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Historical Highlights

A Flight Demonstration by the Wright Brothers

July 26, 1909
A Flight Demonstration by the Wright Brothers Image courtesy of Library of Congress Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois (far left) witnessed a successful demonstration by the famed Wright Brothers.
On this date, before a crowd of Washington political luminaries including House Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois, Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted a test flight at Fort Myer outside of Washington, D.C. The event, which had been postponed for several weeks because of inclement weather, also was attended by President William Howard Taft, Vice President James S. Sherman, Senators Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island and James A. Hemenway of Indiana, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of the former President Theodore Roosevelt and the wife of Nicholas Longworth of Ohio. Thousands of spectators from Washington, D.C., and surrounding jurisdictions streamed onto the military reservation by foot and car. Flanked by Republican Whip  John Dwight of New York, Speaker Cannon accompanied the President in his motor car to watch the demonstration. With Orville at the controls, the plane rolled down its launcher (a railway derrick) and skimmed across the ground for several yards before gaining an altitude of 100 feet as it circled the parade field at a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour. The flight was part of a series of tests the Wrights conducted in Washington to demonstrate the military applications of their invention. It was a triumph for Orville particularly, coming less than a year after a fatal accident at Fort Myer when his plane plummeted from the sky on a test flight after its propeller snapped off. A passenger, Army Lieutenant Thomas D. Selfridge, was killed and Wright suffered a fractured left thigh, broken ribs, and a concussion. In March 1909, Representative Eugene Harding of Ohio introduced a successful bill bestowing Congressional Gold Medals upon the brothers to recognize their contributions to American flight. General James Allen, chief signal officer of the U.S. Army, presented the medals to the Wrights at an elaborate ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, on June 18, 1909—shortly before they left for the tests flights in Washington.

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