Where Is the Original Wright Flyer?

The famous airplane never flew again, but traveled quite a bit.

After its historic flight in 1903, the Flyer was shipped to various museums before it came to rest in the Smithsonian Institution. [Credit: Gary Todd/Wikimedia Commons – CC0 1.0 DEED]

"Is it the real one?" That is the most frequently asked question when people see the 1903 Wright Flyer on display in the Wright brothers gallery at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

According to Dorothy Cochrane, the museum’s curator of the aeronautics department, the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

"The challenge is that there are lots of Wright Flyer replicas at museums around the country," Cochrane said. Also, the famous design doesn't look 120 years old, due in part to meticulous care taken over the decades and a recovering of the wings in the mid-1980s when the museum did conservation work on the Flyer. This work consisted of disassembling it, inspecting and cleaning the parts, and documenting its construction and the materials used. 

According to information provided by Cochrane, the fabric on the airplane at this time is not the same as it was when it flew in 1903, because in 1928, when Orville Wright loaned the Flyer to the London Science Museum, he recovered the aircraft entirely. It remained in England until 1948, when it was shipped back to the U.S. and the Smithsonian took it for display.

"When the aircraft was recovered in 1985, it was done the same way Orville had done it in 1903," said Cochrane. "Our conservation and restoration people acquired new fabric from the same company that made the original fabric that Orville put on."

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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