Wright Brothers: Air Alternative to Roads?

As everyone in America digested the reality that a new product called the automobile was transforming everyday life opinions differed on how to best take advantage of it. One of the challenges was the country's highway infrastructure, which was almost entirely dirt roads well into the 20th century - especially in the countryside. While these trails were adequate for the mode and pace of animal-drawn conveyances, carriages propelled by internal combustion engines were a different proposition.
The good roads movement emerged as advocates lobbied both private interests as well as municipal, state and federal government authorities to step up and fund highway improvement, paving and construction. Among the leaders with a big voice was Indianapolis Motor Speedway Founder Carl Fisher who built the big track as a way to give automobile factories a place to test product. They certainly couldn't unwind their engines on existing public roads.
The paving of the Speedway to become the Brickyard in the autumn of 1909 was state-of-the-art and provided a running surface just about impossible to find anywhere else in America. Fisher also went on to create the Dixie Highway from Chicago to Miami and the country's first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway. It should not be a surprise that people of the day battled over whose responsibility it was to pay to construct such highways. It was the familiar progessive versus conservative budget battle.
In the middle of the struggles the path forward was anything but clear. With the advent of air travel there were questions even about what machines people would rely on for personal transportation. Hard to fathom now, but there were those who presented the view that airplanes might be an alternative to the automobile. Imagine a person getting up in the morning and flying to work. Part of the issue was that, like in the early days of computing when some said the home computer was a solution in need of a problem, propenents of flight were trying to find the magic application. Most typically, people like the famous aviators the Wright Brothers, the belief was the airplane showed promise as a tool of the military.
Planes were under consideration for their ability to reconnoiter landscape behind enemy lines and, more offensively, drop explosives on opposing forces. This is the primary topic of the July 2, 1909 Indianapolis News article contained in the attachment below. 
A secondary message is apparent in the headline of the article as well as its lead sentence. The heading reads, "Aeroplane Beats Auto, Says Wright." The lead sentences elaborates by quoting Wilbur Wright, "I would rather fly over that country in our aeroplane than ride over it in your automobile."
Aviation enthusiasts undoubtedly would agree with Wright concerning the majestic sensation of soaring through clouds but any idea that an airplane was practical in everyday crosstown commutes doesn't, well...fly. Still, as people in those days contemplated the challenges and expense to society of getting from point A to point B it's not hard to imagine that a discussion about the role of tiny, frail airplanes could take place. As it turned out, passenger and military aircraft have played a tremendous role in shaping everyday society but never made sense for getting to the grocery store.
Wright's comment above was something he said to a scouting party about to depart in an automobile on what is described as, "the dusty red Virginia roads between Ft. Myer and Alexandria. "You are liable to get stuck somewhere, beside being covered with dust."
Never mind the far more serious consequences of a mid-air malfunction to the tiny engine in Wright's satin-winged aircraft. The scouting party, the article reports, did have to deal with a flat tire and "all but intolerable" stifling heat. The following excerpt helps paint the picture of the geographic challenge.
"The course over which will be made the official flight for which the Wrights are preparing begins at Ft. Myer, across the river from Washington, on a relatively high plateau, and extends somewhat east of south, five miles to the turning point on a hill, westerly from Alexandria, which will be made visible from Ft. Myer by a small, bright yellow balloon marking its location. The country between is broken and rather heavily wooded; but at intervals there are open fields offering landing places in case of emergency."
The article reports that the Wright's flight (Orville was the pilot) presented "scientific problems," and was expected to be of great value in the development of aircraft. That was because it was the first flight across broken country in a heavier-than-air machine.
According to the report Wright had flown over open and level ground at Ft. Myer and learned about the affect of buildings and foilage on air currents. It's really very interesting to consider that at this time almost every flight over varying terrain was a learning experience. They anticipated a great deal of discovery on the planned journey over a "diversified area." A team of army signal corps officers were on hand to record information.
