Orville and Wilbur Wright did not just invent the airplane. They were aeronautical engineers before the field existed. They researched, developed, tested, and evaluated sub-scale technology demonstrators such as airfoil models, kites, and gliders. They built and used test rigs and a wind tunnel. The brothers did not just give the world flight, they gave aero engineers a model of how to design and test aircraft.
As explained by Richard P. Hallion in his book The Wright Flyers 1899-1916, after 1903, the “firsts” continued. The Wrights’ were the first airplanes to be fully maneuverable, to carry a passenger, cross the United States and… to fire a machine gun.
On Friday, Jun. 7, 1912, Col Isaac N. Lewis, inventor of the Lewis machine gun, visited the Signal Corps Aviation School at College Park, and asked if the pilots would be willing to fire his new machine gun from an airplane. The commander of the school, Capt Charles deForest Chandler, swiftly agreed, and within minutes had strapped the Lewis gun — which weighed slightly over 25lb, and which fired at a rate of 500 rounds per minute from a 50-round circular drum — onto the right-seat foot-rest of a Wright Type B (S.C. 4). A small ground target measuring 6ft x 7ft was cut out of cheesecloth and spread on the ground in front of the hangars.
Chandler strapped into the right seat of the Wright, cradling the Lewis gun between his legs and holding it close to his body. While it could not be pivoted or elevated, he could affect minor changes in trajectory by shifting the gun slightly left or right. Likewise, there were no sights on the machine gun, and Chandler had to “guesstimate” the proper firing track. Capt Thomas Milling flew the aircraft, climbing out and circling to pick up a northerly firing track parallel to the hangars and the Baltimore and Ohio Railway Line. Altogether, flying at 250ft, the plane made three firing passes. Flying at approximately 48mph, the Type B passed over the target in approximately a tenth of a second, and over the three passes Chandler hit the target with five rounds, the first time a machine gun had ever been fired from an airplane. He also fired into fishponds located on the edge of the flying field, to note the distance between the bullet splashes.
The next day, Saturday, Jun. 8, witnessed a more extensive trial. Signal Corps mechanics laid out a larger cotton target measuring 6ft wide by 54ft in length, and Milling and Chandler attacked it from an altitude of 550ft, hitting it with 14 rounds out of 44 fired, a hit rate of 32 percent. Chandler recalled years later that when reporters informed a spokesman for the War Department’s General Staff, ‘The result was a very clew declaration that airplanes were suitable only for reconnaissance purposes and any thought of battles in the air was merely the fertile imagination of the youthful officers at the flying school.’
The Wright Flyers 1899-1916 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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