Fliers or liars?

Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

When Wilbur Wright arrived in France May 29, 1908, to carry out demonstrations for a French syndicate interested in building Wright Flyers, it would be the first time one of the Wright brothers flew outside of America. Wilbur not only faced the challenge of flying but of skepticism in the European aviation community that had taken an anti-Wright stance. European newspapers, especially in France, were openly derisive, calling them bluffeurs (bluffers). The Paris edition of the New York Herald summed up Europe’s opinion of the Wright brothers on Feb. 10, 1906: “The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars.”

What was not readily recognized by the world was that the Wright brothers had demonstrated mastery of the air. During 1904, 1905 and 1908 they had successfully flown more than 170 times. They had accomplished flights lasting up to one hour and flown circles and figure eights. So it is not a surprise that when Wilbur began flying in France and broke record after record, carried passengers, and trained students, that the days of disbelief were over as the press sent the story throughout Europe.

Wilbur making a circuit above Hunaudieres race course near Le Mans in August 1908.

The year 1908 got off to a great start for the Wrights. First the U.S. Army Signal Corps signed a $25,000 contract with the brothers, in which the Wrights agreed to deliver by Aug. 28, a heavier-than-air flying machine meeting Army specifications. In March Wilbur traveled to New York to discuss with Flint & Co. the terms of a new French contract for the formation of the French Wright company. This provided for a syndicate to be formed by Lazare Weiller, with other French capitalists, to buy the Wright’s French patents and the rights to manufacture, sell, or license Wright airplanes in France.

Wilbur arrived in France on May 29 to give demonstrations of the Wright machine. Leon Bolle, a French car manufacturer, provided him with space in his factory for assembly of the Flyer which, unfortunately, had been heavily damaged during transport to France.

It was arranged for flights to take place at the nearby Hunaudieres race track. On Aug. 8, with a crowd gathered at the racetrack and even though the machine was not quite ready, Wilbur decided to do “a little something” and launched for the first public flight of a Wright machine. The crowd included French aviators Bleriot, Archdeacon and Delagrange. Wilbur made a flight of almost two minutes circling the course twice.

The French are won over. Delagrange says: “Well, we are beaten.” Bleriot says, “Monsieur Wright has us all in his hands.” Wilbur flew eight more times at Hunaudieres, flying graceful circles and figure eights. His best was on Aug. 12, staying in the air almost seven minutes during six circuits of the course.

The French became captivated by Wilbur’s aerial feats, the public viewed him and his airplane with awe, and thousands made the trip to Le Mans to see him fly. Hawkers on the streets of Paris sold picture post cards and statues of him.

With Hunaudieres’ race course surrounded by trees and buildings, Wilbur sought a larger and better-flying field. In mid-August the French Army invited him to move to a much larger, unobstructed field at a nearby army field called Camp d’Auvours.

Wilbur’s first sorties were of modest duration and modest altitudes. Gradually the flight times lengthened and altitudes rose. Then, on Sept. 16, he flew for almost 40 minutes, which exceeded the existing French record. Later that day he would take up his first passenger, Ernest Zens, a French balloonist.

On Sept. 16, 1908, at Camp d'Auvours, Wilbur took up Ernest Zens, a French balloonist, as his first passenger in Europe.

At Camp d’Auvours, as part of the French contract, Wilbur trained three French students, Count de Lambert, Paul Tissandier, and an Army officer, Capt. Lucas-Girardville. On Oct. 3 George Dickin, a New York Herald reporter, became the first journalist to be taken aloft on an airplane trip.

Wilbur made 120 flights at d’Auvours, including one on Dec. 18 during which he climbed to 115 meters, setting a world’s record, and one on Dec. 31 which lasted for two hours, 20 minutes, which set new world duration and distance records. All together Wilbur carried aloft some 60 passengers and broke nine world records. By the end of December at Le Mans the weather was at the freezing point and Wilbur decided to move his operations to Pau in the south of France.

Wilbur arrived Jan. 14, 1909, at his new flying field, Pont-Long, located about six miles from Pau. He continued to train students, making approximately 64 flights. In 40 of these he was the pilot, while on the remaining flights he was the passenger of one of his students.

Crowds flocked to Pau to witness the flights — sometimes the number of spectators reached 10,000. The spectators included the royal, great and near-great. Flights were made in the presence of King Edward VII of England, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Charles Rolls of Rolls Royce fame, and Georges Clemenceau, son of the French premier, and a delegation from the French Chamber of Deputies.

On Jan. 15, Orville and sister Katherine joined Wilbur at Pau. While there, Katherine began to organize Wilbur’s social affairs, which were a mess. Neither Wilbur nor Orville, because they were so shy, were any good at schmoozing the people who could buy their airplanes. Kate, who provided the social chemistry the Wrights needed to make their enterprise work, soon had the French eating out of her hands. European newspapers called her the “third Wright brother” in jest.

When the Wrights left France, the French awarded all three of them — Katharine included — the Legion of Honor. She remains one of the few American women to have received this award.

Next stop for the Wrights was Italy. The brothers traveled there to undertake the training of two Italian lieutenants, one from the Italian navy, the other from the army. Most of the 58 flights made were training flights. The rest were made with individuals who desired to be taken up as passengers. The flights by Wilbur were made at a field adjoining a military fort at Centocelle, a dozen miles southeast of Rome.

Among the passengers in Italy was Lloyd Griscom, American ambassador to Italy, as well as a Universal News cameraman, who took the first successful motion pictures from an airplane in flight. The brothers’ fame had grown far and wide as noted in an April 19, 1909, diary entry by their father when he wrote “moving pictures of Wilbur’s flights were shown at the theater.”

The Wright’s stay in Italy would be a short one as they needed to return to Fort Myer to complete the tests to fulfill the Army aircraft order.

In August Orville and Katharine traveled to Berlin, where Orville was to give demonstration flights and seek to complete negotiations begun by Wilbur in 1908 for the sale of Wright patents to a German syndicate. Wilbur stayed behind to fulfill a contract made to fly as part of the Hudson-Fulton celebration to be held in September and October in New York.

While in Germany, Orville trained a pilot for the newly organized Wright Co. in Germany, Flugmaschine Wright GMBH. Again flights by a Wright brother drew large crowds, including the German Kaiser, Count von Zeppelin, and other celebrities.

Between August 1908 and October 1909, at six locations in three European countries, the Wright brothers more than proved that the new invention of the aeroplane was real, capable and reliable. Not only did the Wrights complete 286 flights in Europe, there were days when they were flying up to eight times a day carrying passengers, teaching students and setting records. These flights led to production of the Wright Flyer in England, France and Germany.

The Wright brothers, through their flights in Europe, ably answered the question “fliers or liars?”

Dennis can be reached at dennis@generalaviationnews.com.


  1. Dennis Reiley says

    I have always had a problem with the Wright Flyer. True they were recognized as the first and they broke numerous records. But the design of their aircraft made it obvious there was a severe limit in how far it could be taken. While their competitors for the most part were willing to innovate, the Wright brothers were not. I find it very understandable that their design quickly descended into oblivion.

    I think the Wright brothers and their accomplishments are much over rated. Heresy I know, but when you look at the facts I think the conclusion is justified.

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