The Wright Flyer That Never Flew

by Arch Whitehouse

As everyone knows, the Wright Flyer (or Flier) that now hangs in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC is a Wright brothers' creation. What most do not know is that it never flew, and that it is not the Kitty Hawk Flyer, but a reconstruction of their history-making plane.

    On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright flew the first recorded manned and powered flight of 120 feet in 12 seconds. Wilbur took over and flew the second flight of 195 feet in 13 seconds, then Orville came back and beat that distance by 10 feet in 15 seconds. To finish a perfect event, Wilbur made flight number four for an impressive 852 feet in just one second short of a minute, but his landing was not a thing of grace and beauty, and the Flyer was damaged enough to preclude any further flights at Kitty Hawk.

    However, the brothers were so elated over the success of their venture that they crammed everything into a crate and headed home, storing this "junk" in their cellar at Dayton.

Griffith Brewer later entered the scene, representing the prestigious Royal Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, and made overtures about placing the plane in their Science Museum. During those preliminaries, Samuel Langley was being touted by the Aero Club of America and editorially supported by the Smithsonian Institution as first to fly, despite his failed attempt, and a model of his steam-driven Aerodrome was accepted by the Smithsonian.

    Thus, with fame somewhat curtailed in their own country, it is understandable and reasonable that the Wrights would grant the British the honor of displaying their plane in the museum at South Kensington. [ed: SEE Why the Wright Flier Went To England.] But when it came time to produce the historic machine, they discovered that it was a total wreck! Transportation and storage in a crate had compounded the damage, and what Wilbur's landing didn't do, a flood that had swept through Dayton did.

    So, the brothers were faced with the task of a complete reconstruction using the original plans. Although the result was a replica, in fairness it should be said that it is more a clone. Besides some salvageable pieces and the motor, the same factory material for its covering was used and the same sewing machine did the stitching as on the original Flyer.

    Still, the Flyer that finally came back to us from Great Britain has never been flown, and likely never will.

(-- Digested from Whitehouse's feature in Flying Aces, Feb 1937)

The statement is made that the "Flyer" was severely damaged during the fourth landing, which was not the case. The landing was successful, but the frame supporting the front rudder was broken. The major part of the machine was undamaged; however, while they were standing around discussing the last flight, a strong gust of wind picked up the machine and turned it over and over, resulting in substantial damage to both the wooden parts and the chain guides, which militated the conclusion that flying with this machine was over until substantial repairs were made. Accordingly, in the correct belief that they had accomplished what they had intended, the remains of the "Flyer" were indeed crated and returned to Dayton along with the Wrights. (— Ted Wilkinson11/30/99)

Mr Wilkinson's source was Fred Kelly's 1943 book, "The Wright Brothers," a collaborative biography with Orville Wright. As the Arch Whitehouse article predated this, he was most likely innocently perpetuating folklore. Kelly's version, presumably approved by Orville, would be most factual. However, with this amendment, the gist of the Whitehouse story remains unchanged. Thus doth wind the path of history. (— K O Eckland)