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According to the Wright brothers, the two inventors flew 105 times in 1904 (near a streetcar station called Simms, situated at the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio).

O. Wright, “Letter to Carl Dienstbach”, Dayton, Dec. 21, 1904.

“Through the courtesy of our local newspaper reporters, we have been enabled to carry on our experiments this year within a short distance of our city without the knowledge of this fact becoming generally known. We have made some flights in every month since June, excepting July. ... Although 105 landings were made during this seasons’ experiments the machine has suffered serious damage only a few times and these in flights in which the landing was accidental and not premeditated. Flight after flight has been made without any damage to the machine whatever."

A new free book titled The Wrights and their 1904 impossible flights (105 in total) challenges these claims arguing that, in fact, the brother just tried to fool the newspapers (especially those of Dayton), Octave Chanute (a personality of the aeronautic world of the time), Georges Spratt (a fellow aviation enthusiast), Carl Diesentbach (the New York correspondent of the German journal "Illustrierte Aeronautische Mitteilungen") and both the US War Department and British War Office, by pretending they had performed 105 flights in 1904 and, in many instances, describing aerial trips that are physically impossible. For example, the flights of August 13, 1904, when the plane, Flyer II, got energy from the headwind, which accelerated the apparatus.

"The Press", the only newspaper that, on May 26, 1904, furnished a list of witnesses (friends of the Wright family and an unnamed reporter) who saw the alleged flight of the same day, later in the year, on December 17, 1904, acknowledged that nobody had ever seen the two inventors flying powered planes.

http://wright1903dec17.altervista.org/Wright-Flyer-II-1904.htm

(Note: The work quotes in full over 200 letters and articles, most of them written or published in the interval 1903-1905.)

Besides this, two articles, one from May 1904 (see 1), and the other published in December 1951 (see 2), both of them quoting people who personally knew the Wright brothers (see the explanations below), say that the December 17, 1903, flights did not happen. This implies that, instead of 105 + 4 = 109 takeoffs and landings in total claimed for 1903 and 1904, the two Daytonians performed zero flights.

  1. The Wilmington Messenger, Wilmington, North Carolina, May 26, 1904, col. 1, p. 6.

Elizabeth City Economist: A gentleman visiting this city whose home is in Kitty Hawk, is responsible for the assertion that the Wright brothers, of airship fame, will return to Kitty Hawk in the near future and resume work on their aerial monster. According to this gentleman the airship has never been removed from Kitty Hawk and nearly all the interviews published in the papers of Norfolk have been erroneous in this respect. This gentleman has assisted the Wrights in all their work and has a general supervision of their property during their absence. He says that they have not completed the ship and that they will return some time within the next month and resume their work. A story is current that they will complete the ship and make the trip from here to St. Louis sometime this fall.

The text says that, according to a man that worked for the Wrights and took care of their things left behind at Kitty Hawk, the two inventors hadn't finished Flyer I as of May 26, 1904. In other words, this machine did not fly on December 17, 1903!

  1. This conclusion is also supported by the 1951 declaration of Alpheus W. Drinkwater, a man who knew the Wright brothers:

Wilbur and Orville Wright are credited with making their first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine on Dec. 17, 1903. But Alpheus W. Drinkwater, 76 years old, who sent the telegraph message ushering in the air age, said the brothers only “glided” off Kill Devil Hill that day. Their first real flight came on May 6, 1908, he said. (Source: New York Times, Dec. 17, 1951.)

As a note: The Wrights left Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903 and only came back in April 1908.

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  • With the recent edits I think this is now focused enough to be answerable so I have voted to reopen. The question itself could be tightened up a bit by removing some sidenotes & unrelated claims but I think it's clear enough as to what is being asked.
    – John Lyon
    Apr 23 at 4:31
  • 1
    This seems to revolve around the semantics of "flight" now: does a glide count etc. So it seems somewhat unsuitable here as it seem to veer towards primarily opinion based. There's also aviation.stackexchange.com by the way, where they might like a Q like this, or they might not. It might be better to phrase it as what counts as a flight, e.g. if there are any standards agreed by some authorities.
    – Fizz
    Apr 23 at 4:55
  • @Fizz from skimming, the book itself claims that the 1904 flights were entirely fabricated since many of the specifics claimed by the Wright brothers about those flights (aircraft and wind speeds, distances) were impossible. Other evidence is intended to corroborate the claim of fabrication (few / no witnesses to those flights, etc)
    – John Lyon
    Apr 23 at 5:04
  • @JohnLyon: well, ok, but the last quoted claim seems to be different.
    – Fizz
    Apr 23 at 5:10
  • @Fizz There is a related question on Aviation, actually. "Related" in the sense that they seem to quote the same sources. Apr 23 at 5:11
10

Almost Certainly Yes.

