Back in the days when such things were allowed, aviation pioneer Harry Atwood landed his plane on the White House lawn, the finale of the first flight from Boston to Washington, D.C.
Atwood went on to other feats, but the plane, a Burgess-Wright Model F, which he landed on the South Lawn that July day in 1911, did not fare so well. Four years later, another pilot crashed it into a Massachusetts swamp. Parts of it were sold for scrap.
Now, more than a century later, a group of aviation buffs has launched a campaign to restore the plane, which it says is the last remaining authentic Wright Brothers aircraft. Its goal is to raise $4 million to rebuild the plane, which would then be displayed in Terminal A at Reagan National Airport.
“It’s just a fascinating project,” said Keith Meurlin, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, which helped launch the campaign. “The fact that it’s still around, that we have the ability to preserve and display it, is a great opportunity.”
The restoration would be done by Ken W. Hyde, who heads the Wright Experience, a Warrenton, Va.-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Wright Brothers. Part of Hyde’s work focuses on restoring and rebuilding Wright Brothers aircraft.
Twenty years ago, Hyde found and purchased some original parts of the Burgess-Wright aircraft that Atwood flew, including the engine, transmission and some of the controls.
According to Hyde, Burgess started as a shipbuilding company but partnered with the Wright Brothers to begin building aircraft.
“It was a different time back then,” he said. The airplane may have been part of a historic flight, but it wasn’t necessarily considered “historical,” he said. There was no [National Transportation Safety Board] to investigate the crash and take the plane into custody, so people on the ground simply took parts of the plane and sold them, Hyde added.
Hyde estimates that it would take 18 to 24 months — roughly 12,000 to 14,000 hours — to restore the plane. He previously built a reproduction of the 1910 Wright B plane that is on display at the College Park Aviation Museum.
Clyde Kizer, part of the Discovery of Flight Foundation, which is involved in the fundraising campaign, said it took two years to reach an agreement with airport officials to display the plane.
“It’s a national treasure,” Kizer said, adding with a chuckle: “It’s the first airplane to land at the White House — legally.”
Enough of the aircraft’s parts were recovered that experts consider the plane “original,” Kizer said.
In 2014, a Richmond-area television station raised questions about the Discovery of Flight Foundation and its ties to state Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William). The report alleged that Lingamfelter tried to steer earmarks to the foundation. It also noted that Kizer had hosted a fundraiser at his home for the delegate. The report said the practice did not violate any laws, but said it did raise questions about the delegate’s conduct.
Kizer said that he did host a fundraiser for Lingamfelter, but they weren’t friends, and he had not asked the delegate for money to support the foundation. He said that Lingamfelter had visited the Wright Experience and was interested in its focus on STEM education (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). He was not aware that the delegate had sponsored legislation to support the foundation until Lingamfelter mentioned it after it failed to pass. Lingamfelter did not respond to e-mails and telephone calls seeking comment on the matter.
The hope is that the Burgess-Wright plane will be displayed at National’s historic Terminal A, which opened in 1941. The space, with its view of the airport’s runways, is rented out for special events, including weddings and meetings.
“We are supportive of the effort to bring the Wright Flyer to the nation’s airport. We have committed to finding space for the aircraft and any associated displays so travelers can appreciate the history and beauty it embodies,” said Christopher Paolino, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs National and Dulles airports.
A New York Times account of Atwood’s historic flight noted that the pilot was met by President Howard Taft.
“Atwood stepped from the machine and was escorted to the portico, where the president presented him with the gold medal of the Aero Club of Washington,” it read. Atwood’s mother was also there to witness the landing. But when she asked to fly with her son back to the polo field where the plane would be parked, “Atwood promptly and firmly declined to do that.”