Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Mystery of the Wright Flyer Wings, Part I

              "'Tis strange - but true; for truth is always
               Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
               How much would novels gain by the exchange!
               How differently the world would men behold!
               How oft would vice and virtue places change!
               The new world would be nothing to the old,
               If some Columbus of the moral sea
               Would show mankind their souls' antipodes."
               --Lord Byron 

  "...the wings of that plane they left with me and I took them over to my home on the beach"--Adam Etheridge, eye witness, December 17, 1903
The Claim of the Smithsonian Institution
The Wright Flyer displayed at the Smithsonian, we are told, is the very plane that was the "first to fly" on December 17, 1903. According to its label, required by the Wright family estate, it is--
"The original Wright Brothers aeroplane the world's first power-driven, heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled and sustained flight invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright and flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903."
Peter Jakab, curator, seated by the "Flyer display at the Smithsonian. Photo from the National Air and Space Museum,
Says Peter Jakab, pictured above, curator at the NASM, Smithsonian:

"Let me assure you, the airplane on view at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is indeed the actual machine with which the Wrights made their pathbreaking first flights at Kitty Hawk.  IT IS THE REAL WRIGHT FLYER....." (Emphasis is Jakab's)

But that isn't quite true. In fact, it's probably not true at all. The pieces and parts of the "reconstruction/replica," that comprise the plane on display at the Smithsonian have some different stories to tell. Peering beneath the varnish and veneer of the USA's premier scientific establishment, we find that the assurance of Peter Jakab is based on history far from sure.

What I will present in this post and those following may appear so astounding that it can't possibly be factual, after what we have been told for so long. Nevertheless, what I will present is backed by facts and statements of witnesses and needs to be viewed dispassionately. Not only do eye witness statements put into question the "genuine Flyer" on exhibit at the Smithsonian, but the "genuine Flyer III" on exhibit in Dayton, Ohio. What the historians tell us about both exhibits is mostly based on the word of Orville Wright.

 Before we take a peer at an alternate history, we need to look at a short summary of the provenance of the Wright Flyer I, according to the currently accepted history-- Orville's history.

Orville Wright's Story

After the wind smashed the Wright Flyer I to pieces in 1903 following the last "flight," the Wright brothers packed them up, shipped them back to Dayton, Ohio, and stored them in crates behind their bicycle shop. The crates were subsequently moved a couple of times more and even inundated with water and mud in the Dayton flood of 1913. Then around 1916, according to Orville, these pieces were uncrated, cleaned up, repaired, and assembled for display. This "Wright Flyer I" (with some caveats) emerged like a phoenix at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"The Wright Flyer I," supposedly the original, repaired and on display at MIT in 1916

After that, it was displayed a number of times more, according to the University Libraries, Wright State University:
 It was again briefly exhibited at the New York Aero Show in 1917. In 1921, it was partially reassembled yet again to provide photographic evidence for a lawsuit against Orville Wright filed by the surviving family of John  J. Montgomery, a California glider builder. The historic airplane was exhibited at the 1924 National Air races held in Dayton.
Finally, refurbished again, it was sent, not to the Smithsonian that wanted it, but abroad to the Science Museum in London, England. (This was because the Smithsonian Museum refused to state an untruth--that the Langley Aerodrome of 1903 was incapable of flight.--ed)  But in 1942, Secretary Abbot of the Smithsonian caved in to pressure from Orville Wright and the public and made a statement to the effect that the Langley plane had some modifications when it flew in 1914 that Orville claimed he'd found out.*

Subsequently, the plane that had been displayed in Britain was sent back to the USA in 1948 and displayed at the Smithsonian, according to the last wishes of the now deceased Orville.This is, as we say, the currently accepted history.

In 1948 the supposed Wright Flyer is sent from Britain to the Smithsonian.
At right, the supposed original "Wright Flyer," upon its return from the British Museum with much fanfare to the Smithsonian museum.

But there is another provenance of the 1903 "Wright Flyer I" that is more probable, weighing in the doubts we have revealed about the veracity of Orville Wright. A study of statements of witnesses and a number of other original documents strongly support the theory that if any parts of the original Wright Flyer made it, in fact, to the Smithsonian Museum in 1948 and are what you see on display there, they might be a piece of hardware or two. Much of what the public is told by the label, Peter Jakab, and various historans is likely the glossy veneer crafted by Orville Wright himself to cover another of his magnificent concoctions.

As can be seen in the National  Air and Space Museum diagram below, the Wright Flyer had mainly wings, elevators in front, rudders behind, no significant fuselage, a motor and two propellers. There were also wood struts, wires, and some hardware, including a chain drive. Not to forget the fabric covering.

