Wright Brothers – The Kitty Hawk Years

Articles relating to the years the Wright Brothers spent at Kitty Hawk.

Edward Huffaker was another of the young men that Chanute sponsored. He was building a glider for Chanute and Chanute prevailed on the Wrights to allow Huffaker to test the glider at Kitty Hawk while the Wrights were camping there during their own 1901 glider experiments.

It wasn’t long after Huffaker’s arrival that the Wrights found he was a disagreeable presence, unlike the friendly feeling for George Spratt, another protégé of Chanute who joined them.

On June 26 and 27, 1901, Chanute visited the Wrights on the way to Chuckey, Tennessee where Huffaker was building a glider designed by Chanute. Two days after visiting Huffaker, Chanute wrote Wilbur asking for his permission for Huffaker to bring the glider to their camp and attend the Wrights’ test flights at Kitty Hawk. Huffaker could test Chanute’s glider and be of help to the Wrights. Chanute assured Wilbur that he was reliable.

Wilbur agreed to his attendance as a favor to Chanute.

On paper Huffaker appeared to be a valuable person to have around. He had attended college at Emory and Henry where he graduated in 1876, and completed a master’s degree in physics from the University of Virginia in 1883.

He was interested in aeronautics and began making small glider models in 1892. From 1895 to mid 1896 he worked for Samuel Langley at the Smithsonian Institution, designing wings for Langley’s Aerodromes, and now he was working for Chanute.

When Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian in 1899 asking for information on aeronautics, one of the papers he received was “Soaring Flight” by Huffaker.

Langley praised, “Soaring Flight.” In the introduction to the paper Langley wrote, “I put trust in the good faith with which he reports his observations and in the conscientious care with which he has made them.”

Langley, who was fastidious, didn’t approve of Huffaker’s habits. He read documents with his feet on the table and he chewed tobacco and would squirt a stream of tobacco juice into a spittoon on the other side of the room.

The Wrights arrived at Kitty Hawk on May 10th and established their camp four miles south at Kill Devil Hills where they were soon plagued by mosquitoes. When Huffaker arrived one week later, Orville wrote to Katharine, “He can’t decide which is worse, the mosquitoes or Huffaker.”

Orville and Wilbur found it difficult not to laugh when they first saw the glider Huffaker brought with him.

The wing struts for the 5-wing glider were made of cardboard tubing instead of wood. The wings were designed to fold for easy storage and the fabric was attached to the wings so as to automatically vary their curvature with changes in the wind.

The design was in keeping with Chanute’s idea that a glider could be made that would provide automatic control in flight.

When Chanute saw that Huffaker had substituted cardboard for wood in the struts, he was not happy. He decided to go ahead with test flights at Kitty Hawk anyway.

At Kitty Hawk, the glider was found to be too frail to fly and failed to survive a heavy rain. Huffaker quickly gave up any attempt to fly before Chanute even arrived in camp.

Wilbur took a picture of the rain-soaked remains of the glider and later sent a picture of it to Spratt with the advisory, “If you feel the you have not got much to show for your work and money expended, get out this picture and you will feel encouraged.”

During the remainder of Huffaker’s stay in camp he helped launch the Wright’s glider and took notes. He and Spratt also provided some technical help when they advised the Wrights that the pitching problem Wilbur was experiencing during flight might be caused by the sudden reversal of the center of pressure on the wings.

Overall Huffaker was amazed at what the Wrights were achieving with their glider. The Wrights didn’t share his enthusiasm. They knew that there were serious theoretical problems with lift and control yet to be solved. Wilbur was so depressed on the trip home that he said man might never fly in his lifetime.

Chanute had instructed Huffaker to keep a daily record of the gliding experiments until his arrival. When the Wrights examined the notes after they returned home, they found them to be “inaccurate, as the man was shiftless.”

What really infuriated Wilbur was that Huffaker would lay the stopwatches and anemometers in the sand and use Wilbur’s camera box as a stool.

Also, the Wrights, sons of a Bishop, weren’t appreciative of Huffaker’s habit of delivering lectures on character building.

Wilbur thought he was “priggish and lazy.”

Wilbur thought he looked a bit sheepish when he finally left camp on August 8 with Wilbur’s blanket. He had the habit of borrowing tools and personal items without permission and not taking care of them.

