The United States Army Buys Its First Aeroplane, 1909

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

The United States Army wanting an aeroplane, in early 1908, signed a contract with Orville and Wilbur Wright to a acquire one. The contract prescribed certain tests that the aeroplane would have to accomplish before the Army would accept it. It required that the flying machine should have a speed of 36 miles per hour (with penalties for speeds below that and bonuses for speeds above 40 miles per hour, up to 44 miles per hour); that it be capable of carrying two people, whose combined weight would equal about 350 pounds, in addition to sufficient fuel for a non-stop flight of 125 miles; that it be controllable in flight in any direction; that it be capable of an endurance flight of one hour; and that it land at its take-off point without damage so that the flight could be resumed immediately.[1]

The Wright Brothers came to Fort Myer, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1908 to fulfill the conditions of the contract. During the first nine flights made in September, two of which carried on separate occasions Army Signal Corps officers Lt. Frank P. Lahm (who had flown across the English Channel in a balloon in 1906 and won the first Gordon Bennet Cup) and Maj. George O. Squier (at the time Acting Chief Signal Officer), the Wright Brothers had partially fulfilled the contract requirements. But the final preliminary flight on September 17 ended in tragedy. Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge was the passenger when Orville took off. After they had been in the air for about three or four minutes and were making the fourth round of the course at a height of about 125 feet, a crack in the right propeller caused it to loosen and foul a rudder wire; both broke, and the plane crashed. It hit with such force that Selfridge was fatally injured and died a few hours later, thus becoming the army’s first aviation casualty. Orville was seriously injured and remained in the Fort Myer hospital for seven weeks before returning home to Dayton. Because of the accident the War Department postponed the airplane trials for nine months to allow the Wrights to try again.[2] 

Image of Plane in the sky
The Wright Brothers test fly their aircraft on Fort Myer’s parade field (NAID 6641435).
Image of plane wreck.
Bystanders help extricate the mortally wounded US Army (USA) Lieutenant (LT) Thomas Selfridge from the wreck of the Wright Brothers Flyer after its crash at Fort Myer, Virginia (VA). At right, several men attend the injuries of Orville Wright, who lies on the ground at their feet (NAID 6641476).

The Wright Brothers returned to Fort Myer at the end of June 1909, ready to try again. They brought with them a rebuilt flyer. The aeroplane had a 30 horsepower Wright 4-cylinder water-cooled in-line engine. It had a span of 30 feet 6 inches, was 28 feet 11 inches long and was 8 feet 1 inches tall. The wing area was 415 square feet. Empty it weighed 740 pounds. The airframe was built of spruce and ash and the propellers were spruce. The covering was unbleached cotton.[3]

The Signal Corps was most eager that the brothers succeed. In his fiscal year 1909 report to the Secretary of War, Brig. Gen. James Allen, the Chief Signal Officer, wrote “All first-class powers except the United States are providing themselves systematically with aerial fleets, Germany and France being notable in the lead. The United States does not at present possess a modern aeronautical equipment, and it is believed that a systematic plan of development of this military auxiliary for national defense should be inaugurated without delay.” [4]

By July 20, the Wright Brothers were nearing the point when they would undertake the official flights. Their sister Miss Katharine Wright arrived in Washington from Dayton on the morning of July 21. She came to Fort Myer to remain until the official tests were completed. “Miss Wright,” The Washington Post observed, “is the only American girl who has ever made a flight in an aeroplane. She has been called ‘The Queen of the air,’ and deserves the title, having made a flight of ten minutes with Wilbur at Le Mans, France, last December.”[5] Actually her first flight was on February 15, 1909, with Wilbur in France.[6]

On July 27, Orville announced that he was ready to resume the tests where he had left of the year before. With Lt. Lahm as passenger, he flew generally at an altitude of 125 feet for 1 hour, 12 minutes, and 40 seconds, thus more than fulfilling the requirement to remain in the air for an hour with passenger. It established a new record for a two-man flight, eclipsing his brother’s record at Le Mans, of 1 hour, 9 minutes and 31 seconds. Following the flight, President William Howard Taft, who had watched the entire fight with great interest and attention, met with the brothers to shake their hands and offer his congratulations. “I’ve missed my dinner,” Taft was heard to say as he drove off in one of the White House touring cars, “but this show was worth it.”[7]

Wright Brothers’ Flight, (NAID 2038), Record Group 16. This film documents the official test flight of the Wright Brothers’ military airplane at Fort Myer, Virginia, on July 27, 1909.

