Wright Model B and the Vin Fiz

Wright Model B in museum
Vin Fiz, Wright Model EX
Map of the Vin Fiz route
Teddy Roosevelt in Model B, 1910

Introduced in 1910, the Model B was the Wright Brothers’ first airplane built in production quantities.

While a direct development of their Flyers, it was their first airplane to include wheels and to locate the elevator planes in the rear, behind a twin rudder. It retained skid struts and wing-warping (the Wrights’ preferred method of roll-control). Triangular blinkers were mounted on the forward skid struts. About 100 were produced, most of them under license by the Burgess Company (as their Model F). A slightly modified Model B was the first airplane to fly across the United States (the Vin Fiz, designated the Model EX). These airplanes also twin “pusher” propellers.

[ad#ad-1]It strikes me as a little odd, that the Wright Brothers, after inventing the airplane, were so slow to accept superior design modifications: tractor propellers, wheeled landing gear, ailerons, a control stick, and a tail combining elevator and rudder.

The top photo, from the Franklin Institute, shows the front blinkers (replacing the box-like canard elevators) and the plane’s two seats. The lower picture, of the Vin Fiz, more clearly shows the rear-mounted elevator and twin rudder.

Evolution of the Model B (from First To Fly)
1907-1909 Wright Model A — This was the aircraft that convinced the world that the Wrights had indeed flown. It was also the first two-seat aircraft, and the first Wright aircraft in which the occupants sat upright.

1909 Military Flyer — Slightly smaller and faster that the Model A, the Wrights sold this aircraft to the United States Army Signal Corp to become the first military aircraft.

1909-1910 Wright “Transitional” Model A — Sometimes called the Model A-B, this was the first airplane that the Wrights built with an elevator in the back. However, they retained the canard in front, using both surfaces to control the pitch of the aircraft.

1911-1912 Wright Model EX — Built for exhibition flight, with a shorter wing span than other models, giving exhibition pilots more speed. It also had a single seat, which prevented them from taking passengers. This was the first aircraft to be flown across a continent.

Contemporary newspaper accounts can be hard to reconcile to modern definitions of aircraft types. Perhaps the reporters were mistaken; perhaps the agreed-upon terminology (e.g. “Wright Model B”) is a modern artifact; perhaps the early airplanes varied greatly from one example to another.

On August 15, 1910, the NY Times reported a new “five-passenger” Wright biplane. The photo and description unquestionably depict a Model B, but without wheels. And the “five-passenger” feature seems never to have come to pass.

The First Transcontinental Flight

The full story of the Vin Fiz’s cross-country flight.

Calbraith Rodgers, under the commercial sponsorship of the Vin Fiz soft drink, took off from New York’s Sheepshead Bay on Sept. 17, 1911, in an attempt to be the first to fly across the country, and to win the $50,000 prize for such an achievement offered by William Randolph Hearst. He followed railroad tracks and avoided mountains, storms, and other hazards. Along the way, he landed around 70 times, which included at least 16 crashes some that put him in the hospital. Damage to the Vin Fiz was so extensive that the plane had to be rebuilt at least twice. Only a very few pieces of the original Vin Fiz made it all the way a vertical rudder, a couple of wing struts, and possibly the original engine oil pan.

On Oct. 28, from west Texas, Rodgers sent a dispatch to the New York Times:

Sierra Blanca, Texas: After being delayed here a day because of high winds, I got up about 5:30 A.M. today in order to get started by daybreak, as I wanted to make El Paso, 312 miles if possible. I had my doubts about starting out of Sanderson, because of the shape of the valley and the place being completely surrounded by mountains. Where I started there was a fence on the left with houses, but it was the only available place to start from. The wind was on my side too. I got started at 8:15 o’clock, and a current of air from between some houses struck my vertical rudder, throwing me around and causing me to lose control, but it was too late to avoid hitting the fence.

I was disgusted, for I was trying hard to get away very early in order to reach El Paso today, but luck was against me. I looked the machine over and found I had damaged a lower left plane and a skid. Immediately the mechanician and I set to work and repaired the machine in a couple of hours.

My head mechanician, Taylor, was called away yesterday because of illness in his family, and we miss him greatly, especially at times like this. Finally, I got started at 11:42, but from one of the village streets, and I had to figure closely on account of the mountains all around and the cross-currents of air. I circled and worked on altitude of about 1,000 feet, and then squared away for El Paso. My first scheduled stop was at Alpine, 91 miles distant. The country was rough and hilly and very bad flying country.

I spotted an express train twenty miles away winding around the hills that had left three-quarters of an hour ahead of me, and I gained on it and passed Marathon at the same time it reached there. Then I flew on.

The railroad runs uphill for about ten miles at this point; I had to climb also to keep my elevation on account of the mountains. When I had just about reached the summit I noticed low-lying clouds close to the ground and feared I would run into a cloud bank. The railroad tracks wind considerably and I had to keep a close look-out, but just at this point I ran into a heavy bank of clouds which enveloped me completely. I was worried and afraid I’d lose my direction because the railroad winds so and I could hardly see my hand before me. Because I had to fly high I did not know when I would get out above them either, and my gasoline was getting low and it kept me guessing. Finally I got through them and was delighted to do so.

I was compelled to fly low, 1,000 feet, in order to avoid being in the clouds all the time, especially over these mountains. On top of one of them I saw a stag. I picked up [the town of] Alpine, my next stop and made a good landing. My train pulled in half an hour later, and I left in about an hour, after getting more gasoline and heading for Marfa. I flew over the highest mountain, 5,082 feet in the pass and landed at Marfa at 4:01. I found then that I would not reach El Paso today but would go on as far as possible. The railroad wound in and out so much, I took a chance and flew over the mountains, cutting off some of the distance.

