A Day to Be Remembered

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In Their Own Words

ccording to Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois, his superiors in the US Army had earmarked him as a "dangerous, erratic nut who would have to be watched carefully lest his radical thoughts get to the public." The behavior which warranted this assessment was that he had recommended that the US Army in general and the Signal Corps in particular "concentrate our interest in the development of heavier-than air vehicles." Owing to this odd belief, he found himself at Fort Myer on 30 July 1909 in the passenger seat of the Wright Military Flyer. The following is excepted from his memoirs.

When June, 1909, rolled around, the Wrights had firmly established the fact in the public mind that their flying machine could indeed fly. On June 9 President Taft invited them to the White House, and presented them with the Aero Club Medal in long-delayed recognition of their achievements. Eight days later a celebration in their honor was given in their home town of Dayton, Ohio, where they received medals from the city and state and a special medal authorized by the Congress which was presented by General Allen.

Orville and Wilbur returned to Washington on June 20, intent upon completing the trials that had been interrupted by the tragic accident the previous September. The machine they brought this time was an improved version which incorporated a number of engineering changes. Structural changes had been made to prevent brace wires from fouling the propeller, the method of attaching the rear rudder had been changed by using a solid wire in place of an elastic stay, and the height of the skids had been increased in front, making them resemble runners on a sleigh. Between the control surfaces on the front elevator two semicircular vertical fins were installed to prevent spinning. Two control levers—one to the right, and the other to the left of the two pilots' seats—controlled the elevator, as in the 1908 ma­chine, but the rudder in the rear was operated by one of the two parts of a split-hinged lever located between the two seats; the other part operated the wing warping for lateral balance. The combined action of these two parts caused the machine to bank at the correct angle. There were no instruments, but the Wrights had fastened a piece of string about eight inches long with a weight attached to the horizontal crossbar between the front ends of the two skids. This served as a turn and bank indicator, and showed by its angle whether the airplane was sliding inward or skidding outward during a banking turn. If the string inclined toward the pilot, it indicated a loss of forward speed and danger of a stall.

The engine, which was practically the same as that in the 1908 plane, was controlled by a foot pedal placed on the footrest crossbar out in front, midway between the two seats. The pedal was connected to the magneto and served to advance or retard the spark. In order to start the engine, it was necessary for someone on the ground to hold a piece of waste, saturated with gasoline, over an open tube into which air was sucked as the engine was turned over by cranking both pro­pellers. The gasoline tank held enough fuel (thirteen gallons) for a flight of three and one-half hours.

The launching apparatus remained the same as before, with a monorail and weight tower. On windy days the airplane was headed into the wind, balanced on the monorail, and set in motion by the propellers without the use of the catapult. On calm days the catapult was used. The skids rested on a small car with two grooved wheels set tandem on the rail. A rope, hooked to the car, ran through a pulley at the front end of the starting track, under the track and through a pulley at the other end; it then passed through a third pulley at the top of a 30-foot pyramid of braced posts, which stood about 10 feet behind the monorail. Weights, totaling almost 2,000 pounds, were attached to the end of the rope which hung down inside the pyramid. The plane was started by drawing it back to the beginning of the track, the weights were hoisted by a block and tackle, the propellers were started, and the weights were allowed to drop. The force of the falling weight, plus the power of the propellers, pulled the plane rapidly along the track. When flying speed was reached, the pilot pulled back on the elevator lever and the plane soared into the air.

It took a month for the Wrights to assemble the machine and test fly it until they were satisfied with its performance. As before, I hung around them every day and pestered them with questions. They tinkered and fussed and muttered to themselves from dawn to dusk, and it seemed as if they would never say they were ready to go. There were many delays of their practice flights because of high winds or rain showers, and those of us on the Aeronautical Board were kidded unmercifully for being "birdmen sitting on the wall," which we seemed to be doing a lot of.

To while away the time, I read a book about flying, written by an Englishman named Lancaster. The questions I asked the Wrights were based on what I had read. Finally, Wilbur stopped working after I had put a question to him, and asked, "What in the world have you been reading to ask something like that?"

"Everything I can lay my hands on," I replied.

Obviously exasperated, Wilbur said, "There are no books worth reading on the subject of flying. You get your hands on that machine over there if you really want to learn about it."

This was a rare invitation for the Wrights to extend to anyone, and I was delighted. I donned my coveralls, stuck a pair of pliers, a screw driver, cotton waste, and a bar of soap in my pockets as I had done before, and got to work.

Close-mouthed and quiet, the only thing the Wrights liked to discuss was their machine and the forthcoming tests. They had no interest in socializing in Washington, and as far as I know never accepted a single invitation during the test period. They granted no interviews with the press, and turned all requests away.

Orville was the more talkative of the two, which wasn't saying much. He was amiable and kind-faced. Wilbur, prematurely bald, about forty then, had deeper furrows in his face and seemed to look at you with a kind of reserved suspicion. When you spoke to the two of them, it would be Orville who would answer, and Wilbur would either nod his assent or add an incomplete sentence as his way of corroborating what his younger brother had said. At no time did I ever hear either of them ever render a hasty or ill-considered answer to any question I asked, and sometimes they would take so long to reply that I wondered if they had heard me.

