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Wilbur Wright takes off in the Wright Flyer near Le Mans, France in August 1908.  Crowds came to witness his stunning series of flights.  ID.2000.53.129 (K1836) Inset: ID.2000.53.80 (K1787)


August 2008

Caught on Camera:
Wilbur Wright's 1908 Flying Demonstration in France

On August 8, 1908, at a horse-racing track at Hunaudières near Le Mans, France, Wilbur Wright made the first official public demonstration of the flying machine he and his brother, Orville, had designed a few years before.  During Wilbur’s first few flights, though brief in time aloft, he effortlessly made banking turns and flew figure eights that amazed and stunned the onlookers. 

Wilbur and Orville Wright may have been the first to fly a powered, heavier-than-air plane in 1903, but over the next few years a number of inventors, most of them French, had also produced flyable aircraft.  Many of these French efforts were conducted in public, while the Wright brothers had chosen to continue their development work in private.  Very few people had ever seen the Wright Flyer in the air.  In fact, many Frenchmen doubted that the brothers had flown at all. 

Wilbur Wright laid that skepticism to rest with his series of spectacular flights in France between August and December 1908--capturing the attention of the world.  His airborne demonstrations generated international recognition for the ability of the Wrights’ biplane to perform sustained, controllable flight.*  Other airplanes of the time could not easily navigate banks and turns the way the Wright brothers’ Flyer could.

Wilbur Wright’s historic flights in France were captured on camera in a collection of glass plate negatives acquired in 2000 by The Henry Ford.

* While Wilbur demonstrated the Wright Flyer in France, his brother, Orville, was giving equally convincing demonstrations of the Flyer in Fort Myer, Virginia to the U.S. military that ultimately led to a government manufacturing contract for the Flyer.



MORE:  Caught on Camera: Wilbur Wright's 1908 Flying Demonstration in France


These photographic negatives were taken for Léon Bollée, a French automobile manufacturer with a factory in Le Mans.  Bollée, a sport balloonist and president of an aviation enthusiast’s group, the Aéro-Club de la Sarthe, became the Wright brothers’ closest friend in France.  As Wilbur prepared for his public demonstration (designed to garner interest in the purchase of the Wright Flyer in Europe), Bollée offered Wilbur factory workspace and a team of mechanics to help assemble and prepare his airplane for the demonstration.

In addition to the glass plate negatives showing Wilbur Wright’s aviation activities and Léon Bollée’s manufacturing operations, the Bollée collection includes a group of manuscripts, in French, describing Wilbur's flights and his stay in France.  The Léon Bollée collection is available for research at the Benson Ford Research Center of The Henry Ford.

ID.2000.53.79  (K1786)
Wilbur Wright and Léon Bollée, center, pose in front of Bollée’s automobile factory in Le Mans, France.  This photograph was likely taken on June 8, 1908, the day Wilbur Wright arrived in this region of northwestern France.  When working on and flying in his biplane, Wilbur usually wore a cap; here he has donned a more formal hat.

ID.2000.53.74 (K1781)
The parts of the Wright Flyer arrived in France in a jumbled condition and needed much work to repair and reassemble properly.  At first, Wilbur thought that his brother Orville had been lax when preparing the biplane for shipment.  Later, he found out that it was the French custom inspectors who examined each part and were not careful in repacking the crates.  After assembly, the biplane was transported on a special trailer in several units from Bollée’s factory in Le Mans to the racetrack at Hunaudières in early August 1908.

ID.2000.53.100 (K1807)
Before his first demonstration flight on August 8, 1908, Wilbur Wright climbs on the top wing of the Flyer to adjust the canvas.  Wilbur used the Hunaudières racetrack’s workshop as a hangar.

ID.2000.53.121 (K1828)
Wilbur Wright talks with René Pellier (seated), Vice-President of the Aéro-Club of Sarthe, before taking Pellier up for his first flight in the Wright Flyer in August 1908 near Le Mans, France.

ID.2000.53.128 (K1835)
On November 13, 1908, at the Camp d’Auvours military field where the second series of flying demonstrations were held, Wilbur Wright wins the Aéro-Club de la Sarthe Prize for altitude flown above balloons set at 30 meters high.  Wilbur and the Flyer soared to 110 meters, easily topping the other contestants.


-- Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Photography and Prints

Visit to see additional images from the Léon Bollée Collection.


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