(NOTE: This article, the first draft of which was written in July of 2003, first appeared in print
in the November 2003 issue #182 of “WW1 AERO - The Journal Of The Early Aeroplane” pp. 5-21)

The 1904 Huffman Prairie Experiments, The 1904 Flyer
The Search For A “Practical Machine”

© 2003-2015 Carroll F. Gray

      The flights by Wilbur and Orville Wright on 17 December 1903 at Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, are almost universally hailed these days as The First Flights. Whatever is to be made of Orville’s 12 second flight that December day, Wilbur’s extraordinary 852’ flight, the last on that historic day, clearly constituted a triumph. The machine in which they went aloft was seriously damaged, being flipped and tossed by an errant gust of wind, while the remarkable events of that day (especially Wilbur’s long flight) were being discussed. If the Wrights had intended to attempt additional flights at Kill Devil Hill that week, the damage done to their aerial craft ended any hope of doing so. A new, not merely repaired, flying machine would have to be built.

      In many accounts of the Wrights’ work, the machine they built in 1904 to continue their aerial experiments, as well as the 1904 experiments themselves, has been buried beneath the monumental events of December 1903 at Kill Devil Hill and the “first practical” aeroplane, the Wright 1905 Model Flyer. However, what transpired at Huffman Prairie during 1904 was also of substantial historical importance. That year Huffman Prairie would be the site of the first flights of a marginally “practical” aeroplane, the Wright 1904 Model Flyer while in 1905 it would be the site of the first flight of a truly practical aerial craft, the 1905 Flyer, a further development of the 1904 machine.

      Wright biographer Fred Howard, in his 1987 book Wilbur and Orville, expressed his opinion that the 1904 Flyer was “a learning tool, not a museum piece worthy of preservation like the first Flyer of 1903 - or the swanlike machine of 1905, which was to rise phoenixlike from its ashes.” However, a deeper significance can be found in the 1904 Flyer, for without it the necessary development and refinement of the 1903 Flyer’s design could not have happened. As a result, the exalted position which the Wrights hold in aviation history would certainly have been less prominent. The 1904 Flyer was every bit as “important” a machine as the 1905 Flyer, and, it can be argued, as a more “practical” version of the 1903 Flyer it was more than simply a “learning tool” - it was the teacher.

      By the spring of 1904, Wilbur and Orville had decided to establish a flying field near Dayton, to continue their experiments and to develop their machine, rather than return to North Carolina. The serious oscillations which had plagued all five of their December 1903 attempts meant that the 1903 Flyer required additional engineering and improvement. They decided that Huffman Prairie, a section of open space used as a cattle pasture, about 8 mi. from Dayton and conveniently located adjacent to an electric trolley line, would suit their needs. The land was made available for their use by the property’s owner, a Dayton banker named Torrence Huffman, with the stipulation that their aerial endeavors not harm any of the cattle. The land was covered with small bushes and lumps of vegetation, but an area was cleared to permit safe operation of their aeroplane. Four or five large trees on the property were left undisturbed. During the last two weeks of April 1904, Wilbur and Orville began construction of a wooden shed on the edge of Huffman Prairie, to house the 1904 Flyer. The shed was open on one end to permit the aeroplane to be moved in and out on its spanwise axis. It also provided a sheltered space in which they began to assemble the pieces and parts of the biplane.

      The aerial machine which they and Charles E. Taylor (ace machinist, mechanician and Wright Cycle Company employee, who did much of the work fabricating the metal fittings) constructed in 1904 was very similar to the 1903 Flyer, but there were differences:

• The 1904 Flyer was about 250 lbs. heavier (not including the 70 or so pounds of iron added later to the front elevator assembly to move the center of gravity forward);

• The design of the landing skids was improved and strengthened, as was the front elevator assembly;

• The wing camber on the 1904 machine was 1-in-25, instead of the 1-in-20 which had been used on the 1903 Flyer, a change which probably was made to reduce drag but which likely had a negative effect on the machine’s performance at take off, due to a reduction in lift;