He was still wearing the shirt he had put on soon after his arrival. On top of other everything else, Huffaker’s personal hygiene was poor.

The Wrights arrived home on Thursday, August 22. Katharine wrote her father, “They can only talk how disagreeable Mr. Huffaker was.”

A year later the Wrights were still upset. Chanute had written them about sending another protégé to their camp. Wilbur wrote back, “It was our experience last year that my brother and myself, while alone, or nearly so, could do more work in one week, than in two weeks after his (Huffaker’s) arrival.”

Life Saving Stations Established

Before the turn of the century, there were many ships (some estimate thousands) wrecked on the sandbars off the shore of the Outer Banks, N.C. The carnage justified the name, Graveyard of the Atlantic.

In 1874, in an effort to cut shipping losses and loss of life, Congress provided funds to establish a series of lifesaving stations along the coast. Initially there were seven, which included one at Kitty Hawk and later eleven more were built, which included one at Kill Devil Hills. The stations were manned by dedicated men who risked their own lives to save those who were shipwrecked.

Beginning with their first visit to Kitty Hawk in 1900, the Wrights developed a friendship with the lifesavers. Orville and Wilbur often visited them and the lifesavers were a major help in conducting their flight experiments.

The lifesavers helped carry the gliders up the sand dunes, ferried Wright associates and packages to and from Manteo and other numerous helpful tasks. In short, they became a vital part of the daily lives of the Wrights.

On the surface they couldn’t have been more different. The lifesavers were fisherman, day laborers and farmers. Many were illiterate. The Wrights were city boys and educated. Beyond these differences, there were compelling similarities. All the men were disciplined and engaged in a dangerous occupation. Whatever it was, they enjoyed each other’s company. It may have been this mix of similarities and dissimilarities that provided the fuel to enjoy each other’s company.

Lifesavers Involved in Success Of First Flight

The landmark year of 1903 saw much activity from the lifesaving crew with the Wrights. On December 13, the Wrights were ready for their first attempt of powered flight. As was the usual practice, they flew a red flag as a signal to the lifesaving station at Kill Devil Hills, which was about a mile away, that they were about to fly.

Soon, Bob Wescott, John Daniels, Tom Beacham, Willie Dough and Uncle Benny O’Neal arrived (there is some doubt on whether O’Neal was a lifesaver). Also, two boys and a dog accompanied them. Three of the men helped push the Flyer 150 feet up the lower slope of Big Kill Devil Hill to get ready for the attempt.

When the engine started, it made such a loud racket that the boys and their dog ran away.

Wilbur successfully lifted off the ground, but stalled the machine and made a hard landing after a 3-1/2 second, approximately 60-foot flight. They would have to try again.

On December 17, they were ready. This time the red signal flag attracted John Daniels, Willie Dough, and Adam Etheridge from the lifesaving station, and in addition W. C. Brinkley, a lumber merchant, and a 16-year old boy. All of these people witnessed the historic first flight. In addition, Bob Wescott, on duty at the Kill Devil Hills Station, witnessed the first flight using a spyglass, as did S. J. Payne four miles away at the Kitty Hawk Station.

Lifesaver John Daniels snapped the famous classic picture of the Flyer just as it took-off on its own power from the launching rail. It was the first picture he had ever taken and reportedly his last.

Telegraph Success

After the fourth flight of the day, the Wrights ate lunch and then walked the four miles to the Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station to send a telegram home to their father to report their success. The station had the only telegraph on Kitty Hawk at the time. Joe Dosher, who manned the Weather Bureau office at the station telegraphed the news to the weather bureau headquarters office at Norfolk who in turn in turn passed the information to a Western Union operator for transmission to Dayton.

The Black Pelican

In 1915, the U.S. Lifesaving Service became the U.S. Coast Guard. New, larger facilities were built along the beach and the older stations were used as boathouses. Most are now gone.

The one at Kill Devil Hills was privately purchased and moved north to Corolla. The one at Kitty Hawk still exists at its original location. It is now operating as the Black Pelican Seafood Restaurant.

