How did the US fall behind in airplane technology from 1909-1917?

How did the US fall behind in airplane technology from 1909-1917?

  • In December 1902 a Wright brothers built glider flew 600 feet. A World Record
  • December 17, 1903 The Wright built the first successful powered airplane and Wilbur Wright flew 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds a World Record.
  • October 5, 1905 Wilbur Wright flew for 39 minutes and a total distance of 24 1/2 miles. a World Record in what is called today “The world's first practical airplane”
  • WHAT'S GOING ON IN EUROPE? In 1906, the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont set the first world record(**) recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale of France by flying 220 meters (720 ft) in 21.5 seconds. more than 4 years behind the Wrights.
  • According to the April 1907 issue of the Scientific American magazine the Wright brothers had the most advanced knowledge of heavier-than-air navigation at the time.

    ** Although the Wright Brothers were setting and breaking world records from 1902-1908, they did not publish these records. So nobody in Europe would be aware of what they were doing. The Wright brothers didn't seek public recognition for their innovations until after they received their patent in 1908. So they followed what was happening in Europe closely, and were silent when others were recognized as world record holders, right up until 1908 when they publicly demonstrated their accomplishments. After 1905 when a newspaper did publish an account of their longest flight, the Wrights declined to fly again for years until their patent was secure… such was their discipline in protecting their ideas and fear of others stealing them.

September 9, 1908 from the United Press.

The Wright aeroplane, operated by the aviator, whose brother Wilbur has been conducting successful tests in France, sailed today over and around the parade ground at Fort Myer, Va., for 57 minutes and 31 seconds, exceeding by more than 26 minutes the world-breaking record made last Monday by Delagrange, near Paris.

  • By the spring of 1908 the Wrights had been granted a patent and had signed contracts to sell airplanes to both the U.S. Army and the French Army.

  • 1909 the American Glen Curtis Won the first international air speed record with 46.5 mph (74.8 km/h) in Rheims, France

On April 6, 1917 the US enters World War I. From 1917 through Armistice, the American Expeditionary Force: Air Service, flew a total 2,698 planes, Of these less than one-fourth (667) were of American manufacture and none of those American planes were combat ships.

Here are the thoughts of America's Top Ace in WWI, Eddie Rickenbacker on the contributions of America's aircraft industry to the United States Army Air Corps during WWI. Rickenbacker flew a French fighter plane called a Nieuport throughout the war, as did many American flyers.

From Eddie V. Rickenbacker's "Fighting the Flying Circus", End of Chapter 12.
** Discussing the Nieuport's issue where in dives the top wing would fly off ensuring in most cases the Plane could not fly and would drop out of the sky **

From the frequency of these accidents to our Nieuports it may be wondered why we continued to use them. The answer is simple-we had no others we could use! The American Air Forces were in dire need of machines of all kinds. We were thankful to get any kind that would fly.

The French had already discarded the Nieuport for the steadier, stronger Spad, and thus our Government was able to buy from the French a certain number of these out-of-date Nieuport machines for American pilots-or go without. Consequently, our American pilots in France were compelled to venture out in Nieuports against far more experienced pilots in more modern machines. None of us in France could understand what prevented our great country from furnishing machines equal to the best in the world. Many a gallant life was lost to American aviation during those early months of 1918, the responsibility for which must lie heavily upon some guilty conscience.

What happened? Why had American Airplane design and manufacture fallen so far behind the rest of the world in 1918 that it could not produce any combat aircraft for American forces when it clearly was still producing World Records as late as 1909.


US aircraft pioneers argued over the Wright brothers' patents while the rest of the world quietly ignored the patents and "borrowed" the idea - and went on to making planes. Remember that 110 years ago enforcing a foreign patent was not something a government would be willing to undertake.


Wright Brothers' main achievement was controlled flight. They were not the first ones to fly, but they were the first not to fall out of the sky:

Their first U.S. patent, 821,393, did not claim invention of a flying machine, but rather, the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine's surfaces.

All the other aviation pioneers were car mechanics. A car is controlled in only one direction (left/right). So they focused on making airplanes fly like cars drive - the holy grail was to make the airplane stay stable (not roll) and only control altitude (pitch) and direction (yaw).

Wright brothers owned a bike shop, so they were keenly aware of the need to control the bike in two directions (roll and yaw), and they controlled their flyer in all 3 directions.


I would not say that

the US was the most advanced nation in the world when it came to man flight

An airplane requires a light but sturdy airframe, light but powerful engine, a wind tunnel to test its aerodynamics and all these were already in place. A lot of people all over the world contributed, and Wright brothers brought in the last critical part.

After them, the name of the game was how to improve the plane, not how to invent it, and all industrialized countries were on approximately the same level.

The main reason was that Wright brothers had patented key design features of the airplane (ailerons, flaps, wing warping, etc).

This same technology is used even today. It was like Bill Gates patenting all kinds of software. So, each and every person who made planes had to get it approved by the Wright brothers and pay a fee. The Wright brothers kept the other biggest Aviation innovators away from their airplanes and in the court house fighting patent infringements. Likewise that's where the Wright Brothers focused all their attention. For instannce Glenn Curtis spent years in court arguing with the Wrights over patent ussage. So the best American aviation innovators who once pioneered the technology including the Wrights spent a decade in court fighting each other. Contrasting that with the way those who followed the Wrights in Europe, worked together and shared innovations.

The resolution, after it became apparent how far behind the rest of the world the US had fallen after our entry into WWI; the federal government got involved.

The two major patent holders for the Airplane, the Wright Company and the Curtiss Company, had effectively blocked the building of new airplanes, which were desperately needed as the United States was entering World War I. The U.S. government, as a result of a recommendation of a committee formed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, pressured the industry to form a cross-licensing organization (in other terms a Patent pool), the Manufacturer's Aircraft Association was born. Effectively freeing up the Wrights(control surfaces) and Curtis (engines designs) patents for wide use.

Source: Wikipedia The patent pool solution

The United States wasn't "behind" Europe in flight in 1914, because its aircraft industry followed a different development path. The American preference was for better plane control and distance. In 1903, the Wright brothers flew a plane for a greater distance (260 meters) than a "pioneering" French plane did in 1906 (220 meters). The U.S. later developed superior passenger (consumer) planes, at least until the Concorde.

Where the Europeans took the lead was in what we now call fighter planes, then referred to as "scout" or "pursuit" planes. That's because European countries were more likely to go to war. The first military planes were used by the Italians in 1911, and Bulgaria in 1913, not exactly the most highly industrialized countries; just among the most belligerent. It's true that the Americans fell behind the Europeans in fighter planes, if for no other reason that it entered World War I almost three years behind others, and didn't produce good fighter models until 1919, needing to use allied planes as "stopgaps" until then.

History of aviation

The history of aviation extends for more than two thousand years, from the earliest forms of aviation such as kites and attempts at tower jumping to supersonic and hypersonic flight by powered, heavier-than-air jets.

Kite flying in China dates back to several hundred years BC and slowly spread around the world. It is thought to be the earliest example of man-made flight. Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century dream of flight found expression in several rational designs, but which relied on poor science.

The discovery of hydrogen gas in the 18th century led to the invention of the hydrogen balloon, at almost exactly the same time that the Montgolfier brothers rediscovered the hot-air balloon and began manned flights. [1] Various theories in mechanics by physicists during the same period of time, notably fluid dynamics and Newton's laws of motion, led to the foundation of modern aerodynamics, most notably by Sir George Cayley. Balloons, both free-flying and tethered, began to be used for military purposes from the end of the 18th century, with the French government establishing Balloon Companies during the Revolution. [2]

Experiments with gliders provided the groundwork for heavier-than-air craft, and by the early 20th century, advances in engine technology and aerodynamics made controlled, powered flight possible for the first time. The modern aeroplane with its characteristic tail was established by 1909 and from then on the history of the aeroplane became tied to the development of more and more powerful engines.

The first great ships of the air were the rigid dirigible balloons pioneered by Ferdinand von Zeppelin, which soon became synonymous with airships and dominated long-distance flight until the 1930s, when large flying boats became popular. After World War II, the flying boats were in their turn replaced by land planes, and the new and immensely powerful jet engine revolutionised both air travel and military aviation.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the advent of digital electronics produced great advances in flight instrumentation and "fly-by-wire" systems. The 21st century saw the large-scale use of pilotless drones for military, civilian and leisure use. With digital controls, inherently unstable aircraft such as flying wings became possible.

How American Air Power Came From Way Behind to Win World War II

As WWI ended a century ago, Yankee pilots were flying European planes because their own were junk. How different it was in the next war when Britain became a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Clive Irving

Roger Viollet/Getty

LONDON—An indelible memory of my boyhood is of watching, almost every day, some of the badly smashed up survivors of American bombing raids over Europe limping back to their base near where I lived.

Throughout 1943 and during the build-up to the D-Day landings in the summer of 1944 the U.S. Army Air Force sent swarms of bombers from England over Europe during the day while Britain’s Royal Air Force did the same at night.

After a while my career as an amateur airplane spotter had a routine. It began early in the morning. The B-17 Flying Fortresses, heavy with their bomb loads, climbed slowly overhead to a height where a whole bomber group would form up and then head east over the North Sea.

Hours later they returned, no longer in tight formation but in clusters with obvious gaps where some had been lost. Finally came the stragglers, often with pieces missing from a wing or a tail. I recall one or two that managed to fly with half of a horizontal stabilizer missing or a wing tip half ripped off. Engines ran unevenly, sometimes coughing smoke.

Obviously, I had no idea of the hell that those aircrews had endured. As it turned out, one of the best accounts of that hell was later written by a B-17 navigator, Elmer Bendiner, who flew from that same base, in The Fall of Fortresses, an enduring classic of the World War II bombing campaigns.

Bendiner describes his relief at spotting my hometown, Luton, as he guided his pilot back from one of the war’s costliest raids on the German city of Schweinfurt in August 1943.

Eighteen B-17s had left his base that morning. Only twelve returned. Sixty men were missing. The total for the raid was 600 men missing out of a force of less than 3,000.

Wherever the use of air power is discussed, America is accepted as its most formidable exponent. As with those World War II raids on Germany, the military efficacy of bombing large civilian populations is often as controversial as the moral burden that goes with it. But American primacy without air power is today unthinkable.

That is why it is timely to point out that a century ago, at the end of World War I, America had only just realized how slow it had been to acknowledge that war in the air was a large part of the future of war, and one with the potential to decide the outcome of wars—as it did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

At the start of World War I, with military aviation in its infancy, the German military had 260 airplanes, France 156 and Britain 154. The United States Army Aviation Section, as the force was then called, had 23 primitive machines.

Ironically, America, the pioneer of powered flight, was seriously hobbled by its dependence on the Wright Brothers concept of what an airplane should look like—a biplane of basically the same configuration as the one that first flew at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina in 1903. The last Wright machine was delivered to the military in May 1915, and dropped from the active inventory a month later.

In the fiscal year of 1915 Congress appropriated just $250,000 to military aviation.

As a result, when American airmen arrived in France as the U.S. entered the war in 1917, they had to fly British designed DH-4 biplanes built under license in America by the Dayton-Wright company. For years afterwards the American military flew British- and French-designed machines.

During the 1920s, as peace seemed to settle permanently over Europe, America was distracted and withdrew into itself while the flappers danced to a new beat before the Great Depression ravaged the economy. Military aviation continued to be neglected. But in the 1930s a handful of American companies, led by Boeing in Seattle and Douglas and Lockheed in California, revolutionized commercial aviation.

When war in Europe again loomed in the 1930s it was the technology developed to produce the new, sleek transcontinental airliners that was readily transferable to warplanes, transforming them. Boeing, for example, developed the B-17 as America’s first modern four-engine bomber using innovations from its early airliners.

In late June 1941, barely five months before Pearl Harbor, the new Army Air Forces were formed with a target of having 7,800 combat airplanes by mid-1942. After Pearl Harbor an industrial juggernaut pushed production way beyond that level, using 15,000 plants across the country, the major ones converted from car production.

Unnoticed at the time was a large crate that arrived at the General Electric plant at Lynn, Massachusetts, on Oct. 4, 1941. It contained the prototype of a jet engine, an innovation developed and built in Britain, to be produced under license in the U.S. For a cost of just $800,000 America entered the jet age through a gift from Britain.

I thought of this history of collaboration when I visited an airfield just an hour’s drive north of London. The field at Duxford, near Cambridge, was a key R.A.F. base during the Battle of Britain in 1940, and later it was home to some of the first American airmen sent to Europe. Today it is the aviation section of Britain’s impressive Imperial War Museum, and one part of it is devoted to American air power, including the groups who were based in Britain during World War II.

There are three large video arrays recording the names of nearly 30,000 US airmen and women who died while based in Britain. Etched into a corridor of Plexiglas panels are the silhouettes of every airplane lost in the skies over Europe, pinned like butterflies between glass.

War devises many ways for men to die. In the air, men were part of a machine in a way that was unique, and the machine frequently died with them, as horses did under medieval knights. Death in bombers was more random. They often made it back with some crew members dead or badly injured. Crews watched as other bombers blew up, broke up or dived to earth. Parachutes sometimes opened and sometimes did not.

“I clocked the fall of fortresses” Bendiner wrote, “and, when someone sang out the number of parachutes that opened, I tried to keep a score. But I never pretended that I could be precise at such a time, with the mask sitting on my nose, with the tin pot on my head and frost blotting out my view.”

Bendiner’s commander claimed (extravagantly) that on the Schweinfurt raid German losses were far greater than their own—of 300 fighters sent to intercept them, he said, 99 were shot down. Moreover, in the chilling calculations of attrition, America could replace losses far faster than Germany. “Perhaps,” comments Bendiner, “but surely it was easier to replace one small fighter manned by one pilot than to turn out a very complex bomber with a crew of ten.”

Suddenly there is a scene of eerie truce when a German fighter attacks Bendiner’s airplane head-on. Bendiner waits for the flare of the fighter’s guns but they never fire. The B-17’s guns are silent, too. The arctic temperature of high altitude has momentarily frozen the guns of both. The German pilot, seen clearly complete with a moustache, makes a fly-by and salutes.

The most gut-wrenching movie portrayal of the British-based B-17 crews remains Twelve O’Clock High, the 1949 production starring Gregory Peck as a hard-driving commander who eventually cracks up. It uses actual war footage from both sides, including from gun cameras.

The museum at Duxford includes jets from the Cold War and the Vietnam war—some still in use like the sinister black-skinned B-52. But it was the B-17 that drew me as though the images of fleeting shape in my memory, watched from below, had suddenly acquired full substance and could be touched. Against the massive B-52 it seems small, amazing that ten men could take their places inside, distributed between the cockpit, the bomb aimer’s seat in the nose and the gun turrets arranged so the field of fire left no blind spots.