• The horizontal axis of rotation of the front elevator was shifted a bit, in the hopes that the fluctuations in pitch which they had experienced at Kill Devil Hill would be lessened and thus, the operator would be able to exercise more discrete control over that critical element of the aeroplane’s control system;

• The supports for the rear rudder assembly were attached to the substantial rear wing spars, rather than being attached to the (weak!) trailing edge of the wing as was done on the 1903 Flyer;

• The wing spars were initially made of pine, due to the unavailability in Dayton of spruce in suitable lengths; as soon as they were able to, the Wrights replaced the breakage-prone pine with spruce;

• The gear ratio between the engine and the propellers was changed, making the engine operate at a higher r.p.m. (probably therefore producing higher torque) for each revolution of the propellers;

• Finally, the engine which powered the 1904 machine (although nearly identical to the 1903 engine) was more efficient with a greater cylinder bore and generated more power, some 16 h.p. versus the 12 h.p. of the first Wright engine.

      The track used at Huffman Prairie differed from the track used at Kill Devil Hill, for one thing it was more robust, using, it appears, 3” x 12” x 12’ lumber. Tom Crouch, in his 1989 masterful classic The Bishop’s Boys - A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, states the length of the track sections was 20’, but close examination of photographs reveals the length to most likely have been 12’. The track sections used in 1904 were numbered, allowing quick and orderly assembly, as well as providing a handy means of estimating the length of the run prior to a take off. The track was also configured differently. At Kill Devil Hill the track was laid out flat, as level as possible on the sand. At Huffman Prairie, though, the track was level for the first 60’, but then took a dip of about 6” in 12’, then was fairly level again until the final 12’ section at the end of the track, which was given an upwards inclination of some 18” in 12’. This can be seen distinctly in photographs taken during late July and during August, prior to the first use of the derrick on 7 September 1904. The simplest explanation for this would be that it was an attempt to impart an upwards lift to the aeroplane as it left the end of the track, not unlike a ski jump. Perhaps the inadequacy of that approach led to the consideration of a falling-weight derrick. The “ski jump” approach has, apparently, escaped previous notice or mention.

      While Wilbur and Orville (and Charles E. Taylor) were content to construct a near-copy of the machine that had flown that previous December, other aerial experimenters might have been tempted to introduce some radical new element into their earlier design, to test some possible improvement. Not so the Wrights. The changes they made were important, yet minor, improvements. This is just one more indication of the step-by-step, incremental approach to cracking the secrets of aeronautics to which Wilbur and Orville were so firmly committed. In the end, that approach may be one of the major reasons they succeeded when others did not.

      Like the iconic 1903 Flyer, the 1904 Flyer (which was also referred to by Wilbur as the Wright Flyer No. 2, Flyer No. 2 and No. 2 Flyer) lacked stability in pitch, due to a misplacement of the center of gravity. It also was difficult to control once it entered a turn. Often the turn could not be stopped to return the aeroplane to normal flight. These aeronautical mysteries soon revealed themselves and in a fashion typical of Wilbur and his younger brother, experiments were begun to remedy those unpleasant characteristics. The aeroplane could fly, but additional time, effort, thought and inventiveness would be required to make it fully controllable.

Summary of Flights and Events at Huffman Prairie - May to December 1904
(Does not include all of the 105 flights and attempted flights made during 1904)

May 1904

5th Wilbur writes “So far we have not been subjected to the slightest annoyance from visitors or newspapers. I think the reporters are not aware of what is going on.”

