The Original

How the 1903 Flyer got where it is today.

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The brothers made three more flights that day, taking turns as pilot. The best, with Wilbur at the controls, covered 852 feet in 59 seconds. After that final flight, a strong gust overturned the Flyer, tumbling it across the sand and badly damaging it. The world’s first airplane would never fly again. Having served its purpose as a research tool, the 1903 Wright Flyer entered a new phase of its history.

Wilbur and Orville had not saved any of their earlier gliders; when they were finished testing them, they simply left them at Kitty Hawk. They, did, however, recognize the historic significance of the first powered airplane, though they did not immediately consider it the treasure we do today. They disassembled it, put it in crates, and shipped those back to Dayton, where they were stored unopened for 13 years. The Flyer’s hibernation included two weeks under water and mud during a 1913 flood. In 1916, Orville reassembled the aircraft for the first time since Kitty Hawk for a brief public display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The Flyer began to acquire the status of a national treasure in the 1920s as a feud developed between Orville and the Smithsonian Institution. The dispute centered on the Smithsonian’s public display of the aeronautical achievements of its former Secretary, Samuel P. Langley, and the Institution’s reluctance to credit the Wright brothers as the true inventors of the airplane. Langley had tested his tandem-wing aircraft, the Aerodrome, on October 7, 1903, and again two months later. Both times the Aerodrome failed to achieve sustained flight, instead crashing immediately into the Potomac River.

Langley died in 1906, but in 1914, Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott, a good friend of Langley’s, authorized aircraft inventor Glenn Curtiss—a Wright competitor—to flight test the Aerodrome in Hammondsport, New York. Curtiss’ tests were overseen by Albert F. Zahm, who was in charge of the Institution-backed Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory; the cost of the tests was covered by the Institution, which also paid Curtiss $2,000 for his services. From the waters of Lake Keuka, Curtiss was able to make a series of short hops in the craft, which had been equipped with floats. The Aerodrome had been substantially modified in other ways too, so it was hardly identical to the one that had fallen so pitifully into the Potomac 11 years before. Still, Walcott labeled the Aerodrome, on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum, as “Original Langley flying machine, 1903, the first man-carrying airplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight. Invented, built and tested over the Potomac River by Samuel Pierpont Langley in 1903. Successfully flown at Hammondsport, N.Y., June 2, 1914.”

In 1925, Orville tried to use the Flyer as leverage to shame the Smithsonian into correcting its stance. He announced that he would loan it to the Science Museum in London. Surely, Orville believed, the American people would not stand to have the world’s first airplane, built in America, by Americans, exiled to a foreign land. The assemblage of wood, wire, and fabric that two decades earlier the brothers had considered only an engineering research platform was now the symbol of their world-changing contribution to humanity.

But the Smithsonian refused to retract its claims about Langley, and to properly credit the Wrights, so Orville prepared to send the Flyer to England. Before displaying it at MIT in 1916, he had repaired the elevator, rudder, wing ribs, chain guides, and other parts that had been damaged when the airplane was overturned at Kitty Hawk. He had also replaced some engine components and portions of the fabric covering. Now, readying it for display abroad, he replaced all of the covering. The Flyer arrived at the Science Museum in 1928.

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.”

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