Wright Brothers


 Wald was immediately excited by the possibilities. In 1906 he returned to the United States and, on his way east, stopped in Dayton to visit the Wrights.

To his surprise, they invited him to their home, where he met their father, Bishop Milton Wright, and sister, Katharine . Apparently, however, they said little to encourage his interest in flying except to advise him to learn some engineering. Wald went on to New York, where he continued his employment with the Customs Service, but he also enrolled in night courses in engineering at Pratt Institute.

Over the next several years, he attended every flying event he heard about. In September 1909, he, along with thousands of New Yorkers, watched as Wilbur Wright made a spectacular flight up the Hudson to Grant’s tomb and back. At another ffight around that time, Wald was struck by a remarkable demonstration of Wilbur’s resource-fulness: The pilot took off, flew for a short time, then landed; evidently dissatisfied with the load on the engine, he proceeded to saw a bit off the tip of each propeller blade, rasp the ends fair and smooth, and then take off again.

During those years in New York, Wald wrote several times to the Wrights, asking for a job. His requests were finally rewarded in 1911, when they gave him a job in the shop at the Wright Company factory in Dayton. But after only a few months, the need for his services diminished and he was let go. He returned to New York, though he no longer had ajob with the Customs Service. He wrote to Orville Wright, reminding him of his offer of reemployment “when business warranted.” On March 18, 1912, Orville replied, offering another job in the shop. The pay would be 25 to 35 cents per hour, and this time, in addition to employment, the Wrights offered Wald the opportunity to learn to fly. Wald began flight training with the Wright Company at Huffman Prairie, a pasture eight miles east of Dayton.

Charles Wald was my father, and from him I have inherited many photographs of those early flying experiences, his logbook, and a few old newspaper clippings. I also have memories of some of his accounts of flying in the Wright machines and the men who flew with him. In addition, he told me about a “hydroaeroplane” school that Orville Wright tried to start on Long Island.

* * * * * * * *

W ald’s flight training began with instruction by Art Welsh in a Wright machine that had been of the original type and was later converted to the Model B configuration. (All Wright machines before 1910 had biplane elevators— twin control surfaces positioned ahead of the wings to pitch the airplane up and down, an arrangement we now call a canard configuration.

The Model B, introduced in 1911, had a single horizontal control surface attached to the tail frame, behind the double rudder.) Welsh instructed Wald every day that weather permitted, except Sundays. In the Model B, the pilot and passenger (or student) sat side by side on the lower wing over the front wing spar.

The wing loading of the Wright machines—the weight of the aircraft divided by the wing area—was an extremely light two and a half pounds per square foot, so the craft were very sensitive to gusts and turbulent air.

Flight instruction began very early in the morning, when the air was still, and most usually ended when the sun’s rays began to warm the field and stir up thermal air currents. Flying was usually resumed after 5p.m., when the air was again calm.

Wald’s logbook entry for Friday, April 12, reads: “First lesson 9 minutes. A. L. Welsh instructor remarks ‘good work’ after first flight [;] handle both levers, second flight 3 minutes duration, 2 errors in warp on turning, Welsh advises practice on balancer.”

The “balancer” was the world’s first flight simulator—an old airplane balanced on a trestle. The lever for lateral control was connected by wires to clutches at one wingtip that could engage continuously moving, motor-driven belts external to the aircraft. The primitive simulator provided the student pilots a means of practicing the use of the very unnatural system for lateral control that the Wrights used.

Moving the control lever forward brought the left wing down; moving it backward depressed the right wing. Unfortunately, no photograph of the contraption has been found.

Logbook, Tuesday, April 16: Get up 5A.M. brisk wind no flying. Bergdoll finishes with 10 minute flight in P.M Capt. Baldwin and Orville Wright on field, Baldwin refuses flight with Orville on account of wind. Orville has fun at Capt’s expense.

Tuesday, April 23: 6 landings rather hard, slight improvement at finish. Last landing cut off power at 100 ft. altitude. Welsh thinks no more time necessary. Start for New York 8:50 P.M.

After 14 flights (none solo) totaling two hours and 46 minutes, Charles Wald’s flight instruction was considered complete. So was his job.

Although the Wrights had agreed to teach Wald to fly, they evidently had no need of his services when his training was done. For the second time he returned to New York, jobless.

On May 30, Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever. Twelve days later, Wald’s former instructor, Art Welsh, and Lieutenant Leighton Hazelhurst of the Army Signal Corps were killed in the crash of a Wright machine at a field in College Park, Maryland.