The original old building is an integral part of the expanded restaurant. The main dining room is where Dosher telegraphed the news of their flights and where the Wrights obtained information on temperature and wind velocity for their experiments. The original gothic structure has survived numerous hurricanes and noreasters since it was built during the summer of 1874. The restaurant is located on Virginia Dare Drive at mile marker 4.

The Historic First Flight

By 1903, the Wright Brothers were confident that they had unlocked the secret of flight. They had spent 55 months researching, testing and designing their airplane, the Wright Flyer, in Dayton, Ohio, and Kitty Hawk, NC. Now they had one goal and that was to get the powered machine off the ground in sustained and controlled flight.

There was still much work to do to fine-tune the machine. The machine was built on close margins. The simple, but lightweight, gasoline engine was particularly temperamental. The first one they built had blown-up. Later, during testing at Kitty Hawk, the vibrations from the rough-running engine damaged the propeller shafts that necessitated sending them back to Dayton twice for repair.

New Building

They had left Dayton on September 23rd and arrived at big Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk on the 25th. They found the building they had built in 1901 and enlarged in 1902 had been blown off its foundation and moved several feet nearer the ocean. They set about repairing the damaged building to serve as their home and erecting a new second building to serve as a workshop for assembling and housing the Flyer.

Shortly after completing the work on the buildings, a storm arrived with winds up to 75 miles per hour. The tarpaper on the roof began to peel off, requiring emergency repairs to save the roof.

Wilbur describes the incident. “Orville put on my heavy overcoat, and grabbing the ladder sallied forth from the south end of the building. —- I sallied out to help him and after a tussle with the wind found him at the north end ready to set up the ladder. He quickly mounted to the edge of the roof when the wind caught under his coat and folded it back over his head. As the hammer and nails were in his pocket and up over his head he was unable to get his hands on them or to pull his coattails down, so he was compelled to descend again. The next time he put the nails in his mouth and took the hammer in his hand and I followed him up the ladder hanging on to his coattails. He swatted around a good little while trying to get a few nails in, and I became impatient for I had only my common coat on and was getting well soaked. He explained afterward that the wind kept blowing the hammer around so that three licks out of four hit the roof or his fingers instead of the nail.”

They found the 1902 glider they had left behind in relatively good shape and with some repairs ready to fly. They decided to use the glider to practice their flying on good days and work on the new machine on rainy and calm days.

They were determined not to return home until they had flown their Flyer at least once. But, testing and repair dragged on into December.

Weather Turns Cold

By then, the weather turned cold and winds were blustery. Orville wrote home to his sister Katharine:

“In addition to the classification of last year, to wit, 1,2,3 and 4 blanket nights, we now have 5 blanket nights, & 5 blankets & 2 quilts. Next comes 5 blankets, 2 quilts & fire; then 5, 2, fire & hot-water jug. This is as far as we have gone so far. Next comes the addition of sleeping without undressing, then shoes & hats, and finally overcoats.”

More Problems

It was early November before the machine was assembled and the engine and propellers were tested. It wasn’t long before problems developed.

During the first test of the machine, the engine ran roughly and the sprockets on the propeller shaft came loose. The resulting vibration damaged the propeller shafts and they had to be mailed back to Dayton for repairs on November 5.

The repaired shafts were received back at Kitty Hawk on November 20.

The problem of the sprockets shaking loose remained. The nuts kept coming loose from the bolts. They found a solution from their bicycle experience. They glued the sprockets on the shaft with tire cement named Arnstein’s Hard Cement.

Orville wrote, “We stuck those sprockets so tight I doubt they will ever come loose again.”

Then while running the engine on November 28, the shafts broke again. This time Orville took them himself to Dayton where he decided to make new shafts out of solid spring-steel. The previous shafts were tubular. The new shafts were smaller and would allow for spring that would absorb some of the vibration that was causing problems.

The First Attempt

Finally on December 14 they were ready to try again. It was a beautiful day. There was only one problem. There was no wind.

To compensate for the lack of wind, they decided to lay their so-called “Junction Railroad,” a 60-foot monorail made of “2 by 4s,” 150 feet up the lower slope of Big Kill Devil Hill. The 9-degree slope would take advantage of gravity and give the machine a faster start.

They flew a large red flag signaling that they were about to fly and could use some help from the men at the Kill Devil Hill Life-Saving Station located about a mile away. Five men and two boys arrived. When the engine started-up, it made such a loud racket that the two boys ran away, having been startled by the loud noise.

