KILL DEVIL HILLS — It took five years after the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903 before Wilbur Wright dazzled spectators in France during the first public demonstration of powered flight. And for the first time, a reproduction of the airplane that brought the Wright brothers worldwide fame will soon be displayed at the North Carolina Museum of History, the First Flight Foundation announced Friday.
On May 14, 1908, Wilbur Wright flew the first passenger in a powered airplane, which, unlike the secretive first flight, was observed by a few reporters. And he successfully flew a 1908 plane in France that August, stunning hundreds of spectators as he circled overhead for two minutes.
Commissioned by the First Flight Foundation, a private nonprofit fundraising organization, the full-scale reproduction of the Wright 1908 aircraft is expected to be installed in fall 2022, joining reproductions of the 1903, the 1902 and the 1911 Wright aircraft in the museum’s collection.
The North Carolina Museum of History owns the Wright 1903 and 1911 reproductions. The Wright 1902 is on extended loan from the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.
Although the 1908 plane is lesser known in the oft-told story of Wright flight, its design provided a significant breakthrough for the Ohio inventors and for the aviation industry.
After the Wrights refined their original Flyer, they resumed flight experiments in 1905 at Huffman Prairie in Ohio, according to a foundation press release. By 1908, the brothers had signed contracts for sales to the U.S. Army and to a syndicate in France, under conditions that the aircraft could carry a passenger and have improved distance, speed and fuel capacities.
In response, the Wrights modified the 1905 plane to meet the contractual requirements, including having the pilot seated rather than prone and with upright controls.
The brothers returned to Kill Devil Hills May 6, 1908, and took test flights for eight days. On May 14, Wilbur successfully flew with the brothers’ mechanic, Charles Furnas, in the passenger seat. When Wilbur took a longer solo flight later that day, he crash-landed in the sand, suffering minor bruises. The plane, however, was damaged. The pieces were gathered up and shipped back to Dayton.
On Aug. 8, Wilbur Wright traveled to Le Mans, France, to do the first public trial of flight in the 1908 plane. Between the pretty weather and Wilbur’s impressive figure 8s in the sky, it was a resounding success. The response ignited an aviation frenzy and instantly made the Wright brothers international celebrities.
“The European flights dispelled the doubts of the Wrights claims to have flown and that indeed they had accomplished all that they had professed and proved their mastery of the air,” the Foundation statement said.
Karen Warlitner, the foundation’s executive director, said that two 1908 aircrafts are exhibited at locations in Europe. There are no intact 1908s on exhibit in North Carolina.
The foundation has commissioned Rick and Sue Young/Chrysalis of Chester, Virginia, to build the 1908 reproduction, which is expected to cost $350,000-$400,000. It will be the 20th aircraft they have built, including the 1911 Wright Glider.
The foundation is donating the plane to the North Carolina Museum of History in honor of the late Willard Gathings Plentl Jr., the first director of North Carolina Aviation and former president of the First Flight Foundation. It will be the first and only reproduction of the 1908 plane in the state.