23rd Wrights invite reporters from Dayton and Cincinnati newspapers to witness attempt to fly; a dozen or so reporters gather at Huffman Prairie with understanding that they will take no photographs and will not embellish on events they see; light rain, wind is too anemic to allow take off; Wilbur attempts take off, results in only a run down track and a flop onto ground

25th Rains scrub another attempt with reporters present

26th Reporters on hand again when Orville makes short hop between rain squalls reaching 6 to 8’ altitude; engine’s ignition system acts up, only three of four cylinders firing properly; distance covered reported variously as 25’, 30’ and 60’... whichever is correct, the result is only a short hop. Bishop Milton Wright, who is also present (along with Lorin, another Wright son, and his family) notes in his diary, “Many were disappointed.”

      Much has been made by some authors that the unsuccessful and disappointing attempts made in front of the reporters were part of a scheme by Wilbur and Orville to ensure that reporters would not bother them again, once they were shown how dismal and unnewsworthy the “flights” would be at Huffman Prairie.

June 1904

June proved to be a month of mixed results. While the 1904 Flyer had shown itself able to fly, it also proved to be irritatingly prone to pitching.

10th First attempt of month, short hop of 60’; aeroplane damaged on landing, requires days of repairs

21st Repaired machine flown three times, longest flight 225’ by Orville

23rd Two flights, longest flight 264’

25th Aeroplane in series of undulations while flying “at full speed”; damage on landing. Center of gravity moved to rear to lessen or eliminate undulations

July 1904

      Two test flights during July, one by Orville, one by Wilbur, revealed the same disconcerting and potentially dangerous up-and-down-motion which had been encountered seven months earlier at Kitty Hawk. The inability of the aeroplane to remain in level flight was a major problem. Moving the 1904 Flyer’s center of gravity had little effect - the pitching undulations were still as powerful as before - so structural changes were made to the aeroplane’s framework. The propellers were changed also, to ones with broader tips than those used on the 1903 Flyer. The performance in flight of the rebuilt aeroplane was much improved.

August 1904

      The improved machine was tested on August 2nd, and the resulting 370’ flight with Wilbur at the controls must have been rewarding, for the undulations were nearly absent and the seemingly inevitable damage on landing was limited to a section of the tail. That damage was quickly repaired and the machine was aloft again on the 4th, making a flight of 272’.

5th 236’ track laid to allow greatest acceleration possible before take off; 356’ flight by Wilbur

6th 600’ flight and 150’ flight from 145’ track by Wilbur; 200’ flight by Orville

8th Aeroplane damaged prior to take off , wing tip strikes ground

10th 360’ flight by Orville in repaired aeroplane; 640’ flight from 145’ track by Wilbur; rough landing, front elevator (“rudder”) assembly and propeller damaged

13th 1,304’ flight from 195’ track by Wilbur, first flight of 1904 by Wrights to exceed 852 ft. flight made 17 December 1903; front elevator assembly damaged on second flight; 640’ flight by Orville

16th 432’ flight from 160’ track by Orville; damage to front elevator assembly

22nd Three flights by Wilbur, one of 1,296’ from 160’ track; 1,432’ flight from 160’ track by Orville

      Just when matters seemed to be improving, with lengthy flights being made by both brothers, disappointment and near disaster struck. On August 23rd Wilbur was only able to coax flights of 760’ and 192’ out of the machine from a 145’ track; he noted “Unable to continue.” The following day, however, he was aloft for 39-1/2 sec. When Orville took a turn, the machine was hit by a gust of wind and forced into a descent and the fragile exposed front elevator assembly was again fractured. The aeroplane came to a halt with its tail in the air. Orville suffered bruises and a scratched hand, although his injuries could have been much more serious given the extent of the damage to the aeroplane. Mrs. David Beard, a farm woman who lived next to the Huffman site (and who believed in the healing properties of arnica oil, which she often offered to the bruised aviators), witnessed the events of the day.