The final test the Wright Brothers had to successfully complete to obtain the $25,000 contract payment for their aeroplane was the speed test. They needed to successfully navigate a 10-mile course at an average speed of 36 miles per hour, with a bonus of $2,500 for every mile over 40 miles per hour to a maximum of 44 miles per hour.

Because of his previous map making experience, Major Squier asked Lt. Benjamin Foulois to lay out the course.[8] Foulois, born in Washington, Connecticut, on December 9, 1879, enlisted as a private in the First United States Volunteer Engineers July 7, 1898. He served in Puerto Rico until January 1899, when he was mustered out as a sergeant. On June 17, 1899, he enlisted as a private in the Regular Army and served with the 19th Infantry, rising to the grade of first sergeant. Going to the Philippine Islands in August 1899, he participated in campaigns on Luzon, Panay and Cebu. He was commissioned a second lieutenant of Infantry February 2, 1901. Shortly thereafter he joined the 17th Infantry in the Philippines, serving in Manila on the island of Luzon, at Cottabota and Malabang on the island of Mindanao, and participating in engagements against the Lake Lanao Moros in Mindanao during April-June 1902. He returned to the United States with the 17th Infantry, and was stationed at Vancouver Barracks, Washington, until July 1903, when the 17th Infantry was ordered back to the Philippines. During this tour in the Philippines he worked on mapping and exploring various parts of the island of Mindanao, as well as participating in engagements against the Moros on the islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Entering the Infantry-Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth in August 1905, Foulois graduated a year later and was assigned to the Signal School there. He was then ordered to Cuba where he joined the Army of Cuban Pacification and assisted in developing a military map of Cuba. He returned to Fort Leavenworth in 1907 to complete the Signal School, graduating in July 1908. Upon graduation he was assigned to the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Washington, D.C. During this tour Foulois operated the first dirigible balloon purchased by the U.S. Government.[9]

The speed course Foulois laid out was a five-mile trip from Fort Myer due south to the 120-foot high Shuter’s Hill (also known at Shooters Hill, the site now of the George Washington Masonic Temple) on the western outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia, a little over a mile from the foot of King Street and the western shore of the Potomac River, and return. Foulois chose the hill as the turning point because it was above the surrounding terrain and should have been easy to navigate at an altitude of 100 or so feet. He arranged for a temporary telephone as well as a telegraph line between the two points, the latter to be used for sending a signal at the exact second the plane crossed the measured mark at Shuter’s Hill. Remembering his dirigible experience, he was concerned that they would wander off their course from Fort Myer to Alexandria, so he arranged for a small captive balloon to be ascended from Shuter’s Hill and another one anchored about halfway between the two points.[10]

The Signal Corps’ Aeronautical Board left it to the brothers as to select who would accompany Orville on the flight as navigator-passenger. They chose Foulois, who had never flown in an aeroplane. In his autobiography Foulois wrote “I would like to think that I was chosen on the basis of intellectual and technical ability, but I found out later that it was my short stature, light weight, and map-reading experience that had tipped the decision in my favor. A heavier man would have added weight to the plane which would have slowed it down. A man who couldn’t read a map and had not been aloft before might get the pilot lost, add unnecessary distance to the flight, and thus decrease the speed average. A 10 per cent bonus was riding on every mile they could squeeze past 40 miles an hour.” [11]

On July 28, a crowd of more than 15,000 persons, including President Taft, were at Fort Myer to watch the flight of the Wright aeroplane from Fort Myer to Alexandria, and return. The flight did not take place because of a nasty cross-wind which prompted the Wrights to ask for a delay to the following day. In the face of a rising storm the Wrights on the evening of July 29, were forced again to abandon any attempt at undertaking the ten-mile speed flight. [12]

They would try again on July 30. Foulois wrote some sixty years later that “July 30, 1909, was truly a significant day in American aviation. [13]

The day set in with a series of thunder showers, and it was not until the middle of the afternoon that the clouds began to break. The Wright Brothers were out early and looked with anxious eyes on the lowering skies. Shortly after 3pm all hope of a flight was given, and they began to plan for a flight shortly after dawn on July 31.

