Wright Flyer Crash
During the early years of the new century, the Signal Corps had undergone modernization in response to the reforms implemented by the General Staff and the advances being made in communications technology. In a world that was becoming increasingly professionalized there remained, however, room for achievement by amateurs. Two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, owners of a bicycle shop, finally solved the long-standing problem of heavier-than-air flight through hard work and ingenuity. Chief Signal Officer Allen and the Signal Corps, along with the rest of the world, would soon become well acquainted with Wilbur and Orville Wright and their flying machine.
Since 1892 lack of funds and facilities had continually hampered the Signal Corps' aerial operations. Although the Corps had constructed a balloon house at Fort Myer in 1901, Chief Signal Officer Greely never succeeded in getting a gas generating plant built there. With the closing of the school at Myer in 1905, Greely sent the Corps' aerial equipment to Benicia Barracks pending completion of new facilities at Fort Omaha.
Meanwhile, several factors combined to spur a revival of the Army's aeronautical program. In particular, a growing interest in aeronautics among the general public led to the formation of the Aero Club of America in 1905. This organization sponsored many aerial events and administered the licensing of pilots. Its early membership included two Signal Corps officers, Maj. Samuel Reber and Capt. Charles deForest Chandler. Moreover, another soldier, 1st Lt. Frank P Lahm, then attending the French cavalry school at Saumur, won the first Gordon Bennett international balloon race held in France in 1906.
Under Chief Signal Officer Allen, aviation assumed a more prominent role in the Signal Corps' mission. His assistant, Maj. George O. Squier, was instrumental in bringing about this change. While at Leavenworth Squier had pursued the study of aeronautics in addition to his other scientific interests. He recognized the importance of the work being done by the Wright brothers and closely followed their progress. When he came to Washington in July 1907, Squier brought not only his expertise but his extensive list of contacts within the scientific community at large and the aeronautical community in particular. Shortly after Squier's arrival Allen issued a memorandum on 1 August 1907 creating an Aeronautical Division within the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, which was to have charge "of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.” Captain Chandler became the division's head. In the fall of 1907 the Corps shipped its balloon equipment from Benicia Barracks to Washington so that Chandler and the men assigned to his division could conduct ascensions. During some of these flights they successfully experimented with the reception of wireless messages in the balloon car. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Lahm, who remained in France while recovering from illness, received orders from the War Department to observe the aeronautical sections of the British and German armies. He exceeded his orders and visited the Belgian and French armies as well. On his return to the United States, Lahm reported for duty to the Signal Office. In 1908 the Corps completed its new balloon facilities at Fort Omaha, which included a plant for hydrogen generation. The proximity of this post to the Signal School made it possible for the students at Leavenworth to travel there for aeronautical instruction.
Although their accomplishment remained relatively unknown, the Wright brothers had demonstrated the feasibility of heavier-than-air flight nearly five years earlier, in December 1903. In fact, they had offered to sell their airplane to the United States government through the Board of Ordnance and Fortification on two occasions in 1905. That body, still skeptical about flying machines after supporting Samuel P Langley's failed project two years earlier, had ignored the Wrights' offers. Rebuffed at home, the Wrights pursued opportunities to sell their plane in Europe. Finally, in 1907, the War Department reopened communication with them. Wilbur Wright appeared before the Board of Ordnance and Fortification in December 1907 and convinced the members and Chief Signal Officer Allen, who also attended, of the legitimacy of their claims. Subsequently, on 23 December 1907, the Signal Corps issued an advertisement and specifications to solicit bids for a heavier-than-air flying machine. The Corps' requirements included that the machine carry two persons, travel at least forty miles per hour, and be capable of sustained flight for at least an hour. The Corps also preferred that the machine be compact enough to be dismantled for transport in an Army wagon and readily reassembled. While the specifications closely followed the capabilities of the Wrights' airplane, the Corps also consulted with other scientists and engineers, to include Alexander Graham Bell, prior to their issuance.
Despite the advent of heavier-than-air flight, the Signal Corps continued its work with lighter-than-air craft. Early in 1908 the Signal Office issued another set of specifications, these calling for a dirigible, that is, a sausage-shaped, engine-powered balloon that could be steered, later known as an airship. Europeans had taken the lead in dirigible development, and the name of the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was most closely associated with this type of flying machine. The Signal Corps required the dirigible to also carry two persons and travel at least twenty miles per hour. Although it had previously lost a considerable sum by backing Langley, the Board of Ordnance and Fortification granted funds to purchase both the heavier-than-air and the lighter-than-air craft because the Signal Corps had no money within its own budget to do so. The flight trials of both the dirigible and the airplane were scheduled to be held at Fort Myer during the summer of 1908.
Not surprisingly, the Wright brothers numbered among the forty-one applicants submitting plans for a flying machine to the Signal Office. The Corps received many unusual proposals, including one from a prisoner in a federal penitentiary who promised to furnish an acceptable plane on the condition that the Army secure his release from prison. Of the three serious bidders who complied with the specifications, only the Wrights delivered a plane to Fort Myer for the flight trials.