Feature   Lethality

110 Years Ago, the U.S. Military Got Its First Airplane

Aug. 1, 2019 | BY Katie Lange

The Wright brothers developed their first successful powered airplane in 1903, and it didn’t take long for the U.S. military to know it wanted in on the action. A few years later, that became reality. Here’s the story of the military’s first airplane. 

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By 1907, the Army Signal Corps was preparing itself for flight — although it wasn’t yet sure by what means. It created an Aeronautical Division that consisted of three first lieutenants willing to work in the budding field of aviation. 

Two years later, on Aug. 2, 1909 — 110 years ago — the military began its grand aviation adventure when the Wright brothers delivered their first plane to the Signal Corps. The Army paid $30,000 for the aircraft, a Wright A Flyer. It was given the name Signal Corps No. 1, but was generally just known as the Wright Military Flyer. 

Trial and Fatal Error

Leading up to that, though, they needed to make sure the plane worked. In August 1908, Orville Wright brought an aircraft to the parade grounds at Fort Myer, Virginia, near Arlington National Cemetery, for flight trials. 

Six men in early 1900s garb stand in a field beside the earliest model of a military airplane.
Wright Military Flyer
The Wright brothers and some Army Signal Corps soldiers work on the Wright Military Flyer as they test it out at Fort Myer, Virginia, 1909.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 100515-O-ZZ999-321C
Several people work to put a man on a stretcher in a field with a crashed airplane on its side in the background. A soldier on a horse is in the foreground.
Aircraft Crash
Medical personnel tend to either Orville Wright or his airplane passenger, Army 1st Lt. Thomas Selfridge, after an early version of the Wright Military Flyer crashed at Fort Myer, Va., in August 1908. Selfridge died as a result of the incident.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 100515-O-ZZ999-404C

But there were some failures with that plane, which led to the death of one of the Aeronautical Division’s first lieutenants, Thomas Selfridge. He became the first powered airplane casualty. 

After that, the Wrights took their plane back home to North Carolina and returned to Fort Myer in June 1909 with a new and improved version: the Wright Military Flyer. 

How It Worked

According to Air Force Magazine, the plane carried two people and had skids instead of wheels. It was launched from a monorail track and was powered along by propellers, sometimes with the help of a catapult on days where there was no wind. When it reached takeoff speed, the pilot pulled back on the elevator lever, and the plane would rise into the air. 

Records show there were no instruments other than an eight-inch piece of string tied to the crossbar between the two skids. The string served as a crude turn-and-bank indicator, depending on which direction it blew.

A Wright Military Flyer airplane flies in the skies above a field with buildings in the background.
Military Flyer Illustration
This image -- original date and photographer unknown -- is of one of the Wright Brothers’ planes being flown over what was then Fort Myer -- now the Fort Myer portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia. The color photograph overlaid on it was taken in a similar location near the edge of Summerall Field and Building 417, March 16, 2015.
Photo By: Army illustration by Rachel Larue
VIRIN: 150316-A-DZ999-071

Success! 

In late July 1909, Orville Wright and another first lieutenant from the Aeronautical Division, Benjamin Foulois, took the plane for a speed test on its final qualifying flight. It successfully flew south about 5 miles before turning back. The craft reached an altitude of 400 feet and averaged 42.5 miles per hour. 

Three days later, the plane belonged to the U.S. Army.

Soon thereafter, the flying program moved to a field in College Park, Maryland, and it resumed in October 1909, with the Wright brothers training a few more men on how to fly. On Oct. 26, 2nd Lt. Fred Humphreys became the first Army officer to fly solo. 

An F-35 Lightning II fighter jets sits on an airfield as several airmen mill around in front of it.
F-35 Lightning II
An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet assigned to 16th Weapons Squadron sits on the ramp at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., June 28, 2019. The F-35 is designed to provide pilots with unsurpassed situational awareness, positive target identification and precision strike in all weather conditions.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie
VIRIN: 190628-F-DN281-280F
An Air Force LC-130 cargo plane with skis sits on a snow-covered runway. A line for fuel is attached to it, and two men work on a piece of equipment nearby.
LC-130 Aircraft
A member of the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing performs maintenance on an LC-130 ski-equipped aircraft at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Dec. 17, 2018. The 109th Airlift Wing provided aviation support to the U.S. Antarctic research mission from October 2018 to February 2019 as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. military support to the National Science Foundation.
Photo By: Air Force Tech Sgt. Gabriel Enders, New York Air National Guard
VIRIN: 181217-Z-A3538-1018
A B-2 Spirit bomber sits on the flight line in Hawaii. A rainbow encircles it.
B-2 Spirit Bomber
A B-2 Spirit bomber deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., is staged on the flight line at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Jan. 30, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Thomas Barley
VIRIN: 190130-F-WU042-0020

It’s been a wild ride in the 110 years since that first purchase. By 1914, the Army and Navy operated aviation squads. Nowadays, in the age of the fighter jet, the B-2 stealth bomber, planes that can refuel other planes  in the air, and cargo planes like the LC-130 Hercules with its missions to Antarctica, military aviation has grown exponentially. 

Just imagine where we’ll be in another 100 years!