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The Real Wright Flyer

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The Smithsonian literally has millions of objects in its vast collections.  Everything from specimens of flora and fauna from around the globe, to machines that have shaped the modern world, to cultural artifacts that reflect our rich diversity, to important works of art.  Even live animals at the National Zoo.  Every aspect of human endeavor and creativity and the natural world can be found at the Smithsonian.

Among this great store of history, science, and art objects, some stand above the rest for their uniqueness, historical importance, and cultural value.  In addition, they are objects that are powerfully associated with the Smithsonian.  I like to call these “signature Smithsonian objects.”  Things such as the Hope Diamond, the Star Spangled Banner, the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane are good examples—one-of-a-kind items, familiar to all, and widely known to reside at the Smithsonian.  Also in this subset of signature objects is one of the most significant in the entire Smithsonian collection—the Wright Flyer, the world’s first airplane.

Wright Flyer

The original 1903 Wright Flyer at the National Air and Space Museum

The flying machine with which Wilbur and Orville Wright made those historic first flights at Kitty Hawk on a cold December morning in 1903 represents a moment when the world changed.  The ability to fly has so dramatically refashioned human existence that the achievement of the Wright brothers defies measure.  When the Wright Flyer was installed in the Smithsonian in 1948, a visiting dignitary at the ceremony remarked, “It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.”

For the last 25 years, I have had the great privilege to be the curator of the Wright Flyer.  During that quarter century I have pored over every detail of the airplane, studied every aspect of its design, written three books about the Wright brothers, mounted a major exhibition, and given countless lectures about this artifact.  I have spent a career with this object and at this point have a very personal connection with the Flyer.   I’ll even admit to a bit of an emotional attachment to this machine.  Needless to say, I never tire of talking about the Flyer and sharing its wonderful story.  But there is one thing that always frustrates me when I hear it—when people say the airplane in the Smithsonian is not the real Wright Flyer!  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.

So how could anyone doubt this?  Most of the reasons are simple.  First, the Flyer currently doesn’t look old.  The near pristine white fabric on its wooden framework doesn’t look to be a century old.  Well, it isn’t.  In 1984 and 1985, the museum did conservation work on the Flyer.  It was disassembled, inspected, cleaned, and documented inside and out.  The most important decision we had to make was whether or not to save the tattered fabric.  There was much internal debate about this, but in the end we put new fabric on the Flyer.  Critical to that decision was that the fabric then on the airplane was not on it when it flew in 1903.  In 1928, Orville Wright loaned the Flyer to the London Science Museum, where it stayed for 20 years.  In preparation for the trip to England, Orville recovered the Flyer entirely.   So when the Smithsonian received the airplane in 1948, none of the fabric on it dated from 1903.  Considering its condition and that the airplane never flew with that fabric, for the long-term preservation interest of the artifact, new fabric was put on in 1985, precisely to the specifications of 1903.  So to the uninitiated, the Flyer currently doesn’t look old and people sometimes make the assumption that it is not the original airframe.

Fabric

New fabric being sewn on to the original framework of the 1903 Wright Flyer.

Another reason visitors sometimes think the Wright Flyer in the Smithsonian is not real is because so many modern reproductions of the Flyer are on view in other museums.  Especially leading up to the centennial of the first flights in 2003, many reproduction Flyers have been built.   With so many copies out there and the real Wright Flyer having relatively new fabric on it, one can see how visitors might get confused.

Finally, many people know that after the Wrights made their last flight on December 17, 1903, the Flyer was upturned by a strong gust of wind and severely damaged.  Thinking the airplane was destroyed, some of these folks are under the impression that the original 1903 Wright Flyer doesn’t exist at all.

So let me make clear for all, when you visit the National Air and Space Museum and stand before the Wright Flyer you will be just a few feet away from the original, real, world-changing 1903 Wright Flyer—not a copy.  There is also a good chance you’ll find me in the gallery spending time with my old friend, the endlessly fascinating world’s first airplane—a signature Smithsonian object.

