Seven years ago, I climbed aboard an airliner that was significantly longer than Orville Wright’s inaugural flight, and journeyed cross-country to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to be at the very spot where that historic flight took place.
I arrived that day, along with my nephew and 30,000 other freezing rain-soaked aviation history fans, for the 100th anniversary of the first controlled heavier-than-air flight in human history. The day included lots of flyovers, a visit from George Bush, and an attempted launch of a full-scale Wright brothers “Flyer” that got mired in the mud. Despite the weather, it was very moving to be at the place where a century to the day earlier, human beings first said no to gravity.
Afterwards, the two of us motored up I-95 to Washington to catch a glimpse of the actual Flyer at the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institute. It was a great day.
Interestingly, had events shaken out differently in December 1903, our trip to the “First Flight” centennial would have taken place solely in Washington, cutting out the North Carolina portion of the trip entirely.
The story goes like this. Samuel Langley, the director of the Smithsonian Institute and one of the country’s leading scientists, had been conducting successful unmanned flights since as early as 1896. These tests had gotten the attention of the War Department, who earmarked $50,000 for Dr. Langley to develop a manned craft.
On December 8, 1903, Langley brought his plane, which he called an Aerodrome, to the middle of the Potomac River to attempt the first manned flight, knowing that the water’s surface would prove more forgiving than land in case of a mishap. The Aerodrome’s launching pad was a specially designed houseboat with a 15-ton superstructure constructed on its top to act as a catapult.
The pilot of the Aerodrome that day was a young engineer named Charles Manly. At the moment of launch, something caused the tail section to snag and snap, plunging the plane into the icy river. Manly’s heavy cork-filled coat pulled him under, nearly causing him to drown before he was successfully fished from the water.
Dr. Langley’s flight attempt was ridiculed in Washington where one congressman was quoted as saying that, “The only thing [Langley] ever made fly was government money.” The press called the failed launch “Langley’s Folly,” claiming his theory that humans could fly disproven once and for all.
Only nine days later, two unheralded bicycle builders from Ohio name Orville and Wilbur Wright made history at Kitty Hawk.
But the story didn’t end there. The Smithsonian, in an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of their former director (Langley died a broken man in 1906), displayed the damaged Aerodrome for many years in its museum as the first plane “capable” of flight. The museum also openly questioned whether or not the Wrights were in fact the first pilots. This began a long-term feud with the brothers, who refused to donate their plane to the Smithsonian. They chose to house it in a British museum instead, and the Flyer remained in England until after World War II.
On December 17, 1948, the 45th anniversary of First Flight, the Flyer was finally brought to the Smithsonian with the stipulation that the museum would never again question the Wright brothers’ status as the first men to fly.