A coin was flipped and Wilbur won the toss to be the pilot. Orville walked to the right wing tip to steady the machine. Wilbur pulled the restraining rope to release the machine, but nothing happened. The pressure of the machine resting against the restraint prevented the release from working.

Three of the volunteers pushed the machine uphill releasing the restraint. Immediately, the machine started down the track faster than expected. Orville, steadying the right wing, couldn’t keep up. Wilbur pulled the elevator to the up position to take-off. The machine climbed steeply, stalled, and then nosed down. The left wing struck the ground swinging the machine around until the front skids hit the sand hard enough to splinter one of the elevator supports. Wilbur was shook-up, but uninjured.

The machine actually flew for 3 1/2 seconds rose to a height of 15 feet and traveled for a distance of about 60 feet, but a short duration flight that stalled and ended with a crash landing didn’t qualify as a successful flight. The Wrights were not discouraged because this was their first attempt at flying the machine and pilot error was to be expected.

Wilbur wrote to his father, “The power is ample, and but for a trifling error to lack of experience — the machine would have undoubtedly have flown beautifully.”

It would take a couple of days to make repairs and they would be ready to try again. They were ready on Sunday, the 16th, but they had promised their father that they would not fly on Sunday.

The Second Attempt

Orville and Wilbur were up early on Monday December 17, 1903. They didn’t try to fly the day before because it was Sunday and they had promised their father that they wouldn’t fly on Sunday. The day was cold and clear. The wind was blowing off the ocean with gusts up to 27 miles per hour. It was cold and the wind chill factor was a cold 4 degrees. Puddles of water were covered with thin layers of ice. The conditions for flying were not good.

Orville, looking back after years of experience commented,

“I look with amazement upon our audacity in attempting flights with a new and untried machine under such circumstances.”

But they were anxious to return home by Christmas. Besides, they were confident and impatient to try again.

Bill Tate, the postmaster at Kitty Hawk whose letter back in 1900 convinced the Wrights to come to Kitty Hawk, didn’t think it was a good enough day to fly. So, when the Wrights tacked up the signal flag announcing they were going to fly, Tate neglected to see it, thus missing the event of the century.

Those who did arrive were John T. Daniels, Willie Dough, and Adam Etheridge of the Lifesaving Station, lumber merchant W. C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Johnny Moore, a 16 year old boy from Nags Head.

By ten-thirty, the Flyer was ready at the head of the launch monorail. This time they laid the 60-foot rail on flat ground at the bottom of Kill Devil Hill so that it didn’t accelerate as fast as it had done on the previous attempt. Anyway, they wouldn’t need the extra start provided by the slope. The high wind would provide plenty of lift.

Orville and Wilbur went to the rear of the machine and pulled the propellers through in unison. The engine started. They shook hands. One witness said it was the shake of friends who may not see each other for awhile.

It was Orville’s turn to be the pilot. He climbed into place beside the engine, prone in a saddle on the lower wing. He moved his hips side-to-side to check out the operation of the wing-warping mechanism and the rudder. He checked the movement of the elevator. Everything seemed in order.

Orville earlier had set up a tripod with a box camera to record the event. He showed John Daniels how and when to snap the shutter. Daniels had never taken a picture with a camera before, nor did he after.

The First Flight

Wilbur moved to the right wing tip to steady the plane as it moved along the rail. Orville flipped the gadget on the bottom of the leading edge of the wing that released the machine. The 605-pound machine powered by a four-cylinder, 12 horsepower gasoline engine, accelerated along the rail for about 40-feet and lifted into the air.

Orville, like Wilbur, had trouble piloting the machine.

“I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other.”

“As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder (elevator) dart for the ground.”

In such an undulating flight path, Orville managed to travel a distance of 120-feet in 12 seconds before landing on the sand. The strong headwind of 27-mph headwind resulted in a groundspeed of 6.8 mph.

It was the first time that a powered machine under control of a pilot flew in the air and landed at a point as high as its takeoff elevation. When compared with a Boeing 747, the flight went no higher than the 747’s nose and traveled slightly further than half of its wing span.

