Army, aviation bonded at Fort Myer

FORTMYERFLIGHT2

A 109-year-old pass to the 1909 Wright brothers flight demonstrations held on Fort Myer during the summer. The 1909 flights involving both Orville and Wilbur Wright proved the flyer’s versatility and endurance.

Editor’s Note: This is the first week of a series of articles about aviation history on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.

In December, 1905, two bike mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, successfully performed the first controlled, powered aircraft flight on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville and Wilbur Wright soon became the parents of the United States Army Air Corps and the United States Air Force. Two occasions of flight above Fort Myer proved the brothers were sound aeronautic engineers and their journeys to the skies were neither a novelty nor a stunt. Serious demonstration of their flying machine took place in the sky above present day Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.

Three years following Kitty Hawk, the Wrights found themselves, not facing a fork in the road, but a fork in the sky. After some interest and wooing from European countries, the brothers took their American ingenuity overseas, but the United States Army came calling with interest about a military version of the Wright flyer.

On January 3, 1908, the Wrights receive a copy of Signal Corps Specifications 486, a request to deliver a heavier-than-air flying machine to the government and more specifically, the military.

The specifications also stated the testing of the flying machine would take place at Fort Myer.

Dr. Tom Crouch, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum aeronautics senior curator explained why the Arlington, Virginia Army installation was selected for the test flights. While Kitty Hawk was out of the way, Washington, D.C., was a world capital with thousands looking for amusement.

“The Signal Corps was there, Washington was there, people could come out and watch,” Crouch said. “Army brass was there. It was a natural place to do it.”

But the elements did not make flying natural at Fort Myer. Groves of trees and rows of barracks which still stand today provided cramped quarters as Orville readied for his 1908 tests.

Prior to the September 17, 1908 crash, Orville religiously wrote Wilbur on the project’s status and to keep his brother informed. Orville often complained about the press, a lack of sleep, and the close quarters at Fort Myer.

In a letter dated September 3, the day Orville made his first public flight at Fort Myer, he stated to Wilbur: “I find that the machine can be turned in a space much smaller than the field I am now in, though I find it pretty hard on the nerves to have to be turning all the time. I apprehend no trouble, however, after a few hours practice.”

Like many parents, the Wrights were protective of their offspring, and their offspring was the first-ever military airplane. The key requirements the Wrights needed to pass to clinch the contract were flying over an average speed of 40 miles per hour, an operator and observer must be on board plus longevity, height, and distance metrics were written into the contract. Leading up to the flights, the government, still stinging from awarding a $50,000 contract for the failed (Samuel) Langley aerodrome project, is basically telling the Wrights to show us what you got.

“You have to remember, these guys don’t even show pictures of the airplane,” Crouch said of the brothers from Dayton. “They don’t show their hand until 1908. The famous picture of December 17, Orville’s first flight, wasn’t published until 1908. When the British and the French would visit Dayton, the Wrights wouldn’t even show them pictures of the airplane in the air. They were afraid somebody would see how they did it.”

Crouch emphasized the Army was supportive of the Fort Myer flights.

“The Army - the people who counted - basically had great faith in the Wrights,” Crouch said. “They had talked to people who had seen them fly. They talked to Wilbur and Orville. The Wright brothers established the (contract) criteria for the purchase of the airplane.”

A September 17, 1908 a crash, which occurred on Fort Myer, killed early Army aviator 1st Lt. Thomas Selfridge and badly injured Orville Wright . JBM-HH’s Bldg. 59 played a significant role in the accident. Both Selfridge and Wright were brought to Bldg. 59, which in 1908, was the installation’s hospital.

After months of recovery, Orville returned to Fort Myer and Wilbur joined the test flight fray. On June 26, Congress asked the brothers for a flight demonstration, but the Wrights refused. Orville returned to the Fort Myer skies on June 29. A month later, with President Howard Taft present near Summerall Field, the military flyer started and completed a 10-mile course to and from Alexandria’s Shooter’s Hill, which is the present site of the George Washington Masonic Memorial.

“That was the final flight fulfilling the contract,” Crouch said. “It covered (the contract requirements of) distance, the carrying of a passenger, and it covered speed. They exceeded the speed requirement, so they actually got several thousand dollars more than the contract promised.”

“It was an extraordinary moment,” Crouch said of the military flight.

Pentagram Staff Writer Jim Dresbach can be reached at jdresbach@dcmilitary.com.