Wright Military Training at College Park in 1909

By Allen, Catherine Wallace | Air Power History, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Wright Military Training at College Park in 1909


Allen, Catherine Wallace, Air Power History


Nestled among a growing industrial area and residential community in the heart of College Park, Maryland is a small airport of 40 acres. Looking no different than any other small airport of its size, the "College Park Airport" has a wonderful story to tell of the growing years of early aviation. Few would suspect that this beautiful field with about 100 modern aircraft was once witness to the triumphs and tragedies surrounding the birth of military aviation and those amazing pilots who captivated the nation's attention in the first decade of the twentieth century.

In the summer of 1909, the country could not seem to get enough of the two brothers who had done what no one had believed could be done. The brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, had flown! And though this marvelous feat had occurred nearly six years previously, the Wrights were pleased that after much hard work to gain recognition for their achievement, their success was now splashed across the headlines of almost every major newspaper here and abroad.

After the Wrights met the last specification of the government's contract at Fort Myer, Virginia, the military accepted its first aeroplane into the inventory of the U.S. Army on August 2, 1909.

There remained one final condition of the Wright brothers' military contract and that was the training of two military officers to fly the machine. On August 6, the Acting Chief Corps Signal Officer of the Army, informed the American Aeronaut, that it was probable that a field other than that of Fort Myer would be selected for this instruction, although a field had not yet been secured. This news was evidently a relief to the Post Commander of Fort Myer because he felt the flights and the crowds disrupted daily life on the drill field. (1)

Lt. Frank Lahm of the Cavalry, had been detailed to the Aeronautical Board--formed to oversee the Wrights' acceptance trials--and assisted Orville Wright at Fort Myer during the military trials. Lahm was a noted balloonist and winner of the first Gordon Bennett Balloon, Race and trophy (1906). Lahm had received much of the credit for the establishment of the Aeronautical Division, since many felt that it was developed "as a result of the pride and interest aroused when he won the Gordon Bennett Balloon race against the much more experienced aeronauts of Europe." (2)

Lahm had made many free balloon ascents around the Washington, D.C. area in an effort to locate a more suitable airfield for the training. The site that had most caught his eye during these trips was a large, very flat open field in the town of College Park, Maryland, adjacent to the Maryland Agricultural College--now the University of Maryland.

Bounded on one side by the B & 0 Railroad tracks, the field was near to the electric rail line, and adjacent to a thriving town that would be important for providing lodging and supplies for the officers.

Lahm had been selected as one of the two pilots to receive training by Wilbur Wright, the other was Lt. Frederic Humphreys. Humphreys was also a member of the Aeronautical Board. Both men accompanied Wilbur Wright to inspect the field and they deemed it suitable for flying.

On August 25, 1909, the Army Quartermaster signed a renewable lease for 160 acres of property with one of the fields owners, Mr. Edward A. New man, for $200 a month. A well and pump were installed in the middle of the field, some trees were removed, and the construction of a building to shelter the aeroplane was approved. By September 18, Major George Squier of the Signal Corps wrote that with the shed nearly complete, the aeroplane, Aeronautical Detachment, and officers to receive instruction in operating the machine would likely go to College Park the following week. (3)

While awaiting improvements to the airfield, and with Orville off to Europe with sister Katharine, Wilbur made news in New York with another Wright plane. …

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