Daniels, stationed at the camera, was so excited he couldn’t remember whether he had snapped the picture. It turned out that he had taken a perfect picture. The classic picture of the first flight shows Wilbur running along the right side of the airplane just as it took off.

The brothers alternately flew three more times that day. The second attempt was 175 feet; the third attempt wasn’t much better but did fly for 200 feet. By now they were starting to get the hang of flying. The fourth and last flight Wilbur flew 852 feet lasting 59-seconds. He could have gone farther but he didn’t clear a sand bank. After removing the front rudder they returned to camp.

Flyer Damaged by Gust of Wing

After the last record breaking flight, they were so excited they forgot to tie the machine down. The oversight would change their plans for additional flights.

A sudden gust of wind caught a wing and started to turn it over. Orville and Daniels tried to hold the machine to no avail. Orville let lose, but Daniels hung on too long and got caught in the wires, wood and cloth as the machine tumbled over the sand. The engine broke loose as the machine collapsed around Daniels. Fortunately, Daniels was shook-up but not injured. Orville wrote his escape was miraculous. Daniels later said that he flew the 5th flight that day.

The 1903 Flyer never flew again.

Wilbur and Orville cooked lunch and washed the dishes. After lunch the brothers walked to the weather station in Kitty Hawk four miles away.

Orville handed a message to Dosher, in charge of the Kitty Hawk station. The understated telegram to the bishop, read:

“Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty-one mile wind Started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty-one miles longest 57 seconds inform press home Christmas.” Orevelle Wright

Through an error in transmission the telegram gave the time of the longest flight as 57 seconds; the correct time was 59 seconds. Also, the telegram gave the wind speed as 21 mph rather than 27 mph. What Orville meant was that the wind was at least 21 mph. Also, his name was misspelled.

Carrie, the Wrights’ housekeeper signed for the telegram when it arrived at Hawthorn Hill in Dayton. She immediately took it upstairs and gave it to Milton Wright. A short time later he came downstairs and said to Carrie and Katharine, “Well, the boys have made a flight.”

Katharine rushed to Lorin’s house and gave him the telegram who in turn took it to the Dayton Journal and showed it to city editor Frank Junison, who represented the Associated Press.

Junison didn’t think a flight of less than a minute was newsworthy enough to be printed in the newspaper the next day. He seemed annoyed that he was bothered about such nonsense.

For the Wrights, they were happy because “Will” would be on hand to stuff the Christmas turkey.

There were others that were not impressed. The respected Octave Chanute thought this was just one more step towards solving the problem of flight. The great inventor, Alexander Graham Bell thought there was a safer way for man one day to fly.

Today, the 1903 Wright Flyer is displayed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

1905 Plane Parts

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

Margaret Hollowell sent to Orville Wright in 1928 a number of items she had collected from Kitty Hawk and asked him to identify them. He laid the request aside and forgot about it until nine years later.

He had his secretary Mabel Beck sent a letter to Hollowell to find out if she still lived at the same address. She did, so he wrote the following letter to her on December 27, 1937.

Miss Margaret Hollowell

Bay Side,

Elizabeth City, North Carolina

Dear Miss Hollowell

I am reporting under separate cover all of the material sent to me in 1928 for identification, excepting two small wooden wheels. I am not returning the letter because they were never used on any of our gliders or flying machines and have no value.

The two pieces of cloth were from the covering of the wings of the 1905 motored plane. The unvarnished ash pieces are ribs of the 1902 glider.

The signature to the letter of August 17, 1908 to you was written by my brother, Lorin.

The paper targets were made in May 1908. The initials W, C and O indicate Wilbur, Charles Furnas, and myself.

Comment: He is referring to gun targets. The Wrights would set them at 50 yards and compete for who could get the best score. The initials were written next to the bullet holes. Charles Furnas was a Dayton mechanic who joined the Wrights at Kitty Hawk in 1908. He became the first airplane passenger while he was there.

The motored plane, of which you have the parts, was flown at Dayton in 1905. In 1908 it was taken to Kitty Hawk so we could get practice before attempting to carry out contracts which we had engaged to fulfill that year.

The wings of the 1905 machine and most of the wooden parts we left in one of the buildings at Kitty Hawk.