      On the 28th, Wilbur penned a letter to Octave Chanute, that scion of early flight, apprising him of the results to date of the experiments at Huffman. He wrote, in part, that the flights at Huffman of over 1,000’ had pushed the limits of what could be done at the site without circling. He also noted that “We find that the greatest speed over the ground is attained in the flights against the stronger breezes.” “When the wind averages much below 10 ft. per second (Note: 6.8 m.p.h.), it is very difficult to maintain flight, because the variations of the wind are such as to reduce the relative speed so low at times that the resistance becomes greater than the thrust of the screws.” “We think the machine when in full flight will maintain an average relative speed of at least 45 miles an hour. This is rather more than we care for at present.” Finally, Wilbur mentioned that the “starting apparatus” was nearly complete. When finished it would allow them to “start in calms and practice circling.” This is apparently the first mention of why the derrick (“starting apparatus”) was devised and constructed. The 1904 Flyer required a fair headwind to go aloft, a characteristic it shared, not surprisingly, with its predecessor, the 1903 Flyer. The hearty prevailing wind was a major reason the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Kitty Hawk dunes, in particular, were chosen by Wilbur for aerial experiments. The 1903 Flyer was built with the knowledge that a good headwind would assist it in lifting off and at the same time would lower the relative ground speed, making landings gentler. Huffman Prairie lacked the steady stiff winds of Kitty Hawk, although it certainly was a more convenient location for Daytonians to conduct aerial experiments. The knowledge that a fast start, which the derrick could provide, could also permit them to “practice circling” was probably a major reason for the derrick’s construction.

      The notion of “practicality” is also embedded in the story of the track and derrick at Huffman, as it is in so much of the story of the Wrights, and of Wilbur in particular. Applying for a U.S. Patent on their flying machine was never far from the Wrights’ minds, and a demonstration of a “practical flying machine” would ensure that they wouldn’t again suffer the refusal which had greeted their first patent application just the previous year. They turned to Springfield, Ohio, patent attorney Henry Toulmin for advice and assistance with filing a new application. The U.S. Patent Office had begun to receive a flood of patent applications for aerial craft of all descriptions, real and imagined, and had adopted a policy of only approving applications for inventions involving flying machines if the benchmark of “practicality” could be met and demonstrated. This may be the reason that the Wright patent application focused on the three-axis control system of the 1902 Glider, rather than the powered 1903 or 1904 Flyers.

September 1904

      The track and derrick approach of the Wrights, first used on 7 September 1904, did not invalidate the flights they made earlier in the summer of 1904 - it did not make them something less than true flights, as some have suggested. Indeed, three flights made with the ‘improved’ 1904 Flyer during the last two weeks of August, a month before the derrick was first employed, exceeded 1,000’ in length, the longest being 1,432’ on the 22nd. Part of the genius which the Wrights, especially Wilbur, brought to aeronautical matters, was the ability to see beyond the confines of a narrowly defined problem, to apprehend a solution to a problem while that problem was still evolving and manifesting itself. The “derrick,” as they called it - the “catapult” as others would later call it -, was an elegant and straight-forward solution to an unexpected problem... in it’s initial state the 1904 Flyer couldn’t really fly from a track of reasonable length, although it could make short hops. Whether it was Huffman Prairie’s lower air density or higher altitude (about 815’ higher than Kill Devil Hill, as noted in Harry Combs’ book Kill Devil Hill, 1979), or the reduction in the camber of the wings (with a consequent reduction in lift) which caused the 1904 Flyer to balk at flying, the fact was it did not easily take to the air.

      Most accounts have the derrick being used because the 1904 Flyer would not take off at Huffman Prairie. As those versions go, the machine doesn’t fly and a derrick (a catapult) is then used. Of course, the problem with that notion is that lengthy flights were made with the 1904 Flyer during August, well before the derrick was first used. The aeroplane did fly, and rather well, after the changes made in July. The actual sequence of events with respect to the track and derrick is more like the following:

1) During June and July the 1904 Flyer would barely take off, and when it did it had a difficult time sustaining itself in flight. That was partly due to the aeroplane itself and partly due to the Wrights’ learning curve... as they gained experience at the controls of their new aeroplane, they flew it better;

2) The track was lengthened, up to 236’, to provide a longer time to accelerate the aeroplane, a tactic which seemed to work well enough. However, the complications of having to put down that length of track in the direction of the oncoming wind, only to have the winds shift (which would require that the track be repositioned), made use of a long track impractical;

3) The ‘ski jump’ at the end of a shorter track (145’) appears to have been devised after the flights from the long track were discontinued; the ‘ski jump’ seems not to have been a very effective means of coaxing the 1904 Flyer into the air, although it was tried on more than one occasion;


4) The derrick is first used on September 7th, and permits quick take offs in a short distance (76’ in one instance), allowing Huffman Prairie’s relatively small area to be utilized for circling flights.

