Two years after setting the world on fire with their first sustained airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Wilbur and Orville Wright had transferred their operations to Dayton, OH. It was there that they developed the Wright Flyer III (their third powered plane, hence the name). On June 23, 1905, Orville flew the Flyer above Huffman Prairie for the first time, but a couple of months later, a serious nosedive led to major modifications to the aircraft.
Those structural and mechanical changes produced such amazing results that by mid-October, Wilbur and Orville were writing to the United States Secretary of War William Howard Taft offering to sell the world’s first practical fixed-wing aircraft.
To protect their intellectual property, the brothers disassembled the plane in November. By 1908, with contracts in hand to make more Wright Flyers for America and France, they returned to Kill Devil Hills, the site of their first successful flight, to make further tests.
But while flying solo, Wilbur moved one of the new control levers the wrong way and crashed into the sand. He was bruised but the plane’s front elevator was ruined, and the practice flights ended. Due to deadlines for their upcoming public demonstration flights in France and Virginia, the Wrights did not repair the airplane and it never flew again.
Enter Zenas Crane Jr. and the Berkshire Museum which he founded and endowed in 1903. Being of a scientific persuasion, Crane had taken great interest in the Wright brothers’ adventures and in November of 1911, wrote to Orville to see if the museum could display the Wright Flyer III. We don’t have copies of that correspondence, but there were several letters back and forth through 1913 that resulted in Crane purchasing a variety of salvaged airplane and glider parts from a shed in Kittyhawk.
Crane in 1914 was not in robust health, so he enlisted his son-in-law Samuel G. Colt, president of the Richmond (Mass.) Iron Works.
He first wrote to Orville to restate the case for more Flyer III parts so that the plane could be reassembled and put on display in Pittsfield. Orville kept putting him off – letter after letter – saying it would require his personal attention to find the correct parts, and his schedule would not allow. His schedule was still full when Colt wrote in March to alert Orville that he had found some mechanical parts of a Wright plane in Marblehead. “Not having heard from you, we will be forced, with much regret, to do the next best thing by getting the parts…and assembling the machine….”
Somewhere between March and May, Wright was evidently able to convince Crane and Colt not to attempt a reconstruction of the Wright Flyer III. But somewhere along the line, Colt and Crane decided to reconstruct the Wright brothers’ 1911 glider – parts from which had been scrounged earlier from Kitty Hawk. The work was accomplished in the Museum’s basement by a young man named F.H. Prentiss, and the day after visiting Wright in Dayton, Crane sent some photos and diagrams of Prentiss’ work.
Wright responded a couple of days later: “We never had any machine of the dimensions given in your sketch. I am at a loss to understand what parts of the original machine secured at Kitty Hawk could have been used in this reproduction, because none of the parts of any machine we ever had at Kitty Hawk could exactly fit into this machine if the dimensions given are correct. We never had any glider of the design shown in the photograph. I should dislike very much to have this machine exhibited in the Museum.”
Evidently, our Mr. Prentiss had never seen an airplane and was going by the description in a book and Wright’s patent drawings.
In Wright’s letter, he did allow that perhaps he should be more helpful: “I will be very glad to cooperate with you in getting together as much as is possible of the original machine of 1905, and exact reproductions of the missing parts, if you wish to undertake it.”
Wright did find some parts and he did visit Dalton and the Berkshire Museum in the summer of 1915, but interest seems to have waned. A couple of letters went back and forth through 1917, including one from Zenas Crane Jr.’s son, Zenas Marshall Crane. But with the death of Zenas Crane Jr. in December of 1917, momentum for the project was lost.
The parts of the Wright Flyer III and the 1911 glider remained in the basement of the Berkshire Museum until 1947, when they were given to Carillon History Park in Dayton, Ohio.