Wrights Sign Contract with a French Company and the U.S. Army

The Wright brothers made no flights at all in 1906 and 1907 while they pursued fitful negotiations with the U.S. and European governments.

While grounded they experimented with a pontoon and engine setup on the Miami River in hopes of flying their airplane from the water. These experiments proved unsuccessful. In May 1906 they were finally granted a patent for their flying machine. In 1907 the brothers journeyed to Europe for the first time for face-to-face talks with government bureaucrats and businessmen. Orville joined his brother two months after Wilbur's departure, but first packed a new Model A Flyer in a crate which was shipped to France and left in storage at Le Havre in anticipation of demonstration flights. In early 1908 the Wrights finally signed contracts with a French company and the U.S. Army. In May they went back to Kitty Hawk with their 1905 Flyer to practice for their all-important demonstration flights. They had not been to the camp in four and a half years and had to rebuild their two sheds, which had been badly damaged by weather and scavengers; the 1902 glider was in a hopeless state of disrepair.

Their American and French contracts required them to be able to carry a passenger. They modified the 1905 Flyer by installing two seats and adding upright control levers. After tests with sandbags in the passenger seat, Charlie Furnas, a helper from Dayton, became the first fixed-wing aircraft passenger on a few short flights May 14. For safety, and as a promise to their father, Wilbur and Orville did not fly together. However, several newspaper accounts at the time mistakenly took Orville's flight with Furnas as both brothers flying together. Later that day after flying solo seven minutes, Wilbur suffered his worst crash when, still not well-acquainted with the two control levers, he apparently moved one the wrong way and slammed the Flyer into the sand between 40 and 50 miles an hour. He emerged with only bruises and a cut nose, but the accident ended the practice flights—and the airplane's flying career.

The brothers' contracts with the U.S. Army and a French syndicate depended on successful public flight demonstrations that met certain conditions. The brothers had to divide their efforts. Wilbur sailed for Europe; Orville would fly near Washington, D.C.
Facing deep skepticism in the French aeronautical community and outright scorn by some newspapers that called him a "bluffeur," Wilbur began official public demonstrations on August 8, 1908 at the Hunaudières horse racing track near the town of Le Mans, France. His first flight lasted only one minute 45 seconds, but his ability to effortlessly make banking turns and fly a circle amazed and stunned onlookers, including several pioneer French aviators, among them Louis Bleriot. In the following days, Wilbur made a series of technically challenging flights, including figure-eights, demonstrating his skills as a pilot and the capability of his flying machine, which far surpassed those of all other pilot pioneers.

For a long time, the Wright brothers have been accused in Europe of bluff... They are today hallowed in France, and I feel an intense pleasure... to make amends.”

— Ernest Archdeacon