There was a social dimension to the role of the U.S. airmen and women who served in Britain. Many had never traveled outside of the US before many had never left the counties they were born in. There are photographs at Duxford of some of the cultural consequences of the experience. Airmen instruct British kids on the rules of baseball the kids attempt to explain the more impenetrable terms of cricket.

In 1942, as the first units were preparing to leave for Europe, someone in the War Department decided to produce a guide to the social customs and habits of the British, as well as commentary on their morale. In seven typescript pages the anonymous author shows a sensitive grasp of a sensitive situation.

“You won’t be able to tell the British much about ‘taking it,’” the writer warns. “They are not particularly interested in taking it any more. They are far more interested in getting together in solid friendship with us, so that we can all start dishing it out to Hitler.”

(This may sound callously jingoistic, but the ethical issues of mass bombing tend to disappear when you have yourself been at the receiving end.)

This is followed by some basic observations that still apply today, such as: “There are fewer murders, robberies, and burglaries in the whole of Great Britain in a year than in a single large American city.”

After explaining that the king had no political power there is a serious caution: “Be careful not to criticize the King. Today’s King and Queen stuck with the people through the blitzes and had their home bombed just like anyone else, and the people are proud of them.

“The important thing to remember is that within this apparently old-fashioned framework the British enjoy a practical, working twentieth century democracy which is in some ways even more flexible and sensitive to the will of the people than our own.”

And there is a pointed tribute to the way British women had stepped into vital roles in the war effort: “They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl stepped directly into the position and “carried on.” There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.”

For Americans then Britain was “over there.” As scores of air bases turned the island country into the world’s largest aircraft carrier an interchange of battle spirit and the two cultures took place on a scale that had never occurred before.

People of all ages and in both nations never forgot this bond. I certainly never have. We had a first-hand view of America at her greatest, of a selfless and courageous ally that had come late to the responsibilities of air power, and finally employed it to devastating effect.

The United States Army Buys Its First Aeroplane, 1909

The United States Army wanting an aeroplane, in early 1908, signed a contract with Orville and Wilbur Wright to a acquire one. The contract prescribed certain tests that the aeroplane would have to accomplish before the Army would accept it. It required that the flying machine should have a speed of 36 miles per hour (with penalties for speeds below that and bonuses for speeds above 40 miles per hour, up to 44 miles per hour) that it be capable of carrying two people, whose combined weight would equal about 350 pounds, in addition to sufficient fuel for a non-stop flight of 125 miles that it be controllable in flight in any direction that it be capable of an endurance flight of one hour and that it land at its take-off point without damage so that the flight could be resumed immediately. [1]

The Wright Brothers came to Fort Myer, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1908 to fulfill the conditions of the contract. During the first nine flights made in September, two of which carried on separate occasions Army Signal Corps officers Lt. Frank P. Lahm (who had flown across the English Channel in a balloon in 1906 and won the first Gordon Bennet Cup) and Maj. George O. Squier (at the time Acting Chief Signal Officer), the Wright Brothers had partially fulfilled the contract requirements. But the final preliminary flight on September 17 ended in tragedy. Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge was the passenger when Orville took off. After they had been in the air for about three or four minutes and were making the fourth round of the course at a height of about 125 feet, a crack in the right propeller caused it to loosen and foul a rudder wire both broke, and the plane crashed. It hit with such force that Selfridge was fatally injured and died a few hours later, thus becoming the army’s first aviation casualty. Orville was seriously injured and remained in the Fort Myer hospital for seven weeks before returning home to Dayton. Because of the accident the War Department postponed the airplane trials for nine months to allow the Wrights to try again. [2]

The Wright Brothers test fly their aircraft on Fort Myer’s parade field (NAID 6641435). Bystanders help extricate the mortally wounded US Army (USA) Lieutenant (LT) Thomas Selfridge from the wreck of the Wright Brothers Flyer after its crash at Fort Myer, Virginia (VA). At right, several men attend the injuries of Orville Wright, who lies on the ground at their feet (NAID 6641476).

The Wright Brothers returned to Fort Myer at the end of June 1909, ready to try again. They brought with them a rebuilt flyer. The aeroplane had a 30 horsepower Wright 4-cylinder water-cooled in-line engine. It had a span of 30 feet 6 inches, was 28 feet 11 inches long and was 8 feet 1 inches tall. The wing area was 415 square feet. Empty it weighed 740 pounds. The airframe was built of spruce and ash and the propellers were spruce. The covering was unbleached cotton. [3]

The Signal Corps was most eager that the brothers succeed. In his fiscal year 1909 report to the Secretary of War, Brig. Gen. James Allen, the Chief Signal Officer, wrote “All ?rst-class powers except the United States are providing themselves systematically with aerial ?eets, Germany and France being notable in the lead. The United States does not at present possess a modern aeronautical equipment, and it is believed that a systematic plan of development of this military auxiliary for national defense should be inaugurated without delay.” [4]

By July 20, the Wright Brothers were nearing the point when they would undertake the official flights. Their sister Miss Katharine Wright arrived in Washington from Dayton on the morning of July 21. She came to Fort Myer to remain until the official tests were completed. “Miss Wright,” The Washington Post observed, “is the only American girl who has ever made a flight in an aeroplane. She has been called ‘The Queen of the air,’ and deserves the title, having made a flight of ten minutes with Wilbur at Le Mans, France, last December.” [5] Actually her first flight was on February 15, 1909, with Wilbur in France. [6]

On July 27, Orville announced that he was ready to resume the tests where he had left of the year before. With Lt. Lahm as passenger, he flew generally at an altitude of 125 feet for 1 hour, 12 minutes, and 40 seconds, thus more than fulfilling the requirement to remain in the air for an hour with passenger. It established a new record for a two-man flight, eclipsing his brother’s record at Le Mans, of 1 hour, 9 minutes and 31 seconds. Following the flight, President William Howard Taft, who had watched the entire fight with great interest and attention, met with the brothers to shake their hands and offer his congratulations. “I’ve missed my dinner,” Taft was heard to say as he drove off in one of the White House touring cars, “but this show was worth it.” [7]

Wright Brothers’ Flight, (NAID 2038), Record Group 16. This film documents the official test flight of the Wright Brothers’ military airplane at Fort Myer, Virginia, on July 27, 1909.

The final test the Wright Brothers had to successfully complete to obtain the $25,000 contract payment for their aeroplane was the speed test. They needed to successfully navigate a 10-mile course at an average speed of 36 miles per hour, with a bonus of $2,500 for every mile over 40 miles per hour to a maximum of 44 miles per hour.

Because of his previous map making experience, Major Squier asked Lt. Benjamin Foulois to lay out the course. [8] Foulois, born in Washington, Connecticut, on December 9, 1879, enlisted as a private in the First United States Volunteer Engineers July 7, 1898. He served in Puerto Rico until January 1899, when he was mustered out as a sergeant. On June 17, 1899, he enlisted as a private in the Regular Army and served with the 19 th Infantry, rising to the grade of first sergeant. Going to the Philippine Islands in August 1899, he participated in campaigns on Luzon, Panay and Cebu. He was commissioned a second lieutenant of Infantry February 2, 1901. Shortly thereafter he joined the 17 th Infantry in the Philippines, serving in Manila on the island of Luzon, at Cottabota and Malabang on the island of Mindanao, and participating in engagements against the Lake Lanao Moros in Mindanao during April-June 1902. He returned to the United States with the 17 th Infantry, and was stationed at Vancouver Barracks, Washington, until July 1903, when the 17 th Infantry was ordered back to the Philippines. During this tour in the Philippines he worked on mapping and exploring various parts of the island of Mindanao, as well as participating in engagements against the Moros on the islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Entering the Infantry-Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth in August 1905, Foulois graduated a year later and was assigned to the Signal School there. He was then ordered to Cuba where he joined the Army of Cuban Pacification and assisted in developing a military map of Cuba. He returned to Fort Leavenworth in 1907 to complete the Signal School, graduating in July 1908. Upon graduation he was assigned to the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Washington, D.C. During this tour Foulois operated the first dirigible balloon purchased by the U.S. Government. [9]

The speed course Foulois laid out was a five-mile trip from Fort Myer due south to the 120-foot high Shuter’s Hill (also known at Shooters Hill, the site now of the George Washington Masonic Temple) on the western outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia, a little over a mile from the foot of King Street and the western shore of the Potomac River, and return. Foulois chose the hill as the turning point because it was above the surrounding terrain and should have been easy to navigate at an altitude of 100 or so feet. He arranged for a temporary telephone as well as a telegraph line between the two points, the latter to be used for sending a signal at the exact second the plane crossed the measured mark at Shuter’s Hill. Remembering his dirigible experience, he was concerned that they would wander off their course from Fort Myer to Alexandria, so he arranged for a small captive balloon to be ascended from Shuter’s Hill and another one anchored about halfway between the two points. [10]

The Signal Corps’ Aeronautical Board left it to the brothers as to select who would accompany Orville on the flight as navigator-passenger. They chose Foulois, who had never flown in an aeroplane. In his autobiography Foulois wrote “I would like to think that I was chosen on the basis of intellectual and technical ability, but I found out later that it was my short stature, light weight, and map-reading experience that had tipped the decision in my favor. A heavier man would have added weight to the plane which would have slowed it down. A man who couldn’t read a map and had not been aloft before might get the pilot lost, add unnecessary distance to the flight, and thus decrease the speed average. A 10 per cent bonus was riding on every mile they could squeeze past 40 miles an hour.” [11]

On July 28, a crowd of more than 15,000 persons, including President Taft, were at Fort Myer to watch the flight of the Wright aeroplane from Fort Myer to Alexandria, and return. The flight did not take place because of a nasty cross-wind which prompted the Wrights to ask for a delay to the following day. In the face of a rising storm the Wrights on the evening of July 29, were forced again to abandon any attempt at undertaking the ten-mile speed flight. [12]

They would try again on July 30. Foulois wrote some sixty years later that “July 30, 1909, was truly a significant day in American aviation. [13]

The day set in with a series of thunder showers, and it was not until the middle of the afternoon that the clouds began to break. The Wright Brothers were out early and looked with anxious eyes on the lowering skies. Shortly after 3pm all hope of a flight was given, and they began to plan for a flight shortly after dawn on July 31.

Between 3:30 and 4pm the clouds began to break up and it looked as though the sky was clearing and the wind was dying down. Conditions for a flight looked favorable and Orville told the Aeronautical Board members (Lt. Frank Lahm, Navy Lt. George C. Sweet (credited with having been the first Navy officer to fly in an airplane, doing so in November 1909), Maj. Charles Saltzman (who became Chief Signal Officer in 1924), Maj. Squier, Capt. Charles Chandler, Lt. Foulois and Lt. Frederick Humphreys) they would be ready to attempt the official trial in about one hour and a half. Saltzman and Sweet, chosen to act as judges and timers at the turning point, quickly motored to Shuter’s Hill with the field telephone to let those at Fort Myer know when everything was ready there. [14]

Two balloons were raised to mark the course. To those at Fort Myer the first one, two and one half miles away, was plainly visible, but the one that marked the turn at Shuter’s Hill was discernible only to the keenest sight.

The members of the Aeronautical Board who were to officiate the starting line took their places alongside the stables, on the west side of the field. Foulois readied himself for the flight. That evening he admitted that he had made the flight without informing his wife, who was out of the city. He said that ever since the time that he made an ascension in free balloon No. 11 with Lt. Lahm some time ago, and was lost for a night in the wilds of Maryland [in late April 1909 at Great Mills in St. Mary’s county], he had been careful not to alarm her over his trips in the air.

The disappointments which had been coming recently prevented the gathering of so large a crowd as was in evidence on July 28 and 29. The morning rain showers discouraged many from making the trip because they knew that the Wrights never flew if the weather was unfavorable. Still, there were probably 7,000 persons present when the machine was placed on the monorail.

The aeroplane was brought out of the balloon shed a few minutes after 6pm. It was wheeled down the field and by 6:30pm placed on the monorail, but neither brother appeared for some time. Finally, Wilbur and Orville left the shed and walked up the parade ground with Foulois and their sister, who was accompanied by two ladies. Orville wore a business suit, and his jaunty gray cap and Foulois wore khaki trousers and an olive shirt.

“The Wright Brothers at Ft. Myer – July 30, 1909”. US Air Force Art Collection. (NAID 6375490).

The brothers talked with their sister for a few minutes while the machine was being placed in readiness. The brothers made many adjustments to the engine and guy wires. Finally began a test of the engine. It skipped several times on the warming-up test, but when it was set going the second time, it seemed to be behaving splendidly, and the brothers were satisfied with its performance.

In the meantime, Wilbur walked briskly over to the members of the Aeronautical Board, who were stationed at the starting line and engaged them in conversation. He remained only a moment and then turning he picked up a great stone and struggled into the center of field with it, laying it on the ground 200 yards from the starting track and directly in front of it. Beneath the stone he laid a great square of white cloth. The white splotch on the burned, brown grass of the parade ground was to give Orville an opportunity to distinguish the crossing point on which the starters’ watches were snapped. These preliminaries arranged, Wilbur waved at Orville, and Orville left the machine and walked down to where he was. They held a short consultation in which Wilbur did most of the talking. Then the two returned to the aeroplane.

By this time everything was in readiness for the trying out of the engine again. Orville and Wilbur went through the formality of testing the motor and machinery. They did not work to the satisfaction of the brothers, for after skipping a few times the engine was shut off and the propellers ceased to revolve.

“Advance that spark,” commanded Wilbur. Orville did. The engine was cranked up again, and a moment later it was throbbing rhythmically.

Orville directed Foulois to climb in. Foulois put two stopwatches around his neck and got into the passenger seat next to the engine. He then strapped a box compass to his left thigh, lashed an aneroid barometer to his right thigh, and jammed a map into his belt. Orville crammed his cap down on his head, and took his place. The propellers, which had been humming steadily, increased their revolutions until they shrilled into a scream. “If I have any trouble,” Orville shouted above the roar of the engine, “I’ll land in a field or the thickest clump of trees I can find.” Foulois later wrote, “I nodded and gulped. I had picked a course with no fields of any kind en route. It was too late to do anything about it now, so I grabbed the edge of the seat with both hands and waited.”

“All ready!” shouted Wilbur, who stood with his stopwatch in hand at the end of the right lateral plane. Wilbur asked Orville “Everything all right? Orville nodded and said “O.K.” Orville, waved his hand to his sister and released the ton of weights on the starting derrick that gave the machine its initial velocity. The aeroplane shot down the rail and left it at 6:46:47. It swept down the field at a height of not more than 2 feet from the ground. During the dash down the field it appeared to everyone that the aeroplane could not possibly rise. It seemed to touch the ground twice after it got away, but on the turn near the balloon shed, Orville raised the forward planes, twisted his laterals, and the machine began to lift a little higher at a steep angle, until it attained a height sufficient to enable the first turn to be negotiated. As it came up on the Arlington cemetery side, it was rapidly soaring higher, with every foot traversed. Wilbur, with a stopwatch in one hand and a signal flag in the other, ran down to the center of the field and stood on the starting line. There was a cheer from the crowd that was gathered at the north end of the field. For two circuits of the field the aeroplane rose, higher and higher until it reached an altitude of some 125 feet. As it reached the starting point, at the end of the second circle, Orville swung it around sharply to the right, and it sailed down the center of the field, over Wilbur’s head, and crossed over the starting line. Foulois flicked one stop watch and pointed out the exact course they should follow to Shuter’s Hill. The aeroplane shot off on its flight. The starting time on the actual ten-mile test was 6:48:39.

