Wright Brothers at College Park


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Wright Brothers at College Park
by Catherine Wallace Allen  

Interestingly enough, there are few historical facts that are as well known to us even as children growing up as the first flight of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Every child knows who the Wright brothers are and that Kitty Hawk was the site of their most significant achievement. However, beyond that, the other achievements of the Wrights and sites associated with them are lesser known. 

These places, in fact, have made immense contributions to the direction that aviation and the aeroplane have taken-places like Huffman Prairie in Dayton, OH, where the Wrights continued perfecting and flying their early aeroplanes; Ft. Myer in Arlington, VA, where the trials for the first government aeroplane took place; and finally the College Park Airfield (now known as the College Park Airport) in Maryland, site of a fascinating list of achievements and activities associated with Wilbur and Orville and later with aviation in general. 

The spectacular history of this small airfield began in 1909 with its selection as the site for the training of the first military officers to fly the newly accepted government plane. "Wright Machine Reaches College Park by Mule Power" proclaimed an October 6, 1909 article in The Washington Evening Star, which went on to say that lessons to both Lieutenants Frederick Humphreys and Frank Lahm would begin as soon as the plane was assembled. Wilbur was to be their instructor, and he proclaimed to the Associated Press on his arrival that College Park was "a fine field."  A man of few words and simple means, Wilbur was not one to make a big deal of his efforts at the field. He roomed across the railroad tracks at a friendly neighbor's house and took his meals along with his hosts and his two aviation students who roomed directly next door. 

Operations at the airfield, previously a farm, were also simple. There was a small shed that was constructed to house the Wright "aeroplane", and this ultimately became the quarters of the corporal and ten privates who were to assist with the activities at the field. There was a cooking tent behind the shed where they took their meals.

Fortunately, the romance of an airplane flying through the clouds was not lost on the general public. Interested spectators, as well as reporters from all the local papers, waited each day, taking in every movement, sentence, and gesture of both Wilbur and the two young lieutenants who were undergoing flight instruction. Fortunate may not be how Wilbur would have described it, after his recent departure from Ft. Myer where thousands of spectators and other crowded conditions required him to seek out this more remote field. Reports of his activities at College Park were both humorous and serious as he tried to fulfill his contract to the government.

"From the time we were little children my brother Orville and myself lived together, played together and, infact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussions between us".

Wilbur Wright made one long and one short flight at College Park this morning. Two spectators who got in the way of his machine just as the landing was made narrowly escaped death! In avoiding a catastrophe, he displayed great skill as an operator. As an orator, he distinguished himself for forceful language in calling down the offending spectators. (From The Washington Evening Star, October 20, 1909) It is evident that Wilbur was just as much a focus of the media as was his machine and its flights. In fact, the world was extremely curious about both him and his brother Orville, who was promoting the aeroplane in Europe at the time.

Both Wright brothers were labeled by the press as being extremely quiet and intense. However, their reluctance to spend large amounts of time talking to the media was actually more a result of their dedication to the task at hand, the seriousness with which they took their work, and Orville's extreme shyness, all of which may have given the public that impression. Their personalities were not quite so staid as history would have us believe. Another activity that seemed to elicit smiles from both spectators and the aviators themselves was the recurring races with the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) trains that traversed one edge of the airfield. The papers made much ado of these spectacular "races between two means of transportation" with Wilbur delighting in the fact that he came out ahead each time.

These episodes were, of course, fueled by the media, but they also served to lighten the methodical pace of the instruction and the seriousness with which the aviators undertook their remarkable flights. Wilbur had installed an additional set of levers on the aeroplane next to the seat that was occupied by one of his two students. The levers did not interfere with Wright having control of the machine at all times. In teaching Lahm and Humphreys, he allowed them to take control of the airship at favorable times during the flights. The flights were of relatively short duration, although by October 21, the newspapers reported that Wright had taken up Lieut. Humphreys for 27 minutes during which the student handled the machine throughout most of the flight and made his first landing.

Landing and taking off at that time was quite different than it is now. The 1909 Signal Corps plane did not have wheels. Its chassis design was almost sled-like in appearance, with its skids allowing the aircraft to slide along the ground upon landing, much like a sled. For takeoff and even for transporting the airship to and from the shed, the enlisted men brought out two large-wheeled devices that snugly fit under each of the two lower wings. This enabled the enlisted men to pull the aircraft to wherever the plane was going to be set up to take off and then to return it safely to the shed at the end of the day. Wright's instruction of the two young lieutenants progressed smoothly throughout October. He was complimentary of Humphreys' early abilities, as reported by The Evening Star (October 18, 1909): ...he was progressing finely and was one of the most satisfactory pupils that he has had thus far. "Lieut. Humphreys is a very daring automobilist and is accustomed to handling a gasoline engine and steering wheel, so that his chaperoning an aeroplane through the unobstructed air is not such a trick, seeing that he is used to dodging all sorts of wheeled vehicles on bad Maryland roads."

Around this time, another officer, Lieut. Benjamin Foulois, who was to initially have been one of the two students to receive instruction, returned from France where he had been representing the U.S. Army at an aeronautical congress. Though it was not in his contract to do so, Wilbur agreed to give flight instruction to Foulois as well, commencing on October 23. This was not the young lieutenant's first flight in the Wright machine, however. He had previously made several flights at Ft. Myer with Orville Wright as part of the government trials for the aeroplane's acceptance, most notably the speed test to and from Alexandria, VA. By the 26th of the month, Lahm and Humphreys were ready to solo, and several hundred people were in attendance at the College Park field for that event. Lieut. Humphreys was the first pupil to take the biplane in the air, starting off from the monorail at 8:15 a.m. He circled the field for two minutes and, while making a landing, hurdled over the stump of a tree with the aeroplane, bringing forth a commendation from both the large group of spectators and Wilbur.