On June 12, 1912, Wald sent Orville Wright a letter that read in part:

My dear Mr. Wright:

Lately you have had more sorrow and anxiety than is usually allotted to the average man in a lifetime and I have felt the loss and pangs of grief as much as anybody possibly could outside of your immediate family, consequently I feel a timidity in broaching a subject on material things and business.

Realizing that my late friend Mr. Welsh’s place must be filled and the work must go on, I take the liberty of writing you on this rather delicate subject reminding you that in the past you have promised me consideration in case of a vacancy....

                                                                        Very respectfully yours,

                                                                                  Chas Wald

Orville Wright sent a brief response, dated June 19, 1912, which concluded: “In our talk over a man to take Mr. Welsh’s place, you were given special consideration, so that I think it would be well for you to see Mr. Barnes about the matter.”

The matter was settled, and on June 27, Charles Wald was back at Huffman Prairie. That day, he finally made his first solo flight. The machine in which he made it was an old one that had been modified from the front elevator configuration but was now rebuilt to the true “B” configuration and designated B-14. It had not been flight tested since the overhaul, and the new pilot discovered that it tended to roll to the right and the control wires were too tight.

The Wright four-cylinder engine had no throttle control, only a foot-operated spark-retarding device that pro-vided a measure of power reduction. On attempting to reduce power, Wald found the control was jammed. Since the engine was on the wing at the pilot’s right hand, he was able to try to free the jammed spark retard control.

Suddenly he realized that he was rapidly approaching two large trees with a rather narrow space between them. With what seemed to him a violent maneuver, he passed between the trees. Not surprisingly, the log concludes rough landing. Time 5P.M.” So ended the 10-minute solo flight.

On the following day he flew for 15 minutes with Orville Wright next to him, checking his competence. “Mr. Wright makes adjustments on machine,” reads the log entry.

From that time until August 6, he flew every day except Sundays and two days spent in the shop when high winds prevented flying.

Between morning and evening flying, Wald and the other students spent many hours in the shop working on the engines and making repairs. In the training at Huffman Prairie, the Wright pilots acquired extensive experience in repairs of every description. Propellers, wing ribs, and skids all sustained frequent damage. The rollers on the propeller drive chains often broke, as did various engine parts. Wald’s logbook reveals that the machines would be repaired and flown only days after being rather seriously damaged.

Sometimes the students would amuse themselves with a little horseplay. One of them, Harry Atwood, apparently because of a somewhat arrogant attitude, became the victim of hazing. In one instance, the students persuaded him to whitewash a line across the field, ostensibly to use as a guide for learning to fly straight. Another time, someone told Atwood to try developing his sense of balance by standing on the axle of a two-wheel cart, balancing himself as long as possible while one of the others kept time with a stop-watch. “Mr. Wright finally put a stop to this,” Wald recalled later.

On those days when the weather prevented flying and nothing needed immediate repair, the students entertained themselves with poker games in “the shed,” the hangar the Wrights had constructed at Huffman Prairie.

But whenever possible, the students flew. One can imagine those hot summer days, a clattering machine with pilot in cap and shirt sleeves skimming in wide turns low over the Ohio prairie around a clump of ancient trees.

I T SEEMS TO BE A FORGOTTEN CHAPTER IN AVIATION HISTORY: In 1912, the Wright Company tried to establish a school of water flying, occasionally referred to as the Wright Air Ferry, at the Glenwood Country Club at Glen Head, New York. I have never found any references to it in history books.

Most aviation historians tell us that the Wright company first experimented with water-based aircraft in 1913. For example, in The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, editor Marvin McFarland writes: “The CH was the first Wright hydroplane.... In experiments made on a secluded stretch of the Miami River near Dayton in the spring of 1913, two ‘multi-step’ pontoons were attached to the skid runners.” In addition, the Wright archives at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has an excellent photograph of a machine in the Wright factory that I have identified as a Model B with floats; the picture is dated 1913, but that date is probably wrong. The picture most likely shows the machine being prepared for transport to Glen Head in 1912.

The operation was set up on the shore of Long Island Sound in a region where the very wealthy had estates and did a great deal of yachting. The company hoped to sell water flying lessons to the rich residents. Charles Wald was put in charge of the school. As far as I know, he was the only Wright employee detailed to the base, though at some point Orville joined him.

The machine used was a Wright Model B, designated number B-9, powered with the four-cylinder water-cooled Wright engine used in most Wright machines from 1908 through 1912. B-9 was an old machine, having been converted from the older Wright configuration to the “B” configuration. It was fitted with a pair of wooden floats with three steps—breaks in the bottom intended to reduce the area in contact with the water and thereby the hydrodynamic friction. It also had a water rudder, which was attached to the air rudder and hung below it.

