National Geographic : 1957 Aug
268 U. S. Air Force, Official July 30, 1909: Soldiers Ready the Wheelless Flyer for Its Final Test The 1908 trials ended in tragedy when the Wright airplane crashed, injuring Orville and killing his pas senger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge. The brothers returned the next year with a new machine that proved better than Army requirements. Katharine Wright, the inventors' sister, watches from the rear of the Flyer as men slide a dolly beneath the skids. Catapulted from a launching rail, the plane flew to Alexandria and back. with daring flights in a similar air machine. Orville soon had two shadows-his own plus the person of a small, inquisitive boy. I followed him with cocklebur tenacity. History credits the first Fort Myer trials with putting an end to American disbelief in the Wright brothers. Skeptics had scoffed at them ever since the incredible reports of their 1903 flights near Kitty Hawk.* Orville demonstrated convincingly that they really were flyers, not liars. He flew repeatedly and with great success, until the ill-fated day of September 17, 1908. Some boyish pursuit following school hours, long since forgotten, kept me from the field that afternoon, but I still recall my heartsick dismay when I heard that the plane had crashed, seriously injuring Orville and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. The day after the crash, caused by a mechanical failure, I morosely returned to the field for some word of my hero. The wreck age had been cleared, but I grubbed about the crash site until I found a small piece of the wooden frame, then bore it off as a souvenir. In 1909 Orville returned to Fort Myer with brother Wilbur to resume the trials. Here was a nice problem: how to shadow both. I must have been underfoot everywhere, but the Wrights were unfailingly good-humored. In those days there were no restrictions to keep a small boy from a military reserva tion, and I had almost complete liberty to make a nuisance of myself. The Wrights could not be free of me even on their trolley car rides from Washington to Fort Myer, for often I was a fellow passenger. Wilbur Wright Takes Direct Action Whenever I could, I engaged them in con versation. Their strikingly different person alities left a deep impression. Orville was quiet-spoken, modest, reserved in thought and action. Wilbur, on the other hand, was more decisive and direct; he instinctively took charge of any situation. One well-remembered conversation between them illustrates this difference. We were standing in perhaps the world's first, and hottest, military airplane hangar, a wood and tar-paper shed at one end of the parade ground (above). "If we cut a door in this side of the shed," Orville ventured, "it will give us better access and ventilation. Let's see the colonel and ask permission." Wilbur replied instantly, "No! We'll put * See "Fifty Years of Flight" (31 historic photo graphs with full legends), NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, December, 1953.