Peter Jakab

Peter Jakab seated in front of the 1903 Wright Flyer

Peter L. Jakab is the associate director for collections and curatorial affairs at the National Air and Space Museum

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10 thoughts on “The Real Wright Flyer

  1. Thank you for the clarification Jack. Just last week I was showing my granddaughter pictures of Amelia Earhart and her planes in one of my Smithsonian books of flight. I took great pleasure in telling her that she can see the world’s first airplane in person when we go to visit the Air and Space museum. Her eyes lit up when she realized that she could see the planes in the pictures “for real”.

  2. I think the modern fabric takes away from the authenticity of the flyer and should be removed. The “bones” of the aircraft are beautiful to look at anyway. Put up a lifesize image of the covered craft, and then strip her down – that would also stop the comparisons to other replicas.

    (As you can see by my email and website address, I have a strong interest in the flyer as well.

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  4. My grandmother (rest her soul) stated she lived the most amazing lifetime, for having grown up plowing fields with a team of horses and the first flight of airplanes, she lived long enough for men to walk on the moon. My father worked for NASA since the early 60′s and I later worked for NASA and she was so proud of us.

  5. In March 1903, wilbur wrote in his note book stipulating the prototype propeller was 66% efficient. Modern day wind tunnel studies on reproduction 1903 propellers reveal they were above 75% efficient under the situations of the first flights, and truly had a maximum efficiency of 82%. This is an impressive accomplishment, considering the fact that modern day wooden propellers possess a maximum efficiency of 85%.

  6. I must say after visiting the Smithsonian I was very angry to see a modern canvas on it. Thank you for your explanation, but I think a vastly deteriorated canvas from the actual constructors is preferable in a museum to a modern one – whether it flew or not.

    My question is, was the Wright brothers canvas stored and could it be put back on, perhaps over the top of the current one as they do with artwork renovations?

  7. One other critical factor in the decision in 1984-85 to replace the fabric put on the Wright Flyer in 1927 that I didn’t mention in my original blog post was that the muslin fabric put on in preparation for the London Science Museum display in 1928 was sewn on slightly differently than had been the original in 1903. The Museum was fortunate to have a large piece of original flown 1903 fabric in our collection, which showed in detail how the fabric was stitched when the airplane was built in 1903. When we compared that to the 1927 fabric, we saw differences in the stitching pattern. The fact that the 1927 fabric was in poor condition, was not part of the airplane in 1903, and was sewn on “incorrectly” all lead to the decision to replace the fabric in 1984-85. Since we had the example of original 1903 fabric as a guide, we were able to apply the new muslin covering exactly as it was in 1903. The new muslin also was the same thread count as the original. So, given that the new fabric was sewn on as it had been in 1903, which was not the case with the fabric we took off, the airplane today more accurately reflects what it was like when it made its historic flights at Kitty Hawk. This was a complicated decision, but in my view a sound one.

    With regard to the 1927 fabric, yes, we certainly saved that as part of the collection. So it would be available to researchers if they wanted to examine it. Attaching it over the current fabric would be problematic. I know of one case in France where they tried to retain original fabric with a modern backing, but the results were poor. But again, I think that the current fabric most accurately represents how the Flyer was made and flown in 1903 is good reason to keep the airplane as it currently is.

    I am sorry this decision angered you, but at least you now have the full explanation of why we made the decision we did. Of course, we certainly respect your alternate view.

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  9. Everyone questions authenticity when they should be asking only one thing. The most important thought: “I wonder if the old bird will still fly?” As the son of a late F4 Phantom pilot I can’t help but appreciate what started it all. Thank you for your work.

  10. I will be traveling to Washington DC in two days, and this is going to be my first stop. My family has been involved with aviation for as long as i can remember. My father and myself are both pilots. We’ve watched every documentary ever made on the Wright brothers and their work, from short 1 hour documentaries on public broadcasting networks to the 3 hour long documentaries shown on History and Discovery channels. We’ve been to Kitty Hawk and walked the rail that the brothers used to launch the Flyer for the first time.

    To see the actual aircraft is going to be the memory of a lifetime.

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