The Photo Doesn’t Lie, and Neither Did The Wright Brothers !

(Note: The following was written expressly for the Huffington Post by Tom D. Crouch, PhD, Senior Curator, Aeronautics, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

In a recent book, a television “docu-drama,” and in a paper presented at the Deutsches Museum in Munich on October 19, 2016, John Brown, who has repeatedly attacked the credibility and achievements of Wilbur and Orville Wright, falsely charged the brothers with misrepresenting one of the famous photographs taken of their first flights near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. The Wrights made four flights between 10:35 and noon that morning. The first photo was taken by U.S. Lifesaver John T. Daniels just as Orville Wright’ took off on the first flight of the day. On this first powered and sustained flight of an airplane operating under the control of the pilot, Orville flew 120 feet over the sand, remaining aloft for just 12 seconds. Daniel’s photo, one of the most famous ever taken, documents the birth of the air age.


On the next flight, Wilbur extended his brothers’ distance to 175 feet. No photo was taken. Then it was Orville’s turn again. Someone, perhaps Daniels, snapped a photo (below) toward the end of the 200 foot flight.


It was almost noon when Wilbur started down the launch rail for his second try. After some rapid up and down movement, he was able to straighten out his flight path and keep the world’s first airplane in the air for a distance of 852 feet over the ground for 59 seconds. A final photo (below) taken that morning shows the airplane on the ground following that flight.


This is the photo that John Brown falsely claims was actually taken in 1908, when the Wrights returned to the Outer Banks to prepare for their first public flights later that year. He is not the first to make that claim. Joe Bullmer, another Wright skeptic, has also suggested that this photo was taken in 1908.

The evidence to refute the charge that the Wright’s lied about the date of this historic photo is to be found in the image itself. First, consider the airplane. Resting on the ground, you can clearly see that the wings exhibit anhedral, with the wingtips dipping down slightly. The 1903 airplane was constructed in that fashion. Later Wright aircraft, including the machine flown at Kitty Hawk in 1908, did not have anhedral. Clearly, the aircraft in the photo is the 1903 Wright airplane.

Here is a close-up of that same photo showing the 1903 airplane after landing:


The second piece of evidence proving conclusively that the photo was taken in 1903 is to be found in the launch rail. Operating from the sand, the Wrights could not mount their airplane on wheels. Instead, the airplane rode down a forty foot launch rail on three large bicycle wheel hubs. The rail is clearly visible as the dark line in the upper right quadrant of the photo. You can see the 1903 rail much more clearly in the first flight image, and in this photo taken on December 14, just before Wilbur’s first attempt, which was so short that the Wrights did not count it as flight. Note also the anhedral.


December 14, 1903

Here is a close-up of the 1903 rail.


Finally, here is a photo (below) taken during the 1908 flight trials, when Brown and Bullmer believe the photo of the fourth flight was actually taken. Note that the wings of the 1905/08 airplane being tested do not exhibit any anhedral. More important, note the launch rail used in 1908.


And here is a close-up (below) of the 1908 rail.


Clearly the 1903 and 1908 rails were very different in design and appearance. Contrary to Brown and Bullmer’s false claims, the photo in question was taken on December 17, 1903. Sorry Mr. Brown. Wrong again. The Wright brothers did not lie, and they did not misrepresent.

Tom D. Crouch, PhD
Senior Curator, Aeronautics
National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian Institution

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