Tragedy at Fort Myer

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ack in Dayton, Orville was shouldering a yeoman's burden. He worked feverishly to build an aircraft for the U.S. Army with the two Charlie's — Charlie Taylor and Charlie Furnas. And he took over the correspondence, a job that he hated and gladly left to Wilbur.

Nonetheless, he put his pen to paper and pumped out letters and articles for Scientific American, Aeronautics, and other periodicals. The best of these was a piece that he wrote for Century magazine, "The Wright Brother's Aeroplane." It was a clear and entertaining account of the Wright's aeronautical adventure, from the small rubber band-powered toy their father gave the, in 1878 to the creation of a practical airplane in 1905. Orville was so unsure of his writing skills that he offered to return a portion of the $500 fee when he sent the article. The editor paid the full fee, and rightly so — the Century article remains a masterpiece of aviation literature, even today.

When the Army aircraft was complete, Orville sent the two Charlie's ahead to Fort Myer with it while he tied up loose ends in Dayton. They were transporting the crated aircraft from Arlington Station to a large balloon hangar when Orville arrived on August 20, 1908. He was immediately swept up in a whirlwind of reporters, politicians, officers, and dignitaries who barraged him with "..ten thousand fool questions…about the machine." A week after Orville arrived, he complained in a letter to Katharine, "I haven't done a lick of work since I got here."

In point of fact, he had done some work. Orville and the two Charlies worked with efficiency and focus that amazed many of the Army officials who observed them. And they needed to focus — things did not go well. The engine refused to run properly; it would not develop the hoped-for horsepower. This put the screws to Orville and his assistants. One of the requirements in the Army specifications was that the airplane fly 40 miles per hour. If it flew slower — even by just a small amount — the payment to the Wrights would be significantly less. That summer, Baldwin and Curtiss had delivered a dirigible to the Army that flew 4/10 of a mile per hour slower than specified, and they were docked $6,750!

Orville, Charlie, and Charlie nursed the sick engine back to health with higher octane gasoline and some new oil cups. On September 3, Orville made his first public flight. Like Wilbur's, it was short and sweet — just a turn and a half of the Fort Myer parade grounds. The public was unimpressed — the news story was buried on page 3 of the Washington "Evening Star."

But they did not remain impressed for long. The flights began to get longer and longer, and by September 9, Orville was breaking records almost daily and remaining aloft for over an hour at a time. He also began taking passengers, flying the aviation experts that the Army had assembled to review the Wright airplane.

On September 17, he took Lt. Thomas Selfridge flying, and he was none too happy about it. Although Selfridge was a member of the review board, he was also one of Bell's Boys, a member of the A.E.A. and a potential competitor. "I don't trust him an inch," Orville wrote to Wilbur. "He plans to meet me often at dinner where he can pump me."

The flight began normally and uneventfully as Orville made climbing circles around the grounds. Suddenly there were two loud thumps. Later, the Wrights and the Army would learn that a propeller had split. As Orville reached to cut off the engine, the airplane gave a violent shake as the broken propeller caught the aircraft rigging. The craft lunged for the ground, hitting nose first and burying the pilot and passenger in a twisted mess of wood, wire, and cloth.

The two Charlies reached Orville first and pulled him clear , bleeding and unconscious. It took much longer to retrieve Lt. Selfridge; he was trapped in the wreck. When he was finally extricated, both men were taken to the fort's hospital. Late in the evening, a doctor announced that Orville had suffered a broken leg, broken ribs, and an injured back. His condition was serious, but he would live — although Orville's leg and back pained him for the rest of his days.

Lt. Thomas Selfridge was less fortunate. He died on the operating table, the first victim of an accident in a powered aircraft.

The news of Orville's accident galvanized his sister Katharine. Without hesitation, she took an indefinite leave from her teaching job in Dayton and left for Fort Myer. Once there, Katharine oversaw Orville's medical care and attended to his affairs while he was convalescing.

Katharine asked Octave Chanute to help her look after her brothers' fledgling airplane business. Members of the A.E.A. were in town for Lt. Selfridge's funeral and they were curious for a peek at the wrecked Wright flying machine. They had, in fact, visited the balloon shed where the wreckage was kept and Alexander Graham Bell had measured the wing.

When Orville was well enough, he had the two Charlies bring him bits of the wreckage to inspect. He quickly found the cause of the accident — one propeller had broken and clipped a bracing wire that held the tail in place. As the tail collapsed, it sent the Flyer into a deadly dive. Orville explained his conclusions to the Army, and the Army was quick to assure him they would extend his contract. Although he had not yet completed his demonstration flights, the Board of Ordinance was convinced the Flyer would do everything the Wrights had claimed.

In Their Own Words

  • The Wright Brothers Aeroplane --  Orville's article from the September edition of The Century magazine remains a classic of aviation literature.

1908 Group with Flyer.jpg (195527 bytes)
The 1908 Wright Military Flyer at Fort Meyer.

1908 dignitaries.jpg (179607 bytes)
A group of Military and civilian dignitaries inspect the airplane.

1908 Flyer motor 2.jpg (204569 bytes)
The cockpit of the 1908 Military Flyer.

1908 Getting Ready.jpg (202947 bytes)
Orville readies the Flyer for a flight.

1908 Fort Meyer Take Off.jpg (53699 bytes)
A take-off from Fort Meyer, and the beginning of one of the first  publicized flights in America.

1908 Fort Meyer in air.jpg (651083 bytes)
The 1908 Military Flyer above Fort Meyer.

1908 Fort Meyer Just Before Crash.jpg (38429 bytes)
The Flyer seconds before the propeller breaks and Orville loses control.

1908 Fort Meyer Crash 3.jpg (48107 bytes)
The Flyer just after the crash.

1908 Fort Meyer Crash 7.jpg (78476 bytes)
Soldiers work to free Lt. Selfridge from the wreckage.

1908 Fort Meyer Crash 4.jpg (60247 bytes)
Soldiers lift the Flyer clear of Lt. Selfridge. Orville is on the ground in the midst of the group at the right.

1908 Fort Meyer Crash 5.jpg (55347 bytes)
Orville is carried off on a stretcher. The broken propeller can be seen just above him.

1908 Fort Meyer Crash 2.jpg (74724 bytes)
The aftermath of the crash.

1908 Fort Meyer Crask.jpg (39819 bytes)
Another view of the wreckage.

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The Wright Story/Showing the World/Orville Wright Crashes at Fort Myer

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers
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