Among these parts, the probable provenance of the wings, which comprise the largest portion of the Wright Flyer is the most fascinating. (Remember that the Flyer had no fuselage--the pilots lay face down on the lower wing.) The journey of the wings of the original Wright Flyer I, according to a credible eyewitness account, was not back to Dayton, where they were stored in the crate behind the bicycle shop. True, the  Wrights apparently shipped the engine back, just as historians say, but, according to witness, Adam Etheridge, they didn't pack up everything. The Wrights gave the wings to him.

The Story of Adam Etheridge

.Below is the story of Adam Etheridge Life Saver and eye witness, ( from files of the US Coast Guard)

'We assisted in every way and I hauled the lumber for the camp,' said witness Adam Etheridge. He was one of the five witnesses of the Wrights' attempts at powered flight on December 17, 1903.  'We really helped around there hauling timber and carrying mail out to them each day.  It would come from Kitty Hawk by patrol each night.  In pretty weather we would be out there while they were gliding, watching them.  Then after they began to assemble the machine in the house, they would let us in and we began to become interested in carrying the mail just to look on and see what they were doing.  They did not mind us at all because they knew where we were from and know us.  We inquired what day they expected to fly.  Finally they told us the day.  Finally, on this day, the 17th of December, Daniels, Dough and myself were out there helping to get the machine out of the camp out on the track.  They started the motor, testing it out for quite a while.  Finally, they got to talking about getting together about flying and got it ready to turn loose.  Finally, they decided to try the flight and then they went on just about the way you have been told by Daniels.  They talked matters over---how delighted they were in what they had done in their flights and were expecting to try it---the machine---over and they gave up right then an packed up and went home.  They said they were very well satisfied with what they had done.  At that time they assembled everything they wanted to take away.  They said they were going to take the engine back with them and the wings of the plane they left with me.  Later I got a letter from a man in Philadelphia telling that Wilbur had written and told him that I had the old plane and that he wanted to buy it if I would dispose of it; so I wrote him a letter that I would sell it to him for $25.00.  He sent me a check for it, and it is right here that I lost a fortune if I had kept it.'
Again in 1935, Etheridge states that the Wrights left the wings of the flyer with him. In fact, in both statements Etheridge interchanges wings and the plane as the same thing. Note that he says,"Wilbur had written and told him that I had the old plane."** In the article below, he repeats it:

In 1935 Etheridge made a cryptic claim regarding the Wrights' first powered aircraft.  '[The Wright Brothers] said they were well satisfied with what they had done.  That was about the end of the story at that time. At that time they assembled everything they wanted to take away.  They said they were going to take the engine back with them.  At that time I think they gave Daniels and myself a lot of fixtures out of the camp and gave us the camp too.  And the wings of that plane they left with me and I took them over to my home on the beach and later, sometime after that, I got a letter from a man in Philadelphia telling that Wilbur had written and told him that I had the old plane and that he wanted to buy it if I would dispose of it.  It was up to me if I wanted to let him have it or not.  So I wrote him a letter that I would sell it to him for $25.00, I believe it was.  So they had me pack it up and I took it up to Kitty Hawk and shipped it to him.  It went from Kitty Hawk on a freight boat to Elizabeth City and he sent me a check for it, and it is right here I lost a fortune if I had kept it.'

The Wright Historians' Stories

 In the article, quoted from this linked Coast Guard site, that includes the statement above, the author presents how the Wright  historians discredit Adam Etheridge as follows:

Some historians have claimed that Etheridge was mistaken and that he had in fact obtained the wings of the two-seat Flyer built in 1905 which the brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1908.  Since the Wright brothers realized the historical significance of these first flights, and consequently the importance of the first powered aircraft, it is unlikely they would have left any part of that flyer behind when the packed up and left Kitty Hawk.  Etheridge's claim then is probably due to the failing memory of an old life-saver. (emphasis mine)
In other words, the historians want us to believe that Etheridge was given, not the 1903 "Flyer," as he says, but the 1905 plane that was smashed up by Wilbur in May of 1908 five years later when the brothers returned to Kitty Hawk to practice. It is critically important that Wright historians publish that Etheridge wasn't given the original Wright Flyer. If what he says is true, every exhibit claimed by Orville Wright and his historians to be of the original Wright flyer for nearly a century, including the one on display at the Smithsonian today, would be a hoax--as seems obvious but will be explained in more detail. Moreover, it would mean that the display of the Flyer III at Carillon Park in Dayton is not what it's said to be, either.

The Wright Flyer III at Kill Devil Hills in May,1908. It was crashed by Wilbur.

