• In December 1902 a Wright brothers built glider flew 600 feet. A World Record
  • December 17, 1903 The Wright built the first successful powered airplane and Wilbur Wright flew 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds a World Record.
  • October 5, 1905 Wilbur Wright flew for 39 minutes and a total distance of 24 1/2 miles. a World Record in what is called today “The world’s first practical airplane
  • WHAT'S GOING ON IN EUROPE? In 1906, the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont set the first world record(**) recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale of France by flying 220 meters (720 ft) in 21.5 seconds. more than 4 years behind the Wrights.
  • According to the April 1907 issue of the Scientific American magazine the Wright brothers had the most advanced knowledge of heavier-than-air navigation at the time.

    ** Although the Wright Brothers were setting and breaking world records from 1902-1908, they did not publish these records. So nobody in Europe would be aware of what they were doing. The Wright brothers didn't seek public recognition for their innovations until after they received their patent in 1908. So they followed what was happening in Europe closely, and were silent when others were recognized as world record holders, right up until 1908 when they publicly demonstrated their accomplishments. After 1905 when a newspaper did publish an account of their longest flight, the Wrights declined to fly again for years until their patent was secure... such was their discipline in protecting their ideas and fear of others stealing them.

September 9, 1908 from the United Press.

The Wright aeroplane, operated by the aviator, whose brother Wilbur has been conducting successful tests in France, sailed today over and around the parade ground at Fort Myer, Va., for 57 minutes and 31 seconds, exceeding by more than 26 minutes the world-breaking record made last Monday by Delagrange, near Paris.

On April 6, 1917 the US enters World War I. From 1917 through Armistice, the American Expeditionary Force: Air Service, flew a total 2,698 planes, Of these less than one-fourth (667) were of American manufacture and none of those American planes were combat ships.

Here are the thoughts of America's Top Ace in WWI, Eddie Rickenbacker on the contributions of America's aircraft industry to the United States Army Air Corps during WWI. Rickenbacker flew a French fighter plane called a Nieuport throughout the war, as did many American flyers.

From Eddie V. Rickenbacker's "Fighting the Flying Circus", End of Chapter 12.
** Discussing the Nieuport's issue where in dives the top wing would fly off ensuring in most cases the Plane could not fly and would drop out of the sky **

From the frequency of these accidents to our Nieuports it may be wondered why we continued to use them. The answer is simple—we had no others we could use! The American Air Forces were in dire need of machines of all kinds. We were thankful to get any kind that would fly.

The French had already discarded the Nieuport for the steadier, stronger Spad, and thus our Government was able to buy from the French a certain number of these out-of-date Nieuport machines for American pilots—or go without. Consequently, our American pilots in France were compelled to venture out in Nieuports against far more experienced pilots in more modern machines. None of us in France could understand what prevented our great country from furnishing machines equal to the best in the world. Many a gallant life was lost to American aviation during those early months of 1918, the responsibility for which must lie heavily upon some guilty conscience.

What happened? Why had American Airplane design and manufacture fallen so far behind the rest of the world in 1918 that it could not produce any combat aircraft for American forces when it clearly was still producing World Records as late as 1909.

  • more a comment than an answer: don't forget logistics. Even if the US had manufacturing capability for combat aircraft at the time (would have to check, probably they did) getting those aircraft to Europe during WW1 would have been far more expensive than just buying local. In WW2, with ferry ranges massively increased and local manufacturing in Europe unable to keep up with demand, that was different.
    – jwenting
    Jul 10, 2018 at 5:30
  • @jwenting Except the US did manufacture and fly homegrown trainers. And the combat aircraft they purchased (the Neaports) were old and inferior planes no longer flown by the French. If they had a domestic alternative which was at least competitive one would think they would have flown them even if just a few. They flew no combat aircraft of American design throughout the war only trainers.
    – user27618
    Jul 10, 2018 at 12:39
  • Those trainers were never used in Europe, only in the US, so the problem of transporting them across the ocean wasn't there. Initially yes, the US got hand me downs from the French and to a degree British, later they were able to get some new production aircraft as well. The initial deliveries especially were pretty much rush jobs to get them any aircraft at all.
    – jwenting
    Jul 11, 2018 at 9:53
  • American built trainers made up nearly a quarter of all aircraft flown in Europe by the USAAC. Transport wasn’t the issue. It wasn’t an issue for trucks, cars, horses or artillery. The issue was American planes were inferior. They were slower, less maneuverable, with a shorter range. They were so poor that the US opted to fly out of date European planes in combat over newer planes of us design. Finally, no planes of US design were flown in combat in WWI.
    – user27618
    Jul 11, 2018 at 15:38

3 Answers 3



US aircraft pioneers argued over the Wright brothers' patents while the rest of the world quietly ignored the patents and "borrowed" the idea - and went on to making planes. Remember that 110 years ago enforcing a foreign patent was not something a government would be willing to undertake.