“They’ve started!” called out thousands, and then great cheering went up. The aeroplane started out across the open country, past a tall black chimney and over the buildings which were clustered below it. The crowd became tremendously excited as it watched the aeroplane wheeling its way through the air toward the wind-tossed balloon at the halfway point. Mrs. (Alice) Nicholas Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who was in her runabout with her husband, the congressman, was seen to dance up and down like an excited child, and senators in the throng slapped one another on the back, shouting out comments in emotional voices.

The aeroplane bore swiftly down on the first balloon, however, when it was seen to turn westward out of its course. This was due to a cross-wind that blew from that direction and was drifting the aeroplane somewhat away from the route Orville had planned to take. In this maneuver, which was necessary, Orville lost some precious time. Each mile over forty was worth $2,500 to the brothers. Foulois recalled that the engines were functioning perfectly as they skimmed over the treetops toward the first balloon. “The air was bumpy and I had the feeling that there were moments when Orville did not have full control of the machine as we dipped ground ward. But each time Orville would raise the elevators slightly, and we would gain back the lost altitude.”

The aeroplane grew smaller and smaller as it neared the first balloon. It was high above the tree tops, which crown the summit of the first ridge of hills, and it seemed to be going higher and higher. Soon it was only a speck, silhouetted against the iridescent sky, but thousands of eyes were riveted on that tiny spot, which held a strange fascination for them.

It disappeared. The tension became more acute. The spectators peered into the distance with eyes that could see nothing but the first balloon, bobbing up and down, and swinging from side to side in the breeze. After it had passed beyond the range of vision of the naked eye it could be seen through field glasses for a brief interval. Then, in a flash, it sank behind the farthest hills, and was lost entirely to the thousands at the starting point.

Wilbur was standing near the starting derrick, straining his eyes through a field glass. His sister was at his elbow, besieging him with questions. When the aeroplane disappeared he kept the glasses to his eyes, reassuring Katharine that there was nothing to worry about, but watching with eagerness for some sign of the returning craft.

About 500 people journeyed to Shuter’s Hill to watch the coming of the aeroplane, and after the heavy showers of the early afternoon many were not optimistic that the flight would take place. Having profited from the experiences of the several days preceding, however, and the newspaper predictions that Orville would not attempt a flight until the sun had passed behind the western hills, the crowd did not begin to gather until nearly 6pm.

Earlier in the afternoon the captive balloon around which the aeroplane must circle had been anchored at the foot of the hill, on the south side, and it swayed gently above the edge of the reservoir of the Alexandria Water Company. There were sixteen mounted soldiers on and near the hill to warn stragglers away from the field over which the aeroplane must either fly or fall.

The crowd on the hill gazed northward into the sunset sky. Owing to the failure of the Army field telegraph to resume communication with Fort Myer, the airship appeared above the distant horizon of tree tops unheralded and almost unexpected. “There it is” screamed a keen-eyed boy. The surrounding people followed the direction of his pointing direction and began to shout. There was a concerted cry “He’s coming!” and a rush toward the plateau to the west of the golf club house was made. As the biplane passed over Braddock Heights (187 feet above mean sea level) one of the highest points in the path established, the whirl of the engine and propellers could be heard by those waiting at the turning point, about two miles distant. Saltzman and Sweet, seated in their automobile at the flagstaff, were struggling with the field telegraph and had no inkling that the aeroplane had even started until they were startled into attention by the shouting, and then a mounted trooper galloped up, so excited that he almost forgot to salute, and exclaimed, “Coming, Sir.” The detail of cavalry on duty there forgot the purpose of their presence and sat rapt upon their horses watching, like everybody else.

It was quickly seen that if the aeroplane kept a straight course, it must turn the stake balloon from east to the right, instead of from the west to the left, as had been expected. Suddenly Orville cut across the course and turned toward the hill and aerial buoy from the west. Foulois watched the crowd on the brow of the hill waving their umbrellas and handkerchiefs. The aeroplane was easily 300 feet above the ground, but the trees and buildings on the hill called for a still greater altitude to clear them. She rose to perhaps 350 feet and cleared the hill easily, and a great cheer broke from those assembled on the hilltop. The aeroplane swung majestically around in a wide circle, passing around the stake balloon, at which point Foulois flicked the second stopwatch, sailed over the reservoir, and rushed back toward Fort Myer, over the tree curtain at the northern edge of the view, and so out of sight.

As soon as the aeroplane had swept around the hill, and the word had been flashed to Fort Myer by telephone, the official automobile cast loose from the temporary wire that had been used for communication between the hill and the fort, and in a jiffy was speeding toward the north, leaving Signal Corps personnel to haul down the balloon and pack up the paraphernalia which was used at that end of the route.

More time was lost when the second balloon was reached. Orville, instead of turning into the teeth of the breeze from the west on the turn, made the turn with the wind. This deflected the line of the machine so that it dropped forty feet in its flight. This forty feet had to be regained in order to cross the forest-covered ridges that lay between Shuter’s Hill and the starting point at Fort Myer. The aeroplane regained height and Orville pointed it due north toward the Arna Valley (through which runs Four Mile Run, a stream which empties out into the Potomac River immediately south of today’s Reagan National Airport).

The next minute and a half seemed like ten to those who were watching the southern horizon. Spectators with strained faces asked their neighbors if they thought the aviators had met with an accident, or had made a descent at the turning point. Then, several persons shouted simultaneously, “There it comes!” And then, as the crowd again caught sight of a tiny speck over the farthest tree-tops, there was a tremendous cheer and great relief to the anxious watchers.

Larger and larger grew the speck, until the general outline of the aeroplane was clearly visible. Then in the twinkling of an eye it disappeared again, this time between the two ridges of hills. The aeroplane, flying over the valley, had met with a powerful down draught and sank into it. To the watchers at the fort it appeared as though the aeroplane had plunged downward, disabled. Again the faces of the spectators became drawn with tense interest. Again speculation was rife as to whether an accident had befallen the aviators. Visions of the tragic occurrence of last year, when Selfridge was killed in a similar accident, held the crowd spellbound.

Only Wilbur was apparently unconcerned. He knew the machine’s capabilities and he realized that the chances of a mishap were slim. He turned and chatted in an unconcerned manner with those around him for a moment. His sister walked down the field with her women friends, apparently unable to bear the nervous strain of standing still. Wilbur followed them but halted in the center of the field and picked up the signal flag again. He seemed very confident no doubts seemed to trouble him. Back of him the crowd was experiencing keen anxiety as to the possible fate of the machine and its occupants, but Wilbur stood there, “keen-eyed and immovable, awaiting its return with the assurance born of experience.”

Almost as instantaneously as the aeroplane had disappeared, it appeared again, swinging up over the trees on the nearest ridge (Arlington Ridge). The sigh of relief of the crowd was audible. A second later, when the nerves of the onlookers had relaxed, there was wild cheering.

The aeroplane climbed until it reached 400 feet-a world’s altitude record. As it neared Fort Myer, Orville nosed down to pick up speed, and aimed at the starting derrick. Going down wind now, the ground speed increased. On and on it came, high above the tops of the trees, toward the fort, growing larger as it swept on toward the crowd. As it swept nearer, the crowd raised cheer after cheer. The pandemonium was increased by the sounding of hundreds of automobile horns. Government officials tried to rush out on the field before the aeroplane had alighted in order to shake Orville by the hand, but a force of cavalry kept the crowd back.

Over the little church with the red tower, a half mile below the parade grounds, it flew. When the machine reached the southern edge of the parade ground it dropped to within a few feet of the ground. It flew over the balloon shed, and straight up the field across the line, at which point Foulois flicked his second stopwatch. The machine had crossed the finish line at 7:03:10, or an elapsed time of 14 minutes and 40 seconds. The official time was taken from the starting point to the captive balloon at Shuter’s Hill, and from there back to the starting point. The time for the turn was not included in the figures. Wilbur, who held a stop watch on the flight, believed the turn consumed only 26 seconds. This deducted from the elapsed time would give a speed only very slightly reduced from 42 miles per hour. Others who held stopwatches were certain that the aeroplane exceeded that speed by a slight margin.

The crowd began a tremendous cheering, and when the aeroplane circled past the starting derrick, the cheer grew louder and louder. Men were tossing straw hats and waving arms. Orville smiled as he swept past. Foulois sat at his side, “immovable and erect,” but now relaxed.

Once around the field the aeroplane circled, and then Orville had Foulois cut off the engine, and the aeroplane glided in for a fairly smooth landing amid a cloud of dust on the little elevation to the southeast of the shed.

Foulois and Orville after exiting the aeroplane, shook hands, and walked rapidly over to the shed, where Katharine Wright was waiting for Orville. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him several times. Wilbur rushed up the next moment. Foulois would later write that “it was the first time I ever saw him with a smile on his face.” One newspaper reported that “the corners of his mouth were twitching, the first outward indications of emotion that he has exhibited during the month and a half that he has been at Fort Myer.” “You got the money, you got the money,” he called out. “You bet we did,” replied Orville. He and Foulois were both hungry. They had a quick bite to eat in the balloon shed, making requisition on Miss Wright’s lunch basket and drawing heavily on her supply of tea.

“My sensations?” repeating a just asked question, Foulois, removing a cigar from his lips, said, “why, I didn’t have any. I was too busy.” He was asked too busy doing what. “Oh,” he replied, laughingly, “too busy watching the time and taking in the landscape we were passing over. I had no idea there were so many trees and so much rough country in the world. It appeared as though we could not alight if anything went wrong with our motor, but it kept to its work in fine shape. I didn’t touch it until we were ready to alight, when Mr. Wright nudged me and I shut off the power. I was a passenger throughout the flight and behaved as such.”

A few moments later, they were joined by Maj. Charles Treat who had been sent by President Taft. Taft, who was anxious to witness the cross country flight, did not arrive until the machine was winging its way homeward. He witnessed the last minutes of the flight from the big touring car in which he had motored to Fort Myer, and immediately after the descent had sent Treat to convey his congratulations to Orville. The officer conveyed the compliments of President Taft, and his deep regrets at not having been able to witness the entire flight.

Then Katherine Wright ran to the telephone in the Signal Corps tent and dictated the following telegram to the father of the family at Dayton: “Orville has just completed a splendid flight to Alexandria and return. All safe and sound.” Then she hurried back to the balloon shed, where the officers of the Signal Corps had to make a way for her through the crowd that was held back of the ropes. She ran promptly into Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, who seized her. “Wasn’t it splendid?” She exclaimed, pumping Katharine’s hand up and down. “I never saw anything like it, and I’ve just come from telling your brothers so. You ought to be proud of them.” “I am,” she said, and sought Orville.

Wilbur remained outside for a little while, and talked to the newspaper men. “Roughly speaking, I should say she made about 42 ½ miles an hour,” he said. “That’s only a rough computation.” “I’m sure we are over the 42-mile mark. A wind from the west interfered a little with the speed, and I think Orville flew a little too high, so that he got all there was to get of it. It was a great flight, though.”

“I want you boys to get a few things right,” he continued, requesting for the first time since arriving in June that certain things be printed. “Remember that this is the first cross-country flight ever made over rough country in a heavier-than-air machine, over a course which had not been carefully picked out beforehand, with the idea in mind of reducing to the minimum the chance of risk of alighting. Then, again, remember that our machine had just made the best time ever recorded over a measured course, and I am counting flights in Europe with only one passenger, whereas we had two. I want you to get those things right, because Orville has accomplished some few things today.” He was plainly elated at the performance of the aeroplane and delighted at his brother’s accomplishments.

A little later Orville came out and permitted himself to be bombarded with questions. “That wind from the west cut down our speed,” he said. “I am positive that the machine could have made 45 miles an hour under better conditions. During the beginning of the flight I was not able to make out the balloon at the turning point, and because of that fact I did not fly in a straightaway course. When about half of the distance I had to swing around to the right. The wind blew me off my course, and, in addition to that, I misjudged my ultimate destination, so that I lost a little time because of that fact, too, having to make a wider sweep than I had planned before rounding the balloon.” “We ran into a little wind flurry between the two ridges coming back. It bore us down a little. That was when I disappeared from view. We had to ride against it like forty, and it seemed difficult to get up for a while. Still, at that we were 200 feet above the tree tops. I suppose that there were several times when we were more than 400 feet up.” “I took a keen interest in everything below me, and did not feel the element of danger any more than when flying about the parade grounds. It seemed as if everybody living along the course was out to get a look. Every house-top that we crossed had its complement of spectators, and, in many instances, they seemed to have brought out bed sheets or table cloths to wave at us as we passed.”

As to his claim that if it were not for the strong breeze he could have made 45 miles an hour, or more, he was asked if he would make another flight to demonstrate that. He answered, “No, I think not. We have met the government requirements, and I think we shall stop there.”

A particularly enthusiastic General Allen, the Chief Signal Officer, went to the shed with the members of the Aeronautical Board to congratulate Orville. “I’m sorry the President didn’t get here earlier,” he said. “He missed the sight of a lifetime. It was a wonderful performance.”

As soon as the Aeronautical Board members could get together, they compared their stopwatches and determined that the official speed to Alexandria had been 37.735 miles per hour, on the return trip it was calculated at 47.431 miles per hour with the average official time computed at 42.583 miles per hour. Major Squier asked the brothers if they wanted to make another trial since the specification allowed them three chances. They replied that they would stand on this, their first cross-country flight.

Although the official time figure had to be made public that evening, generally everyone agreed that the Wright Brothers had met the contract specification and would be awarded a contract for $25,000 plus an additional bonus for exceeding 40 miles per hour.

That evening, General Allen told the press that the final requirement of the contract was for the Wright Brothers to train two Army officers how to fly the aeroplane the Army was acquiring. It was assumed at the time the two students would be Foulois and Lahm. Allen stated that the training would take place at a site in Maryland some ten miles distant from Fort Myer. [15]

“I hardly had time to have any sensations,” said Foulois that evening at his apartments in the Ontario (2853 Ontario Rd NW) when asked by a Washington Post reporter how it felt to fly ten miles across country at breakneck speed in an aeroplane. “Keeping the time and watching the course so as to assist Orville Wright to fly in a straight line required all my attention from the minute we left the parade ground at the fort until we had made the journey back. My hands were full all the time, and it was over so soon that it seemed to me to have taken only a minute or two. I had to be on the alert every second. What sensations I experienced, brief as they were, can be best described by the word glorious. It is a great feeling to float along up in the air.”

