National Aviation History Month is dedicated to exploring, recognizing and celebrating great contributions and achievements in the development of aviation. Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall has been an important part of mechanical flight from its beginning.
Fort Myer was the site of experiments in military aeronautics even before the Wright brothers. In 1899, the Army developed land below Fort Whipple, the predecessor of Fort Myer, to construct balloon barns. The Union Army had successfully used balloons in the Civil War for reconnaissance and meteorological functions.
In the early 1900s, the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps began prototyping “heavier-than-air” flying machines and tested the first Army dirigibles at Fort Myer. Fort Myer hosted U.S. Army Observation Balloon training from 1902 until 1927. Flight training on SR-1, a semirigid dirigible, began in 1908, with SR-1 achieving the very first Earth-to-balloon radio transmission that year.
The U.S. Army had a real interest in the technology, funding Samuel Pierpont Langley, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, to scale up his successful steam-powered models into a full-scale airplane. Langley’s two attempts to fly ended crashing into the Potomac River in 1903, and the Army declined additional funding to Langley.
In another test of “heavier-than-air” flying machines, the Army contracted the Wright Brothers to test their Wright Flyer on Fort Myer. Orville Wright launched the Wright Flyer for test flights at Fort Myer in 1908 and 1909, which made history with the first flights flown with a passenger and over one-minute, then over one hour in duration. In September of 1909, the Army formally accepted the Wright’s design and bought its first aircraft making Fort Myer the birthplace of military aviation.
First Lt. Frank Lahm, an officer in the Signal Corps’ Aeronautical Division and champion balloonist, was credited with getting Wilbur Wright an audience with Army leadership. The Army entered into a contract with the Wright Brothers to demonstrate that their flyer could meet certain conditions — carry two people sitting up, fly for at least an hour nonstop and travel long distance at a minimum speed of 40 mph. Fort Myer was chosen for the demonstration.
Orville Wright launched the Wright Flyer test trials on Fort Myer Sept. 3, 1908. His brother was demonstrating the airplane for customers in France. Public enthusiasm grew over the next week as he set several world records for endurance flying Sept. 9.
People came from miles around to see the test flights, which included a number of celebrities such as Secretary of War William Howard Taft, Secretary of the Navy Victor Metcalf, U.S. Senate and House leaders, Alexander Graham Bell, Gutzon Borglum (Mount Rushmore sculptor), Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and 16-year-old Donald Douglas (founder of Douglas Aircraft Corporation).
On Sept. 17, 1908, the flight trials ended in disaster with the first fatality in an airplane crash. First Lt. Thomas Selfridge was killed and Orville Wright severely injured when a propeller split in flight, which caused the plane to fall from an altitude of 75 feet. Selfridge and Wright were taken to the post hospital following the crash. Selfridge never recovered consciousness and died during surgery. It took Wright six weeks to recover from his injuries. The gate near the crash site leading into Arlington National Cemetery from Fort Myer was named Selfridge Gate in his honor. A plaque memorializing his life and death was placed at the gate.
The Wrights were allowed to build another flyer and returned to Fort Myer with a redesigned, improved airplane in July of 1909. Orville did all the flying, and Wilbur directed the ground crew. They completed the flight-testing, meeting or exceeding all of the Army’s specifications. In September 1909, the Army formally accepted the Wright’s design and bought its first aircraft making Fort Myer the birthplace of military aviation. The contract totaled $30,000 — $25,000 for the airplane and a $5,000 bonus for exceeding the minimum speed requirement of 40 mph.
A training facility was established at College Park, Maryland, in 1909, where Wilbur Wright trained two pilots as part of the contract with the Army, one of whom was Lt. Lahm. In 1910, the Army’s first airplane, designated Signal Corps No. 1, was delivered to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where Army Lt. Benjamin Foulois established the first flight detachment.
Innovation continues to be a prominent priority for the joint base.
This article originally ran in the Pentagram on November 25, 2020.