The Wright Military Flyer Soars on Celluloid: Uncovering the Story of Our Oldest Government Film

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is well known for preserving the first written records of our nation. People come from around the world to see the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. But what about the first government films? The oldest known government-produced film in our holdings is First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia, which captured daring test flights of the Wright Military Flyer. However, the date of the footage has been murky for nearly a century, with some sources placing it in 1908 and many more identifying it as 1909. In a recent investigation, my NARA Motion Picture Preservation Lab colleague Audrey Amidon and I pieced together the fascinating story of this film and definitively identified footage shot in both years, with the oldest captured in September 1908.

Hands wearing white cotton gloves hold a 35mm motion picture film negative by its edges over a light box. The film contains the image of a wood and canvas airplane being removed from a hangar.
Inspecting First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia (111-H-1185) in the NARA Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

We were aware that Hermine Baumhofer, writing in The American Archivist journal in 1952, identified a recording of a 1908 Wright Military Flyer test flight as the first government-produced film. At that time, the U.S. Army Signal Corps was looking for aircraft that could be added to its newly-established Aeronautical Division. Wilbur and Orville Wright, several years out from their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, decided to make a bid for the government contract. Among other things, the Signal Corps required a plane to reach speeds of 40 m.p.h., fly a distance of 125 miles, and carry a passenger. Tests of the Wright Flyer were first held at Fort Myer, Virginia, in September 1908, ending with a tragic crash that killed Army Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge and gravely injured Orville Wright. A recovered Orville resumed tests at Fort Myer with a new aircraft in July 1909.

Baumhofer names United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) employee Winfield Scott Clime, later a famous landscape painter, as the cameraman who filmed the 1908 test. A 1943 article in Business Screen Magazine confirms Clime as the photographer and notes that this was the first film shot with the USDA’s newly-acquired motion picture camera, which the article identifies as the first motion picture camera purchased by any government agency. According to Agriculture Department lore, this early filmmaking was done with a degree of secrecy. Secretary of Agriculture James “Tama Jim” Wilson was of the opinion that movies were “of the devil” and it wasn’t until several years later that the USDA had an officially sanctioned motion picture department. The Business Screen article also notes that the negative of the 1908 test film had been turned over to the Army Signal Corps and by 1943 was likely in the holdings of the National Archives.

First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia is found in the Historical Film Series of the Army Signal Corps and we recently digitized it as part of a multi-year project to scan the whole series for public access. At some point long in the past, the date July 27, 1909, was attached to the film in its archival description. The Signal Corps did shoot footage at Fort Myer in 1909 and we hold a paper production file for the film that does not provide any other date, so at first we assumed that July 1909 was correct. However, an unknown person had added a note in pencil reading, “Winfield Scott Clime s’posed to be photographer.” That hint, along with how the film is edited together, convinced us it was quite likely that it contained misdated 1908 footage. But how could we know for sure?

Part of a shot list with typed text reading "Scene 20. Plane landing. 2 ft. Scene 21. Long shot plane on field after flight. 19 ft. Scene 22. Closeup of plane. 14 ft. Scene 23. Mr. Wright getting out of plane. 10 ft. Total, 1 Reel only, 675 ft." A handwritten note at the bottom of the page reads "Winfield Scott Clime s'posed to be photographer."
From page 7 of the First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia production file.

Our first step in answering this question was to determine a way to tell the planes from 1908 and 1909 apart. However, although many sources note that the 1909 Flyer was modified, we couldn’t find any clear description of what those modifications were. Our next stop was the National Archives Still Picture Branch, which holds a collection of early aviation photographs. There we found photographs of a Wright Flyer that had been identified as the 1908 model by Bob Strobell, an expert from the Smithsonian Institution. After much time spent comparing photos, we finally identified a clear difference! If you look closely at the front elevator of the airplane, you can see a single crescent of canvas on the 1908 model and two crescents on the 1909 model.

Images used for comparison are 111-RB-844 (NAID: 215877877) and 237-G-196-16.

Realizing this was like finding the Rosetta Stone. Applying our new knowledge to the Fort Myer test film, we were delighted to find that it did contain 1908 footage mixed in with the 1909 tests, meaning the oldest U.S. government film was almost a whole year older than documented! But how did the footage get mixed up like this?

This image contains a color coded timeline showing the distribution of 1908 and 1909 footage in "First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia." The background is a still image from the film showing the take off of a 1908 test flight. The Flyer rises into the air over a field beyond a large group of men in suits and hats.

This film, like other films in the Historical Film Series, was compiled by Signal Corps staff to consolidate the older films in the Signal Corps’ holdings. Beginning in 1935, they sorted through hundreds of thousands of feet of footage to select and edit together films on different historical topics, with the bulk of them focused on World War I. Looking at how the film is edited together, you can see that the Signal Corps was trying to create a coherent narrative for a test flight using the disparate footage they had. It begins with the plane being removed from the hangar. All of this footage is from 1909, but it appears to be three different days, based on the number and location of the spectators, one of whom is President William Howard Taft. The most amusing sequence is the plane’s take-off. The Signal Corps cut together both 1908 and 1909 footage to provide reverse shots for what is made to look like a single launch.

This animated GIF depicts take off of the Wright Military Flyer, but it actually shows two different planes. It begins with a shot from the front of the 1909 Flyer on the launching apparatus. The next shot shows the 1908 Flyer from the rear as a large weight drops and the launching apparatus begins to propel the plane forward. The third shot briefly shows the 1909 plane from the front as it moves forward. The fourth shot shows the 1908 plane from behind as it gently lifts into the air and glides away from a group of onlookers.
The dramatic take off sequence from First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia. The shots from in front of the plane are 1909 and the shots from behind are 1908.

Because it is so dramatic, this is one of the sequences that is reused the most in modern productions, usually identified as taking place on July 27, 1909. Once the plane is in the air, we see shots from several flights around Fort Myer. The film ends with the plane back on the ground. Overall, almost two minutes of the eight-minute film appear to be footage from 1908.

Our next step will be to dig deeper into the actual source of the 1908 footage. Although the USDA claims it had the very first motion picture camera in the federal government, there is evidence that the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation was already shooting its own films in the summer of 1908. In the Business Screen Magazine article, the USDA itself notes that Bureau of Reclamation photographers E.B. Thompson and Carl Louis Gregory were also present at Fort Myer to film the 1908 test flights, and that the film at the National Archives could have been captured by either them or Clime.

Although the September 1908 Wright Flyer tests ended in tragedy, the 1909 test flights were a resounding success. The Army purchased the plane from the Wright brothers and designated it Signal Corps No. 1. The Signal Corps immediately set up a training ground and airport in College Park, Maryland, and then established a military aviation school there in 1911. In that same year, the Signal Corps acquired a number of newer-model airplanes, nudging Signal Corps No. 1 toward obsolescence. Recognizing its importance in the story of American aviation, the War Department donated the aircraft to the Smithsonian Institution, where it now resides in the collections of the National Air and Space Museum.

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