Between 3:30 and 4pm the clouds began to break up and it looked as though the sky was clearing and the wind was dying down. Conditions for a flight looked favorable and Orville told the Aeronautical Board members (Lt. Frank Lahm, Navy Lt. George C. Sweet (credited with having been the first Navy officer to fly in an airplane, doing so in November 1909), Maj. Charles Saltzman (who became Chief Signal Officer in 1924), Maj. Squier, Capt. Charles Chandler, Lt. Foulois and Lt. Frederick Humphreys) they would be ready to attempt the official trial in about one hour and a half. Saltzman and Sweet, chosen to act as judges and timers at the turning point, quickly motored to Shuter’s Hill with the field telephone to let those at Fort Myer know when everything was ready there.[14]

Two balloons were raised to mark the course. To those at Fort Myer the first one, two and one half miles away, was plainly visible, but the one that marked the turn at Shuter’s Hill was discernible only to the keenest sight.

The members of the Aeronautical Board who were to officiate the starting line took their places alongside the stables, on the west side of the field. Foulois readied himself for the flight. That evening he admitted that he had made the flight without informing his wife, who was out of the city. He said that ever since the time that he made an ascension in free balloon No. 11 with Lt. Lahm some time ago, and was lost for a night in the wilds of Maryland [in late April 1909 at Great Mills in St. Mary’s county], he had been careful not to alarm her over his trips in the air.

The disappointments which had been coming recently prevented the gathering of so large a crowd as was in evidence on July 28 and 29. The morning rain showers discouraged many from making the trip because they knew that the Wrights never flew if the weather was unfavorable. Still, there were probably 7,000 persons present when the machine was placed on the monorail.

The aeroplane was brought out of the balloon shed a few minutes after 6pm. It was wheeled down the field and by 6:30pm placed on the monorail, but neither brother appeared for some time. Finally, Wilbur and Orville left the shed and walked up the parade ground with Foulois and their sister, who was accompanied by two ladies. Orville wore a business suit, and his jaunty gray cap and Foulois wore khaki trousers and an olive shirt.

Painting of the events of July 30, 1909.
“The Wright Brothers at Ft. Myer – July 30, 1909”. US Air Force Art Collection. (NAID 6375490).

The brothers talked with their sister for a few minutes while the machine was being placed in readiness. The brothers made many adjustments to the engine and guy wires. Finally began a test of the engine. It skipped several times on the warming-up test, but when it was set going the second time, it seemed to be behaving splendidly, and the brothers were satisfied with its performance.

In the meantime, Wilbur walked briskly over to the members of the Aeronautical Board, who were stationed at the starting line and engaged them in conversation. He remained only a moment and then turning he picked up a great stone and struggled into the center of field with it, laying it on the ground 200 yards from the starting track and directly in front of it. Beneath the stone he laid a great square of white cloth. The white splotch on the burned, brown grass of the parade ground was to give Orville an opportunity to distinguish the crossing point on which the starters’ watches were snapped. These preliminaries arranged, Wilbur waved at Orville, and Orville left the machine and walked down to where he was. They held a short consultation in which Wilbur did most of the talking. Then the two returned to the aeroplane.

By this time everything was in readiness for the trying out of the engine again. Orville and Wilbur went through the formality of testing the motor and machinery. They did not work to the satisfaction of the brothers, for after skipping a few times the engine was shut off and the propellers ceased to revolve.

“Advance that spark,” commanded Wilbur. Orville did. The engine was cranked up again, and a moment later it was throbbing rhythmically.

Orville directed Foulois to climb in. Foulois put two stopwatches around his neck and got into the passenger seat next to the engine. He then strapped a box compass to his left thigh, lashed an aneroid barometer to his right thigh, and jammed a map into his belt. Orville crammed his cap down on his head, and took his place. The propellers, which had been humming steadily, increased their revolutions until they shrilled into a scream. “If I have any trouble,” Orville shouted above the roar of the engine, “I’ll land in a field or the thickest clump of trees I can find.” Foulois later wrote, “I nodded and gulped. I had picked a course with no fields of any kind en route. It was too late to do anything about it now, so I grabbed the edge of the seat with both hands and waited.”