One of the coast guards at the Life Saving Station needing lumber, stripped the siding off the buildings and left the 1905 plane and our 1902 glider exposed to the elements.

Sincerely yours,

Orville Wright

Comment: The 1902 glider was left behind after the first flight in 1903. When the Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk in 1908, they found the skeleton of its wing sticking out of the sand outside the original hanger. The roof of the hanger had collapsed spilling the 1902 glider on the ground.

The 1905 Flyer was left to rot in the sand at Kitty Hawk after its last flight in 1908. It was later salvaged by others and restored under Orville’s guidance. It now resides in splendor at Carillon Park in Dayton.

The Wright Brothers first successful flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 utilized a direct link to bicycles for solving the mysteries of flight. The connection between a bicycle and an airplane represented a new paradigm that was the key that would lead them to success.

The other significant aviation experimenters, although more highly respected in scientific circles, were stuck in an old paradigm that blinded them to a productive path to success. They knew that their gliders lacked control in flight but were blinded by their paradigms to solve the problem. Otto Lilienthal, the famous German glider experimenter, attempted control of his gliders by shifting his body, a limitation that resulted in his death. Octave Chanute, the American experimenter and historian, and Samuel Langley, Smithsonian Secretary and others tried to design a craft that would exhibit automatic stability by allowing the wings and tail to pivot freely in response to wind gusts.

The Wrights, using a different paradigm, foresaw that the key to manned flight was control by a pilot who could control an unstable airplane just as a bicycle rider learns to control an unstable bicycle. Both vehicles require a constant series of conscious and unconscious moves to maintain balance and control.

The Wrights were not afraid of instability, in fact they welcomed it because with pilot control the machine could be made to go where the pilot wanted to go.

This reasoning ultimately led the Wrights to solve the riddle of flight where so many others had failed. The others, trapped in their old paradigms, had concluded that man’s reflexes were too slow to respond to wind gusts. They believed a pilot was only necessary when a change of direction was desired.

The Wrights concluded that man was an intimate part of the airplane and was necessary to make continuous adjustments to maintain balance of an unstable machine as when riding a bike.

Axes of Movement

Bicycles have two axes of movement to worry about in order to maintain balance. These are performed by moving the handlebars and by leaning the body. Others had mostly ignored the roll dimension, so critical to bicycles, as critical to airplanes. James Means, editor of the Aeronautical Journal (1896), is one who saw the connection. “To learn to wheel one must learn to balance.” Those who harbored the old paradigm didn’t get the message.

The Wrights’ realized that an airplane is more complicated than a bicycle because there were three axes of movement to maintain balance. The pilot must control (1) roll, (2) yaw (nose left and right) and (3) pitch (nose up and down). The axes of movement must be performed in synchronization just like riding a bicycle.

Their insight led them to search for a built-in mechanical means to enable the pilot to execute the necessary aerodynamic changes to maintain balance in the three dimensions with a minimum of physical effort. This lead them to the critical breakthrough concept of wing warping as a means to control the roll dimension by the torsion of the wing tips.

Wing warping along with synchronization of the elevator for pitch control and the tail for yaw control provided control in all three dimensions.

Other experimenters were familiar with the use of an elevator and tail. They used the tail to steer left and right in a flat plane. The elevator was used to steer up and down.

The most revered American aviation expert was Langley. He designed a movable tail and an elevator on his Great Aerodrome. Both were spring mounted to compensate for wind gusts and the pilot could also move his body to make adjustments. However, his aerodrome could only hope to make straight flights.

The Aerodrome never even got that chance because it crashed into the Potomac River on launching from a house boat just nine days before the Wrights’ first successful flight on December 17, 1903.

The Wrights were way ahead of their contemporaries. It would be 1908 before the Wrights’ system of control would be understood and accepted by the worldwide aviation community

The Bicycle Business

The Wrights became interested in solving the problem of flying when the famous German flight experimenter, Otto Lilienthal, lost control when a gust of wind tipped his glider and he died after the glider crashed on August of 1896. They pondered over why Lilienthal had failed.

At the time, the Wrights owned one of fourteen bicycle shops in Dayton, Ohio. They established their first shop at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton in 1892 for rental and repair. Wilbur was 25 and Orville was 21.