It is particularly interesting to note that at this time the Wrights were saying that the highest altitude they had attained was 364 feet when, in an air show at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway almost exactly one year later one of their vessels would soar to nearly 5,000 feet. As for the challenge immediately in front of them, the topography of the terrain along their course would require them to scale to a height of some 500 feet.
The article shares that the Wrights had a government contract valued at $25,000 if their airplane could meet the performance requirements of the trip. The report indicates that no one believed the altitude necessary and the distance covered was possible at the time the agreement was reached. No one, that is, except the Wrights. Both Orville and Wilbur expressed supreme confidence their machine was up to the task.
Orville had reportedly gone over the course in an automobile twice with the army corps of engineers representatives. The newspaper reports that neither Wright brother had any great fear of failure.
The aviation test was an assessment of the airplane for military service. One performance point they wanted to test if a pilot flying over rough terrain would be forced to follow the uneven contours of the topography or stay on a level course. It notes the valley of Four Mile Run, a well-known, 94-mile stream in the region, cut through the middle of the planned course. Another performance requirement concerned speed. The military required the Wright plane to average 36 mph for the planned voyage. The aviators had three chances to make good on the deal.
The next portion of the article discusses homes along the course, reporting that there were few dwellings and that most of those were "negro cabins," which seems to imply they were of lesser significance than if owned by whites. The farmers living between Ft. Myer and Shuter Hill (the sourthern turning point) had some concerns. Some are quoted asking questions and expressing opinions.
"Will it hurt my house if it lands on the roof?" one asked. 
Another who commented expressed obvious irritation, saying, "new-fangled contraptions that wouldn't let poor folks who mind their own business have any rest." The article reports that the man promised "he would make trouble" if his cornfield was damaged "by this blamed thing dropping into it."
Next, the article covers an item that almost seems like a non-sequitur when it discusses that A.M. Herring, described as an "aeroplane inventor," and his inability to deliver a plane on deadline to the signal corps. He was negotiating with General Allen, the chief of the aeronautical division of the U.S. Signal Corps - the forerunner to the Air Force.
Back to the Wrights, Orville was reported to have made three test flights the previous day. He circled the Ft. Myer drill grounds each time, while thousands cheered from the ground. Apparently the machine was buffeted by the wind as evidenced by dips and rises. There is a reference to some damage to one of the skids (the planes did not use wheels for some reason) but apparently that was minor and easily repaired in a shed. 
Read this excerpt about how the crew started Orville's plane.
"After the motor had been tested the weight which gives the aeroplane its start was hoisted up and all was ready for flight. The propellers were cranked and Orville turned on the motor. The screws whirled around at what seemed like greater speed than on the previous occasions, and as Orville climbed into his seat Wilbur put his hand on the right wing ready to run along with the machine. Nodding to his brother, Orville released the machine and it started don the track at a rapid rate. As it neared the end of the starting rail Orville turned up the forward horizontal rudders and the machine rose into the air. It was a beautiful start and the crowd cheered heartily. Down the field the aeroplane sailed, curved gracefully about the lower end and back up the east side of the field along the edge of Arlington Cemetery."
Wright made several circles, five according to the report, roughly tracing the perimeter of the grounds. Before completing his sixth pass, Orville landed the plane. The reporter was obviously in awe, evaluating the landing as "perfect." Orville is said to have "pulled the string which stops his motor" and then gliding smoothly to the ground, gliding smoothly on the grass using its skids. As for why they used skids, I speculate that as the original flights took place on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, skids were more practical on that surface than wheels. 
The Wrights did a few more short flights, always with Orville as the pilot. The longest of the day was nine minutes. The highest altitude was a mere 40 feet.
The article closes with a sidebar with a July 2 dateline from Berlin. This reported that Count Zeppelin intended to fly to the north pole in his zeppelin inflatable "airship." The Count's inspiration came from listening to a presentation by Professor H. Hergezeil of the University of Strasbourg. Plans called for a custom-designed airship in order to successfully fly through the frigid conditions.

WrightNews070209.pdf1.75 MB