WARPLANE: A Century of Military Aviation Advances
Parts One and Two: Wednesday, November 8th, 9-11pm   |   Parts Three and Four: Wednesday, November 15, 9-11pm

The Warplanes That Changed The World
The Wright Military Flyer
Type: Observation Plane
Crew: Two
Length: 28 feet 11 inches
Wingspan: 36 feet 6 inches
Top Speed: 47 mph
Maximum Height: 175 feet
Armament: none
Dates in Service: 1909-1911

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The first airplane to see American military service, the Military Flyer evolved from the Wright brothers' original Flyer, the first airplane to ever fly successfully. It took years for the Army to develop an interest in aviation, but in 1908 the Signal Corps advertised a bid for a two-man observation plane. The requirements were that it be small enough to be disassembled and transported by an army wagon, that it meet a top speed of 40mph, carry sufficient fuel for a 125-mile trip, and land without sustaining damage.

In a series of trials that lasted through 1909 at Fort Myers, Va., the Wrights' creation, a biplane with a 30-40 horsepower engine, met and exceeded these requirements, setting new records with almost every test. Tragedy struck on Sept. 17, however, when the plane crashed, severely injuring Orville Wright and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas O. Seldridge. He was the first person to die in a plane crash.

The Wrights returned months later with an improved design that satisfied all the Army's requirements, and the Military Flyer was formally accepted for service on August 2, 1909. The Army bought it from the Wrights for the then-substantial sum of $30,000 (the initial $25,000 offer plus a bonus of twenty percent for exceeding the speed requirement by 2mph). They promptly designated the plane Signal Corps #1. In 1911, it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and is now one of the star exhibits at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.