Retrospect: The Wright Brothers fly high over Montgomery in 1910

Orville Wright was an instructor at the first civilian flight school in the country in Montgomery.

The Wright Brothers’ biplane flies over Kohn plantation in Montgomery in 1910, shortly before they set up a flying school there. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History

For a few weeks in the early spring of 1910, a field outside Montgomery was the site of the world’s first civilian flight training school. Five students were given instruction by none other than Orville Wright, who alongside his brother Wilbur had pioneered sustained flight just seven years earlier. For the Wright Brothers, the school was an attempt to maintain their share of a burgeoning commercial market. Montgomery boosters enticed the Wrights to their fair-weathered city, confident that the ensuing publicity would be worth the effort.   

In the years since their first flight, the skies around the Wright Brothers had become rather crowded. New plane makers transformed flight into a business market. The brothers saw their initial stronghold endangered by competitors on the horizon. The amount of money for exhibition flights was lucrative, indeed. The Wrights received $15,000 for a flight along the Hudson River during an anniversary ceremony. To continue collecting the veritable fortune in the skies, and maintain their market share, the Wrights needed more pilots. 

But the brothers felt their homebase of Dayton, Ohio, too cold for such a training camp. Seeking a warmer climate, Wilbur Wright toured several southern cities. In February 1910, he arrived in Montgomery, where he was soon recognized. Locals alerted Fred Ball, president of the Montgomery Commercial Club, a forerunner to the chamber of commerce. Ball accompanied Wright on a hastily arranged tour of the city scouting potential sites for the training school. The most suitable location proved to be a cotton plantation owned by Frank Kohn a few miles outside of the city. 

Ball presented Wright with an attractive set of incentives. The Montgomery Commercial Club would prepare Kohn’s land and build a hangar according to Wright’s specifications. Free accommodations would be supplied at the palatial Exchange Hotel downtown. A local dealer offered automobiles for transportation needs. Their time in Montgomery would cost the Wright Brothers nothing. Ball and others knew the publicity would be worth the expense. “The press of the world will watch…this city,” the Montgomery Advertiser predicted. 

Local businesses were quick to see the school’s commercial value as well. Once the construction firm of D. F. Gorrie & Son stood up the hangar, businesses festooned it with advertisements. “Our Prices, Like Wilbur, are Right,” read a sign for a local wholesaler, “but they are not ‘up in the air!’” Atop the roof of the structure, where only aviators in flight could see, was a sign promoting a local brand of biscuits — a targeted advertisement if ever there was one.   

- Sponsor -

During the springtime school, the industrious Wright Brothers were uncharacteristically separated from each other. While it was Wilbur who had selected the school site, it was Orville who served as the teacher. Wilbur Wright attended to matters in Dayton and elsewhere. 

Brothers Wilbur, left, and Orville Wright. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The biplane arrived by rail on March 15, 1910, followed soon thereafter by Orville Wright. In Montgomery, he completed a design change to the plane, adding a rear wing to the rudder, which he felt might stabilize the machine at higher altitudes. It was the first major modification since Kitty Hawk in 1903. On March 26, Orville Wright tested the new design. Satisfied with the change, he commenced student training two days later. 

“A strange new bird soared…to the West of Montgomery,” the local paper reported. To help accommodate spectators flocking to see the school, the Mobile & Ohio Railroad offered six daily excursions from Montgomery’s Union Station to the airfield for 25¢ per ticket. Thousands came. 

Flight training continued on until the second week of April, when a persistent engine problem brought instruction to a temporary halt. Seeking the familiarity of his Dayton workshop, Orville removed the plane’s engine and headed to Ohio. He returned two weeks later, and the flights resumed. 

Throughout the many weeks of training, Orville rejected “with uniform politeness” all requests from locals for personal flights. The aviator broke this rule on May 3, taking landowner Frank Kohn aloft for a brief excursion. One makes exceptions for benefactors, of course. “The machine obeys his slightest touch,” Kohn said. “I felt no more in danger than I would in a streetcar.”  

A few days later, Wilbur telegraphed his younger brother and suggested he return to Dayton to begin preparations for a summer of exhibition flights. Before he departed Montgomery, Orville oversaw the 12-minute solo flight of student Walter Brookins, marking the first and only graduation from the Montgomery school. Brookins then assumed the continued training of the remaining students, including Archibald Hoxsey, with whom he embarked on a historic evening flight by the light of a full moon on May 25, 1910.   

Soon thereafter, a broken motor chain brought an end to the historic Montgomery flight school. The pupils boxed up the plane, bid adieu to the Alabama skies and returned to Dayton. “The Wright Brothers are gone from Montgomery,” the rather cynical editor of the Clayton Record wrote, “and that big bunch of money which the Capital City spent to build an aviation camp is gone, too.”

The short-lived school had the desired outcome. Montgomery’s boosters were satisfied with the publicity and their city’s place in aviation history. And the Wright Brothers had new pilots. Brookins and several other students who began their training in Montgomery flew under their banner for several years. In October 1910, Montgomery student Archibald Hoxsey (who would die in a crash later that year) had the privilege of taking former President Theodore Roosevelt on a plane ride in St. Louis. 

Within a few years, the advertisement-laden hangar on the Kohn plantation was torn down. A decade later, the War Department purchased the land from Frank Kohn for the sum of $34,000. Today, a stone monument marks the site of the Wright’s hangar, located within the sprawling Maxwell Air Force Base complex. A few miles away, on a ridge overlooking the interstate, a replica Wright biplane sits in a small city park, a reminder of those exciting days when a “strange new bird” appeared in the Alabama skies. 

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This story appeared in the November 2023 issue of Business Alabama magazine.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox