The original Wright Flyer flew less than a half mile in its four flights on December 17, 1903. The airplane was well-traveled, however. Following the successful flights, Wilbur and Orville Wright shipped the airplane back to Dayton where it had been designed. From December 1903 through 1913, the airplane remained in crates in a shed behind the Wright Cycle Company shop on West Third Street. It was there when the Miami River flooded in March of 1913, covering the airplane in mud and water for eleven days.
The Wrights were well aware of the historical importance of their first successful flying machine. They had offered it to the United States National Museum, as the Smithsonian Institution was then known, in 1910.
Officials at the Smithsonian, particularly Charles Walcott, were "anxious to redeem the reputation" of former director, Samuel Langley, who had spent thousands of government dollars trying to invent an airplane which he called an "aerodrome." In 1914, Walcott permitted Glenn Curtiss, who the Wrights had successfully sued for infringing on their patents, to modify Langley's Aerodrome and fly it at Hammondsport, New York. By doing so, Curtiss hoped to disprove the primacy of the Wrights' patents and also boost the reputation of Samuel Langley. The Aerodrome was then displayed in the Smithsonian's National Museum with a label declaring it the first airplane capable of flight.
Wilbur Wright died in 1912 of typhoid fever, and his family thought that his death was partly the result of exhaustion caused by the stress of working to defend the Wrights' patents. This tragedy and the apparent collusion between the Smithsonian and Glenn Curtiss led to a lifelong feud between Orville Wright and officials of the Smithsonian Institution. Orville Wright decided to withhold the Flyer as long as they continued to, in his view, mislabel Langley's Aerodrome, and so long as they refused to acknowledge the primacy of the Wright's invention.
In 1916, Orville Wright and Wright Company mechanic Jim Jacobs uncrated the Flyer for the first time since Kitty Hawk and restored it in preparation for a brief exhibit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was again briefly exhibited at the New York Aero Show in 1917. In 1921, it was partially reassembled yet again to provide photographic evidence for a lawsuit against Orville Wright filed by the survivors of J.J. Montgomery, a California glider builder. The historic airplane was exhibited at the 1924 National Air races held in Dayton. During this time, many American museums approached Orville Wright expressing interest in acquiring the 1903 Flyer. Archival evidence suggests that as early as 1924, he was considered transferring the machine to the Science Museum in London. The construction of its new building in 1928 probably cemented the deal.
Labels were no problem for the Science Museum in the South Kensington district of London. In early1928, Daytonians were surprised to find the Wright airplane being shipped "On His Majesty's Service" to the Science Museum in London where it was displayed in the principal exhibition hall and visited daily by hundreds of British school children. Orville Wright had decided that the world's first airplane should be given to a British museum permanently, or at least until such time as he changed his mind. In consequence, the Wright 1903 Flyer, probably the world's greatest aeronautical artifact, would remain in a foreign museum for the next 20 years.
Between 1928 and 1943, Orville Wright negotiated with officials at the Smithsonian. He even sought the assistance of Supreme Court Justice and former president William Howard Taft. It took the intervention of President Roosevelt in 1943 to persuade Orville that his flying machine should be returned to the United States. At Roosevelt's request, Orville wrote to the director of the London Science Museum in December 1943 requesting the airplane return to America after the conclusion of World War II. It is this letter, found by his personal secretary Mabel Beck after his death, which was the legal basis for the airplane's return and installation at the Smithsonian's National Museum, now the National Air and Space Museum.
The airplane was restored and placed on permanent display. The estate of Orville Wright made sure that the airplane would always be displayed with the following label:
"The original Wright Brothers aeroplane the world's first power-driven, heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled and sustained flight invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright and flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903 by original scientific research the Wright Brothers discovered the principles of human flight as inventors, builders and flyers they further developed the aeroplane taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation."