Spectators observe the Signal Corps Airplane No. 1 above Fort
Photo from National Historic
The first military airplane in the world, built by the Wright
brothers for the Army Signal Corps, made its first flight at Fort
Myer, Virginia, in September 1908. The Army established military aviation
in the Signal Corps in August 1907 because observation and reconnaissance
were the only functions for the airplane known to the military at that
time. In December 1907, the Chief Signal Officer requested bids for a
flying machine with requirements generally thought to be impossible. Many
in the aeronautical community predicted that the Army would not receive
any bids, but the Wright brothers signed a contract on February 10, 1908,
and delivered the airplane to Fort Myer in August 1908. The specification
required the "Heavier-than-air Flying Machine" to carry two
people, fly 40 miles per hour, make a one-hour endurance flight and be
portable by Army wagons. Flying instruction for two officers was also
Orville Wright was the pilot for the flights required to demonstrate performance.
Less than a thousand people witnessed the first flight at Fort Myer on September
3, 1908, because the general public was still doubtful that powered flight
had been achieved. Orville's subsequent flights during the next two weeks
were watched by thousands, and finally convinced the American public that
"man could fly." The flights at Fort Myer established a number
of new world records for endurance, but the last flight on September 17
ended in disaster. A crack in the right propeller caused the plane to crash,
seriously injuring Orville and killing Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. Delivery
of the new flying machine was postponed until the following summer, when
Orville made additional demonstration flights at Fort Myer in a Wright A
plane, an improvement of the 1908 design. The Army formally accepted
Signal Corps Airplane No. 1, the world's first military airplane,
on August 2, 1909. The Wright brothers fulfilled their contract in October
and early November when Wilbur Wright provided flying instruction for three
Army officers at College Park, Maryland.
Rotating images of the crash which
killed Lt. Thomas Selfridge and
the Selfridge Gate (near the crash site) between Fort Myer and Arlington
Cemetery where Lt. Selfridge is buried
photo courtesy of U.S. Army; current photo from National Register
Fort Myer had been established as Fort Whipple during the Civil War in 1863.
It was renamed for Brigadier General Albert J. Myer, who established the
Signal School of Instruction for Army and Navy Officers here in 1869. By
the turn of the 20th century, the military had determined that Fort Myer
should become a permanent army post, and an extensive building program was
initiated. The buildings of the historic district date to this period of
construction and include commodious senior officers' quarters known as "Generals'
Row" that became home to the Army Chiefs of Staff including Generals Leonard
Wood, Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower and William
Westmoreland. Fort Myer is also the home of the Air Force Chief of Staff
and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The parade ground of Fort Myer, now known as Summerall Field, is lined
by some of the fort's historic buildings. Click here for a panoramic
image of the field.
Photo courtesy of the Old
Guard, 3rd U.S. Infantry
The Fort Myer Historic District, a National
Historic Landmark, is roughly bounded by Arlington Blvd (U.S. 50),
Clarendon Blvd. and Arlington National Cemetery. Due to heightened security,
this active base is not open to the public. For more information visit
the base's website.