The contract that started it all

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Michael Merrell
  • 7th Contracting Squadron
(Editor's Note: The 7th Contracting Squadron has a copy of the Army Signal Corps "contract that started it all" hanging in their hallway, and invite anyone interested in seeing this piece of history to stop by and view it.)

Many of us who have been through history class will remember the story of the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, and their invention of the first airplane. The Wright brothers are not only given credit for the invention of the first successful airplane, but are also attributed with being central figures involved with the first successful performance-based contract in the U.S. military.

In 1907, the U.S. Army showed interest in the Wright brothers. Rather than directly offering them a contract, the U.S. Signal Corps announced an advertisement for bids to construct an airplane. After receiving many bids, the Wright Brother's aircraft design and performance specifications was the only viable option for the Army. Therefore, the first contract for the "heavier-than-air flying machine" (the first U.S. military airplane) was awarded in 1908 for $25,000 by the U.S Army to the Wright brothers.

Flight trials were scheduled to be performed at Fort Myer, Virginia. On Sept. 17, 1908, the airplane experienced a mechanical malfunction involving one of the propellers and crashed. Orville was severely injured and Army observer Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge was killed, he would become the first fatality in a powered airplane. Orville would later resume the flight trials after he recovered from his injuries.

Over several weeks, the Wrights fulfilled each requirement in Signal Corps Specification. The final one was a cross-country flight of 10 miles with a passenger. This flight also served as the official speed trial. The contract stipulated that they would receive a 10 percent bonus for every full mile per hour above 40. Their average speed was 42.5 mph, which rewarded them with a $5,000 bonus and brought the final purchase price of the airplane to $30,000.

Regardless of the original intended purpose for the "heavier-than-air flying machine", without the contract awarded to the Wright brothers, we would probably not live in a world today as we know it. Military battles have been won and lost based on air planes. The development of the Army Air Corp, which evolved into our modern day Air Force, is a direct result of the effort put forth by the hard-working contract administrators of the day.

Every fiscal year (1 October - 30 September), contracting officers obligate millions of tax payers dollars, that are provided by congress, to support the war-fighting efforts needed to accomplish the mission. It is the duty of every contracting officer and administrator to uphold the perfection and standards of the Air Force values, and foster a positive relationship between the government and the civilian sector in all matters.

Contracting provides accountability to civilian companies who do business with the Air Force. Without the terms and conditions provided by legal acquisitions between contracting and civilian companies, those services and commodities which are crucial to the mission may not be delivered on time or performed at acceptable standards. Contracting ensures that all Air Force members receive the best products possible, and at the same time, protecting valuable tax payer dollars. Contracting provides an incentive for civilian contractors to provide high quality and timely commodities and services. Without contracting, the effects would be devastating to the mission.