      Misconceptions also abound about the uses to which Wilbur and Orville put their track and derrick. For instance, it’s been stated erroneously that none of their machines could have flown without use of a track and a derrick (catapult). Remarkably, some accounts have even placed a “catapult” at the end of the track laid out on the sands of Kitty Hawk, to give the 1903 Flyer a pull into the air. That, of course, did not happen. A strong headwind did assist the 1903 Flyer to take off, a matter which has been the source of some controversy. One speculation sometimes encountered is that a longer track at Kill Devil Hill would have allowed the 1903 Flyer to make an unassisted take off. If the 1903 Flyer could have taken off on its own that December day, then whether or not a headwind assisted the take off no longer matters. The ‘evidence’ cited in support of that proposition is the fact that the 1904 Flyer took off and flew using a long track. However, things are not that clear, for the 1904 Flyer had, as noted, a more powerful (by 33%) engine operating at a higher r.p.m. relative to the propellers. It also had a less-cambered aerofoil which caused less “head resistance” than had the 1903 Flyer’s wings. Could the 1903 Flyer have accelerated enough over a longer track (for instance the 236’ track) to achieve an “unassisted” take off? About the only conclusion that can really be reached about that is to state that the 1904 Flyer and the 1903 Flyer were not “identical” and so comparisons of performance between the two machines (in the absence of accurate wind tunnel testing of both machines) are nearly impossible to make with a reasonable degree of certainty.

      By September 7th, the derrick was assembled and ready for testing. The derrick first used at Huffman Prairie had every appearance of being a simple metal-framed well drilling rig (and may actually have been one or have been modeled after one) although many have assumed the structure was the same as the wooden derricks utilized later on. Numerous drawings of the derrick and track device in magazines and books have shown a single line running from a weight over a single pulley at the derrick’s top to another pulley at the bottom of the derrick and then to a pulley at the far end of the track. The rope then comes back over the top of the track and finally is attached to the Wright aeroplane.

      The Wright aeroplane sat atop a small wheeled trolley, which in turn ran along the metal strip on the top of the track. As the enlarged image (below) of the first photograph of the derrick (taken on 23 June 1905) clearly shows, the rope ran through pulleys and a block and tackle to gain a 3-to-1 mechanical advantage in the run of the rope. For a vertical weight-drop of 16-1/2’, the rope pulled the aeroplane horizontally almost 50’. When the derrick was first employed the 1904 Flyer was aloft after only 77’, the first 49’ of which were under pull from the falling-weight in the derrick.

      Devoted and dedicated sister Katharine Wright and her friend Melba Silliman observed the first test of the derrick. The wind was calm, a mere 2 m.p.h., perfect for testing the derrick. Wilbur made the first ten tests of the “starting apparatus.” A 600 lb. weight dropped 16-1/2’, pulled the aeroplane forward at a good clip, and the 1904 Flyer took off and flew 136’. For the second test, 800 lbs. were dropped, yielding a distance of 200’. Wilbur noted that on that attempt he “Almost got a start.” On the third test, 1,000 lbs. were dropped, initiating a flight of 1,360’. Wilbur terminated that flight, landing after a short powerless glide of about 1-1/2 sec.