Wright Brothers' main achievement was controlled flight. They were not the first ones to fly, but they were the first not to fall out of the sky:

Their first U.S. patent, 821,393, did not claim invention of a flying machine, but rather, the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine's surfaces.

All the other aviation pioneers were car mechanics. A car is controlled in only one direction (left/right). So they focused on making airplanes fly like cars drive - the holy grail was to make the airplane stay stable (not roll) and only control altitude (pitch) and direction (yaw).

Wright brothers owned a bike shop, so they were keenly aware of the need to control the bike in two directions (roll and yaw), and they controlled their flyer in all 3 directions.


I would not say that

the US was the most advanced nation in the world when it came to man flight

An airplane requires a light but sturdy airframe, light but powerful engine, a wind tunnel to test its aerodynamics and all these were already in place. A lot of people all over the world contributed, and Wright brothers brought in the last critical part.

After them, the name of the game was how to improve the plane, not how to invent it, and all industrialized countries were on approximately the same level.

  • 2
    "They" are not the US? Couple of 'firsts' doesn't mean others aren't watching. Tradition of attempts is really great, as you pointed out yourself Matt. But if this Q&A goes anywhere it has to go into Italy's military use of airpower vs US petty wars at the rtime. Nov 1, 2017 at 21:52
  • There must have been a race in Europe, and not in the Americas.
    – John Dee
    Nov 2, 2017 at 0:23

The main reason was that Wright brothers had patented key design features of the airplane (ailerons, flaps, wing warping, etc).

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This same technology is used even today. It was like Bill Gates patenting all kinds of software. So, each and every person who made planes had to get it approved by the Wright brothers and pay a fee. The Wright brothers kept the other biggest Aviation innovators away from their airplanes and in the court house fighting patent infringements. Likewise that's where the Wright Brothers focused all their attention. For instannce Glenn Curtis spent years in court arguing with the Wrights over patent ussage. So the best American aviation innovators who once pioneered the technology including the Wrights spent a decade in court fighting each other. Contrasting that with the way those who followed the Wrights in Europe, worked together and shared innovations.

The resolution, after it became apparent how far behind the rest of the world the US had fallen after our entry into WWI; the federal government got involved.

The two major patent holders for the Airplane, the Wright Company and the Curtiss Company, had effectively blocked the building of new airplanes, which were desperately needed as the United States was entering World War I. The U.S. government, as a result of a recommendation of a committee formed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, pressured the industry to form a cross-licensing organization (in other terms a Patent pool), the Manufacturer's Aircraft Association was born. Effectively freeing up the Wrights(control surfaces) and Curtis (engines designs) patents for wide use.

Source: Wikipedia The patent pool solution


The United States wasn't "behind" Europe in flight in 1914, because its aircraft industry followed a different development path. The American preference was for better plane control and distance. In 1903, the Wright brothers flew a plane for a greater distance (260 meters) than a "pioneering" French plane did in 1906 (220 meters). The U.S. later developed superior passenger (consumer) planes, at least until the Concorde.

Where the Europeans took the lead was in what we now call fighter planes, then referred to as "scout" or "pursuit" planes. That's because European countries were more likely to go to war. The first military planes were used by the Italians in 1911, and Bulgaria in 1913, not exactly the most highly industrialized countries; just among the most belligerent. It's true that the Americans fell behind the Europeans in fighter planes, if for no other reason that it entered World War I almost three years behind others, and didn't produce good fighter models until 1919, needing to use allied planes as "stopgaps" until then.

  • 2
    Aviation design, development and production in the United States stagnated leading up to World War 1. Europeans had eclipsed the Untied states in design, (distance, maneuverability and speed). As such, American air power during the conflict relied on European planes early on. Some homegrown developments eventually did materialize though American aces flew almost exclusively British- and French-planes.
    – user27618
    Nov 3, 2017 at 16:48
  • The United States Army was one of the earliest adopter of the Airplane, along with the French Army. Both purchased Wright Flyers in 1908. The US army had been funding research in airplane technology since the late 1800's, $50,000 to Samuel P Langley, over the Wright Brothers. Langley just could never get his plane working, and really failed to grasp the problem of flight. It wasn't just staying in the air, it was control. Langley never flew his own planes, he had others to do that.. so his oversight was understandable.
    – user27618
    Apr 2, 2018 at 17:14

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