He was asked about fear. “I didn’t have time to be afraid. There was no danger as long as the aeroplane was intact and the motor worked properly. Of course, there is always danger of an accident, but I had supreme confidence in the machine and in our ability to get there and come back safely.” “Several time things looked squally. We were at a height on one part of the trip that I think must have been between 400 and 500 feet. Once we struck a strong cross-wind, and the machine veered some, but at no time was I apprehensive of the outcome of the trip.”

“Though we were going at railroad speed, I was not conscious of the rapidity with which we were flying. That is one of the peculiarities of traveling in an aeroplane. The country in front of you seems to come right up instead of you approaching to meet it. The only evidence of one’s speed is the wind rushing by and the rapidly approaching goal. It seemed to me we were hardly moving at all. It’s not like travelling in an automobile, where you are close to the earth.”

Here Foulois laughed heartily over a joke that one of the signal corps officers had told him. “When Lieut. Lahm went up in the hour’s endurance flight they asked him what he wanted put on his grave,” said Foulois. “Put bluegrass over it,” replied Lahm. If they had asked me that today, I would have replied “Put wooden nutmegs over mine, for I’m from Connecticut.” Everybody present laughed at this.

“Yes, it was a great success, and shows conclusively that the aeroplane is to be one of the greatest possible factors in warfare on land and sea in the future. The Wright aeroplane has come up to everything that we expected, and more, too. It is a great flying machine,”

Foulois said that he and Lahm had been designated to learn how to operate the aeroplane and he supposed that they would begin taking lessons from either Wilbur or Orville the following week. He said that one or the other he understood would remain to instruct them in the art of flying. He said the Fort Myer parade ground was too small for this, and some other place close to Washington would have to be found. [16]

“Lt. Ben Foulois – 1910”. US Air Force Art Collection. (NAID 6436014).

On August 2, 1909, the Army formally took possession of the Wright aeroplane which was designated as Signal Corps No. 1. During the fall, Wilbur Wright fulfilled the training obligation and the brothers received their $30,000 contract payment, which included the $5,000 bonus for exceeding 40-miles per hour by two miles. [17]

As things turned out Foulois was sent to Europe for an international aeronautical conference and was not one of the two Army officers to be trained to fly at the College Park, Maryland Army Aviation School. He did return later that fall to receive some training and would end up flying the Army’s Wright aeroplane in Texas in 1910 and at College Park in 1911. He retired from the military service as a major general and chief of the Army Air Corps on December 31, 1935. The Wright aeroplane, considered obsolete, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution at the end of September 1911. [18] It is now housed at the National Air and Space Museum.

Visit of Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois to the National Archives on Mar. 7, 1966 with Dr. James Rhoads, Fifth Archivist of the United States (1968-1979). (NAID 74227284), Record Group 64.

[1] War Department, Annual Reports for the year ended June 30, 1908 Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), vol. I, p. 45 vol. II, p. 211, p. 2 “Wrights Due Here Today,” The Washington Post, June 20, 1909, p. 6 “Aeroplane as Safe as Auto, says Wright,” The New York Times, June 21, 1909, p. 3

[2] Army and Navy Register, September 30, 1911, p. 10 War Department, Annual Reports for the year ended June 30, 1908 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), vol. I, p. 45 Benjamin D. Foulois, with Colonel C. V. Glines, USAF, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois (New York, Toronto, London, Sydney: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968), p. 54 Paul W. Clark and Laurence A. Lyons, George Owen Squier: U.S. Army Major General, Inventor, Aviation Pioneer, Founder of Muzak (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014), p. 86 Initial Development by Signal Corps 1908-1914, Tab A to Summary of Development of Air Corps from 1908 to Date, File 321.9 History of the Organization of the Army Air Force 1941, Security Classified Central Decimal Files, January 1939-September 1942, Entry 293-B, Records of the Army Air Forces, Record Group 18 (NAID 6860411) “Wright Flies Over an Hour,” The New York Times, September 10, 1908, p. 1 “Wright Breaks His Airship Record,” The New York Times, September 13, 1908, p. 1

[3] Kenneth Munson, Pioneer Aircraft 1903-1914 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1969), p. 21.

[4] Report of the Chief Signal Officer U.S. Army to the Secretary of War for Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1909 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1909), p. 28..

[5] “In Swiftest Flight,” The Washington Post, July 22, 1909, p. 1. The first Michelin Trophy for duration flying was won by Wilbur Wright, who on December 31, 1908, completed 36 laps of a 1.37 mile circuit in France, establishing at the same time world records for duration and for distance flown. Munson, Pioneer Aircraft 1903-1914, p. 13.

[6] David McCulloch, The Wright Brothers (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, New Delhi: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 2015), p. 13.

[7] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 62 “Flies 73 Minutes with a Passenger,” The New York Times, July 28, 1909, p. 1 “Air Exploits and Problems,” The Washington Post, July 28, 1909, p. 6 “New World Mark by Orville Wright,” The Washington Post, July 28, 1909, p. 1.

[8] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 62.

[9] John F. Shiner, Foulois and the U.S. Army Air Corps 1931-1935 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, 1983) Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois.

[10] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, pp. 62-63.

[11] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 63.

[12] “Wind Halts Flight,” The Washington Post, July 29, 1909, p. 1 “Wright Fails to Fly Gets 3 Days More,” The New York Times, July 29, 1912, p. 14 “Sudden Storm Stops Wright from Flying,” The New York Times, July 30, 1909, p. 1.

[13] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 65.

[14] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 63.

[15] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, pp. 1, 63-65 “Victory for Wright in 10-Mile Flight,” The New York Times, July 31, 1909, p. 1 “New Record Made by Wright Airship,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1909, p. 1 “Over Shooters Hill,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1909, p. 2 “Foulois as A Flyer,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1909, p. 2.

[16] “Foulois as A Flyer,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1909, p. 2.

[17] Foulois, with Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts: The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, p. 65 War Department, Annual Reports for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1913 (Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1914), vol. I, p. 791.

[18] Army and Navy Register, September 30, 1911, p. 10 “Old Aero in Museum,” The Washington Post, September 29, 1911, p. 3 “Guard Pioneer Aeroplane,” The New York Times, June 18, 1911, p. 2.


1925 through 1940 Edit

Delta's origins can be traced to an agricultural and aviation effort that came together in the early 1920s to find a solution to the boll weevil infestation that was destroying cotton crops. Entomologist B. R. Coad led a team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's field laboratory in Tallulah, Louisiana, and with loaned Army pilots and aircraft developed improvements that determined "dusting" of insecticide powder from the air would be the most effective form of treatment. [21] Working with Coad, an aircraft manufacturing company (Huff-Daland Aero Corporation) built the world's first airplane designed for crop-dusting and formed a subsidiary, Huff Daland Dusters Inc., to market and operate that new service. [22] It was founded on 2 March 1925, in Macon, Georgia, and became the world's first aerial crop dusting company. [3] The company moved to Monroe, Louisiana, in summer 1925. C.E.Woolman left his position with Louisiana State University's Agricultural Extension Dept and in the off-season traveled with the company to Peru, where they helped to establish crop-dusting and passenger services. With this experience, Woolman returned to the United States and in 1928, he led a group of local investors to acquire Huff Daland Dusters assets.

The new company was named Delta Air Service, with its headquarters in Monroe. La. The name Delta, referring to the Mississippi Delta region, was suggested by Catherine FitzGerald, a secretary who later would rise to the rank of an executive in the company. [3] [23] [24] On 17 June 1929, Delta Air Service began flying 5-passenger Travel Airs from Dallas, Texas, to Jackson, Mississippi, with stops in Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana. [9] By June 1930, Delta's route had expanded eastward to Atlanta, the fastest-growing city in the South, and westward to Fort Worth, Texas. [24]

This service was terminated in October 1930 after the "Spoils Conference", when the Post Office awarded the route to an American Airlines predecessor. Delta's lack of success in winning a commercial airmail contract—the bread and butter of any aspiring airline—jeopardized its existence. Delta Air Service suspended passenger service, and sold its assets to its competitor. [24] Local banker Travis Oliver, acting as trustee, C.E. Woolman and other local investors purchased back the crop-dusting assets of Delta Air Service and incorporated as Delta Air Corporation on 31 December 1930. [9] [3] [25]

A reprieve came for Delta on the heels of the "airmail scandal", when the U.S. Congress enacted the Air Mail Act of 1934. C.E. Woolman secured a low-bid contract for the new Mail Route 24, [24] flying used Stinson "T" Trimotors, [26] with a route from Charleston, South Carolina, to Fort Worth, with stops in Columbia, Augusta, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Meridian along the way. [27] Mail service began 4 July 1934, and passenger service on 5 August. Doing business as Delta Air Lines. [28]

1940s and 1950s Edit

In 1941, Delta moved its headquarters from Monroe to Atlanta. [29]

Until 1941, Delta's network was an unbranched string of twelve cities from Fort Worth to Charleston SC. That December it scheduled ten departures a day at Atlanta: three to Ft Worth, one to Birmingham and two each to Cincinnati, Charleston and Savannah. Those ten flights and their returns were Delta's whole schedule.

Delta's routes started extending north and south. In 1943, Delta added service to New Orleans, and in 1945 Chicago and Miami. The company name officially became Delta Air Lines in 1945. Regularly scheduled cargo service began in 1946. [30]

Delta purchased Chicago and Southern Air Lines in 1953 and flew under the name Delta-C&S for the next two years. This added a north–south network from Chicago and Detroit to Houston and New Orleans – and Delta's first international route, New Orleans to Caracas via Havana. [31] The network expanded to Washington DC and New York in 1956 like Braniff, Delta initially flew only to Newark, but between 1957 and 1958 both airlines added flights to Idlewild. [ citation needed ] Delta had no direct flights between the Northeast and Florida until it merged Northeast Airlines in 1972.

Revenue Passenger-Miles (Millions)(Sched Service Only)
Delta Northeast C&S
1951 402 88 200
1955 1008 116 (merged DL)
1960 1870 565
1965 4304 666
1970 9713 1856
1975 16460 (merged)

1960s and 1970s Edit

Delta added jet airliners to its fleet in the 1960s the Douglas DC-8 entered service in September 1959. Delta's new red, white, and blue triangle logo (the "widget") on their aircraft represented the jet's swept wing, as well as the Greek letter delta. [32] Convair 880s were added in 1960 (they set a coast-to-coast record) [33] and in 1965 the DC-9. Delta became an all-jet airline in 1970. [24]

In 1961, Delta's routes expanded west with the first nonstop service between Atlanta and California. Delta acquired Northeast Airlines in 1972. [24] Delta purchased some Boeing 747-100s, which were later sold to China Airlines in favour of the Lockheed L-1011. Trans-Atlantic service began in 1978 with the first nonstop service from Atlanta to London. [34]

1980s Edit

Delta launched its first frequent flyer program in 1981 which became the SkyMiles program in 1995. In 1982, the airline acquired its first Boeing 737s. Also in December 1982, Delta took delivery of its first 757 and 767-200, named the Spirit of Delta, which was paid for "by voluntary contributions from employees, retirees and Delta's community partners." The effort, called Project 767, was spearheaded by three Delta flight attendants to show the employees' appreciation to Delta for solid management and strong leadership during the first years following airline deregulation." [35] The airplane remained in the Delta fleet until 2006, and was repainted in a commemorative paint scheme and toured the country to celebrate the airline's 75th anniversary in 2004. [36] In 1987, Delta merged with Western Airlines, and Ron Allen became CEO of the combined airline. Trans-Pacific service began in 1987 (Atlanta-Portland, Or.-Tokyo). [37]

1990s Edit

In 1990, Delta became the first U.S. airline to operate the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 aircraft, [38] leasing two from Mitsui.

Delta expanded dramatically by purchasing most of Pan Am's European routes after Pan Am declared bankruptcy in 1991. Delta initially explored a joint divvying-up of Pan Am's assets with United Airlines where Delta would take over the New York-based European operations and United would take over the Miami-based Latin American operations, but the two carriers reached a major disagreement over which would assume the Pan Am Miami-London route. On 1 September, Delta acquired Pan Am's East Coast and European routes including intra-European routes from the Frankfurt hub, (IGS routes to and from Berlin were acquired by Lufthansa) and assumed a controlling interest in the remainder of Pan Am, which continued to operate routes from Miami to London, Paris and Latin America. The total price for these assets was $1.3 billion. [39]

Although Delta initially promised further equity injections to keep Pan Am afloat, it decided not to do so a month later, which forced Pan Am to cease operations on 4 December 1991. [40] United purchased the remaining assets of Pan Am a few days later, including transatlantic routes from Miami, for a total of $135 million. [39]

The Pan Am creditors' committee sued Delta for more than $2.5 billion on 9 December. [41] In December 1994, a federal judge ruled in favor of Delta, concluding that it was not liable for Pan Am's demise. [42]

The Pan Am transaction gave Delta the largest transatlantic route network among U.S. airlines. Because of these acquisitions, Delta became and remains the largest U.S. transatlantic carrier, in terms of passengers carried and the number of flights operated. The ex-Pan Am routes acquired by Delta included Detroit to London, despite Northwest Airlines' objections due to Delta's small presence in Detroit and Northwest's comparatively larger operations. [43] Northwest later attempted to buy US Air's (now American Airlines) Baltimore-London route for $5 million and transfer the route to Detroit [44] but ended up buying the route from Delta in 1995. [45]

Throughout the 1990s, Delta maintained a secondary hub at Portland for its Asia operations. In addition to regularly scheduled flights to Delta's primary hubs during this time (Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Salt Lake City), several of Delta's flights to Asia were routed from Portland and Los Angeles, using L-1011 and MD-11 aircraft. Destinations included Bangkok, Fukuoka (resumed 28 December 2011 from Honolulu as a seasonal route), Hong Kong, Manila, Nagoya, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo (resumed 3 June 2009 replacing Northwest Airlines route). Delta was one of the airlines targeted in the failed Operation Bojinka plot: the conspirators planned to bomb a Delta MD-11 flying from Seoul to Bangkok via Taipei on 21 January 1995.

