The Wright brothers are well known as scientists, inventors, builders and flyers — and they became international celebrities in 1909 with record-setting flights in Europe and America.
Less well known were their efforts as flight instructors and flight school creators. They began flight instruction in Europe. Later back home, they trained aviators for their exhibition team, for the military and, as interest in aviation grew, they opened flight schools for civilian pilots.
To provide flight training the Wright Company developed schools at Dayton, Ohio; Montgomery, Alabama; Augusta, Georgia; and Belmont; New York.
The first flight training conducted by the Wright brothers took place in Europe in 1908 and 1909. Wilbur Wright started providing flight instruction in France in 1908. This was done in fulfillment of a contract with a syndicate formed to build Wright Flyers in France.
Wilbur instructed three French students, Charles de Lambert, Paul Tissondier, and Paul Lucas-Girardville. The training program consisted of 64 flights running between five and 20 minutes each.
During April 1909, the Wrights traveled to Centocelle, Italy (outside Rome) to train two pilots, one from the Italian navy and one from the army. Wilbur made about 50 flights in the training of the two students, Naval Lt. Mario Calderra and Army Lt. Guido Castagneris.
During September 1909, Orville went to Germany as part of a contract with the German Wright Co. to train one pilot, Captain Paul Englehard, a retired German naval officer.
With the purchase of a Wright Flyer by the Army after its successful demonstration at Fort Myer in July 1909, the Wrights then had to meet the obligation of training two army officers as aviators. As Fort Myer was deemed too small for safe instruction, it was decided to use a field at College Park, Maryland.
Lt. Benjamin Lahm and Lt. Fredric Humphreys were chosen to be trained. Lahm soloed after three hours, four minutes of instruction and Humphreys after receiving three hours, seven minutes of training.
Following the decision of the Wright brothers to form an exhibition team, Orville undertook the training of pilots to handle the exhibition machines.
With the weather in Dayton not conducive to flight training early in the year, they scouted out a southern location, selecting a place near Montgomery, Alabama.
In the spring of 1910, Orville opened the nation’s first civilian flying school on an old cotton plantation on the outskirts of Montgomery. Five students participated in training at the school, including Walter Brookins from Dayton, Ohio; Arch Hoxsey, an auto racer from California, and the Russian-born Al Welsh.
Orville began training the students on March 26. Walter Brookins soloed after two and a half hours. After Orville returned to Dayton May 5, Brookins remained at the camp and continued training the other students.
Shortly after Orville’s return from Montgomery, the Wrights open the Wright Flying School in Dayton to continue training begun in Alabama of pilots for the exhibition team.
This school, located at the Huffman Prairie Field, normally called Simms Station for the rail line stop next to the field, became the permanent training school for the Wright Company, with other locations seasonal options.
Flight training at Dayton appeared to be intensive. A story in the publication Aeronautics in 1910 reported that during the first 10 days of June students made 161 flights and were aloft for 20 hours.
In 1911 three more military aviators were trained at the Wright School in Dayton: 2nd Lt. Henry “Hap” Arnold and 2nd Lt. Thomas Milling members of the Army Signal Corps and Lt. John Rodgers of the Navy. Hap Arnold remarked in his autobiography that he and Milling went as volunteers as his commanding officer considered such an assignment “a suicide mission.”
Other students were civilians trying to qualify as members of the Wright Flying Team and enthusiastic to earn some exhibition money. Among them were Leonard Bonney, Howard Gill and Oscar Brindley.
What kind of person enrolled in flight training? Bernard Whelan, a student in 1913, reported there was an Indiana farmer, a cultured man from Boston, a postmaster from Colorado, and a Navy enlisted man.
The start of war in Europe saw a large contingent of students arriving from Canada. They were interested in obtaining a pilot’s license, which was required for admission to the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service. During 1915 and 1916, 41 Canadians were trained at Dayton, with most of the graduates going to the Royal Naval Air Service.
COURSE OF INSTRUCTION
Training at Dayton included a ground school segment at the factory, where pupils were given full access to details about the construction and repair of the Wright Flyers. This included assembling, taking down and motor overhaul. They were also exposed to the control of the Flyers though the use of a simulator at the back of the factory. This amounted to a Flyer with control levers connected to an electric motor that controlled the wing warping.
Once the students had mastered the simulator, they moved on to Huffman Prairie Field, where they began actual flight training. All instruction was done on Wright aircraft equipped with dual controls.
After following the instructor for a period on the dual controls, the student was gradually given full control. The course included a total of five hours flying time on the part of the student. Lessons were given in a series, ranging from five to 15 minutes duration.
The Wright School provided its students with the use of an airplane free of charge and didn’t charge anything for damage to the planes. The school initially offered individual instruction for $500; later students paid only $250.
The Wrights encouraged students who had completed training to take a licensing test from FAI observers provided by the Aero Club of America. The test required the students to fly figure eights around two pylons. There was also an altitude flight and two landings within a designated distance from a stop.
Following the pattern started with Montgomery, the Wrights established seasonal flying schools in the South to take advantage of the warmer weather in the winter. The first was located in Augusta, Georgia, which started operations in January 1911. Frank Coffyn was in charge, with Starling Burgess of Boston and George Manner of Baltimore as the first students. Burgess would not only get his license, but that year would start to build licensed copies of the Wright Flyers.
During 1912 the Wrights established land-based training at the Hempstead Plain Field on Long Island. They also opened an hydroaeroplane school at Glen Head, Long Island. The instructor was Charles Weld, who learned to fly at Dayton, where he made his first solo flight after two hours and 46 minutes of instruction. The hydro school would close at the end of 1912, but operations at Mineola would continue four more years.
The Wright schools would continue operation until 1916. The various schools would train more than 100 students from all walks of life and various countries.
Wright school graduates were accepted as skilled and accomplished aviators whose names are emblazoned in the annals of flight. Such students included Hap Arnold, the commander of the 8th Air Force in World War II, Marjorie and Eddie Stinson of Stinson Aircraft fame, Robert Collier, founder of the Collier Trophy, and Cal Rodger, who would become the first person to fly coast-to-coast.