More than a century after they invented the airplane, Wilbur and Orville Wright are still a part of our national cultural identity and the Wright Flyer remains an icon of ingenuity and technical creativity. Of course, when the Wrights built and flew their 1903 Flyer, it was not a national treasure. To them it was a research tool in their path toward a practical airplane. Its transformation into a priceless piece of American heritage, displayed in the nation’s capital, took some interesting twists and turns.
After the First Flight
All the flying of the 1903 Wright Flyer took place on a single chilly December morning in 1903, on the isolated Outer Banks of North Carolina. Three weeks after the historic flights, the Wrights held a press conference in which they succinctly summed up their moment of triumph: “...We...packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.” The Wrights saw their three experimental gliders, which were precursors to the 1903 Flyer, as research tools and discarded them once they were done with them. They did, however, save the breakthrough Flyer—but their rather indifferent treatment of the world’s first airplane suggests they did not consider it a national treasure until many years later.
The Flyer, damaged after its flight trials at Kitty Hawk, was packed in its shipping crates at Kitty Hawk and stored it in a shed behind their Dayton bicycle shop. The 1903 Wright Flyer remained in this shed largely untouched for 13 years. The engine crankshaft and flywheel were loaned to an aeronautical display in New York in 1906 but were never returned and disappeared. Other than that, the Wright Flyer remained unseen until 1916.
In 1913, Dayton flooded when the Miami River overflowed its banks. The Flyer sat in its crates under nearly a dozen feet of water and mud for several weeks. The shed was it was stored in was eventually torn down and the Flyer was moved to a nearby barn. In 1916, the barn was replaced with a more substantial brick building which Orville used as a laboratory for himself and the Flyer continued to be stored in this building.
First Public Display
In the summer of 1916, Orville uncrated and assembled the Wright Flyer for the first time since it flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903. It was briefly exhibited in June at the dedication of several new buildings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The rudder and forward elevators were almost entirely rebuilt. The main spars of the upper and lower wing center-sections were replaced, and several other parts repaired, such as the wing ribs and the chain guides. The wing center-section fabric was replaced with new Pride of the West muslin, but the outer wing panels retained the original 1903 covering.
Since the engine crankcase was broken in 1903, and the crankshaft and flywheel were lost in 1906, the engine was rebuilt using parts from a similar engine built in 1904 along with existing 1903 components. The propellers which had also been damaged during the trials were replaced, however the flown originals survive—one of which is in the Smithsonian’s collection. The original broken crankcase is on display at the Wright Brothers National Memorial visitors center at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
After the MIT display, the Wright Flyer was shown at the Pan-American Aeronautical Exhibition in New York, February 8-15, 1917; at the Society of Automotive Engineers summer meeting in Dayton, June 17-18, 1918; at the Aeronautical Exposition in New York March 1-15, 1919; and the International Air Races in Dayton, October 2-4, 1924. Wright Company mechanic Jim Jacobs was in charge of assembling the Flyer for all of these exhibitions.
The Wright Flyer was assembled on one other occasion during this period. In January 1921 it was set up at South Field in Dayton for the purposes of preparing testimony in the Regina Cleary Montgomery et. al vs. the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation patent suit. The suit was brought by Regina Clearly Montogomery, the widow of John Joseph Montgomery who was an inventor and early pioneer in aviation. No engine or propellers were mounted on the airplane at this time.
The Wright-Smithsonian Feud
The Wright Flyer began to acquire its status as a national treasure in the 1920s at the same time as a feud between the Smithsonian Institution and Orville Wright began to grow. The dispute revolved around the Smithsonian’s misleading 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.
The rift between the Wrights and the Smithsonian began in 1910, when then Smithsonian Secretary Charles Walcott refused the Wrights’ offer to donate the 1903 Wright Flyer, asking instead for a current Wright aircraft. Walcott planned to display this aircraft with some of Langley’s artifacts, suggesting a link between his work and the Wright achievement. The Wrights became suspicious.
Wilbur Wright passed away in 1912, but Orville’s concerns deepened in 1914 when the Smithsonian hired aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss to rebuilt Langley’s unsuccessful 1903 full-size airplane, the Great Aerodrome, which crashed for the second time just nine days before the Wrights’ success at Kitty Hawk.
