How the 1903 Flyer got where it is today.
- By Peter L. Jakab
- Air & Space magazine, March 2003
(Page 3 of 4)
Orville lamented the entire situation. “In sending our original 1903 machine to the Science Museum, London, I do so with the belief it will be impartially judged and will receive whatever credit it is entitled to,” he wrote in the March 1928 issue of the journal U.S. Air Services. “I regret more than anyone else that this course is necessary.”
In the face of Orville’s action, the Smithsonian continued to dodge the issue. Secretary Charles Abbot—Walcott’s successor—offered only an unsatisfactory compromise on the language of the label accompanying the Langley airplane, and did so, in Abbot’s words, “not in confession of error, but in a gesture of good will for the honor of America.” These words only stiffened Orville’s resolve.
In 1942, the Smithsonian finally published a retraction of its views on the Langley matter, and in 1943 Orville made plans to have the Flyer returned to the United States and transferred to the Smithsonian for public display. During World War II, the airplane was stored with British national treasures in an underground chamber about 100 miles from London. After the war, Orville agreed to leave the Flyer at the Science Museum until restorers could make a copy for display there.
In January 1948, Orville, then 76, died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving it to the executors of his estate to fulfill his wishes and bring the Flyer home. It was installed at the Smithsonian in an elaborate ceremony on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after its history-making flights. On the occasion, the British ambassador to the United States, Sir Oliver Franks, eloquently summed up the significance of the airplane: “It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.”
Thirty-six years later, in late 1984, the National Air and Space Museum began a restoration of the Flyer, the first time it had received any major conservation treatment since Orville Wright had prepared it to go to the Science Museum in the late 1920s. Curator of aircraft Robert Mikesh supervised the work, with Wright brothers expert Tom Crouch providing historical guidance. The curators decided to perform the treatment in the Museum so visitors would not be deprived of the sight of the Flyer. Restorers carefully cleaned and repaired the wooden framework. They also removed corrosion on the metal fittings and treated the surfaces with preservative. In order to retain the remaining original paint on the engine but still refinish it, the workers applied a coating of light, inert wax before giving the engine a fresh coat of black paint. If need be, the new paint and wax can be easily removed to reveal the original paint underneath.
During four months of disassembling, cleaning, preserving, and studying the Wright Flyer, the Museum staff learned many things about the famous object. When the fabric covering was removed, details of the structure were better understood, and some interesting markings were revealed. Inside one of the wingtips was stamped the name “Browns.” Tom Crouch discovered that S.N. Brown Co. was a carriage company in Dayton, Ohio, and that the wingtips were made from bowed pieces of wood that formed a folding carriage roof. A restoration technician made a similar discovery when the wing spars were taken off the ribs and stacked in the correct order. Written on them was “Wilbur Wright” and the shipping destination of the parts, “Elizabeth City, N.C.” Comparison of the fabric Orville had put on in the 1920s with the original 1903 fabric, a sample of which is in the Museum’s collection, showed that Orville had sewn the covering slightly differently in 1927. When they applied new fabric in 1985, Museum technicians stitched it using the 1903 pattern, increasing the accuracy of the Flyer for subsequent display. Finally, draftsmen carefully measured and documented the aircraft, producing a set of drawings that very accurately represent the aircraft as it exists today.
When Orville had first made repairs and reassembled the Flyer in 1916, he had had to replace the engine crankcase, crankshaft, flywheel, and propellers. The 1984-1985 treatment showed the airplane to be in very good condition. Other than the fabric, nothing was replaced, and the airframe is exactly what flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Since coming to the Smithsonian in 1948, the airplane has been taken down from its hanging display only three times: to transfer it to the new Museum building in 1976, to restore it in 1984-1985, and to move it into another gallery during three months of repairs to the skylights in the Milestones of Flight gallery in 2000. This year we will take the Flyer down once more, this time to display it for the first time on the floor, in a gallery all its own, along with the most extensive presentation on the Wright brothers the Museum has ever offered. Opening this October, the Museum’s anniversary exhibition, “The Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age,” will provide visitors a two-year opportunity to see the aircraft in intimate detail.