Apparently, the brothers Wright had decided as a matter of family honor that Orville would fly all the tests at Myer, because I don't recall Wilbur ever flying the new model until after the tests were completed. After a number of short flights, Orville made an endurance flight of one hour, twenty minutes, on July 20. On the twenty-seventh he announced that he was ready to resume the tests where he had left off the year before. With Frank Lahm as passenger, he flew one hour, twelve minutes, and forty seconds, thus more than fulfilling the requirement to remain in the air for an hour with a passenger. It established a new record for a two-man flight.

Next and last specification to be satisfied was the speed test over a measured five-mile course. Because of my previous map-making experience, Major Squier asked me to lay out the course. I chose a rise of ground at Alexandria, Virginia, almost due south of Fort Myer, called Shooter's Hill, to be used as a turning point. It is the present site of the George Washington Masonic Memorial, the cornerstone of which had been laid not long before. I chose this site because it was above the surrounding terrain and should have been easy to navigate toward at an altitude of 100 or so feet. I 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 Alexandria. The telegraph instrument was actually placed on the Masonic Memorial cornerstone.

Remembering my dirigible experience, I was concerned that we would wander off our course from Myer to Alexandria, so I arranged for a small captive balloon to be ascended from Shooter's Hill and one anchored about halfway between the two points. Finally, it was announced on July 29 that the cross-country speed test would be attempted the next day. The only question among the board members was who was to be the navigator-passenger on this all-important flight. It was decided that the Wrights should make their choice. They did: me.

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.

About 7,000 people showed up on the afternoon of July 30, which was less than usual. Rain showers discouraged many from making the trip because they knew that the Wrights never flew if the weather was unfavorable. About four o'clock it looked as though the sky was clearing and the wind was dying down. Orville told the board members he would be ready in about one hour and a half. Maj. Charles McK. Saltzman and Lieut. George C. Sweet, a Navy observer, quickly drove to Shooter's Hill with the field telephone to let us know when everything was ready there. The Wrights pushed their machine to the starting rail and made many adjustments to the engine and guy wires. I put two stop watches around my neck and got into the passenger seat. I strapped a box compass to my left thigh, lashed an aneroid barometer to my right thigh, and jammed a map into my belt.

Orville warmed up the engine until he was satisfied with it, and climbed aboard. "If I have any trouble," he shouted above the roar of the engine, "I'll land in a field or the thickest clump of trees I can find."

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. Orville revved up the engine, released the trigger, and the machine started down the rail. We skimmed over the grass for a few feet to gain speed, and then climbed for altitude. As we started to circle, Wilbur ran to the center of the field below us with a stop watch in one hand and a signal flag in the other. We made two complete circles of the field, gaining altitude (125 feet), and then Orville swung sharply over the starting line. I flicked one stop watch and pointed out the exact course we should follow to Shooter's Hill.

All twenty-five horses in the engine were functioning perfectly as we skimmed over the treetops toward the first balloon. The air was bumpy, and I had the feeling that there were moments when Orville didn't have full control of the machine as we dipped groundward. It was as if someone on the ground had a string attached to us and would pull it occasionally as they would a kite. But each time Orville would raise the elevators slightly, and we would gain back the lost altitude.

We reached Shooter's Hill all right, and I flicked the second stop watch. There was a crowd on the brow of the hill, and I could see them wave their umbrellas and handkerchiefs. It seemed to me that the angle of bank of the plane was awfully steep as we rounded the turn and the wing tip was much too close to the tops of the trees. A down draft hit us, and I thought we were going to cartwheel into them for sure. We straightened out, however, and started back for Myer. Going down wind now, our ground speed increased and Orville climbed until we reached 400 feet—a world's altitude record. As we neared Myer, Orville nosed down to pick up speed, and aimed at the starting tower. I flicked the stop watch off as we crossed the starting line and relaxed as he made a circle over Arlington Cemetery, cut off the engine, and glided in for a fairly smooth landing amid a cloud of dust.

Wilbur rushed up to us, and it was the first time I ever saw him with a smile on his face. I learned later that he had experienced some excruciating moments of doubt when we had disappeared below the level of the trees around the parade ground on our outward trip.

The crowd was larger when we landed than when we had departed. President Taft had not been present for the takeoff but had seen us land, and sent a messenger through the crowds to us with a note of congratulation. I had the feeling, though, that some of the citizens present were disappointed. From my experience with the crowds that had witnessed the previous test nights, I had no doubt that many of them were disappointed that we had not landed in Arlington Ceme­tery and thus provided them with a real old-fashioned Roman holiday with all the bloody trimmings.

As soon as the board members could get together, we compared our stop watches 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 officially computed at 42.583 miles per hour. Major Squier asked the Wrights 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.

Since they had flown more than 42 miles per hour, it was thought that they would be eligible to collect a bonus of $7,500; however, some government lawyer disallowed the fraction above the 42 miles per hour and they qualified for only $5,000 above their bid price of $25,000. On August 2, 1909, Aeroplane No. 1 was officially accepted into the inventory of the United States Army. Just as important was the fact that we had established three world records for the United States that date: one for a two-man flight at 42.583 miles per hour; another for a cross-country flight of 10 miles; and a third for an altitude record of 400 feet which I verified with the reading of the aneroid barometer strapped to my leg. July 30, 1909, was truly a significant day in American aviation.

Lt. Benjamin_Delahauf_Foulois in early 1911. At the time this photo was taken, the US Army still had only one airplane and Foulois was the sole active US military pilot.

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The Wright Story/Showing the World/Lt. Foulois Flies with Orville Wright

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers


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