Looking at the historians' assertions in all fairness, we do find a contradictory provenance claimed for the 1905/1908 Wright Flyer III. We have found at least four different versions of what happened to the broken pieces of that Flyer after Wilbur wrecked it in 1908, and the Wright brothers left Kitty Hawk--Orville for Dayton, Wilbur for Europe. Below are four versions:

 (1) Orville Wright's official version is that Wilbur's crash wasn't so bad at all. According to his biography, approved by him and written by his friend Fred Kelly, "...after removing the engine and other machinery for shipment to Dayton, the Wrights left the plane in the shed at Kitty Hawk, thinking they might return..."1 ( This 1943 version might be later "spun" to accommodate the transfer of the machine eventually to Etheridge, then sold, but Orville and Kelly don't mention giving it away to anyone at any time.)

(2)  Another version: They burned the totally wrecked parts of the plane that were combustible, such as the upper wing and the front framing, and left the rest at the camp at Kill Devil Hills. The hardware was taken home. This is a speculation by Stanley Kandebo of "Aviation Week and Space Technology." (page 6)

 (3)  They gave Etheridge this plane, not the Flyer I, five years after the so called first flights, and he took it home, stored it, and then sold it for 25.00. This is the version historians want us to believe. Note that historians also don't want us to believe Etheridge's eyewitness account of the events of December 17, 1903, even though he corroborates the accounts of eyewitness, John Daniels..

(4) They burned it. This, according to actual eyewitness, mechanic Charles Furnas, who at age 28 was with the Wrights at Kill Devil Hills in 1908. Furnas helped them with their experiments and became the first passenger on a Wright plane. After Wilbur crashed, he says, the Wrights only took home the engine and chains of the 1905 Flyer. All flammable parts they burned right there at Kill Devil Hills. Since the Flyer, except for the metal parts, was wood and fabric, it was destroyed and couldn't have been the Flyer that Etheridge took home and later sold for 25.00, as historians want us to believe.

The Statement of Charlie Furnas, Eye Witness 1908

Charles Furnas, witness, in 1908
 Below is the account by Charles Furnas in 1933  in "Witnesses to Flight," p 5 about the burning of the 1905 flyer:

"I made several short flights with first one then the other then one day it was Wills turn to go and we made three attempts to get in the air and failed then they would not let me go again at that time so Will went by himself and was up for about six min. and fell and smashed the mach. so bad that we removed the engine and chains that drove the propellers and burned the rest." (emphasis mine)


 Readers of this blog will see the clear pattern emerging time and again of Wright historians ignoring the statements of true witnesses of the Wrights' activities in order to support the contradictory statements of the Wrights themselves. Please see "Pieces of the Wright Puzzle, Part III"  and former posts.

But we won't so easily dismiss the story of Charlie Furnas. Nor will we easily dismiss Etheridge's account. Scrupulous historians would examine, we think, the likelihood or even the possibility that both Furnas and Etheridge were honest men and didn't have such poor memories. But acceptance of the witness statements provides serious dilemmas for Wright historians, as we shall see--and more interesting puzzle pieces for us to explore. First of all, if someone actually bought either the Wright Flyer I or, as 'Wrightists' want us to believe, the Wright flyer III, from Etheridge, would he keep it hidden in a basement? Wouldn't it surface somewhere? It did.

As in many great mysteries, some old.letters, that had been saved for years by Orville Wright, provide some answers. The appearance of old letters has become a cliche in a piece of  fiction. So has Lord Byron's adage "truth is stranger than fiction."

One day this author was reading some of the original letters of the Wrights on the net that have been digitized for us by the Library of Congress. Up popped a number of letters to Orville Wright that had been written by a man named Samuel Colt. He said he was writing for his father in law, who had bought pieces of a Wright Flyer for his museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, from a man who lived in the Outer Banks near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  And his father in law had purchased them for 25.00.***

To be continued.

* Editor's note: As Orville was getting on in age, Abbot was anxious to settle Orville's feud with the Smithsonian, so at Orville's insistence, he left out the reasons and references he wanted to include in the 1942  statement about the modifications on the Langley Aerodrome. He stated that he believed that later objective studies by experts would honestly review these modifications. This was never done. To be addressed in future blog posts at

** In the early days, the wings were sometimes called the planes, so it's difficult to know from his accounts which Etheridge meant. His statement says he had "the old plane," and later primary documents, that are addressed in later blog posts here, prove that he had more than just the wings.

***The museum in Pittsfield bought the Flyer and a glider each for 25.00 for a total of 50.00. See future posts.

1 Kelly p. 221