In 1997, Delta achieved an unprecedented milestone in the airline industry: the first airline to board more than 100 million passengers in a single year. Delta also began an expansion of US-Latin America routes. [46]

In 1998, Delta and United Airlines introduced a marketing partnership that included a reciprocal redemption agreement between SkyMiles and Mileage Plus programs and shared lounges. [47] This scheme allowed members of either frequent flier program to earn miles on both carriers and utilize both carriers' lounges. Delta and United attempted to introduce an even closer codeshare agreement, but this was deal was effectively killed by ALPA. [48]

2000s Edit

In 2000, Delta partnered with AeroMéxico, Air France, and Korean Air to form SkyTeam, a global alliance. Three years later, Delta began the largest domestic codeshare alliance with Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines. Today SkyTeam is the second largest airline alliance in the world (after Star Alliance). [49]

Delta's short-lived Los Angeles focus city was significantly reduced in 2008, ending the build up toward hub status as Delta went from a high of 48 destinations from the airport to just 17. [50]

Fleet transformation in the early 2000s Edit

In an effort to simplify its fleet and capitalize on cross-platform compatibility, not only in pilot training but also maintenance, the airline began to retire its trijets (three-engine planes) in favor of twinjets (two-engine planes). Delta's entire active fleet is now composed of twinjets. The airline is now the world's largest operator of 767 aircraft.

  • The Lockheed L-1011 was, for many years, the workhorse of the fleet and backbone of Delta's international network, numbering as high as 56 in service at one time. The last L-1011 (N728DA) was retired on 31 July 2001. The final flight operated as Flight 1949 from Orlando to Atlanta. The Lockheed L-1011's were replaced with the Boeing 767-400.
  • The airline's many Boeing 727s were completely replaced with Boeing 737-800s in 2003.
  • Delta operated its last MD-11 flight on 1 January 2004, operating as Flight 56 from Narita International Airport to Atlanta. This concluded the MD-11s relatively short service in the fleet. MD-11 aircraft have been replaced with Boeing 777-200ERs. On 23 September 2004, a Delta spokesperson confirmed plans to sell 8 MD-11s to FedEx Express. The remainder MD-11s were either sold to World Airways for charter use or converted to freighters for UPS Airlines.

Bankruptcy Edit

As early as 2004, in an effort to avoid bankruptcy, Delta began restructuring the company, which included job cuts and an aggressive expansion of Atlanta operations by some 100 new flights, making it a 'super-hub' and requiring the airline to spread its flight schedule more evenly across the day. [52]

On 15 August 2005, in an SEC filing, Delta finalized a deal to sell Delta Connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) for $425 million in cash to SkyWest Airlines in an effort to obtain money to avoid bankruptcy. Analysts called the move a desperate one, estimating ASA's worth at around $700–$800 million – a price which SkyWest would not have been willing to pay. [53]

Delta sought protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code on 14 September 2005, via a filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan the company's liabilities included some $28.27 billion of total debt. Ironically, rival carrier Northwest Airlines also sought Chapter 11 protection that same day via a filing with the same court Delta and Northwest would eventually merge several years later, after both companies had restructured and had emerged from bankruptcy, with Delta as the surviving corporate entity.

In December 2005, Delta cut 26% of its flights at its Cincinnati hub and redeployed the aircraft to its hubs in Atlanta and Salt Lake City. [54]

Reorganization during bankruptcy Edit

In 2005, Delta accelerated its restructuring, targeting an additional $3 billion per year in cost reductions by 2007. Of that, $970 million was to come from debt relief, lease and facility savings, and previously commenced fleet modifications. Non-union workers' salaries were to be reduced by a minimum of 9% across the board, with a 15% reduction for executive officers and a 25% pay cut for CEO Gerald Grinstein. In December 2005, the Delta pilots agreed to an additional temporary 14% cut in pay, piggybacking onto the 32.5% taken at the beginning of 2005. This cut was made permanent with the ratification of an agreement in June 2006. Additionally, the company planned to lay off between 7,000 and 9,000 of its 52,000 employees. [55]

In 2006, Delta purchased rights to fly between New York City and London from United Airlines. [56]

On 24 February 2006, Delta, along with Continental Airlines and FedEx Express, saw future operations to Venezuela severely affected by President Hugo Chávez's decision to restrict flights coming into that South American country from the United States. [57] [ needs update ]

Based on all of these new initiatives, Delta projected a return to profitability by late 2007, based on a crude oil price model of $66 per barrel, in contrast to other bankrupt carriers' restructuring modeled on $55 per barrel. Delta would eventually reach this goal of full year profitability in 2007. [58]

Starting in 2007, Delta began offering on-demand programming on all flights longer than four hours at its main hubs in New York City, Salt Lake City, and Atlanta. This countered entertainment offerings of other airlines like JetBlue Airways, and took after Song's services. Live programming and music are free, and movies are available on demand for a nominal fee in coach and for free in first class. [59] Delta also installed an improved in-flight entertainment system on internationally configured aircraft, featuring a personal selection of movies. The system was installed in all classes on Boeing 767-400ER and 777-200ER aircraft, and in the BusinessElite section on Boeing 767-300ER aircraft. [60]

On 9 November 2006, the airline recalled 1,000 flight attendants that were previously laid off. Delta also exhausted its pilot recall list and, in December 2006, began accepting pilot applications for the first time in 5 years. They expected to take on close to 200 first officers through 2007. [61]

Failed takeover attempt by US Airways Edit

On 15 November 2006, Bloomberg reported that US Airways Group, the parent of US Airways, proposed a takeover of Delta for $8 billion in cash and stock. [62]

In addition to Delta management, Delta employees appeared to be extremely skeptical of US Airways management's claims that a merger would result in no job reductions and provide a more secure future for a combined entity. Employees had started wearing "Keep Delta My Delta" buttons and campaigning to raise public awareness of their opposition to the proposed takeover. [63]

On 19 December 2006, Delta rejected US Airways Group's proposed merger. The airline also launched a media campaign against the merger to raise public support. The campaign, "Keep Delta My Delta", was picked up from the employee grassroots effort of the same name. The effort's website harbored an e-petition, quotes from prominent dissidents, and the effects the merger could have on selected localities. In its report, Delta cited many reasons for rejecting the bid, including it would lead to worse customer service, possible layoffs, an inefficient carrier, the carrier with the largest debt-load in the industry, and near-monopoly powers. [64]

On 20 December 2006, Delta and its financial advisor, the Blackstone Group, declared that Delta would be valued at between $9.4 billion and $12 billion after emerging from bankruptcy, which would (at the time of this writing [ when? ] ) give it a market capitalization comparable to that of Southwest Airlines Co. or greater than that of American Airlines' AMR Corp. and Continental Airlines, Inc. combined. US Airways Group CEO Doug Parker stated that Delta's self-valuation lacked credibility and was unrealistic. [65] Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein retorted by stating that the Tempe-based airline was "the worst of all potential merger partners". [66]

On 10 January 2007, US Airways raised its bid by 20%, to $10.2 billion. The revised offer was set to expire by 1 February unless Delta's creditors opened the airline's books to US Airways and delayed a scheduled 7 February court hearing pertaining to Delta's reorganization plan. [67] Delta responded with a statement, claiming that ". the revised proposal does not address significant concerns that have been raised about the initial US Airways proposal and, in fact, would increase the debt burden of the combined company by yet another $1 billion." [68] That same day Delta Air Lines was speculated to be in talks with Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines to fend off the US Airways bid. [69] CEO Gerald Grinstein, however, denied that any serious negotiations were ongoing with Northwest or any other airline. [ citation needed ]

On 28 January 2007, US Airways holding company raised its bid by another $1 billion according to the Wall Street Journal, [70] but company spokesmen denied any change. [ citation needed ] On 31 January 2007, Delta's creditors rejected US Airways' hostile takeover attempt, and US Airways withdrew its offer to buy Delta. On the same day, executives and employees of the company gathered to celebrate the re-lighting of the historic "FLY DELTA JETS" sign at the company's main hub, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. [71] [72]

Emergence from bankruptcy Edit

On 25 April 2007, the airline's bankruptcy plan was approved by the bankruptcy court. On 30 April 2007, Delta Air Lines emerged from bankruptcy protection as an independent carrier. Delta also unveiled a new logo, reminiscent of its logo from the 1970s and 1980s, and a new paint scheme.

Delta's previous stock was canceled as of Monday, 30 April 2007, and new shares are trading on a "when issued" basis on the New York Stock Exchange. These shares began trading normally on Thursday, 3 May 2007. The starting price was around $20.00 a share, and went up to as high as $23.35. But investors showed little confidence in the stock as the price fell to $19.00 later in the week. [73]

Upon exiting bankruptcy, Delta increased operations at Los Angeles International Airport by 50%, [74] thus establishing Los Angeles as Delta's second West Coast hub and new potential Asian gateway with a total of 99 daily departures.

Post-bankruptcy Edit

On 10 May 2007, Delta began a partnership with US Helicopter, who provides service from John F. Kennedy International Airport to several helipads in downtown Manhattan. [75]

On 12 July 2007, Delta and its SkyTeam partners forfeited slots in the European Union to relieve antitrust concerns. [76]

On 21 August 2007, Delta named Richard Anderson, former CEO of Northwest Airlines and executive at UnitedHealth Group, as a replacement for outgoing CEO Gerald Grinstein. Anderson assumed the post on 1 September. [77]

On 14 November 2007, Pardus Capital Management LP, a hedge fund that owns 7 million shares of Delta and 5.6 million shares of United, called for the two carriers to merge. This action sent shares of both airlines up. However, the two airlines quickly denied official talks of any merger. [78] [79] [80]

Japan Airlines shareholder negotiations Edit

In an effort to expand Delta's Tokyo hub operations at Narita International Airport after the merger with Northwest, on 11 September 2009, Japan's NHK reported that Japan Airlines (JAL) was seriously considering allowing Delta to become a majority shareholder. However, JAL is a member of Oneworld, which is rival to Delta's SkyTeam alliance. [81] [82] In addition, it was reported that JAL was in talks with Delta's partner, Air France-KLM, and JAL's Oneworld partner and Delta's rival, American Airlines, for equity investments in the airline. [83]

On 4 January 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that JAL and the Japanese government-backed Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corporation of Japan would likely choose to form a business and capital tie-up with Delta, and that JAL would enter the SkyTeam alliance as part of the deal. The move, according to the report, would reduce JAL's international flight operations in favor of codeshare agreements with Delta. The report also said that American Airlines had begun procedures to end negotiations with JAL. [84] A JAL spokesman denied the report, stating that negotiations with Delta and American were continuing. [85]

Yomiuri reported, on 16 January 2010, that Delta had reached an agreement with JAL on a tie-up consisting mostly of code-sharing flight services. JAL and Delta intended to sign the agreement after JAL's bankruptcy protection proceedings began, and both airlines would apply for antitrust immunity with the United States Department of Transportation. [86] Also, JAL announced that it would leave Oneworld and would join the SkyTeam alliance. [87] [88] JAL was expected to officially announce the tie-up with Delta and the switch from Oneworld to SkyTeam on 1 February 2010, the day Delta's and Northwest's reservation systems would merge.

On 8 February 2010, Japan Airlines chose to remain partners with American Airlines and stay in Oneworld, ending talks with Delta. [89]


The origin of folded paper gliders is generally considered to be of Ancient China, although there is equal evidence that the refinement and development of folded gliders took place in equal measure in Japan. Certainly, manufacture of paper on a widespread scale took place in China 500 BCE, and origami and paper folding became popular within a century of this period, approximately 460-390 BCE. It is impossible to ascertain where and in what form the first paper aircraft were constructed, or even the first paper plane's form.

For over a thousand years after this, paper aircraft were the dominant man-made heavier-than-air craft whose principles could be readily appreciated, though thanks to their high drag coefficients, not of an exceptional performance when gliding over long distances. The pioneers of powered flight have all studied paper model aircraft in order to design larger machines. Leonardo wrote of the building of a model plane out of parchment, and of testing some of his early ornithopter, an aircraft that flies by flapping wings, and parachute designs using paper models. Thereafter, Sir George Cayley explored the performance of paper gliders in the late 19th century. Other pioneers, such as Clément Ader, Prof. Charles Langley, and Alberto Santos-Dumont often tested ideas with paper as well as balsa models to confirm (in scale) their theories before putting them into practice. [ citation needed ]

With time, many other designers have improved and developed the paper model, while using it as a fundamentally useful tool in aircraft design. One of the earliest known applied (as in compound structures and many other aerodynamic refinements) modern paper plane was in 1909. [ citation needed ]

The construction of a paper airplane, by Ludwig Prandtl at the 1924 banquet of the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, was dismissed as an artless exercise by Theodore von Kármán: [2]

Prandtl was also somewhat impulsive. I recall that on one occasion at a rather dignified dinner meeting following a conference in Delft, Holland, my sister, who sat next to him at the table, asked him a question on the mechanics of flight. He started to explain in the course of it he picked up a paper menu and fashioned a small model airplane, without thinking where he was. It landed on the shirtfront of the French Minister of Education, much to the embarrassment of my sister and others at the banquet.

In 1930 Jack Northrop (co-founder of Lockheed Corporation) used paper planes as test models for larger aircraft. In Germany, during the Great Depression, designers at Heinkel and Junkers used paper models in order to establish basic performance and structural forms in important projects, such as the Heinkel 111 and Junkers 88 tactical bomber programmes.

In recent times, paper model aircraft have gained great sophistication, and very high flight performance far removed from their origami origins, yet even origami aircraft have gained many new and exciting designs over the years, and gained much in terms of flight performance.

There have been many design improvements, including velocity, lift, propulsion, [3] style and fashion, over subsequent years.


Paper gliders have experienced three forms of development in the period 1930–1988:

Ongoing development of folded/origami gliders over the same period has seen similar sophistication, including the addition of the following construction refinements

  • Increased fold-count, sometimes of an intricate nature
  • Explicit kirigami (cutting of paper) as a component of design
  • Requirements for additional ballast to ensure flight performance

Technological introductions

Technology responsible [ citation needed ] for the proliferation of advanced paper plane construction:

  • Inexpensive CAD software for 2D part design
  • Widespread manufacture, and inexpensive nature of acetal air-annealed glues, e.g. Bostick Clear-bond.
  • Inexpensive ink and laser computer printers, for accurate aircraft part reproduction
  • The advent of the Internet, and widespread information sharing

Material considerations

Compared to balsa wood, another material commonly used to fabricate model planes, paper's density is higher consequentially, conventional origami paper gliders (see above) suffer from higher drag, as well as imperfectly aerodynamic wing chords.

However, unlike balsa gliders, paper gliders have a far higher strength-to-thickness ratio – a sheet of office-quality 80 g/sq m photocopier/laser printer paper, for example, has approximate in-scale strength of aircraft-grade aluminium sheet metal, while card stock approximates the properties of steel at the scale of paper model aircraft.

Directions in advanced paper aircraft design

Unmodified origami paper aircraft have very poor glide ratios, often not better than 7.5:1 depending on construction and materials. Modification of origami paper gliders can lead to marked improvements in flight performance, at the cost of weight and often with the inclusion of aerodynamic and/or structural compromises. Often, increases in wing loading can encourage breakdown of laminar flow over a wing with a hybrid of origami and glued and taped construction.