When he arrived at Glen Head, Charles Wald had never flown the hydroaeroplane . (Almost certainly Orville Wright would have test flown the machine before it was sent from the factory in Dayton to Long Island.) Wald made the first flight at Glen Head early on the morning of September 9. From the log: “Machine leaves water in 100 to 200 yards, little spray, smooth sea The flight lasted 35 minutes.

In another flight that same day, with the water very smooth, Wald was unable to judge his height above the surface and struck the water in a turn. Two elevator spars and four wing ribs were broken. Judging height above glassy-smooth water later became a well-known difficulty to marine pilots, but Wald, with no instruction in water flying, was discovering that art for himself. He was flying again eight days later.

On September 21, having acquired more experience with the machine, Wald flew to New Rochelle Harbor, nine miles across Long Island Sound, carrying a token cargo of newspapers. This flight stirred public interest, and the craft in the harbor greeted the hydroaeroplane enthusiastically with horns and whistles. Wald made the return flight the following day, a Sunday, and earned a reprimand from Orville Wright for flying on the sabbath.

The next day, one J .C. Jackson became the first passenger of the “hydro,” as Wald referred to it in his log. Wald recorded: “ . . . machine leaves water with an additional run of about 50 % [i.e., carrying a passenger]. Plenty of reserve power in air.” With the extra weight of a passenger, as well as the weight of the floats, it is remarkable that a machine with a 35-horse-power engine was able to get off the water at all. That it could do so is a tribute to, among other things, the very efficient Wright propellers.

Following this flight some changes were made in the position of the floats. The photographs show that the volume of the floats was probably not sufficient to provide more than marginal buoyancy, and in choppy water, there must have been considerable risk of the craft plowing in and even pitching end over end. It was probably at this time that Orville Wright attached a small canvas lifting surface near the bow of each float to provide hydrodynamic lift upon contact with the water and prevent plowing in

However, when Wald took off, he very nearly came to disaster: In the air, the surfaces created aerodynamic lift, causing severe nose-up trim. They were removed before the next flight.

On October 4, Wald carried a second passenger, C .G. Goddard, in a 12-minute flight. The next day, Wald flew to Larchmont, then to New Rochelle, and then returned to Glen Head.

On October 10, while preparing the machine for flight, Wald became aware that a man had fallen overboard from a rowboat some distance offshore. Wald launched the machine and, barely skimming the wave crests, quickly reaching the exhausted man, pulling him aboard and putting him in the passenger’s seat. The newspapers quickiy picked up the event and widely reported it. A photo of a reenactment of the rescue was printed and several rather lurid Sunday supplement articles, trumpeting the advent of aerial rescue followed.

The evening of the same day, Wald carried Marion G. Peck, a newspaper reporter, as a passenger. As fog gathered during the evening chill, the magneto became saturated, causing the engine to miss . With the extra load and a poorly malfunctioning engine, the hydroplane was unable to rise above the water enough to turn into the wind, so Wald attempted a downwind landing. The floats plowed in and the machine flipped over on its back. Wald was briefly trapped in the water amid the wire bracing. When he surfaced, the indomitable Miss Peck was already seated on afloat, saying, “I was afraid you were never coming up!” The wet, chilled pair sat on the floats for several hours in the gathering darkness before being picked up by a passing fishing boat.

This eventful day concluded the activities of the Wright Air Feriy for the season and for all time. The hydro had made 13 flights and spent a bit over five hours in the air, although the log on which that is based could be incomplete. Wald claimed to have reached an altitude of 4,500 feet in this machine, which was, in 1912, an unofficial record for a water-based aircraft.

There is no record of any flight instruction being given at Glen Head. The failure to attract students may have been the reason Orville Wright abandoned the operation there.

When the Wright Company closed down the school, it also let Wald go. On leaving the company, he, with several friends, formed the short-lived Manhattan Aeroplane Company, which, in 1913, built two or three airplanes, one of which was a flying boat.

During World War I, he supervised part of the operations of the Curtiss factory in Buffalo, New York, where most U.S. aircraft were built in this period. Later he worked in naval aviation, retiring from the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics in 1947. He died in 1967.

My father was proud of his experiences working for the Wright Company, but he did not elaborate on his accounts . Unfortunately, only when it was too late did I have the curiosity and the aeronautical knowledge to want more details about those early flying machines and the men who flew them . By going through his things, as well as comparing records, I have been able to learn more.


AIR & SPACE Magazine

October/November 1999 (pgs. 58-63)

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