Like Neil Armstrong bouncing on the Moon, or Samuel Colt perfecting the repeating firearm, the achievements of the Wright Brothers as the first heavier-than-air powered flight is an unquestioned part of both American history and folklore. These Midwestern brothers (one born in Indiana, the other Ohio) earned their place in our history through ingenuity and perseverance.
For many years, the organization that now proudly displays the 1903 Wright Flyer—the Smithsonian Institute—sidelined the brothers and even demoted them to second place in the race for powered flight. It was an insult that Orville Wright never forgot.
In December of 1903, with Kill Devil Hills’ steady winds battering the delicate fabric of the flyer, the brothers’ first attempt at flight resulted in the Flyer tipping off its rail and crashing into the sand. Repairs took several days. On December 17th, the Flyer achieved 120 feet of powered flight, the first in history. The brothers had three more flights with the Wright Flyer, but the longest and last (852 feet) snapped the Flyer’s supports and then a heavy gust snatched the Flyer, toppling it end-over-end across the sand dunes, like a lost box kite. The historic Wright Flyer would fly no more.
Recognizing the importance of the “aero-plane”, Wilbur and Orville carefully dismantled and stored the Wright Flyer, tucking it away in shed for nearly a decade. The brothers toyed with cannibalizing it for parts or even burning it, but decided to approach the Smithsonian Institution for possible display. The Smithsonian wasn’t sure they wanted it.
You heard me.
A former secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Langley, had independently worked on powered flight at the same time was the Wright Brothers. Langley swam in well-connected circles…well-connected enough to use the Smithsonian’s prestige to leverage a $50,000 grant from the US Army for a full-sized version capable of carrying a man in 1898. For several years he worked on his machine, called the Aerodrome, tinkering and perfecting it. While his 1901 1:4 model achieved powered flight, he was unable to repeat his success with a full-sized version.
In December of 1903, just as the brothers were building the Flyer’s rail on Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina, Langley watched a catapult launch the Aerodrome over the Potomac River, and then agonized as it came crashing down into the cold waters. In a fit of frustration, Langley blamed the catapult, the pilot, virtually everyone and everything other than his Aerodrome, but his design had failed. A few days later, the Wright Brothers became international heroes.
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The Smithsonian wanted to protect one of its own, so it gave Langley’s Aerodrome the coveted place of honor and credited Langley with pioneering powered flight who would have beat the Wright brothers if not for a bit of bad luck. To demonstrate this, the rebuilt Aerodrome flew again in 1914 (after being heavily modified) and was able to skip over the waters of a New York lake. Disgusted with the dishonesty of the Smithsonian, Orville decided to restore and send the Flyer on an exhibition tour. Wilbur had passed away in 1912.
In 1925, Orville gave the Smithsonian another chance to display the 1903 Wright Flyer. Once again, the ranks of Langley supporters crowded the brothers’ achievement out in favor of Langley. Furious at the blatant lies, Orville sent the Flyer overseas to London’s Science Museum as a slight against the cronyism of the Institution. It stayed there until 1942.
By the start of World War II, the cult of Langley had disappeared, and the Smithsonian not only apologized to Orville, but publicly listed the dozens of alterations made to the Aerodrome in 1914, securing the Wright Brothers’ place as aircraft pioneers.
Happy but not entirely trusting the Smithsonian, Orville agreed to return the Flyer back to the United States for display, but with a hefty provision:
“Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”
This still remains controversial to this day. By Orville’s insistence, if the Smithsonian wanted to display the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Institution and any agency connected to it, could NEVER claim any other machine beat the brothers in powered flight. Even if the Institution discovered evidence to the contrary. Although understandable from a human perspective—Orville was tired of screwing around—this demand tainted the unbiased ethics of the Institution. Whether out of guilt or desire to possess the Flyer, the Smithsonian agreed.
In 1948, the restored and rebuilt 1903 Wright Flyer dangled on a prominent display in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, almost a year after Orville passed away. In 1976, the Smithsonian has displayed the Flyer in the National Air and Space Museum, where it sits today, one of the Smithsonian’s most prominent and popular attractions.
To this day, the Smithsonian has never hinted, suggested, or alluded that anyone but the Wright Brothers were “first in flight.”