The Wright Model A flyer arrives via wagon, Fort Myers, VA. Credit: Smithsonian
In December 1907, the United States Army Signal Corps requested bids for a flying machine with requirements generally thought to be impossible at the time. The specification required the “heavier-than-air flying machine” to carry two people, fly 40 miles per hour, make a one-hour endurance flight and be portable by U.S. Army wagons. At the time, there were few aeronautical developments upon which to build. From the close of the Civil War until 1907, the U.S. Army had acquired eight balloons and a small dirigible, used at Fort Omaha, Nebraska.
Footage from U.S. Army Signal Corps trials, 1908. Credit: Smithsonian
In 1908, Orville Wright went to Fort Myer, Virginia with his Wright Model A airplane to demonstrate its capability. Midway through the trials, however, the Wright airplane malfunctioned and crashed, severely injuring Orville and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, the first fatality in a powered airplane. With a new airplane, the Wright Brothers returned to Fort Myer in 1909 and successfully completed their demonstration. By September of that year, Orville was breaking records almost daily and remaining aloft for over an hour at a time. The American public saw that “man could fly,” and the military was now convinced that airplanes must be an element in their arsenals.
On August 2, 1909 the U.S. Army purchased a Wright Military Flyer for $30,000 becoming the first military airplane in the world. Observation and reconnaissance were the only functions for the airplane imagined by the military at that time. The airplane was also used to train U.S. Army pilots at Fort San Antonio, Texas, where it crashed and was rebuilt several times.
Wright Military Flyer during trials at Fort Myers, VA, 1908. Credit: Smithsonian
The Wright Military Flyer was designated Signal Corps Airplane No. 1. Early army officers who trained with the aircraft included Lieutenants Benjamin D. Fulois, Frank P. Lahm and Frederic E. Humphreys. After just two years of service, the aircraft was retired and given to the Smithsonian Institution where it remains today displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. A reproduction of the airplane is also able to be viewed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.