9th 1,200 lbs. in derrick, three flights by Wilbur, longest 556’

14th 1,200 lbs. in derrick, longest flight 656’, by Wilbur

      The lengths of these test flights probably were intentionally kept to relatively short distances, for the purpose was to test the “starting apparatus” and to determine the correct weight needed to properly send the 1904 Flyer aloft. Wilbur and Orville were conscientious about not going beyond the boundaries of Huffman Prairie, to the extent that they terminated straight flights which threatened to do so.

15th 1,200 lbs. in derrick, two flights by Wilbur, first 2,288’, second 1,896’, including half-circle turn under control

Operating the stopwatch that day, as he did on a number of occasions that year, was Charles E. Taylor.

      On the 20th Wilbur made two more flights, using 1,200 lbs. dropped from the top of the derrick. He completed an “S” turn on his first flight, covering 2,520’, and made a remarkable flight, in a light rain, of 4,080’ which included his first controlled full-circle turn. Charles E. Taylor timed the flights, as Amos I. Root of Medina, Ohio, publisher of Gleanings in Bee Culture magazine watched Wilbur aerial achievement. Root published his observations and impressions of the day’s flights in the 1 January 1905 issue of his magazine, writing, in part,

      “I was surprised at the speed, and I was astonished at the wonderful lifting power of this comparatively small apparatus.”... “The engine is started and got up to speed. The machine is held until ready to start by a sort of trap to be sprung when all is ready; then with a tremendous flapping and snapping of the four-cylinder engine, the huge machine springs aloft. When it first turned that circle, and came near the starting point, I was right in front of it; and I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life.”

      The balance of September consisted of more testing of the launching mechanism, involving eight more flights, seven of them by Orville. The weight dropped was increased to 1,400 lbs. on the 26th, resulting in an 888’ flight, and remained so until October 1st, when it was reduced to the 1,200 lbs. used previously. There were observers on hand for some of the flights... brother Lorin operated the stopwatch on the 26th. When Orville made a 1,520’ flight on the 30th, farmers Miller and Harshmann, who lived nearby, witnessed the doings. Charles Taylor returned as timekeeper, with Lorin assisting on occasion.

October 1904

1st Orville makes a spectacular 2,304’ flight, using 1,200 lbs. in the derrick; hard landing on second flight breaks the skids and damages the front elevator assembly.

4th Two flights by Orville, one of 1,840’

      These long flights could hardly have escaped attention, and so on October 5th Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute advising him of the situation “Up to the present we have been very fortunate in our relations with newspaper reporters, but intelligence of what we are doing is gradually spreading through the neighborhood and we are fearful that we will soon have to discontinue experiment. If your business will permit you to visit us this year it would be well to come within the next three weeks. As we have decided to keep our experiments strictly secret for the present, we are becoming uneasy about continuing them much longer at our present location. In fact it is a question whether we are not ready to begin considering what we will do with our baby now that we have it.”

14th Orville makes his first full-circle turn, covers 4,936’, Wilbur makes one of 4,903’ and notes “Went over two herds of cattle.”

      Octave Chanute consented to Wilbur’s suggestion and was at Huffman Prairie on the 15th, to watch as Orville attempted another full-circle turn. Orville made a hot landing at 45 - 50 m.p.h. and as a result the landing skids were damaged, as was (inevitably) the front elevator assembly. More seriously, the engine and propellers also suffered damage, requiring 3 days of repairs. On the 24th, British Army Lt. Colonel John E. Capper and Mrs. Capper visited with the brothers at the Wright home in Dayton. Wilbur noted later that “We were very much pleased with him, and also Mrs. Capper, an unusually bright woman. It would seem that Mr. Herring has been in correspondence with the English war department, though I think little progress has been made.” Flights at Huffman Prairie resumed on the 26th, and Wilbur made a flight of 1,040’, but, as he noted, “Darted into ground and broke upper spar, & skids & screw (Note: propeller).”

