An elegant replica of a pioneering Navy airplane soon will hang in Dahlgren Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Built by Ken Hyde and his team of master craftsmen at The Wright Experience in Virginia, it is an authentic, but non-flying, Wright Model B like the one the Wright Co. delivered to the Navy in 1911. The Naval Academy plans to hang it over the ice rink in Dahlgren Hall, replacing a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N, one of the infamous “Yellow Perils” that once trained midshipmen. The Wright airplane will be rigged so it can be lowered and used as a teaching aid for aeronautical engineering students.
The very first Navy airplane was a Curtiss A-1, one of several bought in 1911, but the Wright B-1 soon followed. It was stationed at the Navy’s “Aviation Camp” on Greenbury Point, across the Severn River from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, ultimately home to a flock of Yellow Perils in which all midshipmen were exposed to flight training during the 1940s and ’50s. The N3Ns — on floats — flew from the Severn River, where they were far more perilous to yachtsmen than to midshipmen.
Ensign Victor D. Herbster, Naval Aviator No. 4, took charge of the Navy B-1 on Nov. 8, 1911, and shortly thereafter had it converted to a “hydroaeroplane.” There are marvelous photographs of it floating on the Severn River surrounded by yachts, steamboats and launches.
Marine 1st Lt. Alfred Cunningham began flight instruction in the B-1 on May 22, 1912, now considered the birthday of Marine Corps aviation. Cunningham later was designated Naval Aviator No. 5.
While the particular Wright B-1 going to the Naval Academy celebrates the earliest days of Naval Aviation, other Model Bs already had introduced flight to the U.S. Army, first at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1909 and later at College Park, Maryland — still the nation’s oldest airport. It was at the Wright school in College Park where Lt. George Sweet became Naval Aviator No. 1 in 1909. Lt. John Rogers, Naval Aviator No. 2, got his training from the Wrights at Dayton.
“This is our time,” said Ken Hyde when he unveiled the Navy B-1 in late September. He was referring to the period leading up to and following 1908, when Wilbur and Orville Wright earned long-delayed world-wide recognition as inventors of the airplane.
Hyde, The Wright Experience and The Discovery of Flight Foundation have big plans for celebrating that era, including a trip to France where they hope to replicate the Wrights’ first public exhibition, at Le Mans. There, on a fine summer day in August 1908, Wilbur Wright showed convincingly that he and his brother were the only men in the world who knew how to fly.
Every would-be aviator in Europe was there, most of them disbelieving rumors of the Wrights’ capabilities. Wilbur took off, effortlessly banked through two full circles, and landed. The stunned silence finally was broken by Leon Delagrange, a pioneer of French aviation. “We are beaten,” he said (in French, of course). “By comparison with that, we do not exist!”
The aviation revolution that continues to this day began at that moment. Who can blame Hyde for wanting to celebrate it? Plans are for The Discovery of Flight Foundation to commission a flyable Model B which The Wright Experience will build. If all goes well, the airplane will go to France in the summer of 2008, fly at Le Mans, and be given to the people of France.
Other ceremonies, with other Model B replicas, are planned for Fort Myer and College Park. One of the airplanes will be donated to the museum at Fort Myer. A non-flying Model B already is in the College Park aviation museum.
Frank Coffyn used a Model B to fly under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges in 1912, starting a popular diversion that the city finally had to outlaw. The Wright Experience has no plans to duplicate that feat.