Curtiss has been involved in bitter patent lawsuits with the Wrights for years and saw that the Smithsonian’s effort to promote Langley’s achievements could serve his own self-interests casting doubt on the Wrights’ legitimate claim to have invented the airplane. A partnership was formed and the Smithsonian issued a $2,000 contract to Curtiss to rebuild and test the Langley Aerodrome.
After completely rebuilding the Langley Aerodrome, with extensive modifications and a different engine, Curtiss did manage to make brief, straight-line hops with it. The aircraft was returned to the Smithsonian, returned to its failed 1903 configuration, and displayed with a label calling it the “first-man carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained flight.” Orville was outraged.
In 1925, Orville decided 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 tolerate having the world’s first airplane, built in America, by Americans, exiled in a foreign land. Orville had drawn his line in the sand, and the Flyer was shipped to the museum in 1928. In a letter published in an aviation magazine, Orville wrote: “I regret more than anyone else that this course is necessary.”
Despite Orville’s action, the Smithsonian continued to dodge the issue. It offered an unsatisfactory compromise on the language of its label accompanying the Langley airplane on public display, and did so, according to new Smithsonian Secretary Charles Abbot, “not in confession of error, but in a gesture of good will for the honor of America.” The comment only stiffened Orville’s resolve. Even famed pilot Charles Lindbergh offered to help mediate the dispute.
In its 1942 annual report, more than a decade after the Flyer’s arrival in London, the Smithsonian finally published the article Orville wanted, revising its false claims about the Langley airplane. In 1943, he made plans to have the Flyer returned to the United States and transferred to the Smithsonian for public display, but World War II delayed its arrival.
During the war, the airplane was safely stored with other British national treasures in an underground chamber about 100 miles from London (not in the London subway as is sometimes claimed). After the war, Orville agreed to leave the Flyer at the London Science Museum until they could make a copy of it for permanent display.
The Flyer Comes Home to America
Orville died suddenly from a heart attack in January 1948 while the Wright Flyer was still in England, leaving it to the executors of his estate to fulfill his wish and bring the artifact home. It was installed at the Smithsonian in an elaborate ceremony on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after its history making flight.
The Wright Flyer hung in Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building from 1948 to 1976, when it was moved to the new National Air and Space Museum building. Cleaning and a few minor repairs were made then, but in 1984 and 1985 it got a thorough preservation treatment. It was the first time since Orville’s refurbishments in late 1926 and early 1927 that anyone had an opportunity to study the famous plane in detail.
During the four months of disassembling, cleaning, preserving, and studying the Wright Flyer, the Museum staff learned many things about the famous airplane. When the fabric covering was removed, details of the structure were better understood, and some interesting markings were revealed.
A comparison of the fabric covering Orville put on in 1927 with a sample of the original flown 1903 fabric in the Museum’s collection showed that Orville had sewn it on slightly differently in the 1920s. New fabric put on by the Museum in 1985 was stitched using the 1903 pattern, increasing the accuracy of the Flyer as it is now displayed. The original Pride of the West fabric used by Orville in 1903, 1916, and 1927 was no longer available in 1985, but a muslin very similar in weight and thread count was applied.
Some discoveries led to further questions. The Wrights reported that when the Flyer was overturned and damaged by a gust of wind at Kitty Hawk following their last flight on December 17, 1903, all the wing ribs were broken. But after removing the fabric in 1984, Museum staff found metal strips connecting the back section of the ribs behind the rear spar to the rest of the structure.
This begged the question: Were these metal strips repairs added later or part of the original design? In their 1903 records, the Wrights described the construction of their ribs as continuous framework, with no metal strips connection separate sections, suggesting the present construction was a later change. But with no specific reference from Orville about the origin of the strips, the matter remains open to debate. However, during the course of its treatment, the Flyer was carefully measured and documented, and a very accurate set of drawings and a detailed photographic record of all its individual components were made—allowing this national treasure to be studied for generations to come.
Today you can see the original Wright Flyer on display in The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.