November 1904

      On the 1st of November, the 1904 Flyer biplane almost took off by itself, when a stake (which restrained the machine from heading down the launching track until the operator pulled a wire releasing it) came out of the soil and the machine started to move. Thinking and acting quickly, Orville threw himself onto the lower wing and kept the aeroplane grounded. Wilbur noted “Pulled stake from ground and ran down track with O. W. partly on. Broke forward struts on right side.” The next day, Orville made 5 attempts, using the starting derrick, but all were unsuccessful. Wilbur managed to make one full-circle turn on his one flight of the day. On Orville’s last attempt of the day, the tail structure was damaged, but was quickly repaired. Charles Taylor was again on hand, timing the events.

3rd Wilbur makes 2 attempts and 1 flight with a full-circle turn; propellers and rear spar of lower wing are broken in hard landing, requiring considerable repairs

9th (Presidential Election Day on 8th - Teddy Roosevelt wins overwhelming victory) Wilbur notes in diary, “On the 9th we went out to celebrate Roosevelt’s election by a long flight...” of nearly four full circuits of field, covers 3 mi. in 5 min. 4 sec., first flight to exceed 5 min. aloft; Orville makes two short flights; “Brown and Reed” of the Dayton, Springfield and Urbana electric rail line present

16th Three short flights due to improper setting restricting gasoline flow; fuel setting changed, flight covering 2-1/4 circuits of field by Wilbur

22nd Wrong fuel setting, five short flights result; Amos I. Root again present as is Charles W. Furnas (assistant to Charles Taylor at Wright Cycle Company; on May 14, 1908, Furnas will become first passenger in heavier-than-air flying machine, at Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina

25th Three flights, longest 1 min. 3 sec., by Orville; two flights by Wilbur, one of 59 sec.

December 1904

      As December began, the Wrights were still trying to balance their flying machine, this time by adding 70 lbs. of iron to the front crosspiece, to “... balance the machine, it was still insufficient and the flight was made with pressure on the top side of the front rudder.” The weight not only didn’t solve the balance problem, but it damaged the crosspiece on landing. Of the three flights made on 1 December (numbers 98, 99, and 100 of 1904), one lasted 5 min. and 8 sec., again timed by Charles Taylor. The falling-weight starting derrick was used routinely after September 7th, and seemed to have been the source of few problems, while rendering a great benefit.

5th Just after take off, propeller strikes wheeled trolley upon which the 1904 Flyer sits as it runs along the launching track, shattering propeller... “broke to pieces”

6th Gasoline petcock left in “off” position as flight is attempted, results in very short hop

7th Short flight by Wilbur

      The 1904 season at Huffman Prairie came to a close on 9 December, in an unceremonious and decidedly dismal manner. Wilbur made two derrick-assisted attempts at flight that day... the first was brought to a quick close when the gasoline ceased flowing due to a closed petcock (yet again!), and the second ended when there was trouble with the front elevator assembly (yet again!). The assembly came loose from the supporting skid and the aeroplane became, as Wilbur noted tersely, “Unmanageable.” The 1904 Flyer was whole for the last time on December 10th; on that date it was disassembled and stored in the wooden shed at Huffman Prairie, after making 105 flights and attempted flights. It would never again be a complete machine, although many of the metal components and parts would be re-used in the 1905 Flyer. Almost all of the wooden and fabric parts were burned. One of the few exceptions was a propeller of the wide-bladed type.


      Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute about the results of the 1904 experiments, stating in simple terms what was, in fact, a great triumph of skill, daring, tenacity, dedication, intellect and experience. “We succeeded in curing the trouble caused by the tendency of the machine to turn up too much laterally when a short turn is made.” In a deposition prepared for Wright v. Herring-Curtiss (vol. I, pp 493 - 495; summary included in Papers of Orville and Wilbur Wright, McFarland, vol. I, pp. 469 - 72) Wilbur reflected on the events of 1904 at Huffman Prairie. He stressed circling flight, and described in detail how a turn was made. Completing a circle in the air was a remarkable achievement, one which indicated that a fully controllable, fully flyable Flyer was nearly at hand. He also noted that more needed to be done to complete the job “Usually the machine responded promptly when we applied the control for restoring lateral balance, but on a few occasions the machine did not respond promptly and the machine came to the ground in a somewhat tilted position. The cause of the difficulty proved to be very obscure and the season of 1904 closed without any solution to the puzzle.”

