Academic journal article Air Power History

Testing the Military Flyer at Fort Myer, 1908-1909

Academic journal article Air Power History

Testing the Military Flyer at Fort Myer, 1908-1909

Article excerpt

Following their successful flights in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers found an area near Dayton where they could continue their experimentation and development closer to their home. By the end of 1904, they began to think that their machines might have practical applications and began to make attempts to sell their machines and their knowledge. Nothing came of these attempts, and they continued experimenting for another year. However, because they did not yet have a patent to protect them, they had decided not to fly exhibitions or demonstrations. Thus, in late 1905, they put their machines away, not to fly again until 1908, and began to search seriously for buyers. Even after the patent was granted in 1906, they preferred not to fly publicly lest others see and use their unique wing-warping control system.

In December 1907, the U.S. Army issued Signal Corps Specification Number 486, an advertisement for a heavier-than-air flying machine. The aircraft had to be supported entirely by the dynamic reaction with the atmosphere and had to be sufficiently simple for an intelligent person to learn its operation in a reasonable amount of time. The machine had to carry two people, remain in the air for an hour, carry sufficient fuel to fly 125 miles, and had to average 40 miles an hour in a speed test. It was also desirable that the machine could be transported on Army wagons. (1)

Successful in their response to this advertisement, the Wright Brothers signed a contract with the federal government in February 1908 that required delivery of a flying machine to Fort Myer, Virginia, within 200 days. Following delivery, they had an additional 30 days to demonstrate that the machine complied with all specifications. At about the same time, they signed another contract to provide aircraft to the French. (2)

The Wrights' previous machines carried only a single person, who lay prone in a cradle that moved side-to-side on the lower wing. Cables connected the cradle to the wings, and by moving the cradle, the pilot changed the shape of the wings, allowing him to control the flight. This was natural and instinctive -- the pilot moved on the wing in the direction he wanted to turn. The machine built for the Army carried two people, who sat upright on the lower wing, and the controls were moved to three levers placed alongside the seat, one on the pilot's left and two on the right. The lever on the left moved the front horizontal surfaces, controlling vertical movement, while the two on right controlled the wing warping and the rear rudder with a forward and back movement that was much less instinctive than the cradle. The Wrights also added a single fixed vertical surface between the two front horizontal surfaces to increase stability

Wilbur and Orville returned to North Carolina in April 1908 to gain experience with the new control system. Despite mechanical problems and bad weather, they managed to make a few flights, including their first with a passenger. On May 17, Wilbur left Kitty Hawk for Europe to perform demonstration flights for the French contract. Orville returned to Dayton, stopping first in Washington to inspect the Fort Myer parade ground, where the flying tests for the Army would be made. (3)

Fort Myer today is a small, crescent-shaped area west of Arlington National Cemetery, which is directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Many of the older buildings on Fort Myer were built between 1895 and 1908 and appear in photographs taken during the tests in 1908 and 1909. The large building in the background of some of the photographs was then the Fort Myer hospital, but is now the post headquarters. A low stone wall that still separates the cemetery and Fort Myer on the west side of the cemetery can also be seen in photographs taken of the tests.

The cemetery and the fort are both on land that originally was part of the Custis estate, the home of George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of George Washington. …

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