One hundred and five years ago, the U.S. Army tested and accepted its first heavier-than-air aircraft, Signal Corps Airplane No. 1. It was a 1909 Wright A-plane, or Wright Military Flyer, similar to the 1908 version that killed Lt. Thomas Selfridge and severely injured Orville Wright the previous September at Fort Myer, Virginia. However, the new aircraft had a number of modifications to help control the aircraft and make it safer to fly.
The Wright brothers flew their first sustained, powered, controlled flight almost six years before in December 1903. Since that date, they attempted numerous times to get the Army to buy their invention. Army flight trials began in 1908 and ended with Selfridge’s tragic death.
On June 20, 1909, the Wright brothers arrived with their 1909 model aircraft to resume the official trials. In preparation, the Wrights conducted practice flights starting on June 28. The first official trial was an endurance flight on July 27. The Army required the aircraft to carry the pilot and a passenger for at least an hour.
Orville was the pilot and Lt. Frank Lahm was the passenger-observer. The aircraft exceeded the requirements staying aloft for one hour, 12 minutes, and 40 seconds, and unofficially set a world record for a two-man flight.
Three days later was the speed trial. The Army required the aircraft to fly at a speed of at least 40 miles an hour. If the aircraft could do that, the Wright brothers would win the $25,000 contract. But, the contract had an incentive clause. For every mile over 40 miles per hour, the winner would receive an additional $2,500.
Once again, Orville was the pilot, but this time Lt. Benjamin Foulois was the passenger, navigator and official observer.
The course was laid out from Ft. Myer to Alexandria, Virginia, a distance of 10 miles. A tethered balloon marked the turn point. Unfortunately for the Wrights, both pilot and navigator missed the balloon that was possibly too close to the ground. They shortly realized they had passed the turn point and headed for the finish line. Despite the navigation error, the aircraft covered the official course at a recorded speed of 42.583 miles per hour.
The Army’s board of officers accepted the aircraft on Aug. 2, 1909. With that purchase, the Army began its heavier-than-air plane journey that is now today’s U.S. Air Force.
Because of the speed-trial results, the Wright brothers received $30,000 for the aircraft. But, the Wrights still had to train two Army officers to fly to complete the contract. That fall, Wilbur Wright ended up training three officers, in full or in part, Foulois, Lahm and 2nd Lt. Fredric Humphreys.
Training continued until Nov. 5, when the aircraft made contact with the ground during a low turn. Both Lahm and Humphreys were unhurt, but repairs to the damaged aircraft required parts from Wright’s factory in Dayton, Ohio.
The original 1909 Wright Military Flyer now hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.