“All ready!” shouted Wilbur, who stood with his stopwatch in hand at the end of the right lateral plane. Wilbur asked Orville “Everything all right? Orville nodded and said “O.K.” Orville, waved his hand to his sister and released the ton of weights on the starting derrick that gave the machine its initial velocity. The aeroplane shot down the rail and left it at 6:46:47. It swept down the field at a height of not more than 2 feet from the ground. During the dash down the field it appeared to everyone that the aeroplane could not possibly rise. It seemed to touch the ground twice after it got away, but on the turn near the balloon shed, Orville raised the forward planes, twisted his laterals, and the machine began to lift a little higher at a steep angle, until it attained a height sufficient to enable the first turn to be negotiated. As it came up on the Arlington cemetery side, it was rapidly soaring higher, with every foot traversed. Wilbur, with a stopwatch in one hand and a signal flag in the other, ran down to the center of the field and stood on the starting line. There was a cheer from the crowd that was gathered at the north end of the field. For two circuits of the field the aeroplane rose, higher and higher until it reached an altitude of some 125 feet. As it reached the starting point, at the end of the second circle, Orville swung it around sharply to the right, and it sailed down the center of the field, over Wilbur’s head, and crossed over the starting line. Foulois flicked one stop watch and pointed out the exact course they should follow to Shuter’s Hill. The aeroplane shot off on its flight. The starting time on the actual ten-mile test was 6:48:39.

“They’ve started!” called out thousands, and then great cheering went up. The aeroplane started out across the open country, past a tall black chimney and over the buildings which were clustered below it. The crowd became tremendously excited as it watched the aeroplane wheeling its way through the air toward the wind-tossed balloon at the halfway point. Mrs. (Alice) Nicholas Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who was in her runabout with her husband, the congressman, was seen to dance up and down like an excited child, and senators in the throng slapped one another on the back, shouting out comments in emotional voices.

The aeroplane bore swiftly down on the first balloon, however, when it was seen to turn westward out of its course. This was due to a cross-wind that blew from that direction and was drifting the aeroplane somewhat away from the route Orville had planned to take. In this maneuver, which was necessary, Orville lost some precious time. Each mile over forty was worth $2,500 to the brothers. Foulois recalled that the engines were functioning perfectly as they skimmed over the treetops toward the first balloon. “The air was bumpy and I had the feeling that there were moments when Orville did not have full control of the machine as we dipped ground ward. But each time Orville would raise the elevators slightly, and we would gain back the lost altitude.”

The aeroplane grew smaller and smaller as it neared the first balloon. It was high above the tree tops, which crown the summit of the first ridge of hills, and it seemed to be going higher and higher. Soon it was only a speck, silhouetted against the iridescent sky, but thousands of eyes were riveted on that tiny spot, which held a strange fascination for them.

It disappeared. The tension became more acute. The spectators peered into the distance with eyes that could see nothing but the first balloon, bobbing up and down, and swinging from side to side in the breeze. After it had passed beyond the range of vision of the naked eye it could be seen through field glasses for a brief interval. Then, in a flash, it sank behind the farthest hills, and was lost entirely to the thousands at the starting point.

Wilbur was standing near the starting derrick, straining his eyes through a field glass. His sister was at his elbow, besieging him with questions. When the aeroplane disappeared he kept the glasses to his eyes, reassuring Katharine that there was nothing to worry about, but watching with eagerness for some sign of the returning craft.

About 500 people journeyed to Shuter’s Hill to watch the coming of the aeroplane, and after the heavy showers of the early afternoon many were not optimistic that the flight would take place. Having profited from the experiences of the several days preceding, however, and the newspaper predictions that Orville would not attempt a flight until the sun had passed behind the western hills, the crowd did not begin to gather until nearly 6pm.

Earlier in the afternoon the captive balloon around which the aeroplane must circle had been anchored at the foot of the hill, on the south side, and it swayed gently above the edge of the reservoir of the Alexandria Water Company. There were sixteen mounted soldiers on and near the hill to warn stragglers away from the field over which the aeroplane must either fly or fall.

The crowd on the hill gazed northward into the sunset sky. Owing to the failure of the Army field telegraph to resume communication with Fort Myer, the airship appeared above the distant horizon of tree tops unheralded and almost unexpected. “There it is” screamed a keen-eyed boy. The surrounding people followed the direction of his pointing direction and began to shout. There was a concerted cry “He’s coming!” and a rush toward the plateau to the west of the golf club house was made. As the biplane passed over Braddock Heights (187 feet above mean sea level) one of the highest points in the path established, the whirl of the engine and propellers could be heard by those waiting at the turning point, about two miles distant. Saltzman and Sweet, seated in their automobile at the flagstaff, were struggling with the field telegraph and had no inkling that the aeroplane had even started until they were startled into attention by the shouting, and then a mounted trooper galloped up, so excited that he almost forgot to salute, and exclaimed, “Coming, Sir.” The detail of cavalry on duty there forgot the purpose of their presence and sat rapt upon their horses watching, like everybody else.