Professors Ninomiya and Mathews (see sections below) developed more directed design strategies in the late 1960s and the 1980s. Previously, paper model aircraft had been designed without an emphasis on performance in flight. By using aerodynamic design, and fluid dynamics, both professors were able to design models that exceeded previous flight performance criteria by a very wide margin. Ranges of flight increased from the typical 10+ meters to 85+ meters, depending on energy input into the gliders on launch.

At present, the work of the two professors remains the last serious research work on improving the flight performance of paper model gliders. Collaborative work by enthusiasts through online forums and personal websites are mostly developments of these original glider types.

In the field of scale model design, there are at present many possibilities for advanced design. Profile gliders encounter a limitation for improvement of flight performance based on their wing types, which are typically curved-plate aerofoils. In addition, fuselages are either balsa-paper or paper laminates, prone to warping or breakage over a very short time. Improvement in performance is possible through modelling three-dimensional fuselages which encourage laminar flow, and in internally braced wings which can then have high-lift aerofoil profiles, such as the Clark Y or NACA 4 or 6 series, for high lift.

White Wings

In Japan in the late 1960s, Professor Yasuaki Ninomiya designed an advanced type of paper aircraft, which were published in two books, Jet Age Jamboree (1966) and Airborne All-Stars (1967). Designs from these books were later sold as the 'White Wings' Series of paper glider packs from the 1970s to the present day.

White Wings are a stark departure from conventional paper aircraft, in that their fuselages and wings are paper templates cut and glued together. They were designed with the aid of low-speed aerodynamic engineering design principles. Construction of the models is of Kent paper, a grade of cartridge paper sold in Japan.

The early models were explicitly hand drawn, but by the 1980s these had their parts drafted with the use of CAD software.

Prof. Ninomiya's designs also included, for the first time in any paper model, working propellers driven by airflow, in particular for his profile scale models of the Cessna Skymaster and Piaggio P.136 of 1967. Noteworthy as well was the careful design of gliders so that they could fly without ballast – his F-4 Phantom II model is able to be flown immediately without recourse to paperclips etc.

The high performance gliders have fuselages that are kept rigid by the use of a balsa fuselage profile bonded to the paper components. The paper used is quite heavy, approximately twice the weight of standard drawing cartridge paper, but lighter than lightweight cardboard. Original White Wings were entirely paper, requiring patience and skill. Later however, balsa-wood fuselages were used, and White Wings were sold "pre-cut", making construction easier. The aerofoil used is a Göttingen 801 (curved plate), and a pattern is supplied as a cutout part of each kit.

Paper Pilot


In 1984, Professor E.H. Mathews, lecturer in Thermodynamics at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa published his first compendium of high-performance model aircraft. This book was Paper Pilot (Struik, 1984).

This book was very successful, leading to additional volumes, Paper Pilot 2 (1988), Paper Pilot 3 (1991), 12 Planes for the Paper Pilot (1993) and Ju-52, a stand-alone book featuring a scale model.

Unpublished models include an Airbus A320 scale model much like the Ju-52, seen on the Tekkies youth program in 1996.

The books featured patterns of parts printed on lightweight cardstock, to give the aircraft good flight penetration performance for long-distance flight.

Design and development

Public interest in the gliders, and their publishing success, allowed some of the development to be broadcast on South African television during 1988 on the first book's release, and again 1993, to coincide with a national paper aeroplane competition tied to Paper Pilot 3's release.

Aerodynamic design of the gliders was achieved making use of an optimised small wind tunnel - the flat-glider Britten Norman Trislander was filmed in this facility, with weight balances being used to demonstrate the optimisation of flight.

The design of parts of the gliders was achieved using Autodesk AutoCAD R12, then the most advanced version of this CAD software, and one of the first publicly available paper model aeroplanes designed using this technology.

Construction of the gliders closely parallels that used in the White Wings series of gliders of Dr. Ninomiya for flat gliders.

Later gliders with three-dimensional fuselages use a lightweight construction optimised for flight performance.

Innovations include functional wheeled undercarriage which does not contribute to the drag budget while permitting good landings.


Paper pilot gliders make use a curved-plate aerofoil shape for best performance. Their design, like the White Wings gliders, is very sensitive to trim, and in fact have the capacity to make indoor flights in confined spaces under average conditions.

Most in initial editions are equipped with catapult hook patterns, and demonstrate an ability to fly the length of a Rugby pitch when so launched.

Later editions and gliders were equipped with a Bungee hook, the construction of which was included in Paper Pilot 3 and 12 Planes for the Paper Pilot.

The Bungee system publish parallels, at a smaller scale, the practice used in radio controlled and full-size sailplane launches, at a fraction of the cost and complexity. To date, this is the only known example of such a launch system applied to a paper model aeroplane type published in book form.

Flight performance on bungee is very good - one glider in particular, a scale model U-2 (in the last book of the series) had demonstrated flight performance in excess of 120 meters, on bungee hook launch.


A unique development of Prof. Mathews is the Papercopter, a model helicopter whose 'wing' is a trimmable annular ring which, using rotational aerodynamics to provide good forward flight performance without need for a tail rotor. A model helicopter 'body' is suspended beneath the ring, and uses airflow to stabilise itself in the direction of flight, much like a weather vane.

The papercopter design permits flights of approximately 10–14 meters on average.

Paper helicopters (autogyros)

The world's first known published paper autogyro (engineless helicopter) by Richard K Neu appeared in "The Great International Paper Airplane Book" published in 1967. Its wings fly in a circle around a central ballast shaft as it descends vertically. This basic design has been published several times and is widely known.

The world's first known published forward-gliding paper autogyro with forward-pointing body lifted by spinning blades was built by James Zongker. It appears on page 53 of "The Paper Airplane Book: The Official Book of the Second Great International Paper Airplane Contest" published in 1985 by Science Magazine. Its twin contra-rotating blades automatically spin on paper axles upon launch to provide lift.

As noted above (see entry, Paper Pilot), E.H. Mathews developed a flight-stable paper model helicopter. This has a ring wing, and flaps for adjusting for flight for stability, positioned on the inboard edge of the ring. While not an autogyro per se, this paper model aircraft class falls within the general design of a paper model helicopter, and does possess a rotational flight element producing lift during forward flight. Papercopters, as Professor Mathews labeled them, are unique among paper model rotorcraft in having a range and velocity far in excess of all other classes, able to fly quite quickly, and with a range of between 10 and 15 m. The longest flight time is 27.9 seconds. [4]

World records

There are multiple goals for a flight:

  • Distance (javelin throwing).
  • Time (javelin throwing straight up with subsequent metamorphosis into a sailplane).
  • Aerobatic (looping).
  • Stable flight to understand flight mechanics of a good plane.

For every goal there is a typical plane and sometimes a world record. [5]

There have been many attempts over the years to break the barriers of throwing a paper plane for the longest time aloft. Ken Blackburn held this Guinness World Record for 13 years (1983–1996) and had regained the record in October 1998 by keeping his paper plane aloft for 27.6 seconds (indoors). This was confirmed by Guinness officials and a CNN report. [6] The paper plane that Blackburn used in this record breaking attempt was a "glider". As of 2012 [update] , Takuo Toda holds the world record for the longest time in air (27.9 seconds). [4] The distance record (226 feet 10 inches or 69.14 metres) was set by Joe Ayoob, with a plane constructed by John Collins, in February 2012. [7]

General aerodynamics

Paper aircraft are a class of model plane, and so do not experience aerodynamic forces differently from other types of flying model. However, their construction material produces a number of dissimilar effects on flight performance in comparison with aircraft built from different materials.

In general, there are four aerodynamic forces that act on the paper aircraft while it is in flight:

    , which keeps the plane moving forward , acting on horizontal surface areas that lifts the plane upward , which counteracts lift and pulls the plane downward and , which counteracts thrust and reduces the plane's forward speed.

Altogether, the aerodynamic forces co-interact, creating turbulence that amplifies small changes in the surface of the paper aircraft. Modifications can be made to most paper airplanes by bending, curving or making small cuts in the trailing edges of wings and in the airplane's tail, if it has one.

The most common adjustments, modelled after glider aircraft, are ailerons, elevators, and rudders.

Critical Re

The Reynolds number range of the paper model aircraft is reasonably wide:

  • 2,000–12,000 for Origami aircraft
  • 4,000–16,900 for Compound Origami (involving adhesives and aerodynamic refinements)
  • 9,000–39,000 for Profile Performance (White Wings, Paper Pilot, et al.)
  • 19,200–56,000 for Scale Performance (White Wings, Paper Pilot, et al.)
  • 22,000–93,000 for Scale Models (complex structures)

These ranges are indicative. As noted above the mass: density ratio of paper prevents performance from reaching those of Balsa models in terms of expressions of power to weight, but for models with wingspans of between 250 mm and 1,200 mm, the Critical Re is very similar to balsa model gliders of similar dimensions.

Paper models typically have a wing aspect ratio that is very high (model sailplanes) or very low (the classic paper dart), and therefore are in almost all cases flying at velocities far below their wing planform and aerofoil Critical Re, where flow would break down from laminar to turbulent.

Most origami paper darts tend to be flying within turbulent air in any case, and as such, are important to research into turbulent flow as are low-Re lifting surfaces found in nature such as leaves of trees and plants as well as the wings of insects.

High performance profile and scale models do approach their wing section's critical Re in flight, which is a noteworthy achievement in terms of paper model design. Performance is derived of the fact that wings of these gliders are in fact performing as well as it is possible for them to perform, given their material limitations.

Experiments in different material finishes in recent years have revealed some interesting relationships in Re and paper models. Performance of origami and compound origami structures improves markedly with the introduction of smooth paper, though this is also aided by the paper's higher mass and consequently better penetration.

More marginal performance and scale types generally do not benefit from heavier, shinier surfaces. Performance profile-fuselage types do experience somewhat improved performance if shiny, slippery paper is used in construction, but although there is a velocity improvement, this is offset very often by a poorer l/d ratio. Scale types have experience negative performance at the addition of heavy shiny papers in their construction.


Wing profile sections in models vary, depending on type:

  • Origami : Göttingen flat-plate, or Jedelsky-form for folded leading edges.
  • Compound Origami: Identical with origami, though often with sealed edges – 45% improvement in Cd.
  • Profile Performance: Göttingen curved-plate, with profile similar to Göttingen 801.
  • Scale Performance: Göttingen 801 or any other wing aerofoil
  • Scale Models: This varies on model type (see below)

Camber of profiles varies, too. In general, the lower the Re, the greater the camber. Origami types will have 'ludicrous' or very high cambers in comparison with more marginally performing scale types, whose escalating masses demand higher flying speeds and so lower induced drag from high camber, though this will vary depending on type being modelled.

In the case of scale performance and scale models, the modellers intent will define the type of aerofoil section chosen. WWI biplanes, if designed for flight performance, will often have curved-plate aerofoils, as these produce a highly cambered surfaces and Coefficient of Lift (Cl) for low gliding airspeeds. WWII monoplanes will often have very scale-like sections, though with increased trailing edge droop to improve camber in comparison with scale counterparts.

Similarly, size, airspeed and mass will have very big impacts on choice of aerofoil, though this is a universal consideration in model plane design, no matter the material.

Origami Flying Wings

The former Guinness world record holder Tim Richardson disagrees with the decision to put a 'tail' on the paper plane. His explanation of paper plane aerodynamics on his website mentions that the tail is not needed. He uses the real-life B-2 Spirit flying wing bomber as an example, stating that the weights along the wing should be put forward in order to stabilize the plane. (Note: paper planes do not need a tail primarily because they typically have a large, thin fuselage, which acts to prevent yaw, and wings along the entire length, which prevents pitch.)

Independently, Edmond Hui invented a Stealth Bomber-like paper plane called the Paperang in 1977, [8] based on hang glider aerodynamics. Uniquely, it has properly controlled airfoil sections, high-aspect-ratio wings, and a construction method designed to allow the builder to vary every aspect of its shape. It was the subject of a book, "Amazing Paper Airplanes" in 1987, and a number of newspaper articles in 1992. It is ineligible for most paper plane competitions due to the use of a staple, but it has extremely high gliding performance exceeding glide ratios of 12 to 1 with good stability.

In 1975, origami artist Michael LaFosse designed a pure origami (one sheet no cutting, glue or staples. ) flying wing, which he named the "Art Deco Wing".Though its aerodynamic form mimics some hang glider and supersonic airfoils, its invention evolved from exploring the beauty of folded paper first. Its glide ratio and stability are on a par with many of the best paper wing constructions that use glue, tape or staples. This design was first published in 1984 in the book "Wings and Things", by Stephen Weiss, St. Martin's Press.

Although it is a common view that light paper planes go farther than heavy ones, this is considered to be untrue by Blackburn. Blackburn's record-breaking 20-year-old paper plane [9] was based on his belief that the best planes had short wings and are "heavy" at the point of the launch phase in which the thrower throws the paper plane into the air, and at the same time longer wings and a "lighter" weight would allow the paper plane to have better flight times but this cannot be thrown hard with much pressure into the air as a "heavy" weighted launch phase. According to Blackburn, "For maximum height and for a good transition to gliding flight, the throw must be within 10 degrees of vertical" — which shows that a speed of at least 60 miles per hour (97 kilometres per hour) is the amount needed to throw the paper plane successfully.

After the folding there are still gaps between different layers of folded paper (tearoff edge). These and the kinks transversal to the airflow may have a detrimental effect on aerodynamics, especially on the upper side of the wing. In some models the surfaces are not aligned to the direction of flow acting as airbrakes. Typically the center of mass is at 1/81 and the center of area is at 1/2 of the plane lengths. Two methods exist to shift the center of mass to the front. One rolls up the leading edge which then stays unswept. The other uses a swept wing or axial folding to produce something like a fuselage extending out of leading edge of the wing.

Other designs

It is possible to create freestyle versions of paper aircraft, which often exhibit an unusual flight path compared to more traditional paper darts, jets and gliders. Another propulsion technique, creating high launch velocities, involves the use of elastic bands for "catapults". Walkalong gliding involves the continuous propulsion of paper airplane designs (such as the tumblewing, follow foil [10] and paper airplane surfer [11] ) by soaring flight on the edge of a sheet of cardboard.

There may one day be a paper plane launched from space. A prototype passed a durability test in a wind tunnel in March 2008, and Japan's space agency JAXA considered a launch from the International Space Station. However, the plane developers, Takuo Toda (see World Records above) and fellow enthusiast Shinji Suzuki, an aeronautical engineer and professor at Tokyo University, postponed the attempt after acknowledging it would be all but impossible to track them during the planes' week-long journey to Earth, assuming any of them survived the searing descent. The developers were hoping that China or Russia will back further efforts on the project. [12]

In February 2011, 200 planes were launched from a net underneath a weather balloon twenty-three miles above Germany. The planes were designed to maintain stable flight even in gusts up to 100 mph. The planes were equipped with memory chips from which data can be uploaded. The planes were found in other places in Europe, North America and even Australia. [13]

On 24 June 2015, a club from Kesgrave High School in Suffolk, United Kingdom, achieved the world record for the highest altitude paper plane launch, reaching an altitude of 35,043 metres (114,970 ft). [14]

The Rise and Fall of the Plane “Anyone Could Fly”

In October 1945, the future of travel sat in a glistening showroom in a Manhattan Macy’s. Alongside the department store staples of household appliances, gentlemen's socks and ladies’ girdles was a small, all-metal, two-seater airplane. This was the Ercoupe, “the airplane that anyone could fly.”

