Monday, November 16, 2015

More Mystery of the Wright Flyer Wings--Continued

Will the Real Wright Flyer Please Step Forward ?

Photo claimed to be of the "first flight" by Orville Wright in 1903. Released in 1908.

Years after the Wrights claimed they achieved the first sustained, powered flight in history with a man on board at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, a 98 year old woman, Mrs. Lillie Swindell, made local headlines when she said she had stored the Wrights' original flyer in her attic after the Wrights went back to their home in Dayton. And as a thrifty and resourceful resident of Kitty Hawk, she wasn't about to let the flyer go to waste. So she made use of various pieces of "the first plane to fly" for her practical projects. Muslin that had covered the wings of the plane was shared with her neighbors to make clothes for their kids. Wood from the plane was used to fashion frames to stitch her quilts.1

To Wright historians, of course, this has to be a ridiculous story. Every Wright historian "knows" that the broken pieces of the original flyer were sent back to Dayton, Ohio, after the Kitty Hawk  "flights" in 1903 and stored in a crate behind the Wrights' bicycle shop. Everyone "knows" that the plane was rebuilt from these pieces in 1916 and displayed a number of times in the United States.

In 1928 Orville's reconstructed "original flyer" became especially useful. The Smithsonian wasn't accepting his claim that it was the first in history "capable of flight." They asserted that Langley's Aerodrome should have that honor, even though it failed to launch twice in 1903. Orville was incensed. So he rebuilt the flyer again and shipped it to the Science Museum in London, England, to make a very public protest. Orville wanted to be remembered, not only as the first to fly, but also as the inventor of the first airplane even capable of flight..

After a long feud with the  Smithsonian, everybody "knows" that the Flyer was returned to the United States. That was six years after the Smithsonian was said to cave in to the Orville Wright demands to recant their defense of the Langley Aerodrome as first plane capable of flight.* According to the Wright history, the original Wright flyer has been at the Smithsonian ever since 1948.

Wright "flyer at the Smithsonian. Or is it?
But has the "original flyer" been at the Smithsonian--ever?  Certainly, you might say, this Mrs.Swindell was just a crazy old woman from the Outer Banks, North Carolina, with a faded memory. Maybe even demented. Right? Maybe wrong. Readers of this blog know that we take the statements of witnesses seriously. So who was this Mrs. Swindell, anyway?

It turns out that she was Adam Etheridge's widow, who, after his death in1940, had remarried again
Her first husband, Life Saver Adam Etheridge, was one of the few (five) original witnesses of the December 17, 1903, Wright "flights " When he was alive, Etheridge repeatedly asserted that the Wrights had left the wings of the original flyer with him when they left for Dayton after their 1903 "flight(s)"  and that he stored them at his home on the beach. Please see "The Mystery of the Wright Flyer Wings I and II" in this blog for many of the references for this story..

That claim of Etheridge contradicted the Wright history. Historians say that the Wrights had known how important their 1903 "flights" were. So they packed up the pieces of the "original Flyer" and shipped them home to Dayton. They wouldn't have left them at Kitty Hawk. Indeed, some Wright historians, in their dispute of  Etheridge's claim, said he must have mixed up the 1903 flyer with the 1905 flyer that was flown at Kill Devil Hills in 1908. In the Steven Kirk version, "First in Flight," 2 they claim he mixed it up with the 1902 glider.

But wait, historians. How could it be the 1905 plane when witness Charlie Furnas said that the Wrights burned that plane at Kill Devil Hills in 1908 after Wilbur wrecked it? At least he said they burned everything flammable--the wood and the cloth. , page 5. And how could it be the 1902 glider? Here are the remains of the glider in a picture of the abandoned Wright camp below.

Find the skeletal remains (center) of the 1902 Wright glider half buried in sand. It was left to the wind and the weather of Kill Devil Hills, NC.
What's more, expert Wright historian, Arthur George Renstrom, in his respected chronology of the Wrights, indicates that the Wrights had shipped the 1905 flyer back to Dayton. Quoting Renstrom: "June 5. [1908] Wright engine and airplane shipped from Kitty Hawk arrives back in Dayton." 

Either way, how could  the 1905 plane, used in 1908, be the one that was given to Etheridge and stored in his home on the beach? If it was burned in 1908, it couldn't be the same plane. And if it was shipped back to Dayton in 1908, it couldn't be the same plane either. See the other possibilities conjectured by Wright historians  in "The Mystery of the Wright Flyer Wings I and II," former posts in this blog.

 Life Saver Etheridge had said he was given the 1903 wings of the plane, or "the old plane," just as his widow later indicated. What's more, he said, he sold what he had to the the founder of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for 25.00, along with a glider left at Kitty Hawk for another 25.00 (This would almost certainly be the 1911 glider.)

However, in her 1975 narration, Mrs. Lillie Etheridge Swindell said she used the 1903 plane for wood for her quilts and the muslin for clothes for the kids. The rest was stored in the attic and when Etheridge wouldn't remove it, she finally burned it herself. That seems to contradict her husband's story that he sold the plane to Mr. Zenas Crane of the Berkshire Museum. But not necessarily. It turns out that Etheridge didn't have or sell the complete plane to the museum. We know that because on March 2, 1914, Orville wrote Samuel G. Colt, the son in law of the museum owner, Crane, asking what parts of the plane he had at the museum. (You will note that at some point Mr. Crane had been told by the Wrights that he had, not the 1903 plane, but the 1905 plane. When that occurred we may never know, because former critical correspondence is missing. We maintain, from historical statements we are presenting, that the plane was not the 1905 plane.)

"I wonder how much of the 1905 machine Mr. Crane has," wrote Orville to Mr. Colt on March 2, 1914. "Could you give me a list of the parts that are now in his possession?"

From the Library of Congress website (same link as above) is Samuel Colt's answer.
 Yesterday I went to the Museum and find that the parts which were sent up by Mr. Etheridge from Kitty Hawk consist of 4 end sections of the main planes, 1 elevator plane, 2 vertical "fins," or frames for the elevators and some of the canvas.
(Colt's complete handwritten letter pictured below)

Above, letter to Orville Wright from Samuel Colt of the Berkshire Museum,
in which he tells what parts of the Wright Flyer they have acquired from Life Saver, Adam Etheridge.

Story to be continued....

               * An examination of the Smithsonian documents shows that the Smithsonian never totally 
         recanted  their stance that the Langley Aerodrome was capable of flight. This will be 
                     addressed in"Another Truth in Aviation History:  Orville Wright and the Langley Aerodrome."        
1 Stephen Kirk. First in Flight: The Wright Brothers in North Carolina (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publisher, 1995), 316-7

2 Ibid