After the flight, he said to his student: I suppose I ought to congratulate you, but it is such a matter of course. You handled the machine very well. (The Washington Post, October 27, 1909) The Evening Star later said that "it was very difficult to get Wright to say anything about the progress of his pupils, but he admitted that Humphreys was handling the machine alone rather sooner than anybody else he had taught."

Immediately after Humphreys, Lahm made a similar solo flight of seven minutes with another beautiful landing. Wilbur must have been buoyed up by the success of these flights, because the following day he made front page headlines by offering to take a friend of his sister Katherine and of Lieut. Lahm for a flight. What made this flight so unique was that the friend was a woman, Mrs. Van Deman, and it seemed unlike the extremely cautious Wilbur to make such a flight. Mrs. Van Deman was an aviation enthusiast, having attended the trials at Ft. Myer and having been present at the College Park field on a number of occasions. It was only after Ms. Van Deman obtained permission (keep in mind this was 1909) from her husband Capt. Ralph Van Deman of the 21st Infantry, that Wilbur consented to take her for a flight.

She was a model passenger and the papers further reported that her husband was mighty glad that Wilbur took her up, for this would insure peace in his family! Wilbur was evidently as uncommunicative as usual after the flight, and had no comment for reporters. During the next few days, Wilbur continued to observe his students in flight with Lieut. Foulois continuing to get personal instruction from Wilbur. On October 31, while Humphreys was piloting the aeroplane, a tooth from one of the cog wheels on the magneto broke and the motor came to a stop. The new pilot was able to control the aeroplane with splendid skill and glide it to the ground.

Wilbur made some temporary repairs but sent to the Wright factory in Dayton for a new part. In the meantime, Wilbur decided to leave the field for a short time to go up to New York to take care of some legal business. It was also announced that Orville would be returning home to meet up with Wilbur at either Dayton or College Park and that his flight exhibitions throughout Europe had been quite a success. Lieut. Humphreys, who had been detailed to the aeronautical unit from the Engineer Corps, had reached the end of his term and had to return to the Corps. A few days later, Lieut. Lahm also received orders detaching him from the Signal Corps, forcing him to rejoin his original cavalry unit. Both men were reluctant to go back to their original units, but the regulations at that time prescribed a time limit during which officers of line organizations might serve on special details (Manchu Law), so there was no way around it.

Lahm and Humphreys were trying to get in as much flight time as possible before the end of their stay, and they had made several flights over the past week together, or accompanied by Lieut. Foulois, who had not yet soloed. On November 5, the wind was low and it was a perfect day for flying. They had only been in the air five short minutes when, during a sharp turn, the left-hand wing dipped just enough to touch the ground and resulted in a violent turn of the machine to the right. The right wing was broken, as was the right skid. The material covering of the lower left wing was also badly torn, but, fortunately, both new aviators were fine.

Wilbur was still in New York at the time, so he could not comment on the damage to the plane, but the news of the accident was treated with relative calm by both the War Department and the press, who could usually be counted on to capture the high drama of what was going on at the College Park field and turn it into headlines. However, this time it was not to be so. Wilbur had garnered the respect of not just these reporters and the hundreds who had witnessed these early instructional flights, but the entire city of Washington DC as well.

Though it was not in the Wright brothers contract to do so, Wilbur and Orville offered to fix the aeroplane for the government. At this point, Signal Corp. No. 1, the new government aeroplane, was moved from the airfield and stored temporarily in the balloon shed at Ft. Myer. Both Lieuts. Lahm and Humphreys were immediately detailed to their regiments at Ft. Riley and the Washington Barracks, respectively. The enlisted men at the airfield were sent to either Ft. Myer or to accompany Lieut. Foulois to Sandy Hook, NJ to assist him with the proposed tests of firing on captive balloons. This ended government aeronautical activities at the College Park Airfield for 1909.

The Aeronautical Unit of the Signal Corps was left with one damaged aeroplane, one un-soloed pilot, and a detachment of enlisted men. Fortunately, Lieut. Foulois, who was the only officer left with the Signal Corps who had received some training at College Park, was eventually sent to Ft. Sam Houston with the aeroplane and nine of the enlisted men, which permitted him to get considerable more practice to earn his "wings" during the winter. Although the government had discontinued its use of the College Park field, it was to forever be associated with aeronautical activities of one form or another. Civilian aviators immediately received permission to lease the grounds, and of course the Signal Corps returned the following year to open the government's first military aviation school.

Significant firsts in aviation-the first machine gun shot from an aeroplane, the testing of the first bomb-dropping device, the first Postal Service Airmail flights, experiments with vertical flight, and radio navigational aids for blind flying-are all part of the history of this wonderful field.

The most significant names in aviation history from the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss to "Hap" Arnold, Thomas DeWitt Milling, Charles Chandler, Al Welch, Tony Janus, and even Paul Garber, among many others, live on there. It started with the Wrights and continued on from there...Oh, if this field could only talk! Ms. Allen is the Director of the College Park Aviation Museum (part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's Natural and Historical Resources Division).
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