The Scientific American published Genesis of the First Successful Aeroplane in December 15, 1906, which asserts that they had communicated with all of the seventeen witnesses to the Wrights' developmental flights and had no reason to doubt the accounts of the eleven that responded.

These witnesses were interviewed within a year of witnessing the flights and the magazine was able to converse with each of the respondents to glean additional detail.

...it was suddenly announced that two young machinists had produced an aeroplane which had made a continuous flight, with one of the inventors on board, of over twenty miles at a high speed and under perfect control.

Their success marked such an enormous stride forward in the art, was so completely unheralded, and was so brilliant that doubt as to the truth of the story was freely entertained; especially as the inventors refused either to give access to the machine or to make any statement as to its broad details.

The SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, however, wrote to the seventeen eye witnesses who were mentioned as having seen the various flights and received letters from these reputable local residents, and published extracts therefrom, which completely set at rest all doubt as to what had been accomplished. (emphasis mine)

The main thrust of the claim - that the flights were impossible - relies on the assumption that all of the measurements in the Wrights' correspondence at the time were accurate. Their understanding of the dynamics of flight would not have been perfect, nor can we be certain of the accuracy of their apparatus for measuring wind or ground speeds. Indeed, their inability to accurately measure distances traveled for flights involving turns is explicitly mentioned in the Scientific American article:

The distances traveled during the various flights were measured by a Richard anemometer carried on the machine, and the records thus made agreed closely with the distances measured on the ground when the flights were in a straight line and the air was calm. It was impossible to effect an accurate comparison in this manner when the flights were made in a circle on account of the impossibility of tracing the course accurately on the ground.

An inability to accurately measure the distance covered would apply to essentially all of the long / successful flights in 1904 / 1905 as they were limited to circling the aircraft within a relatively small field.

This does not detract from the fact that the Wrights continued to develop their Flyer II throughout 1904 and that there were a significant number of witnesses to their test flights.

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  • 2
    The article "Genesis of the First Successful Aeroplane", Sci. Am., Dec. 15, 1906, p. 442, (see: hdl.handle.net/2027/chi.65432500?urlappend=%3Bseq=1018 ) mentions a flight of 20 miles performed by the Wrights that happened in 1903. Such an event did not take place. It is true, the text talks about 17 witnesses but does not elaborate. The article also quotes what the Wrights said during an interview. Apr 27 at 1:31
  • 2
    A previous article in Sci. Am.: "The Wright Aeroplane and Its Performances", April 7, 1906, pp 291-292 (see: hdl.handle.net/2027/chi.65432500?urlappend=%3Bseq=308 ) says that the publication wrote to 17 witnesses, received 11 answers, but it quotes a single letter signed Charles Webbert (who was the owner of Wrights' bicycle workshop, see: wright-brothers.org/History_Wing/Wright_Story/… ). The father of Charles was a neighbour of the Wrights and a friend of Bishop Milton Wright. Apr 27 at 2:07
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    If you take a look at the 3 long flights of Aug. 13, 1904, you will see that: Rel Speed = Grd Speed + Wind Speed, for all 3 trials. Had the Wrights used inaccurate instruments for measuring the 3 speeds they would have obtained a mismatch. The real problem is that from flight to flight their airspeed varies widely, a thing that can not happen because the airspeed is independent of the intensity of the wind and their engine worked at constant power, the flights being in straight line. Other flights have issues of different natures like the plane accelerates from 30 to 45 mph out of nothing. Apr 27 at 2:45
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    @duofilm Can you help me out with the claim in your first comment? The article states they flew 852 feet against a 25-mile wind during their first trial with a motor in December 1903, and that " The greater part of the spring, summer, and autumn of 1904 and 1905 was spent in experimental work with the new aeroplane. Then later it states "It was not till October of last year" (which would be 1905 based on the publication date) "...they were able to make their flight of 24 miles in 38 minutes, or at the rate of nearly 40 miles an hour." I can't find any claim of a long flight in 1903.
    – John Lyon
    Apr 27 at 3:17
  • The plane of Langley failed to fly for the last time on Dec. 8, 1903. This is the text in Sci. Am. of Dec. 15, 1906, saying (implicitly) the Wrights flew 20 miles in Dec. 1903: "At a time when the various experimentalists in the field of aeronautics were dumfounded by the failure of the deservedly-renowned Langley to make a practical flight with his government-backed $50,000 machine, it was suddenly announced that two young machinists had produced an aeroplane which had made a continuous flight, with one of the inventors on board, of over twenty miles at a high speed and under perfect control." Apr 27 at 7:27
2

The first hand "witness" Robert Coquelle returned to France, in December 1905, with weak evidence regarding the more than 160 powered flights claimed by Wilbur and Orville for the interval December 17, 1903 - October 5, 1905.