Built by the Engineering and Researching Corporation (ERCO), the Ercoupe was billed as “America’s first certified spin-proof plane.” It was safe: Ads called it the “world’s safest plane” and compared its handling to that of the family car. Others vouched for its affordability, emphasizing that it cost less than $3,000 (about $39,000 today). It was also a media sensation: LIFE Magazine called it “nearly foolproof” and the Saturday Evening Post asked readers to not look at it “as another airplane, but as a new means of personal transportation.”

It was the “plane of tomorrow, today.” But by 1952, the Ercoupe was basically out of production. Seven decades later, the question remains — what happened?

The answer can be found at Maryland’s College Park Airport, a facility recognized as the “world’s oldest continuously operating airport.” Located only ten miles from downtown Washington D.C, it's where Wilbur Wright first taught military officers Lt. Frank Lahm and Lt. Frederic Humphreys how to fly an airplane. The College Park Aviation Museum, which overlooks the airport’s runway and house the ERCO company's archives, features a new exhibit highlighting the glitz and glamour of the forgotten aircraft. 

The story of the Ercoupe begins with aviation pioneer Henry A. Berliner, who founded ERCO in 1930. Perhaps best known for developing a practical helicopter with his father, Berliner envisioned a future filled with accessible air travel. In 1936, he hired engineer Fred Weick, who shared his lofty ambition to develop an easy-to-fly, consumer-friendly aircraft. Later, Weick’s daughter would say that her father’s goal was to build “the Model T of the sky.”

With that in mind, the Ercoupe was born. The first production model was completed in 1938 (an early model can be found in Smithsonian’s collections), and it was unlike anything ever crafted before. It steered like a car due to the nose wheel being connected to the control wheel. It featured triangle landing gear, an innovation still used today. Most noticeably, though, the Ercoupe was rudderless, meaning the plane was flown entirely through the control wheel. When the Civil Aeronautics Administration decreed that the plane was “characteristically incapable of spinning” in 1940, it was clear that the Ercoupe had earned its famous moniker: “the plane that flies itself.”

The Ercoupe was poised to be a flying sensation, says Andrea Tracey, director of the College Park Aviation Museum. “Even though aviation was only about 30 years old at the time,” she says, “anyone could have and learn how to fly” the Ercoupe. Its accessibility was the secret of its early success, she notes: “You could order it from Macy’s and J.C. Penney, just like you could have ordered a house through Sears Roebuck.”

For a while, the plane even seemed to be impervious to world events. Though ERCO only manufactured 112 airplanes before the looming war effort halted production, it started selling the plane as soon as World War II ended. By the end of 1945, the airplane was in department stores across the country – from Denver to Baltimore, from San Antonio to Allentown. Celebrities like Dick Powell and Jane Russell bought and endorsed the airplane. The Secretary of the Interior Henry Wallace flew an Ercoupe solo. Magazine and newspaper features were written highlighting the safety, accessibility and affordability of the Ercoupe.

ERCO’s marketing blitz worked: During the first year, the company took over 6,000 orders. To keep up with demand, Berliner increased production, firmly believing the boom was here to last. By mid-1946, the ERCO factory in Riverdale was producing 34 airplanes a day.

The Ercoupe’s journey from boom to bust happened seemingly overnight. First, production outpaced demand. A brief economic downturn in 1946 spooked would-be purchasers. And professional pilots voiced their suspicion of the plane, pointing out that while the plane was safe in the hands of an experienced operator, descents and speed drops could prove to be fatal for the average consumer.

In the end, only 5,140 Ercoupes were produced. Just two years after taking America by storm, Berliner sold the rights to his plane. Seven years after it was introduced, production of the plane ceased for good.

Today, only about 2,000 Ercoupes still exist (only about 1,000 are registered to fly with the FAA). Chris Schuldt flies his Ercoupe three or four times week, usually making short trips from his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He says the plane still gets fellow pilots talking. “You can never land anywhere where someone doesn't come up and ask you about the airplane,” says Schuldt. “They are a real conversation piece.”

Schuldt, who has had his pilot’s license since 1996, says the Ercoupe is relatively simple to learn. But, like pilots of yore, his enthusiasm comes with a caveat. 󈭊 percent of the time you can teach someone how to fly this plane much more easily and simply than many other airplanes,” he says. “The only problem is that last ten percent: It’s the ten percent that will kill you.”

Maybe it was the danger. Maybe Americans just weren’t ready to buy a plane along with refrigerators, underwear and the “miraculous” ballpoint pen. Ultimately, the Ercoupe wasn’t the plane for everyone — but it still represents a soaring vision of what travel could have been.

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

Formation flying

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Formation flying, two or more aircraft traveling and maneuvering together in a disciplined, synchronized, predetermined manner. In a tight formation, such as is typically seen at an air show, aircraft may fly less than three feet (one metre) apart and must move in complete harmony, as if they are joined together.

Formation flying developed in World War I, when fighter aircraft escorted reconnaissance aircraft over enemy territory. Fighter squadrons soon discovered that fighting in pairs reduced their losses and increased their victories. By 1918 the smallest fighting unit was two aircraft flying in formation. German flight leaders, such as Oswald Boelcke, Max Immelmann, and Manfred von Richthofen (“the Red Baron”), strictly enforced rules of formation flying.

Between the World Wars and into World War II, military pilots continued to experiment with different formations, distances, and positions. In bad weather, close to an airport, or while performing in air shows, they flew closer together. When going cross-country, searching for the enemy, or in situations that might require sudden and sharp turns that increased the risk of collision, they separated farther apart in a formation known as “ combat spread.” Whereas airplanes in close formations may be a metre or so apart, in a combat spread formation modern jet-engine fighters may be several hundred metres apart.

All navigation, radio transmissions, and tactical decisions are made by the flight leader, who is typically the most experienced pilot. The other pilots in a formation are known as wingmen, and it is their responsibility to follow the leader and to maintain a constant position relative to the lead aircraft. This is called “ position keeping.” Any change in relative position between aircraft is considered movement by the wingmen.

In the case of a single wingman, his goal is to keep his distance from the leader constant by choosing two features on the lead aircraft and keeping them aligned in the same way from his viewpoint. Any change in the alignment of these two features indicates that his relative position to the leader has changed. In larger formations the other wingmen either hold position on the plane in front or alongside of them or look through that airplane at the lead aircraft and hold position on the leader.

Because flying close to another airplane can be extremely dangerous, discipline, practice, predictability, and strict rule-following are encouraged in both civilian and military environments. Flights are briefed so that all pilots know what to expect and so that, generally, no one except the leader needs to speak on the radio. Leaders use hand signals, head nods, aircraft movements, or radio calls to alert their wingmen of changes in flight attitude, formation positions, split-ups, rejoins, and radio frequencies.

The smallest unit of formation is called a section and consists of one leader and one wingman. Two sections flying together are called a division. The echelon, with all wingmen on one side and a bit behind the leader, is one popular formation. In line abreast, or wall formation, all the planes are equally far forward, in line with the leader. A formation with equal numbers of wingmen on either side of the leader is called a vic, or a vee. An aircraft flying directly under and behind the leader is “in trail,” or in the slot position. The diamond formation, with one airplane in the slot and one on each side of the leader, is a particularly popular display formation. Finger four, with four planes spaced like fingers on a hand, one on one side of the leader and two on the other side, is a popular combat formation.

Military pilots are taught to fly formation early in their training, and, except when there is a scarcity of aircraft for the mission, they always fly in groups of two or more for safety and efficiency. A section or division generally arrives in tight formation at a landing site, which enables all of the airplanes to land in a fraction of the time that it would take if they arrived separately.

When Secrets Crash

When a passenger airliner crashes, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board quickly arrive on the scene to try to determine what went wrong. Press conferences and press coverage follow. The NTSB Web site notes that media are briefed at least once a day by one of the board members accompanying the investigating team and that a public affairs officer maintains contact with the media. Viewers of the nightly news often see aerial images of the crash site. The flight and airplane involved will be precisely identified by the airline and NTSB. Eventually, the public can expect a detailed report on the conclusions.

Things can be very different when the crash involves a military aircraft–particularly if it is an airplane whose existence or mission the United States has not yet acknowledged or that carries particularly sensitive equipment. Over the years, a variety of secret intelligence and military aircraft have crashed, and the specifics of US government responses have varied–sometimes as the result of the different circumstances of the crashes, other times as the result of different rules for dealing with the press queries concerning classified programs. However, preserving secrecy has been a constant objective.

Often times, details of the crash and investigation will emerge only many years later, after the existence and mission of the aircraft have been acknowledged and documents have been released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests or as a result of government declassification programs. The U-2, A-12 Oxcart, SR-71A, and F-117A all are aircraft whose existence was at one time a tightly held secret but which suffered crashes.

Spyplane on Display

By September 1959, the U-2 had been flying operational missions for more than three years. It had survived Soviet attempts to knock it out of the sky with surface-to-air missiles and MiGs. At the time, of course, its espionage mission was an unacknowledged one. It was, the US government declared, an airplane used for high altitude weather research and was operated by “weather reconnaissance” squadrons. It was a cover story that few believed in May 1957, the London Daily Express wrote of the U-2’s espionage missions behind the Iron Curtain. However, weather reconnaissance was Washington’s story, and it was sticking with it.

One of the weather reconnaissance squadrons, whose covert designation was Det. C, was located at the US naval air station at Atsugi, Japan. Since 1957 that detachment had been flying missions over the USSR and China, photographing the Klyuchi ICBM test area in June 1957 and monitoring Chinese troop movements in the fall of 1958. By fall 1959, despite flying some actual weather reconnaissance missions in an attempt to add credibility to its cover, political problems were beginning to inhibit U-2 operations. Those operations were difficult to conceal. Atsugi was a busy airbase, with a variety of Japanese military and civilians on the base. US military deployments and movements in Japan were followed closely by outside observers.

On Sept. 24, 1959, Thomas L. Crull was flying a newly arrived U-2C, Article 360, on a local flight, heading back to Atsugi after setting an altitude record. As the U-2’s fuel ran low, the airplane suffered a flameout–forcing Crull to make a dead-stick, wheels-up landing at the Fujisawa glider strip, 10 miles from Atsugi. Crull emerged unhurt, but his airplane overran the runway and slid onto the grass.

Letting the airplane simply sit there unguarded was not an option. A short time later several security personnel, apparently wearing loud Hawaiian shirts and packing large revolvers, showed up and began to order the growing crowd at gunpoint to stand away from the secret aircraft. The tactic proved counterproductive as it only led to extensive publicity about the crash landing. Eventually, the airplane would be packed off to the US, repaired, and returned to service with Det. B in Turkey.

From there, that airplane would make its final flight. It came on May 1, 1960, and its pilot was Francis Gary Powers. Powers was flying high over Sverdlovsk, USSR, when his U-2 came under attack by some 14 surface-to-air missiles. The U-2 broke apart, but Powers parachuted down safely and was captured, given a trial, and sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. He was freed in 1962 in an exchange for the Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel.

Less than a month before Powers’s fateful flight, another U-2 had made a crash landing, this time into a rice paddy in Thailand. In contrast to the Atsugi incident, the only publicity in this case was an article in a local newspaper reporting on the crash of a jet airplane. Because the area was inaccessible to large vehicles, the airplane could not simply be hauled out of the rice paddy. Instead, it had to be cut into pieces. Then, with the assistance of local villagers, those pieces were hauled by oxcart to a place where they could be loaded on trucks. One night, the trucks carried the dismembered aircraft through Bangkok to Don Muang airfield. There, it was loaded onto a C-124 cargo airplane and flown back to the US. The CIA, to show its appreciation for the villagers’ efforts, provided $500 to build a new school.

A Different Kind of Oxcart

On May 26, 1963, the New York Times carried a front page story under the headline, “New Test Delay May Doom RS-70,” which reported that, according to authoritative sources, “the first prototype for the Air Force’s RS-70 reconnaissance bomber will not be flight-tested until September at the earliest.” Intended to fly at 2,000 mph, the airplane might not fly at all, the paper reported, as a result of the repeated delays that plagued the program.

What the Times did not report, and apparently did not know, was that the CIA was already testing another reconnaissance airplane that was projected to fly at speeds greater than Mach 3, at altitudes of up to 100,000 feet, and with the equipment to photograph huge expanses of territory. This airplane was the result of a 1958 decision by President Eisenhower to authorize development of aircraft that would fly higher and far faster than the U-2 in the expectation that its speed and altitude would make it invulnerable, if not invisible, to Soviet air defenses. Nor did the paper report that one of these top secret A-12 aircraft, which had been developed under a program designated Oxcart and looked unlike anything that had ever flown, had crashed just two days earlier.

On May 24, 1963, Kenneth S. “Dutch” Collins was making a subsonic engine test flight, flying very slowly just above a solid layer of clouds. He was accompanied by Jack W. Weeks in an F-101 Voodoo chase airplane. When Collins saw that Weeks’s F-101 could not stay up with his A-12, he told Weeks to continue on to the base alone. Shortly afterward, when Collins flew into the clouds, his A-12 suddenly stalled, pitched up, and went completely out of control-the result of an erroneous airspeed reading. Collins was able to eject safely from the airplane, which went into an inverted flat spin and then crashed 14 miles south of Wendover, Utah.

Because Collins was on a low-altitude subsonic flight, he was wearing a standard-issue flight suit instead of a pressure suit. The more conventional flying attire prevented him from facing a difficult set of questions from the truck driver who stopped to pick him up and then at the highway patrol office. From there, he contacted officials at Area 51 in Nevada, where the airplane was based, to let them know that their top secret airplane had gone down.

A combination of means was used to prevent unwanted attention and discussion among the local population as well as accurate press reports on the incident. Individuals at the crash site were requested to sign agreements committing them to remain silent about what they had seen. Two farmers, who arrived near the crash scene in a pickup, were told that the airplane had been carrying atomic weapons-which was not true but effectively curtailed their interest in getting any closer to the CIA’s secret spyplane. Meanwhile, the press was told a different and less alarming but also false story-that the airplane that crashed was a very unclassified Republic F-105 Thunderchief. Even official records listed the crashed airplane as being an F-105.

