Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute has displayed a rare 1911 Wright Model B for almost 80 years.
One of the most iconic photographs of all time captures the Wright brothers on a windswept beach in North Carolina, with Orville at the controls of the Wright Flyer, making the world’s first powered, controlled airplane flight. But the plane in that photo was a prototype, and the photo itself doesn’t technically show the actual “first flight”. It was in the subsequent models, the Wright Model A and B Flyers, that the brothers’ theories of flight and construction techniques were fully developed and made practical. Still, as intricately designed and impeccably crafted as they were, the Wrights’ planes were only creations of wood and fabric, built for function rather than for posterity, which is why intact examples are so few and far between today.
For 80 years now, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has been home to one of the few surviving Model Bs, the first aircraft manufactured and sold in quantity by the Wrights. Its original owner, eccentric and controversial Philadelphian Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, bought the plane from the Wrights in 1912 after training at their flying school in Dayton, Ohio (which, at the Wrights’ insistence, was a requirement for every customer). Bergdoll donated the plane to the institute in 1933.
Known as the “headless Wright” because it was the brothers’ first aircraft with the elevator placed in back rather than in front, the Model B cost about $5,000 new, and unlike earlier Wright aircraft featured both landing skids and wheels. In 1911 a modified version of the Model B, dubbed Vin Fiz, became the first plane to fly across the U.S., in a three-month journey by pilot Calbraith P. Rodgers.
The Franklin Institute’s plane is perhaps the best traveled of the few remaining original Model Bs. Bergdoll recorded at least 748 flights before placing the Flyer in storage in 1914 near Philadelphia. At the time, he had good reason to stash the aircraft: He was fleeing the country to avoid the World War I draft. Vilified as America’s most notorious draft dodger, he was captured in Europe in 1920, spent six months in federal prison and then escaped, first to Canada and then to his mother’s hometown in Germany. He finally returned to the States in 1939 to face the music, and spent several years in federal prison.
Meanwhile, Bergdoll’s Wright B had found a new life. Not long after he donated it to the institute in December 1933, it underwent its first renovation, by students at Camden County Vocational School in New Jersey. Visiting the area for the 30th anniversary of his first flight, Orville Wright himself assisted the students. Once the restoration was completed in November 1934, Arthur Arrowsmith, who had supervised the process, and Marshall Reid made several test flights. A month later, Reid piloted the plane in exhibition sorties at the Camden airport to mark the 31st anniversary of the Wright flight.
The Bergdoll Flyer finally went on display at its permanent home in the institute’s Aviation Hall the next month. Over the next several decades, thousands of visitors would admire the elegant efficiency of the Wrights’ design, even as more modern aircraft joined the Model B in the hall.
By the end of the century, however, the Bergdoll Flyer was showing its age. In 1999 the institute commissioned an inspection by Karl Heinzel, an expert from the National Air and Space Museum, who noted that although the aircraft was in fairly good shape, some cracks in the wood and stains on the fabric indicated it was due for a proper restoration. Heinzel also observed the name “BERGDOLL” painted in large letters on the underside of the plane, and questioned whether it should be retained in the restoration. “Given Bergdoll’s reputation, it could go either way,”Heinzel remarked in his report, “but this is what makes history interesting.”
In 2001 the Flyer was removed from the Franklin Institute, spending the next two years in Dayton. Its wooden frame was completely refinished, its fabric replaced and its engine refurbished and returned to operating condition. In the fall of 2003, the aircraft was returned to Philadelphia and reinstalled as the centerpiece of the institute’s new exhibit, the Franklin Air Show.
Despite that restoration, however, a century-old aircraft still needs routine upkeep. (Aside from a fair amount of dust covering the plane, conservators noted “a number of paper airplanes had inevitably perched upon its wings.”) In 2010 the Flyer underwent a thorough cleaning in place. The maintenance team discovered a troublesome stain in the wing fabric near the engine, apparently from motor oil. “The engine was not properly prepared between running the engine at the museum and its installation for display,” explained one team member.
But paper airplanes and fabric stains notwithstanding, the Bergdoll 1911 Model B Flyer at the Franklin Institute remains the best-preserved, closest-to-original example of a vital piece of the Wright legacy.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.