In December 1905, because the Wrights had already mailed a few letters to France (to L'Aerophile and Capt. Ferdinand Ferber), trying to sell their aeroplane, L'Auto, a newspaper of Paris, sent Robert Coquelle, a journalist, to Dayton to investigate the claims of the two inventors. Once back home, he wrote an extensive article in four parts. In short, this investigator met the brothers, interrogated a few witnesses, saw the empty shed near Simms Station where the plane had been housed and brought to France a drawing of the claimed flying machine and a list of witnesses. The general tone of the article betrays the serious doubts Coquelle had regarding the honesty of the Wrights and their witnesses who seemed to say, all of them, the same thing as if they were told before what to report.

(For reading the four Parts please click, Translate to English in your browser.)

PART 1: 1905-12-23, Robert Coquelle, “La Conquête de l’Air par deux Marchands de Cycles. Comment un ancien champion cycliste, Johanny S. Johnson, introduisit un rédacteur de « l’Auto » dans l’atelier des frères Wright.”, L’Auto, Paris, Saturday, December 23, 1905.

PART 2: 1905-12-24, Robert Coquelle, “La Conquête de l’Air par deux Marchands de Cycles. Dans l’atelier des frères Wright. — L’appareil, le moteur. — Silence!... — Les expériences de septembre confirmées par les inventeurs. — L’offre des Français repoussée... pour le moment. — Voyez témoins!”, L’Auto, Paris, Sunday, December 24, 1905.

PART 3: 1905-12-25, Robert Coquelle, “La Conquête de l'Air par deux Marchands de Cycles. The reason for silence. - Johnny S. Johnson says the Wrights' engine is out of order. - In search of the ghost journal. - A typographer with flair. - On the way to the Springfield prairie! ”, L'Auto, Paris, Monday, December 25, 1905.

PART 4: 1905-12-26, Robert Coquelle, “La Conquête de l’Air par deux Marchands de Cycles. A la prairie Huffman. — Interview de quelques témoins. — Où l’on retrouve le père de Earl Kiser. — Une ascension d’une heure 40 s’est terminée par une descente rapide au milieu de petits cochons noirs. — Le doute n’est plus permis!”, L’Auto, Paris, Tuesday, December 26, 1905.

LE VERITABLE AEROPLANE DES FRERES WRIGHT

The Real Aeroplane of the Wright Brothers (1905-12-24--R-Coquelle--Conquete-de-l-Air-par-Marchands-Cycles--L-Auto-Paris)

In conclusion, the Wrights flew planes in 1903-1905 only if we are ready to trust their word and that of the witnesses on their list.

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  • 1
    Hi! Welcome to Skeptics.SE! Could you include some relevant parts from the websites you linked in case the link stops working one day? May 8 at 0:31
  • 1
    @BarryHarrison , I can post the entire article (4 parts) here if the moderators agree. The text is quite long and in French. The problem is that if you do not read it in full, 3-4 times, you miss the main idea. I can also give direct links to the archive of L'Auto itself (as an alternative) but the four parts can not be read with an automatic translator because of the numerous errors made by the OCR convertor. May 8 at 3:26
  • 1
    Ok, I see! I don't think most people will click to read the links (just so you know). May 8 at 4:06
  • 2
    @JohnLyon , On Nov. 18, 1907, Orville saw Farman flying ( see: wright1903dec17.altervista.org/index.htm ). The Wrights, and their mechanic C. Taylor, spent ~6 months in Europe in 1907. They also ordered a motor to Bariquand et Marre (a French factory). Wilbur assembled his plane during the summer of 1908 in the factory of Leon Bollee, a car maker, ( see: thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/… ). The flight of Aug. 8 1908, followed a work and spying activity of about 1 year. It was no miracle. May 10 at 1:13
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    @JohnLyon , Here ( loc.gov/resource/mwright.02042/?sp=18 ) is a letter written by Orville, in Paris, on Sep. 24, 1907, to Wilbur (who was in another location in Europe). In the text, Orville gives details about the information collected by Charles Taylor, their mechanic, after spying on Delagrange's and Farman's planes (ground tests). Had the Wrights possessed a working plane that flew a record of 39 minutes in 1905 and more than 160 times in total (1903-1905) such a spying operation would have been useless as long as the two machines would start flying only on Sep. 30, 1907. May 10 at 2:37

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