It was quickly seen that if the aeroplane kept a straight course, it must turn the stake balloon from east to the right, instead of from the west to the left, as had been expected. Suddenly Orville cut across the course and turned toward the hill and aerial buoy from the west. Foulois watched the crowd on the brow of the hill waving their umbrellas and handkerchiefs. The aeroplane was easily 300 feet above the ground, but the trees and buildings on the hill called for a still greater altitude to clear them. She rose to perhaps 350 feet and cleared the hill easily, and a great cheer broke from those assembled on the hilltop. The aeroplane swung majestically around in a wide circle, passing around the stake balloon, at which point Foulois flicked the second stopwatch, sailed over the reservoir, and  rushed back toward Fort Myer, over the tree curtain at the northern edge of the view, and so out of sight.

As soon as the aeroplane had swept around the hill, and the word had been flashed to Fort Myer by telephone, the official automobile cast loose from the temporary wire that had been used for communication between the hill and the fort, and in a jiffy was speeding toward the north, leaving Signal Corps personnel to haul down the balloon and pack up the paraphernalia which was used at that end of the route.

More time was lost when the second balloon was reached. Orville, instead of turning into the teeth of the breeze from the west on the turn, made the turn with the wind. This deflected the line of the machine so that it dropped forty feet in its flight. This forty feet had to be regained in order to cross the forest-covered ridges that lay between Shuter’s Hill and the starting point at Fort Myer. The aeroplane regained height and Orville pointed it due north toward the Arna Valley (through which runs Four Mile Run, a stream which empties out into the Potomac River immediately south of today’s Reagan National Airport).

The next minute and a half seemed like ten to those who were watching the southern horizon. Spectators with strained faces asked their neighbors if they thought the aviators had met with an accident, or had made a descent at the turning point. Then, several persons shouted simultaneously, “There it comes!” And then, as the crowd again caught sight of a tiny speck over the farthest tree-tops, there was a tremendous cheer and great relief to the anxious watchers.

Larger and larger grew the speck, until the general outline of the aeroplane was clearly visible. Then in the twinkling of an eye it disappeared again, this time between the two ridges of hills. The aeroplane, flying over the valley, had met with a powerful down draught and sank into it. To the watchers at the fort it appeared as though the aeroplane had plunged downward, disabled. Again the faces of the spectators became drawn with tense interest. Again speculation was rife as to whether an accident had befallen the aviators. Visions of the tragic occurrence of last year, when Selfridge was killed in a similar accident, held the crowd spellbound.

Only Wilbur was apparently unconcerned. He knew the machine’s capabilities and he realized that the chances of a mishap were slim. He turned and chatted in an unconcerned manner with those around him for a moment. His sister walked down the field with her women friends, apparently unable to bear the nervous strain of standing still. Wilbur followed them but halted in the center of the field and picked up the signal flag again. He seemed very confident; no doubts seemed to trouble him. Back of him the crowd was experiencing keen anxiety as to the possible fate of the machine and its occupants, but Wilbur stood there, “keen-eyed and immovable, awaiting its return with the assurance born of experience.”

Almost as instantaneously as the aeroplane had disappeared, it appeared again, swinging up over the trees on the nearest ridge (Arlington Ridge). The sigh of relief of the crowd was audible. A second later, when the nerves of the onlookers had relaxed, there was wild cheering.

The aeroplane climbed until it reached 400 feet-a world’s altitude record. As it neared Fort Myer, Orville nosed down to pick up speed, and aimed at the starting derrick. Going down wind now, the ground speed increased. On and on it came, high above the tops of the trees, toward the fort, growing larger as it swept on toward the crowd. As it swept nearer, the crowd raised cheer after cheer. The pandemonium was increased by the sounding of hundreds of automobile horns. Government officials tried to rush out on the field before the aeroplane had alighted in order to shake Orville by the hand, but a force of cavalry kept the crowd back.

Over the little church with the red tower, a half mile below the parade grounds, it flew. When the machine reached the southern edge of the parade ground it dropped to within a few feet of the ground. It flew over the balloon shed, and straight up the field across the line, at which point Foulois flicked his second stopwatch. The machine had crossed the finish line at 7:03:10, or an elapsed time of 14 minutes and 40 seconds. The official time was taken from the starting point to the captive balloon at Shuter’s Hill, and from there back to the starting point. The time for the turn was not included in the figures. Wilbur, who held a stop watch on the flight, believed the turn consumed only 26 seconds. This deducted from the elapsed time would give a speed only very slightly reduced from 42 miles per hour. Others who held stopwatches were certain that the aeroplane exceeded that speed by a slight margin.