Shattered Fighter

In addition to producing aircraft like the U-2, Oxcart, and SR-71, Lockheed’s Skunk Works produced the F-117A stealth fighter. In 1982, eight years after the experimental Have Blue program began testing the concept of a faceted aircraft to reduce radar cross section, Lockheed delivered the first of the new, odd-looking fighter­bombers. By July 1986, trade journals and writers had turned out a number of articles on what some called the “F-19” stealth fighter. The Testors company even produced a model of what the airplane was supposed to look like, but it bore no resemblance to the real thing. That fact undoubtedly pleased those working on the secret program.

On July 11, 35-year-old Maj. Ross E. Mulhare, assigned to the 4450th Tactical Group, took off from Tonopah Test Range in Nevada and flew his aircraft into California airspace on what would prove to be his last flight. Mulhare, a 1974 graduate of the Air Force Academy, told his friends and members of his family in New Jersey that he flew F-5E fighter airplanes in mock combat missions against pilots from Tactical Air Command. From April 1978 to March 1980, he had flown such missions from Nellis AFB, Nev., the official home of the 4450th. That was followed by F-15 assignments in the US and overseas. In August 1985 he joined the 4450th. The group was an F-117A squadron and Mulhare was one of the squadron’s pilots.

Shortly before his flight, Mulhare was overheard telling a colleague that he was tired and “couldn’t shake it.” Despite his physical condition, Mulhare took off at 1:13 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time–such late night flights were intended to prevent discovery of the airplane’s unique shape–and proceeded westbound into the eastern portion of the San Joaquin Valley. He flew down the eastern side of the valley toward Bakersfield. At about 1:45 a.m., Mulhare’s airplane went into a steep dive and smashed into a hillside about 17 miles northeast of that city, just inside the Sequoia National Forest. Mulhare was killed.

The physical damage to the aircraft was such that one of the crash investigators described it as “without exception … the worst crash I have worked.” He went on to observe that while there was only light fire damage to the airframe, “the structural breakup was almost absolute” and that ” ‘shattered’ may best describe the aircraft after impact.” As a result, identification of special components was frequently impossible.

The crash also started a moderately intense ground fire, which spread through the surrounding hills, eventually burning 150 acres of range. While the aircraft fire had gone out by itself, the range fire had to be controlled by the forest service, an effort not completed until about 16 hours after the crash. Local fire and police were first on the scene. At 3 a.m., authorities began assembling a “divert” team at Tonopah. It arrived at the crash site around 11 a.m.

In the wake of the crash, Air Force spokesmen had little to say. The head of Air Force public affairs said the airplane had only one crew member and “was definitely not a bomber.” Air Force officials at Nellis acknowledged that Mulhare had not been a member of the base’s aggressor squadrons, which emulated Soviet air combat tactics in order to train USAF pilots. An Air Force spokesman also acknowledged that Mulhare was a member of the 4450th Tactical Group but said that all information about the unit was classified, and he could not discuss any of it.

The Kern County sheriff’s office, whose jurisdiction included Bakersfield, did relay some further information from the Air Force–telling reporters that the “whole area has been restricted, including the airspace above the crash site” and that “there will be military aircraft in the area and anyone entering the area will be dealt with appropriately by the Air Force.”

The airspace restrictions called for low-flying aircraft to remain about six miles away from the crash site and other aircraft to maintain altitudes of more than 5,000 feet when within that radius. While civilian aircraft were kept away from the crash site, there were plenty of military helicopters arriving and departing. The Air Force brought in officials and other personnel from Edwards AFB, Calif., and Meadows Field in Bakersfield. As many as four helicopters at a time were in operation from Meadows Field. A helicopter gunship was observed circling the crash site the day following the crash.

At ground level, armed sentries carrying M-16 automatic rifles kept unauthorized visitors away. Not even firefighters were permitted within the guarded perimeter, which one paper described as a “ring of steel.”

At the crash site investigators collected evidence and evaluated the remains of the aircraft for clues to the cause of the tragedy. Then came the task of cleaning the site and leaving no pieces of the highly classified aircraft for scavengers, the media, or others to find. A clean-up team moved out a thousand feet from the last of the recognizable debris and then dug and sifted all the dirt in the area.

On July 23, controlled explosive charges were detonated on the hillside to free pieces of the aircraft buried as the result of the crash.

To mislead anyone who might try to search the area for pieces of the F-117A, the recovery crew had the remains of an F-101A Voodoo, one that had crashed and been stored at Area 51 for over two decades, broken up. They returned to the crash site and scattered the debris throughout the area. On Aug. 7 the Air Force announced it had withdrawn its guards from the crash site and would no longer restrict access to the area.

The very next day, a reporter and photographer from Bakersfield’s KERO-TV were transported to the crash site by helicopter. They later said they didn’t expect to find anything because they assumed the Air Force had cleaned the area thoroughly. But to their great surprise, they found countless pieces of debris scattered within 100 to 150 feet of a dirt helicopter landing pad built by the Air Force. They filled three bags with the material, and it was displayed on the station’s Friday evening news broadcast. They then turned the bags over to an Air Force public affairs officer. An Edwards spokesman said the debris would be examined as a precaution, but that there were no immediate plans to return to the crash site to recover more.

Another F-117 Death

On Oct. 14, 1987, Maj. Michael C. Stewart was flying his F-117A on a night training flight over Nellis. About three-quarters of the way into his mission, local air traffic control radars showed the aircraft descending to the left of the flight path. The aircraft crashed shortly after, at 8:33 p.m., into scrub desert terrain, broke up, burned for a short time, and exploded. Stewart was killed.

The extensive investigation that followed produced information on maintenance, the condition of the pilot, transcripts of recorded communications between Stewart and ground control, and testimony from Lt. Col. Roger C. Locher, leader of the search team. The ultimate result was a detailed 322-page report with 27 sections.

In contrast, information provided to the media by the Air Force was sparse. A decision in favor of declassification, which would take place a little over a year later, had yet to be made, and the world at large was still unaware of the airplane’s shape or actual designation. Neither the Air Force nor the Pentagon was going to help out. Air Force officials at Nellis issued a sketchy five-sentence press release about 2 p.m. on Oct. 15, only after news agencies had called the base for information. In Washington, the Pentagon observed, “There is a plane that is missing. … That is all that we are saying.”

Even though Mulhare’s July 1986 crash had taken place outside of Nellis and Stewart’s airplane crashed inside it, the latter proved the more difficult of the two to locate. At the time of the Air Force’s press release, a USAF search may have just located the airplane.

The Air Force started its search on the night of the 14th, using a C-12 aircraft carrying four pilots wearing night vision goggles. The airplane surveyed an area about 45 miles north of Scotty’s Junction-an area between Goldfield and Tonopah-based on a Forest Service request for confirmation of a fire at that location. At approximately 1 a.m. on Oct. 15, the search team secured the use of an H-3 helicopter and spent another two-and-a-half hours searching before retiring.

The search resumed at 6:15 that morning, and the airplane was finally located early that afternoon-45 miles to the northeast of Scotty’s Junction. Locher, leader of the search team, later noted that the aircraft could have been located much earlier if they had had access to a variety of existing information–including the observation of a pilot of a flash in the area of the crash and the detection of a hot spot in the same vicinity by a US satellite (presumably a Defense Support Program infrared sensor).

Recovery at Sea

Lt. Col. Daniel House and Maj. Blair Bozek, took off from Kadena AB, Japan, on the morning of April 21, 1989, in an SR-71A, the Air Force airplane that had supplanted Oxcart in 1968. Their mission was to perform peripheral reconnaissance of Southeast Asia. Not long into their flight, they experienced a series of problems that forced them to bail out about a half-mile off the coast of the Philippines. Fortunately, they were rescued in good condition by Filipino fishermen and eventually made contact with the US authorities. At times, their experience became surreal. It included standing in flight suits to make a call from a town’s only public telephone.

The airplane, however, had no parachute to brake its fall. When it smashed into the water, both engines sent the sensors and other equipment through the airplane’s upper surfaces. Those items were distributed across the ocean’s bottom at varying distances from the primary wreckage.

By 1989, the SR-71A’s existence had been acknowledged for 25 years. It remained the most advanced reconnaissance aircraft in the world, by a large margin. It carried optical, radar imagery, and signals intelligence sensors as well as defensive systems to allow it to operate over hostile territory. It was not an airplane that the US would want to allow material exploitation specialists in Moscow or Beijing to have in their hands.

On their way to Clark AB, Philippines, House and Bozek had the helicopter in which they were riding fly over the area of the crash. A P-3 also conducted search operations, as did a couple of naval vessels. Sonar operations on April 29 and 30 located the debris. USS Beaufort, a 280-foot salvage ship, equipped with 10- and 15-ton cranes, was directed to the site to extract the wreckage, as well as locate the sensors and defensive systems. Navy SEALs were aboard, since the recovery operations were conducted near a portion of the Philippine coast controlled by the Communist New People’s Army.

On May 2, both SR-71 engines were lifted out of the ocean and swung over onto the Beaufort. Two days later, salvagers brought up many of the sensors. The forward fuselage section was recovered May 7 and the main structure was raised the next day.

Another F-117A crashed March 27, 1999, but this crash was quite different from those which took the lives of Mulhare and Stewart. The airplane did not crash in the western United States, but in northwest Yugoslavia, near Novi Sad. The cause was not fatigue or pilot error but hostile action-specifically, a Serb­launched surface-to-air missile.

The most significant contrast was that the pilot was able to bail out and survive. Search and rescue teams were dispatched on specially equipped HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and HH-53 Super Jolly Greens on a clandestine recovery mission. The helicopters were protected by a contingent of fighter aircraft as they headed toward the crash site. Fortunately, they were able to rescue the pilot, which produced a “huge sigh of relief,” according to the Pentagon’s chief spokesman at the time, Kenneth Bacon.

There was no hope of recovering an airplane downed in hostile territory, but to the surprise of some, the Air Force made no attempt to bomb the wreckage into oblivion. By 1999, of course, the existence of the F-117A had been acknowledged for more than a decade, and stealth fighters often appeared at air shows. A 1988 CIA assessment had concluded, “The Soviets likely have a good understanding of US stealth programs and technology from successful Western technology acquisitions.”

Senior Pentagon officials argued that it was no longer necessary to protect the F-117’s 1970s vintage low observable technology or its infrared targeting system. At a Pentagon briefing, then­Maj. Gen. Bruce Carlson, the Air Force’s director of operational requirements, observed that if Serbia passed some of the airplane’s technology to Moscow, the effect would be “minimal.”

Others were less sanguine. Destruction of the wreckage would, according to some analysts, have prevented reverse engineering of the sensitive technology carried on the airplane and the radar absorbent materials. An anonymous Air Force official was reported to say, “It’s our normal practice to bomb the wreckage when there is sensitive equipment on the aircraft.” A pilot who expressed surprise that the remains were not bombed wondered if the US had the coordinates of the wreckage site.

Within a week, the wreckage site was visited by a Russian trade delegation to Yugoslavia, and materials and system components were salvaged. What, if any, benefit Moscow might have gained remains to be seen.

2 Answers 2

The short answer is that if we can program it into a computer then we can do it manually, it just takes a lot longer.

Back in the day, a "computer" was a clerical professional or mathematician and with paper, pencil, log tables, slide rule and the like on their desk. The data centre of the day was a large hall filled with rows of desks with a computer working industriously at each one, each carrying out a precisely specified routine. Supervisors collected their calculations and passed them on to the next calculator in the chain, who carried out the next routine. It could take a couple of years to fully calculate out a large airframe for production.

The mechanical desktop calculator looked rather like a small old-style cash register and made their lives a lot easier. Electronic desktop calculators raised their game another step.

The computer was one of the first professions to be wholly usurped by the electronics revolution. Programmers long afterwards talked of writing their code in a modular fashion, as routines and sub-routines.

Nowadays we can figure out the basic airframe in a few weeks at worst, while the wind tunnel models are being 3D printed, and iterate until we achieve joy unbounded. However design for manufacturing has become immensely more sophisticated, not to mention standards-bound, and the timescale has if anything increased.

But all computers suffer from one particular phenomenon, known in the trade as GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out. You really do need a competent and experienced designer at the top of the food chain. A GA designer turning their hand to a warplane has a steep learning curve the likes of SR-71 design lead Kelly Johnson do not turn up still wet behind the ears. (It was not always so UK company de Havilland badgered the Air Ministry for years, were fobbed off and insulted at every turn for being mere civilian designers, so they built their brainchild as a private venture and called it the Mosquito. )

The A-12 and SR-71 were flat like an ironing board for a reason. This way, the pitching moment at Mach 3+ was easy to calculate. At the time of the design, Mach 3 wind tunnels were rudimentary and had super small test sections, so their results were unreliable. Indeed, most work was done with intuition and slide rules. Calculations were done by rooms full of human computers because digital computers were rare and complicated to use (did you ever try to sort a deck of punch cards after you accidentally dropped the metal box which held them to the floor?). Granted, these computers were miles ahead of the digital computer that was used in the wing design of the Messerschmitt 262, but there was little existing software, so if you needed a quick result, those human computers were the way to go.

While today much computation removes around iteratively solving large systems of equations, where each equation describes the state in a tiny speck of a large, there-dimensional grid, back then much was done with differential equations which were solved once for a complete system, be it heat in an engine or lift on a wing. Much data was tabulated and only had to be looked up, but this worked only when you stayed in the realm of tried and tested parameters. For new materials and Mach numbers, development was a combination of basic research and trial and error. To give you an impression what was available for flow parameter calculations, look at NACA report 1135, published in 1951. I'm sure papers like this piled high on the desks of the Lockheed engineers of those days.

But those engineers had much more time to try and learn the new stuff. Meetings were short and to the point, bean counters and lawyers still saw themselves as supporting staff and not (yet) as the center of the company, so much of the bullshit that is keeping today's engineers from being productive wasn't around yet. If you read the biography of people like Ben Rich, you will learn that years of experience from wind tunnel data enabled Kelly Johnson to guess the peak temperature of a shock to a few degrees. I have worked with engineers who could tell you the lift curve slope of an arbitrary planform to two digits after the decimal point simply from looking at it.

With the F-16 much had become different already. Powerful and flexible computer codes allowed to replace wind tunnel research and made complex curved surfaces possible. If you look at the supersonic drag of the clean F-16, you see that the shape of the airplane has been optimized for trans-sonic flow. While the drag coefficient of older designs had a clear peak between Mach 1.0 to 1.2, the drag coefficient of the F-16 stays roughly constant over the whole supersonic range. This is the result of careful tweaking that would had been impossible in the times of only wind tunnels. Also, the belly intake is the result of lots of experience, not only from aerodynamics, but also from operations: Earlier generations of engineers were too afraid of FOD to accept a belly intake.

While today's mechanical engineering graduates have again vastly better tools available to them than the team around Robert Widmer, they will lack all of the experience that comes with having contributed to the development of several airplanes. The result will be respectable, but fall short in many details where experience made the engineers of the 1970s pick the overall best solution.

Watch the video: Πτώση αεροσκάφους τον ΗΠΑ στο Αφγανιστάν.