The 1909 Wright Military Flyer is the world's first military airplane. In 1908, the U.S. Army Signal Corps sought competitive bids for a two-seat observation aircraft. Winning designs had to meet a number specified performance standards. Flight trials with the Wrights' entry began at Fort Myer, Virginia, on September 3, 1908. After several days of successful flights, tragedy occurred on September 17, when Orville Wright crashed with Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, the Army's observer, as his passenger. Orville survived with severe injuries, but Selfridge was killed, becoming the first fatality in a powered airplane.
On June 3, 1909, the Wrights returned to Fort Myer with a new airplane to complete the trials begun in 1908. Satisfying all requirements, the Army purchased the airplane for $30,000, and conducted flight training with it at nearby College Park, Maryland, and at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1910. It was given to the Smithsonian in 1911.
The 1909 Wright Military Flyer is the world's first military airplane. In 1908, the U.S. Army Signal Corps advertised for bids for a two-seat observation aircraft. The general requirements were as follows: that it be designed to be easily assembled and disassembled so that an army wagon could transport it; that it would be able to carry two people with a combined weight of 160 kg (350 lb), and sufficient fuel for 200 km (125 mi); that it would be able to reach a speed of at least 64 kph (40 mph) in still air. This speed performance would be calculated during a two-lap test flight over a five-mile course, with and against the wind. It must demonstrate the ability to remain in the air for at least one hour without landing, and then land without causing any damage that would prevent it from immediately starting another flight. It should be able to ascend in any sort of country in which the Signal Corps might need it in field service and be able to land without requiring a specially prepared spot; be able to land safely in case of accident to the propelling machinery; and be simple enough to permit someone to become proficient in its operation within a reasonable amount of time.
The purchase price was set at $25,000 with ten percent added for each full mile per hour of speed over the required 40 mph and ten percent deducted for each full mile per hour under 40 mph.
The Wright brothers constructed a two-place, wire-braced biplane with a 30-40 horsepower Wright vertical four-cylinder engine driving two wooden propellers, similar to the aircraft Wilbur had been demonstrating in Europe in 1908. This airplane made its first flight at Fort Myer, Virginia, on September 3, 1908. Several days of very successful and increasingly ambitious flights followed. Orville set new duration records day after day, including a 70-minute flight on September 11. He also made two flights with a passenger.
On September 17, however, tragedy occurred. At 5:14 p.m., Orville took off with Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, the Army's observer, as his passenger. The airplane had circled the field four and a half times when a propeller blade split. The aircraft, then at 46 m (150 ft), safely glided to 23 m (75 ft), when it then plunged to earth. Orville was severely injured, including a broken hip, but Lieutenant Selfridge was killed and the aircraft was destroyed. Selfridge was the first person to die in a powered airplane accident.
On June 3, 1909, the Wrights returned to Fort Myer with a new machine to complete the trials begun in 1908. (Wilbur had been flying in Europe the previous year and had thus been absent from Fort Myer in 1908.) The engine was the same as in the earlier aircraft, but the 1909 model had a smaller wing area and modifications to the rudder and the wire bracing. Lt. Frank P. Lahm and Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois, future Army pilots, were the Wrights' passengers. On July 27, with Lahm, Orville made a record flight of 1 hour, 12 minutes, and 40 seconds, covering approximately 64 km (40 mi). This satisfied the Army's endurance and passenger carrying requirements. To establish the speed of the airplane, a course was set up from Fort Myer to Shooter's Hill in Alexandria, Virginia, a distance of 8 km (5 mi). After waiting several days for optimum wind conditions, Orville and Foulois made the ten-mile round trip on July 30. The out lap speed was 37.7 mph and the return lap was 47.4 mph, giving an average speed of 42.5 mph. For the 2 mph over the required 40, the Wrights earned an additional $5,000, making the final sale price of the airplane $30,000.
Upon taking possession of the Military Flyer, referred to as the Signal Corps No. 1 by the War Department, the Army conducted flight training at nearby College Park, Maryland, and at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, in 1910. Various modifications were made to the Military Flyer during this period. The most significant was the addition of wheels to the landing gear.
Early in 1911, the Signal Corps placed an order with the Wrights for two of their new Wright Model B airplanes. In addition, the War Department proposed shipment of the original 1909 Army airplane to the Wright Company factory in Dayton, Ohio, to have it rebuilt with Model B controls and other improvements. The Wright Company quoted a price of $2,000 for the upgrade, but advised against it because of the many design improvements that had been made during the intervening two years. The manager of the Wright Company, Frank Russell, learned that the Smithsonian Institution was interested in the first Army airplane and would welcome its donation to the national museum. The War Department agreed and approved the transfer on May 4, 1911. The aircraft was restored close to its original 1909 configuration, but a few non-original braces added for the wheeled landing gear in 1910 remained on the airplane when it was turned over to the Smithsonian. Apart from a few minor repairs over the years, the airplane has not been restored since its acquisition in 1911. Of the three Wright airplanes in the NASM collection, the 1909 Military Flyer retains the largest percentage of its original material and components.