By Candice Tewell
On March 20, during the prestigious Mutual Concerns of Air and Space Museums Seminar, hosted by The Museum of Flight, Bruce R. McCaw, the board of trustees chairman, made a surprise announcement of the museum’s acquisition of an authentic reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer—history’s first successful powered airplane. The museum’s purchase of this incredible piece of aviation history was made possible through a donor-advised fund at the museum and the generosity of the Discovery of Flight Foundation, which subsidized the purchase in support of the foundation’s mission to perpetuate the legacy of the Wright brothers.
The Flyer is one of three authentic reproductions built by Ken Hyde and his talented crew of craftspeople at the Wright Experience, of Warrenton, Va., as part of their massive, multi-year project to replicate all the Wright brothers’ aircraft, experiments and discoveries. One of these three Flyers—an exact sister ship of the museum’s Flyer—was flown in 2003 in connection with the official Centennial of Flight celebration in North Carolina. The Wright Experience reproductions were built after exhaustive research, using turn-of-the-century materials and techniques, and they’re identical in every respect to the original Flyer as it was configured for its first flight on Dec. 17, 1903. These reproductions are held by consensus to be the most faithful ever produced.
At the acquisition announcement, Wright Experience President Ken Hyde commented, “With this Flyer coming to Seattle, the Wright Experience will have completed its goal of creating three authentic 1903 Flyers that Orville and Wilbur Wright themselves would recognize and be able to fly.”
With the sponsorship of the Discovery of Flight Foundation, the Wright Experience conducted unprecedented wind tunnel and flight tests on its Flyers. The data confirmed the authenticity of the reproductions and shed important new light on the extent of the Wright brothers’ scientific knowledge of flight. Documentation of this authenticating research accompanied the Flyer to its new home here in Seattle. The other Wright Experience Flyer reproductions are on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be able to bring this authentic Wright Flyer to Seattle,” commented Ralph A. Bufano, museum president and CEO. “We’re proud that the Wright Experience and the Discovery of Flight Foundation recognized in our museum a suitable home for this icon of aviation history. With the addition of the Flyer, our collection truly represents the complete arc of progress during the first century of flight, from Wilbur and Orville’s first tentative experiments all the way to Concorde and the DarkStar. It’s all here now for our visitors to enjoy!”
“The 1903 Flyer joins the already very important collection of Wright-related artifacts we have assembled here in recent years,” remarked McCaw. “Taken together, our Wright holdings support public exhibits and scholarly research on the birth of the American aviation industry that no other institution can match. The Museum of Flight has become a significant repository of unique Wright treasures.”
Just last year, the museum received a collection of irreplaceable glass-plate photographic negatives documenting Wilbur Wright’s triumphant 1908 flights in Le Mans, France. These flights were the first demonstrations of Wilbur Wright’s prowess as a pilot and of the advanced capabilities of the Wright Flyer before a very skeptical European audience. The unqualified success of the demonstrations secured the Wright brothers’ worldwide acclaim.
In 2002, the museum acquired the Wright Co. Papers, a priceless compendium of corporate records, legal documents and business correspondence from the very earliest days of the Wrights’ aircraft manufacturing firm that trace the brothers’ struggle to transform their invention into an industry. These records, along with contemporaneous papers from other early American aviation firms such as Curtiss and Martin, were thought to have been lost to history prior to their acquisition by the museum from a private collector.
Finally, an authentic reproduction of the 1902 Wright Glider, the direct precursor of the 1903 Flyer, hangs in the museum’s lobby. The Wright brothers made more than 1,000 successful flights in the 1902 Glider, which historians credit as the first fully controllable heavier-than-air aircraft. In its design, the Wright brothers made their greatest contribution to aeronautical progress by perfecting the three-axis control system that underpinned the success of not only the 1903 Flyer, but also of every airplane that has followed.
Janette Yoerg, great grandniece of the Wright brothers, and her son Keith Yoerg represented the Discovery of Flight Foundation at the announcement of the Wright Flyer acquisition. Speaking for the Wright family, Janette Yoerg said, “We’re proud to have the honor of this authentic Flyer representing the achievements of Uncle Orv and Uncle Will in such a significant museum. The story of the Wright brothers is one to be shared across the country with all Americans.”
With the Flyer joining The Museum of Flight’s other important Wright holdings, the family is very excited to be supporting the establishment of an important Wright presence on the West Coast.
The Wright Flyer arrived in Seattle in late April. It’s being displayed temporarily on the floor in the Bill and Moya Lear Gallery but will eventually be hung as the centerpiece exhibit in the museum’s lobby. As Janette Yoerg so eloquently stated, “(The Flyer) is a testament to our freedom to dream.”
The Museum of Flight hopes that this newest acquisition will inspire visitors young and old to dream of flight.