The Wrights in France

Europe Amazed
Henry Farman
Wrights in France
The Channel
Chavez flies Alps
Round Britain Race
Roland Garros
Europe to Egypt
The Men
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By 1908 the Wright brothers felt that there was more to be gained from displaying their machines and piloting skills in public than from continued secrecy. They had filed their patents and nearly concluded their talks with the U.S. military, while the 'competition' was beginning to catch up, although not yet significantly. In Europe there was still widespread scepticism owing to the brothers publicity-shy attitude.

While Henry Farman had been struggling to complete a kilometre in his Voisin, an aeroplane capable of flights of 25 miles had been sitting in a crate on the docks at Le Havre. This was the 1905 model Wright Flyer, sent on ahead of Wilbur Wright (1867-1912), who arrived in May 1908. In June, he chose the town of Le Mans, already famous for its motor race, as his base and began to erect the Flyer on the nearby racecourse at Hunaudières. Wilbur was ready for his first flight in Europe on 8 August.

Wright Flyer at Hunaudières
Setting up the Flyer at Hunaudières. Nearest the shed, Wilbur (cloth cap) is talking to Frank 
Lahm (straw boater), an American who won the 1906 Gordon Bennett balloon race.

A large crowd was present to watch Wilbur take to the air, which included Ernst Archdeacon, Louis Blériot, Léon Delagrange, Hubert Latham and many other interested members of the French Aéro-Club. It was late evening and the air was dead calm. Although the flight was just a short warm-up as far as Wilbur Wright was concerned, all those present were amazed by the display of airmanship they witnessed. All scepticism evaporated in the minute and 45 seconds the flight took. Wilbur was only sensible to be tentative at first. He had not flown for almost three years and nor had the machine he was piloting. Moreover, he had just finished modifying the control mechanism. Using the starting-rail and pillar, he gracefully rose to 30 feet, made three smooth sweeping circuits around the racecouse and then landed easily within 50 metres of where he had taken off. For the spectators it was more than enough! Many of them had expected little more a low 'hop' in a straight line. As Wilbur stepped down from the Flyer the crowd applauded with wild enthusiasm.

"It was at nightfall on August 8 that I saw Wilbur Wright make his first flight. He had made no flights for some months, and yet his first experiment began with the most delicate of all manoeuvres in aviation - namely, circling. He rose forthwith to a height of about 30 feet, and the spectacle was marvellous and delightful. We beheld the great white bird soar above the racecourse, pass over and beyond the trees from its shed to the winning post of the course. We were able to follow easily each movement of the pilot, note his extraordinary proficiency in the flying business, perceive the curious warping of the wings in the process of circling and the shifting position of the rudders. When after one minute 45 seconds of flight Wright again touched the ground, descending with extraordinary buoyancy and precision, while cheers arose from the crowd in the grandstand, I saw the man who is said to be so unemotional turn pale. He had long suffered in silence; he was conscious that the world no longer doubted his achievements." - Francois Peyrey

Wright Flyer at Hunaudieres
Wilbur Wright demonstrating the Flyer at Hunaudières, Le Mans.

Louis Blériot told a reporter for the New York Herald on 8 August,

"I consider that for us in France and everywhere, a new era in mechanical flight has begun. I am not sufficiently calm after the event thoroughly to express my opinion. My view can be best conveyed in the words - It is marvellous!"

"Aviation is going to make such progress as cannot be imagined."

When they asked him how he flew aeroplanes Wilbur replied, "Like a bird." He wasn't being conceited. In these three words he summed up the difference between the Wright ethos, based on control and careful experiment, and the European, based more or less on inspired guesswork. Key to the Wrights ability in the air was their realisation of the importance that roll played in both staying level and in properly balanced turns. Whenever Wilbur made a turn, he used rudder and wing-warping together so that the Flyer banked round in an aerodynamically effecient and naturally graceful manner.

Following the flight on 8 August, Wilbur Wright became a sensation in France. Taciturn in manner, he let his flying speak for him. On 3 September, he flew for more than 10 minutes. On 16 September, he managed 29 min., 18 sec. Then he took a passenger (Ernest Zens), and made a measured flight of an incredible 41 miles in 1 hr. 32 min. on 22 September. On 6 October Wilbur made the first flight with a passenger lasting more than one hour. By 15 October, he had taken up 30 passengers, which was more than all the European aviators put together! These later flights took place at a landing ground at Auvours.

Of course, those who witnessed the flights were not content to just go up as passengers. They wanted to learn to fly like Wilbur, and so he started to give lessons. His first pupils were the Comte de Lambert, Paul Tissandier, and Capt. Lucas-Girardville.



Wilbur giving a lesson at Pau, 1909Before the year was out, Wilbur had set the altitude record at 375 ft. (18 December), and the distance/duration at 76.5 miles in 2 hr. 19 min. (31 December). In fact on this last flight he had covered an unofficial 93 miles.

In the new year he took his pupils to the ground at Pau (in south-west France) and taught Europe to fly. Among his pupils were Louis Blériot and the Comte de Castillon de Saint-Victor. Wilbur's brother, Orville, came to join him there. While Wilbur had been demonstrating in Europe, Orville had been performing flights for the U.S. Army at Fort Myers, which had included the first ever hour-long flight on 9 September 1908. Unfortunately, it had also included the first fatal crash of the aeroplane era when Lt. Selfridge, flying as passenger with Orville, was killed. In 1909 the brothers again divided their efforts, with Wilbur journeying to Rome and Orville taking on Berlin. In both capitals they made demonstrations and trained army officers in the hope of securing large government orders for their invention. Undoubtedly, they would have made greater sales - to civilian enthusiasts - had they participated in the race for the Channel or the Rheims Meeting. But they viewed such contests as mere sensationalism. It was Louis Blériot who reaped the rewards of all the publicity instead. In 1910 the brothers formed the Wright Company, and withdrew from active participation in the flying scene. But Wilbur's brief, dazzling demonstrations in the summer of 1908 had already left an indelible impression on the face of European aviation.


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