The crowd began a tremendous cheering, and when the aeroplane circled past the starting derrick, the cheer grew louder and louder. Men were tossing straw hats and waving arms. Orville smiled as he swept past. Foulois sat at his side, “immovable and erect,” but now relaxed.

Once around the field the aeroplane circled, and then Orville had Foulois cut off the engine, and the aeroplane glided in for a fairly smooth landing amid a cloud of dust on the little elevation to the southeast of the shed.

Foulois and Orville after exiting the aeroplane, shook hands, and walked rapidly over to the shed, where Katharine Wright was waiting for Orville. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him several times. Wilbur rushed up the next moment. Foulois would later write that “it was the first time I ever saw him with a smile on his face.” One newspaper reported that “the corners of his mouth were twitching, the first outward indications of emotion that he has exhibited during the month and a half that he has been at Fort Myer.” “You got the money, you got the money,” he called out. “You bet we did,” replied Orville. He and Foulois were both hungry. They had a quick bite to eat in the balloon shed, making requisition on Miss Wright’s lunch basket and drawing heavily on her supply of tea.

“My sensations?” repeating a just asked question, Foulois, removing a cigar from his lips, said, “why, I didn’t have any. I was too busy.” He was asked too busy doing what. “Oh,” he replied, laughingly, “too busy watching the time and taking in the landscape we were passing over. I had no idea there were so many trees and so much rough country in the world. It appeared as though we could not alight if anything went wrong with our motor, but it kept to its work in fine shape. I didn’t touch it until we were ready to alight, when Mr. Wright nudged me and I shut off the power. I was a passenger throughout the flight and behaved as such.”

A few moments later, they were joined by Maj. Charles Treat who had been sent by President Taft. Taft, who was anxious to witness the cross country flight, did not arrive until the machine was winging its way homeward. He witnessed the last minutes of the flight from the big touring car in which he had motored to Fort Myer, and immediately after the descent had sent Treat to convey his congratulations to Orville. The officer conveyed the compliments of President Taft, and his deep regrets at not having been able to witness the entire flight.

Then Katherine Wright ran to the telephone in the Signal Corps tent and dictated the following telegram to the father of the family at Dayton: “Orville has just completed a splendid flight to Alexandria and return. All safe and sound.” Then she hurried back to the balloon shed, where the officers of the Signal Corps had to make a way for her through the crowd that was held back of the ropes. She ran promptly into Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, who seized her. “Wasn’t it splendid?” She exclaimed, pumping Katharine’s hand up and down. “I never saw anything like it, and I’ve just come from telling your brothers so. You ought to be proud of them.” “I am,” she said, and sought Orville.

Wilbur remained outside for a little while, and talked to the newspaper men. “Roughly speaking, I should say she made about 42 ½ miles an hour,” he said. “That’s only a rough computation.” “I’m sure we are over the 42-mile mark. A wind from the west interfered a little with the speed, and I think Orville flew a little too high, so that he got all there was to get of it. It was a great flight, though.”

“I want you boys to get a few things right,” he continued, requesting for the first time since arriving in June that certain things be printed. “Remember that this is the first cross-country flight ever made over rough country in a heavier-than-air machine, over a course which had not been carefully picked out beforehand, with the idea in mind of reducing to the minimum the chance of risk of alighting. Then, again, remember that our machine had just made the best time ever recorded over a measured course, and I am counting flights in Europe with only one passenger, whereas we had two. I want you to get those things right, because Orville has accomplished some few things today.” He was plainly elated at the performance of the aeroplane and delighted at his brother’s accomplishments.

