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Founding of the College Park Airport


plane on rail
Photo Courtesy of the National Archives and Record Administration
In 1905, two years after their famous first flight of a heavier-than-air, powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, NC, Wilbur and Orville Wright approached the U.S. Government about acquiring their aeroplane, but could not generate any interest. In 1907, upon hearing that the Wright brothers were in Europe discussing the potential sale of their aircraft to those governments, the Wrights received a letter requesting them to meet with U.S. Army officials. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Wilbur Wright met with the Signal Corps to discuss the possibility of furnishing an aeroplane to the Army. Their discussions resulted in Signal Corps Specification No. 486 - Advertisement and Specification for a heavier-than-air flying machine. Among other requirements, this machine was to be capable of carrying two people, have a speed of at least 40 mph, remain in the air for at least one hour, sustain flight for 125 miles, and be sufficiently easy to fly that a man of average intelligence could become proficient in its use within a reasonable amount of time.

wright standing in the field looking

Photo Courtesy of Wright State University, Special Collections
The Wrights submitted a bid, along with 40 other inventors. Despite the fact that the Wrights' was the highest of the three acceptable bids, the Signal Corps had been so impressed with the confidence expressed by Wilbur during their meetings that they decided to allow the Wrights' offer to stand. The Wright brothers were the only ones that were able to successfully supply a flying machine in the agreed amount of time. The Wrights' contract required that, prior to its acceptance, trials be held at Ft. Myer in Arlington, Virginia to demonstrate that the aeroplane could accomplish all the requirements of the Signal Corps specifications. The tests began in September 1908 with Orville handling the demonstrations while Wilbur was abroad overseeing the manufacture and license of the Wright machine in France.

On September 17, 1908 while Orville was making a test flight with passenger Lt. Thomas Selfridge at Ft. Myer, the aeroplane's right propeller fractured, striking one of the rudder's bracing wires and sending the aeroplane crashing to the ground. Lt. Selfridge died of a fractured skull. Orville was seriously hurt, but recovered from his injuries. The Wrights, eager to restore the public's confidence in their machine, announced that they would demonstrate their plane's reliability at the first opportunity. The War Department granted them an extension of their contract until the summer of 1909.

On July 27, 1909, official testing began again at Ft. Myer. In the last test - the speed test - Orville flew 42.583 mph and was awarded a bonus of $5000 for exceeding the contract specifications by 2.5 mph. On August 2, 1909, Signal Corps Number One was officially accepted by the U.S. Government. There remained, however, one final condition to the Wrights' contract: that they teach two U.S. Army officers to fly the newly accepted machine.

The Ft. Myer parade ground was deemed too small to safely instruct the Army officers, so the search began for another location. During a routine balloon ascent, Lt. Frank Lahm had spotted a large level field in the town of College Park that was close to the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland) and adjacent to the B&O railroad tracks. The field was far enough away from the city that there were hopes it would discourage the large crowds (of up to 7000!) that had come daily to witness the Ft. Myer trials. However, the lure of the aeroplanes continued to draw spectators out to College Park, although in fewer numbers.

A small temporary hangar was erected at the newly leased College Park field and the field cleared of brush and other obstacles. On October 8, 1909, Wilbur Wright began the flight instruction of Lt. Frank Lahm and Lt. Frederic Humphreys. On October 20, Lt. Benjamin Foulois, who had been originally designated one of the student pilots and was replaced by Humphreys to fulfill the contract, returned from a conference in Europe and began flight instruction under Wilbur Wright and Lt. Humphreys. In November 1909, the Wright contract was fulfilled when both Humphreys and Lahm soloed after little more than three hours of instruction. Though Foulois had nearly the same amount of instruction, the plane was damaged before he had a chance to solo. The Signal Corps decided to transfer the flying operations to a warmer climate and Lt. Foulois, the aeroplane, and the detachment of enlisted mechanics were sent to Ft. Sam Houston, TX. Humphreys and Lahm both returned to their original military units, leaving Foulois as the only military pilot.