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Flashback: The Wright Brothers Fly with the Montgomery Chamber

Advertisements plaster the barn/hangar at the Wrights’ flying school in Montgomery.

Advertisements plaster the barn/hangar at the Wrights’ flying school in Montgomery.

In our March 2010 issue of Business Alabama, Samford University journalism professor Julie Hedgepeth Williams reprised for us an episode from her book “Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery, Alabama, 1910,” about the Wrights’ encounter with the Commercial Club, predecessor to the Montgomery Chamber. 

The capital city boosters in 1910 had “decided to court progress” and the U.S. Army by getting a Montgomery Advertiser cartoonist to sketch an airplane that “shone a beacon of light onto Montgomery,” amid stars that “spelled out, ‘The South: The Young Man’s Opportunity.’” 

The Army was looking to build a base in the South to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal, and the men of the Commercial Club were in the hunt. The publicity was just meant to bait the field.

Just weeks later, however, Wilbur Wright showed up at the Commercial Club and announced “he was shopping for a place to establish a flying school for the winter.”

Boosters scrambled up a chunk of old plantation land, took Wright to see it and “Wilbur pronounced it the best flying field he had ever seen.”

The first airplane flew on March 26. Orville was the teacher and “had five students, the first civilian student pilots in the nation.” Two of the students, “ever the daredevils, decided to try flying at night over Montgomery, which they pronounced a grand success. Theirs were the first night flights in American history, if not world history.”

The seasonal school only lasted until May, when the Wrights headed back to Dayton, Ohio. “In the 1920s, the Army bought the land” where Orville had taught “and the flying field became what we now call Maxwell Air Force Base.”

Williams’ book is published by NewSouth Books of Montgomery and is available at newsouthbooks.com.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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