Meanwhile the train that I had left at Marathon passed Alpine while I was there and went through Marfa. I was one hour behind it when I left Marfa. Meanwhile my special train was going very fast, and I had a race with it over a level stretch. We did one mile in 47 seconds. The train then had to stop on account of signals. I flew on and saw a train coming toward me, and it actually stopped in order to let the people see me, and did not start again until I’d flown by. I soon picked up the same express train that had left me behind when I stopped at Marfa, and I beat it into Sierra Blanca by forty minutes, and my special train was close behind it. I arrived here at 5:28 and will start from here again tomorrow at 7:30 AM if all goes well. — C.P. Rodgers.

He continued like this, flying around mountains, banging up his airplane and himself, until he reached Pasadena California on November 5. He had done it. He had flown all the way across the United States. Unfortunately, but it took him 49 days, much longer than the 30 days stipulated to win the Hearst prize.

To reach the Pacific Ocean, he took off again on November 12, to cover the remaining 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the ocean, only to be forced down twice, once suffering a broken ankle. Finally, on December 10, 1911, he touched down on the hard-packed sand at Long Beach, California. The whole 4,000 mile trip had taken 84 days, although only about 82 hours were spent in the air.

First Presidential Flight

While Cal Rodgers was struggling across the continent, another aviator, Arch Hoxsey, was showing the Wright Model B at a St. Louis aviation meet. On October 11, ex-President Roosevelt came to see the airplane, and went up for a ride. Believe it or not, the event was captured on motion picture. The screencap (the 4th photo) clearly shows the wheels and the front blinkers of a Model B.

From the NYTimes of Oct. 12, 1910:

“By George, it was fine,” exclaimed the Colonel (Roosevelt), when he had untangled himself from the airplane’s cross-wires and was back on solid ground. “I only wish I could have stayed up an hour. It was great.”

It all happened very quickly, and impulsively, as he had previously scorned the suggestion of making a flight as absurd. When Roosevelt’s motorcade was approaching the aviation field, an aeroplane was seen overhead, delighting the ex-President and his entourage. Soon two other machines, a Bleriot monoplane and another Wright biplane, were also sweeping the field. The aeroplanes swung around, one down toward the procession, as if to pay a call on Colonel Roosevelt, but it swept away in another direction.

[ad#ad-1]The gate in the fence surrounding the aviation field had been opened for Roosevelt and his car drove into the restricted flight area, stopping in front of the grandstand, right where aviators usually land. Indeed, aviator Hoxsey began to descend at once, and just as Roosevelt’s car stopped, Hoxsey’s airplane landed close by, hardly fifty feet away. He jumped out, made his way through the bemused Missouri National Guard on police duty, and walked over to Roosevelt and Governor Hadley, shaking their hands.

Then Hoxsey drew back a bit, and said, “I was hoping Colonel, that I might have you for a passenger on one of my trips.”

A broad grin of delight spread over the Colonel’s face, while Gov. Hadley looked grave, “You’re not going up are you, Colonel?”

“By George, I believe I will,” replied Col. Roosevelt.

By this time, the National Guardsmen had removed Hoxsey’s machine, about 100 yards down the field. Roosevelt took Hoxsey by the arm and started off toward the airplane, and most thought he was merely going to take a look at it. But soon enough Roosevelt had climbed into the passenger seat. The National Guards had their hands full keeping the crowd away.

Colonel Roosevelt sat in his place with a look of grim determination, but his eyes were sparkling with delight. Hoxsey had given him a gray cap to take the place of his old black slouch hat, and Roosevelt grasped a guy wire with each hand, while two or three motion picture men ground away with desperate energy. (Whose movies are preserved here.)

Hoxsey turned up the machine a bit, starting the engines several times and giving the propellers a turn or two to see they were working all right. Roosevelt had changed his eyeglasses for a pair of spectacles and everything was ready. Hoxsey climbed into his place and grasped the levers. Then he asked if the Colonel was ready. “Let her go,” cried the Colonel, and Hoxsey gave the word.

The propellers began to whirl, and the camera brigade fled precipitately. The soldiers at the machine began pushing, and the aeroplane moved forward over the ground. In an instant it was going as fast as the soldiers could run. They let go with a final shove, and Col. Roosevelt was off on his first experience with an aeroplane.

It was evident that the Colonel’s 200 pounds told, for the machine did not rise as quickly as it does when only Hoxsey, who is a slight chap, is in it. But about fifty yards from the starting point the aeroplane responded to the impulse of the rudders and left the ground.

For some time before this, the great crowd in the grandstand gave a cheer, and that cheer became a tremendous roar when the Wright Model B rose above earth, which continued for several seconds until the aeroplane was well up and Hoxsey began his first turn at the corner of the field.

As you can see in the video, Hoxsey climbed and dove several times, coming close to the ground. Everyone in the crowd was silent, as if all were overcome with the same sensation and sudden fear that something might go wrong and that misfortune might befall the famous passenger in the machine. Hoxsey apparently was ready for more flying, but Roosevelt had speaking engagements and told the pilot to return. At the end of the second lap, Hoxsey dipped his planes and machine descended easily, striking the ground without a jar near Roosevelt’s automobile.

Needless to say, the crowd loved it, and rushed forward to greet Roosevelt, and the Guardsmen strove to keep them back, but utterly without success. Somehow getting clear of the airplane wires and the surging crowd, Roosevelt thanked Hoxsey for the ride. “It was great. I only wish I could have stayed up an hour.”

Arch Hoxsey and another Wright pilot, Ralph Johnstone, had performed at Asbury Park in August, putting on quite a show of night-flying. But flying was a dangerous business in 1910, and by year’s end, both of the daring young men had been killed in airplane accidents.