      By the end of 1904, the Wrights knew they had made important strides in developing a “practical machine,” even though the total time aloft between them amounted to only about 45 min. Work would still need to be done before they would have a “practical” machine which they could offer for sale to governments or to the public. It was their high level of skill, acquired during the time they spent guiding their gliders and at the controls of their aeroplanes of 1903 and 1904, which placed them in a position unique in all the world... they had actually flown, and many times, at the controls of a fully functioning aerial machine, under power.

      Wilbur and Orville understood that they now possessed skills which people new to aviation would not have. That led them to produce another machine, one which they believed would be practical and which they hoped might be marketable, the 1905 Flyer. As good as that aeroplane turned out to be, more development was necessary, and Wilbur, Orville and Charles E. Taylor went on to build the prototype of what would be known much later as the Wright Model A biplane but which was known to them at the time as the Wright Model 1907 biplane.

      As for the so-called Wright Model A biplane, it is a designation without a machine, an historical convenience rather than an historical fact, first used by Charles H. Gibbs-Smith in his 1966 book A Directory and Nomenclature of the First Aeroplanes 1809 to 1909. The Wright Company neither produced nor advertised an aeroplane known by them as the Wright Model A. The machine which is now associated with that anachronistic designation was, in fact, the Wright Model 1907 biplane, also known as the 1907 Flyer. It was with 1907 Flyers that Wilbur made his remarkable flights in France in 1908-09 and Italy in 1909, and that Orville made his series of wonderful flights in Germany during 1909. It was a 1907 Flyer with which Wilbur made his grand flight up the Hudson River in 1909, and it was on a 1907 Flyer, minus its front elevator assembly, that the concept of the “headless” Wright Model B biplane was first tested. The 1907 Flyer would, for a time, be the most familiar of the entire Wright series, until it was eclipsed by the machine which was developed from it, the front elevator-less Wright Model B biplane. The Wright Model B biplane (which was produced under license in a stronger and slightly altered version known as the Burgess-Wright Model F biplane) soon became the standard-bearer of The Wright Company and its most commercially viable machine during The Exhibition Era of Flight. It was the Wright Model B which would become the most recognizable Wright aeroplane at aviation meets and exhibitions, and it was the Wright machine which the public would come to know most intimately.

      In that sense, the knowledge gained during the sometimes disappointing and frustrating months spent at Huffman Prairie in 1904 yielded the aerial understanding and skill which propelled The Wright Company for another decade. The Wright’s work during 1904 constituted a necessary and historically important bridge between the first flights of 1903 and the ultimate and undeniable successes which Wilbur and Orville would have in 1908 and 1909. Without the knowledge and experience gained at Huffman Prairie, the Wright machines would have remained in an embryonic state and would have never developed to manifest their true greatness. It is one of the highest points in the story of the Wrights and their aeroplanes, that they pursued their objectives beyond the point where many others would have been content to halt and claim success. The events of 17 December 1903, as historically important as we hold them to be this year of The Centennial of Flight, were but the beginnings of the Wrights’ mastery of powered flight.

SOURCES:      Almost all of the information cited in this article (not otherwise identified in the body of the text as to source) is taken from Volume One: 1899 -1905 of the essential Wright reference work The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, edited by Marvin W. McFarland, Ayer Co. Publishers, two volume reprint edition, 1998.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS:      The photographs used in this article were taken from the Library of Congress collection of Wright brothers negatives and are free of copyright restrictions; the images were cropped and enlarged, with improved levels, contrast and brightness, but were otherwise unaltered, with spots, scratches and other imperfections left intact. Library of Congress Call Numbers are specified for each image.