these were over Governors Island; and another was from Governors Island around the Statue of Liberty and back again. On October 4, Wilbur flew twenty-one miles from Governors Island up the Hudson River beyond Grant’s Tomb and back to the starting point. It was one of the most daring flights yet made in an airplane, and Wilbur had taken the precaution to buy a red canoe which he roped to the under part of the plane. The part of the canoe ordinarily open was covered with canvas to make it watertight. Wilbur’s idea was that if anything went wrong the canoe might possibly serve as a buoy, or pontoon, to keep the machine afloat. In going up the river he flew over ferry-boats, and hot gasses from the smokestacks did cause the plane to make what looked like dangerous plunges.

A second flight was planned for that afternoon, and everyone who could exert influence had applied for a pass to the military reservation on Governors Island. But they were disappointed, for the engine blew a cylinder and that brought the series of flights to a close.

Almost immediately after his flights for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, Wilbur began preparations to train two Army Signal Corps officers, as provided for in the contract for the sale of a plane to the United States Government. This was done at College Park, Maryland, near Washington. The men trained were Lieutenants Frank P. Lahm and Frederic E. Humphreys. Their instruction began on October 8 and was completed October 26. Lieutenant Lahm, who had been the first army officer ever to fly as a passenger in a plane, received the first lesson in pilotage. But Humphreys made the first solo flight a few minutes before Lahm’s

Wilbur also gave some lessons to Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois been October 23 and 27.

Orville and Katherine Wright sailed from Europe on the Adriatic, due in New York November 4. After leaving Germany, Orville had investigated the outlook of the recently formed French company. Already it appeared that this company would be a disappointment. Count de Lambert had given the company the best kind of advertising by flying a Wright plane over Paris, around and above the Eiffel Tower. But the French Wright company evidently was depending more on political influence and on entertaining important people than on sound salesmanship. The War Ministry hesitated to buy planes because of public criticism. General Picquart, the Minister of War, once inquired of the Wrights if it would be possible to buy their planes directly from them in the United States.

That would have been against provisions of the contract with the company in France, but there was another reason why it could not be done. The Wrights were not yet organized to produce planes in great numbers. Though there were now two commercial companies for the manufacture of Wright planes in Europe, no such company yet existed in America.

Return to "The Wright Brothers" Home Page