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Orville Wright's Redemption: The Story Behind the First Military Airplane

Evening Program

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1K0001
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
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Orville Wright piloting Military Flyer, 1909, Fort Myer, Virginia (Library of Congress)

The 1909 Wright Flyer was the first airplane designed for military use, and its successful demonstration by the Wright brothers to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia, was captured on film. For years the surviving footage existed only as a jumbled set of clips assembled in no discernible order.

Over five years, aviation writer and filmmaker Paul Glenshaw collected as much of the footage as could be found, discovered film from a second camera, and edited all of it into its original sequence. The reconstructed 13-minute film documents a pivotal confluence of emerging technologies that would shape much of the 20th century: the airplane and the motion picture.

Glenshaw’s work also tells a more personal story, that of Orville Wright’s recovery after a fatal accident in 1908 at the same field that claimed the life of his passenger, an Army lieutenant who had volunteered for the flight. Orville had come to the U.S. Army in 1908 to demonstrate the airplane for their first potential American customer after Wilbur had already made their public debut in France to wild acclaim —demonstrations now regarded as critical milestones in early aviation. After making several successful flights, Orville crashed, resulting in the first airplane fatality

Glenshaw covers his detective-like process of reconstructing the film and narrates its screening, bringing to life the story of this transformative moment in military, aviation, and local history. The footage offers glimpses of major movers and shakers of the time—President Taft, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Speaker Joe Cannon, and many others—and captures the poignant story of Orville Wright’s recovery and comeback. In the only film of the Wright brothers together, we see Orville re-learn how to fly, and with his brother at his side, achieve the sale of the first military airplane.

Glenshaw also examines how the Wright Flyer went through a series of changes before coming to the Smithsonian in 1911, as well how the first Army pilots trained by the Wrights and fellow early-aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss (including General Henry “Hap” Hanson) became leaders of American military aviation.