A little later Orville came out and permitted himself to be bombarded with questions. “That wind from the west cut down our speed,” he said. “I am positive that the machine could have made 45 miles an hour under better conditions. During the beginning of the flight I was not able to make out the balloon at the turning point, and because of that fact I did not fly in a straightaway course. When about half of the distance I had to swing around to the right. The wind blew me off my course, and, in addition to that, I misjudged my ultimate destination, so that I lost a little time because of that fact, too, having to make a wider sweep than I had planned before rounding the balloon.” “We ran into a little wind flurry between the two ridges coming back. It bore us down a little. That was when I disappeared from view. We had to ride against it like forty, and it seemed difficult to get up for a while. Still, at that we were 200 feet above the tree tops. I suppose that there were several times when we were more than 400 feet up.”  “I took a keen interest in everything below me, and did not feel the element of danger any more than when flying about the parade grounds. It seemed as if everybody living along the course was out to get a look. Every house-top that we crossed had its complement of spectators, and, in many instances, they seemed to have brought out bed sheets or table cloths to wave at us as we passed.”

As to his claim that if it were not for the strong breeze he could have made 45 miles an hour, or more, he was asked if he would make another flight to demonstrate that. He answered, “No, I think not. We have met the government requirements, and I think we shall stop there.”

A particularly enthusiastic General Allen, the Chief Signal Officer, went to the shed with the members of the Aeronautical Board to congratulate Orville. “I’m sorry the President didn’t get here earlier,” he said. “He missed the sight of a lifetime. It was a wonderful performance.”

As soon as the Aeronautical Board members could get together, they compared their stopwatches and determined that the official speed to Alexandria had been 37.735 miles per hour, on the return trip it was calculated at 47.431 miles per hour with the average official time computed at 42.583 miles per hour. Major Squier asked the brothers if they wanted to make another trial since the specification allowed them three chances. They replied that they would stand on this, their first cross-country flight.

Although the official time figure had to be made public that evening, generally everyone agreed that the Wright Brothers had met the contract specification and would be awarded a contract for $25,000 plus an additional bonus for exceeding 40 miles per hour.

That evening, General Allen told the press that the final requirement of the contract was for the Wright Brothers to train two Army officers how to fly the aeroplane the Army was acquiring. It was assumed at the time the two students would be Foulois and Lahm. Allen stated that the training would take place at a site in Maryland some ten miles distant from Fort Myer.[15]

“I hardly had time to have any sensations,” said Foulois that evening at his apartments in the Ontario (2853 Ontario Rd NW) when asked by a Washington Post reporter how it felt to fly ten miles across country at breakneck speed in an aeroplane. “Keeping the time and watching the course so as to assist Orville Wright to fly in a straight line required all my attention from the minute we left the parade ground at the fort until we had made the journey back. My hands were full all the time, and it was over so soon that it seemed to me to have taken only a minute or two. I had to be on the alert every second. What sensations I experienced, brief as they were, can be best described by the word glorious. It is a great feeling to float along up in the air.”

He was asked about fear. “I didn’t have time to be afraid. There was no danger as long as the aeroplane was intact and the motor worked properly. Of course, there is always danger of an accident, but I had supreme confidence in the machine and in our ability to get there and come back safely.” “Several time things looked squally. We were at a height on one part of the trip that I think must have been between 400 and 500 feet. Once we struck a strong cross-wind, and the machine veered some, but at no time was I apprehensive of the outcome of the trip.”

“Though we were going at railroad speed, I was not conscious of the rapidity with which we were flying. That is one of the peculiarities of traveling in an aeroplane. The country in front of you seems to come right up instead of you approaching to meet it. The only evidence of one’s speed is the wind rushing by and the rapidly approaching goal. It seemed to me we were hardly moving at all. It’s not like travelling in an automobile, where you are close to the earth.”

Here Foulois laughed heartily over a joke that one of the signal corps officers had told him. “When Lieut. Lahm went up in the hour’s endurance flight they asked him what he wanted put on his grave,” said Foulois. “Put bluegrass over it,” replied Lahm. If they had asked me that today, I would have replied “Put wooden nutmegs over mine, for I’m from Connecticut.” Everybody present laughed at this.

“Yes, it was a great success, and shows conclusively that the aeroplane is to be one of the greatest possible factors in warfare on land and sea in the future. The Wright aeroplane has come up to everything that we expected, and more, too. It is a great flying machine,”

Foulois said that he and Lahm had been designated to learn how to operate the aeroplane and he supposed that they would begin taking lessons from either Wilbur or Orville the following week. He said that one or the other he understood would remain to instruct them in the art of flying. He said the Fort Myer parade ground was too small for this, and some other place close to Washington would have to be found.[16]

Painting of Lt. Ben. Foulois in airplane cockpit.
“Lt. Ben Foulois – 1910”. US Air Force Art Collection. (NAID 6436014).

