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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Historic Wright Brothers Cheque Marks the Birth of Military Aviation


While others had indeed created and successfully flown various flying machines earlier, brothers Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) Wright created the first truly successful, heavier-than-air powered aircraft with the invention of their unique three-axis control system, which finally made controllable manned flight possible. En route to their breakthrough, the Wrights also pioneered wind-tunnel testing, propeller design and the development of light, yet powerful and reliable internal-combustion aero engines.

Almost immediately after their series of successful powered flights over the sands at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903, the Wrights set to work perfecting their invention with the goal of making it both practical and marketable. Hundreds of spectators and newspaper reporters were thrilled by the Wrights' aerial displays with their improved 1905 Flyer. Logically, the Wrights' first potential customer was the U.S. Army, which had long used observation balloons to monitor troop movements and to direct artillery fire and military formations. However, the response of the U.S. War Department to the Wrights' appraach was less than encouraging. Letters to the French and British governments were unsuccessful as well.

Governmental disinterest evaporated in 1907 when the Wrights found the support of the American Aero Club, which met directly with President Theodore Roosevelt and lobbied him to influence the War Department to purchase the Wright Flyer. Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm, a balloonist attached to the U.S. Army Signal Corps' Aeronautical Division, had met the Wrights in Dayton and correctly envisioned that the airplane would soon render military observation balloons obsolete. Lahm personally lobbied the War Department and while the Board of Ordnance and Fortification was receptive, it advised Lahm that its funds were limited to $10,000 unless a Congress approved more funding. In December that year, the Board met with Wilbur Wright, who impressively stated that he and Orville did not want to receive any government funds until they produced an aircraft that would successfully meet government requirements. The Board was so impressed with Wilbur's presentation that it decided to initiate a bidding process for an aircraft, using unused money that allocated for the Spanish-American War some nine years earlier.

In response to Specification No. 486 "Advertisement and Specification for a Heavier-Than-Air Flying Machine" issued on December 23, 1907 by the Aeronautical Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Wrights changed the name of their business from the Wright Cycle Co. to Wright Brothers. A new account was opened at the Winters National Bank in Dayton, Ohio, and a detailed two-page bid was prepared.

The requirements specified by the U.S. Army for the proposed aircraft were rather stiff for the era: a speed of at least 40 mph, and the aircraft was also expected to fly at least 125 miles and carry a 350-pound load, representing the weight of the pilot and one observer. In addition, the aircraft was required to allow for safe landing in the event of an engine failure. While the Wright Brothers' bid was reportedly anticipated to have been the only serious proposal, a total of 41 bids were submitted during the process.

Nonetheless, the Wrights were the only bidders capable of delivering an aircraft, let alone one capable of meeting the stated requirements. According to an insightful article by Jayme A. Sokolow, Ph.D. and R. Dennis Green in the Spring 1999 edition of Proposal Management, an editorial in the American Magazine of Aeronautics believed that Specification 486 was impossible to meet, and predicted that no bidders would emerge. Similar negative opinions were voiced by the former editor of Aeronautical Annals and of course, a multitude of newspaper reporters and editors.

In brief, the Wrights' bid promised to deliver an aircraft capable of meeting all requirements to the U.S. Board of Ordnance and Fortification, at a cost of $25,000. The Wrights' two-page bid was highly detailed and complete with technical drawings, a photograph of their improved 1905 Flyer design, and even a method for computing aircraft speed with corrections for wind speeds. The bid was accompanied by a deposit of 10% by certified cheque, made payable to General James Allen, the Chief Signal Officer for the U.S. Army.

Cheque Serial Number 1, the first cheque issued by the Wright Brothers company, dated January 27, 1908 and accompanying the Wright Brothers' bid to supply the U.S. Army Signal Corps with the world's first successful military aircraft. Note Wilbur Wright's initials, "W.W.", immediately below "Wright Brothers" on the signature line of the cheque.

Unlike today's convoluted government procurement process, just 12 days later, the Wrights received a telegram dated February 8, 1908 from General Allen, accepting the Wright bid. Contracts, ready for signatures, followed just three days later.

The aircraft, which became known alternatively as the Army Flyer or the Military Flyer, was delivered by Orville Wright to Fort Myer, a U.S. Army installation located next to Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington is famously built upon the grounds of the former estate of famed Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee). A contract extension provided additional time for testing and modifications.

During the Military Flyer's testing process, the Wrights set a number of records and proved the soundness of their design. In September 1908, with Orville Wright at the controls and Lt. Lahm as his passenger, a new endurance record was set, followed by another in June 1909, when Orville and Lahm remained aloft for one hour, 12 minutes, and 40 seconds. Shortly after, on July 27,  Orville and another passenger exceeded 40 mph at an altitude of 400 feet in front of an audience of some 7,000 spectators, including then-U.S. President Taft.

The testing process was not without tragedy, though. On September 17, 1908, Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge acted as observer on a flight with Orville, who flew the aircraft to an altitude of 150 feet. At this height, a propeller failed and severed a control wire to the rudder, resulting in a crash. Lt. Selfridge was killed on impact, marking the first casualty in military aviation, while Orville Wright was badly injured.

In October 1909, the Flyer was able to remain airborne for longer than three hours, and an official speed of 42.583 mph was achieved, with the Wrights earning a 10% bonus for each mile per hour over the targeted 40 mph speed specified in the Army's specifications. As a result, the War Department paid $30,000 for the Military Flyer.

As part of the arrangement, the Wright's certified deposit cheque was returned to the brothers by General Allen.

Images of the reverse side of the Wright's certified deposit cheque that accompanied their successful bid to provide the world's first successful military aircraft to the of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Inscription reads "Returned by James Allen, Chief Signal Officer" with Orville Wright's initials, "O.W." 

Along with the Wright Military Flyer and the 1903 Flyer, which both reside in Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, this cheque remains without doubt one of the most significant aviation artifacts of all time. Bearing the initials and handwriting of both Wright Brothers, as well as Serial Number 1, representing the first cheque ever issued by the brothers' reorganized firm, it is a fascinating link to the dawn of military aviation. It is currently offered for sale by the UK's Paul Fraser Collectibles, priced at £35,000. For further information or purchase arrangements, kindly contact us below this post.

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