In 1909, the Wright Brothers, backed by money from JP Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, founded the Wright Company. They began manufacturing aircraft, and in the fall of 1909, they also began training the first military student pilots to fly their aircraft. Other aircraft designers and inventors sprang up around them, and soon, their veritable monopoly on the aviation industry was being threatened. They began engaging in lengthy court battles over patents (most famously with Glenn Curtiss), but it soon became apparent to them that they’d need to branch out if they were going to keep their hold on the aviation market. And so in the winter of 1909, they agreed that their next move was to open the nation’s first flight school for civilians.
Orville, deciding that the winter and spring weather was too cold and too unfavorable to open a flight school in Ohio, began scouting for a proper location. By February of 1910, Orville had had no luck finding a suitable location. While visiting Jacksonville, Florida, a local told him that Montgomery, Alabama might be the location he was looking for. It was described as flat farmland with a mild climate, which sounded perfect to Orville. He arrived in Montgomery on February 15th, and started visiting potential sites. Eventually, he settled on an old plantation which not only had the flat land he needed, but was also far enough away from the city that it provided a degree of privacy.
Construction began on a hangar, land was cleared, and on March 15, a Wright bi-plane arrived. Four days later, the Wright’s chief mechanic Charles Taylor and the first two student arrived. They were Walter Brookins and James Davis. Orville arrived a few days later with another student, Spencer Crane, and were soon joined by Archibald Hoxsey and Arthur Welsh. Training began with a single bi-plane on March 28th, and these men became the nation’s first civilian student pilots, and eventually became the Wright’s exhibition team.
“The rate of tuition in the Wright School is fixed at $250.00 payable at time of enrollment. Contrary to the practice in many aviation schools the pupil is not held responsible for any breakage of the machine. The fee covers every expense for tuition.” -Part of a Flyer for the Wright School
The Wrights trained their student on the basic principles of flight, including take-offs, balancing, turns, and landings. Flights lasted for as long as 30 minutes, and the pilots rose almost two thousand feet off the ground. It was an exciting time in aviation, and several significant events took place here, including the first recorded heavier than air flight during the night, on May 25th, 1910. However, two days after that historic event, a propeller chain broke on the airplane. The Wrights decided against repairing the aircraft and continuing the flight school, and instead instructed the students to pack up the bi-plane and ship it back to Indianapolis, where they would begin using it in exhibition flights. And so the first flight school was closed after only a few months.
After this, other flight schools began popping up across the country. They used a variety of different aircraft and training styles, developing many new techniques as they went. And along with this new demand for flight training came another concern: safety. Early aircraft were amazing to be sure, but they had a variety of problems and broke down much more regularly. Designs were refined and improvements were made, with safety always in mind, but this concern also prompted another new technology: flight simulators.
What if you could train student pilots to be more familiar with the aircraft before they ever got into the cockpit? Some flight schools had already been attempting things along this line by training with gliders, balloons, and even aircraft tethered to the ground which could still respond to aerodynamic forces. In 1910, innovative aviators even managed to create one of the first ground based, true simulator devices. It consisted of a pair of mounted sections from a barrel that moved manually to represent the pitch and roll aspects of flying. The pilot sat in the top of the device, and was then tasked with lining up a reference bar with the horizon.
World War 1 prompted more interest in training pilots, and many devices were invented to test the aptitudes and skills of student pilots. One such example, in 1915, consisted of a fuselage that was connected to an electrical recording device. The pilot would use controls to rock the fuselage while the device recorded their response to the titling and rolling. By 1929, electrical trainers were being introduced with joints, seats that could move in all directions and controls that could re-produce many of the forces encountered while flying. The Link Trainer, the most famous of these, was put into use in flight training around the world and became a primary tool for various militaries during World War 2.
After the war, companies began researching how to make simulators more effective, and in 1954, the Curtiss-Wright company sold United Airlines the first modern flight simulators for use in training commercial pilots.
Unlike flight training in the early days of aviation, modern flight training is fairly different. In the early days, flight training could vary both in content and style, based on where a pilot learned to fly. But after the formation of the FAA in the 1950s, regulations started to be put in place, and modern flight schools operate under one of two different sets of Federal Aviation Regulations.They are designated either Part 141 or Part 61 flight schools. The FAA plays a large part in determining what the school teaches, and in what conditions, especially in Part 61 flight schools. This ensures that pilots all receive a high and consistent level of training, in all the pertinent areas.
And unlike the early, rough simulation equipment, modern flight simulators are widely used, and offer the ability to recreate a wide variety of realistic training situations. And, unlike relying on a single aircraft like the original Wright School, most modern flight schools have a fleet of maintained and regularly serviced aircraft. This means that they have multiple aircraft of the same type available for students to continuously train, but they also have a variety of aircraft models and types, such as single and twin engine, meaning students can obtain a more complete and well-rounded education. And, unlike the aircraft at early flight schools, modern flight school aircraft are capable of staying up for far longer than 30 minutes at a time, and can fly well over 2,000 feet above the ground.
Another difference is the rise of safety in flying. Since the early days of aviation, safety has steadily increased, and the number of accidents has steadily decreased. In 1938, the first year accident statistics are available for general aviation, the accident rate per 100,000 flight hours was 125.9, and the fatal accident rate was 11.9. By the mid-1980s, that rate dropped to under 10 accidents and 2 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours. And by 2009, the rate was down to 7.2 accidents and 1.33 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
Flight training schools, focused on the safety of their students, have continued to avail themselves of the best available modern aircraft and flight simulator technology, and enjoy even some more safety. In a 2014 study done by AOPA’s Air Safety Institute, they found that while the accident rate during instructional flights is only a little lower, the fatal accident rate is lower by more than half.
For those who are interested in learning to fly, there has never been a better time. So instead of putting it off, get in contact today and schedule a discovery flight. Who knows? Like those first early aviators, you may find that you identify with one of the most famous aviation quotes, widely attributed to Leonardo da Vinci:
For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.