On August 2, 1909, the Army formally took possession of the Wright aeroplane which was designated as Signal Corps No. 1. During the fall, Wilbur Wright fulfilled the training obligation and the brothers received their $30,000 contract payment, which included the $5,000 bonus for exceeding 40-miles per hour by two miles.[17]   

As things turned out Foulois was sent to Europe for an international aeronautical conference and was not one of the two Army officers to be trained to fly at the College Park, Maryland Army Aviation School. He did return later that fall to receive some training and would end up flying the Army’s Wright aeroplane in Texas in 1910 and at College Park in 1911. He retired from the military service as a major general and chief of the Army Air Corps on December 31, 1935. The Wright aeroplane, considered obsolete, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution at the end of September 1911.[18] It is now housed at the National Air and Space Museum.

Image of Foulois and Dr. Rhoads.
Visit of Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois to the National Archives on Mar. 7, 1966 with Dr. James Rhoads, Fifth Archivist of the United States (1968-1979). (NAID 74227284), Record Group 64.

Footnotes:


[1] War Department, Annual Reports for the year ended June 30, 1908 Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), vol. I, p. 45; vol. II, p. 211, p. 2; “Wrights Due Here Today,” The Washington Post, June 20, 1909, p. 6; “Aeroplane as Safe as Auto, says Wright,” The New York Times, June 21, 1909, p. 3

[2] Army and Navy Register, September 30, 1911, p. 10; War Department, Annual Reports for the year ended June 30, 1908 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), vol. I, p. 45; Benjamin D. Foulois, with Colonel C. V. Glines, USAF, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois (New York, Toronto, London, Sydney: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968), p. 54; Paul W. Clark and Laurence A. Lyons, George Owen Squier: U.S. Army Major General, Inventor, Aviation Pioneer, Founder of Muzak (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014), p. 86; Initial Development by Signal Corps 1908-1914, Tab A to Summary of Development of Air Corps from 1908 to Date, File 321.9 History of the Organization of the Army Air Force 1941, Security Classified Central Decimal Files, January 1939-September 1942, Entry 293-B, Records of the Army Air Forces, Record Group 18 (NAID 6860411); “Wright Flies Over an Hour,” The New York Times, September 10, 1908, p. 1; “Wright Breaks His Airship Record,” The New York Times, September 13, 1908, p. 1;

[3] Kenneth Munson, Pioneer Aircraft 1903-1914 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1969), p. 21.

[4] Report of the Chief Signal Officer U.S. Army to the Secretary of War for Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1909 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1909), p. 28..

[5] “In Swiftest Flight,” The Washington Post, July 22, 1909, p. 1. The first Michelin Trophy for duration flying was won by Wilbur Wright, who on December 31, 1908, completed 36 laps of a 1.37 mile circuit in France, establishing at the same time world records for duration and for distance flown. Munson, Pioneer Aircraft 1903-1914, p. 13.

[6] David McCulloch, The Wright Brothers (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, New Delhi: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 2015), p. 13.

[7] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 62; “Flies 73 Minutes with a Passenger,” The New York Times, July 28, 1909, p. 1; “Air Exploits and Problems,” The Washington Post, July 28, 1909, p. 6; “New World Mark by Orville Wright,” The Washington Post, July 28, 1909, p. 1.

[8] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 62.

[9] John F. Shiner, Foulois and the U.S. Army Air Corps 1931-1935 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, 1983); Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois.

[10] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, pp. 62-63.

[11] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 63.

[12] “Wind Halts Flight,” The Washington Post, July 29, 1909, p. 1; “Wright Fails to Fly Gets 3 Days More,” The New York Times, July 29, 1912, p. 14;  “Sudden Storm Stops Wright from Flying,” The New York Times, July 30, 1909, p. 1.

[13] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 65.

[14] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 63.

[15] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, pp. 1, 63-65; “Victory for Wright in 10-Mile Flight,” The New York Times, July 31, 1909, p. 1; “New Record Made by Wright Airship,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1909, p. 1; “Over Shooters Hill,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1909, p. 2; “Foulois as A Flyer,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1909, p. 2.

[16] “Foulois as A Flyer,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1909, p. 2.

[17] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 65; War Department, Annual Reports for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1913 (Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1914), vol. I, p. 791.

[18] Army and Navy Register, September 30, 1911, p. 10; “Old Aero in Museum,” The Washington Post, September 29, 1911, p. 3; “Guard Pioneer Aeroplane,” The New York Times, June 18, 1911, p. 2.

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