It was a time when bicycles were popular and touted as a “boon to mankind” and “a national necessity.” Prior to that, the Wrights were in the printing business and published a local newspaper. Orville’s interest in newspapers dated back to the eighth grade in school where he published a school newspaper.

Unfortunately, their newspaper business was not doing well financially, but fortunately for the world, they became interested in the bicycle business because people were constantly asking them to repair their bikes. Even then, the Wrights had a reputation for having exceptional mechanical skills.

They were active bicyclists themselves, buying their first bikes in 1894, and leaders in a Dayton bicycle club called the YMCA Wheelman. Orville won a number of medals for winning bike races. He considered himself a “scorcher.”

Wilbur didn’t race. He would rather take long, slower rides. He did, however, act as a “starter” for Orville. His lack of interest in racing was the result of a hockey injury he received in high school when a hockey stick hit him in the jaw and knocked out several teeth. Bicycle racers are prone to fly headfirst over the handle bars in an accident.

In the spring of 1895, they opened the Wright Cycle Company at 22 South Williams Street in Dayton. In 1896, they first began to make mostly handcrafted bicycles under their own brand names of the St. Clair and the top-of-the-line, the Van Cleve. Each was built up from raw tubing and brazed with a machine the Wrights had developed themselves. Each frame was brush-painted with five coats of either black or carmine enamel. They built wheels with either wooden or metal rims.

This is the location is where they first decided that human flight was possible and discussed the possibly of pursuing the riddle of flight. It was Wilbur that started the discussion. He felt trapped in the business world that was not using all his potential.

As a side note, the Frank Hamburger family lived at 26 South Williams St. and owned a hardware store nearby on 1107 West Third St. During the Dayton flood of 1898, the hardware store basement was flooded. Orville and Wilbur did business with the hardware store and when it became flooded the brothers helped Hamburger rescue the supply of nails stored in the basement which would have become rusted in the water.

The brothers would accept no compensation from Hamburger for their help, but they did accept some free hardware items from time to time.

One of the chief features of their bicycles was a wheel hub of their original design that only needed oiling every two years. They also invented a pedal that wouldn’t become unscrewed while pedaling. The only items that the Wrights didn’t make were the tires, handle bars and seats.

“We are very certain that no wheel on the market will run easier or wear longer than this one and we will guarantee it in the most unqualified manner.”

The brand name Van Cleve comes from John Van Cleve who was a pioneer ancestor of the Wrights on their father’s mother side of the family. The St. Clair was named after General Arthur St. Clair who was the first governor of the Northwest Territory.

The Wrights built several hundred bicycles of both brands. The bikes cost around $50. They never made more than $3,000 a year in the bicycle business but it was enough to finance their flying experiments. The total costs of these experiments through 1903 were only $1200. The bicycle business was doing well enough that they gave up their printing business in 1899. They had already delegated most of printing work to Ed Sines by that time.

Their first customer for a bicycle was William Lincoln, a third cousin to President Abraham Lincoln.

They stopped making their own bicycles in 1904 so that they could devote full time to the airplane business. They continued to repair and sell other brands of bikes and hired others to do the work.

Their bicycle shops were located in six different locations over the years as the business grew. In 1897 they moved both the bicycle and printing business into their sixth and last shop located at 1127 West Third Street. This is the historic “Cycle Shop” where the first airplane were invented, designed and constructed. The building along with the Wrights’ home on Hawthorn St. was purchased by Henry Ford in 1936 and moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

Few of the bicycles survive today because many were destroyed or damaged in the flood of 1913. There are two Van Cleve bicycles at Carillon Park in Dayton and one ladies Van Cleve at the Air Force Museum. There is one St. Clair that resides at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. This is the only St. Clair made by the Wrights that survives.

One day a customer came into the bicycle shop when the wind tunnel was running and asked what that wind tunnel had to do with making Van Cleve bicycles? Orville answered, “It has nothing to do with the Van Cleve except that the Van Cleve paid for it.”

It was a St. Clair bike that the Wrights fitted with a horizontal wheel to test wing foils prior to building their wind tunnel in 1901.

Bicycle manufacturing turned out to be the ideal preparation for engineering an airplane. They designed their airplane to accomplish these objectives and in the process incorporated in their design bicycle parts such as: the oversized sprocket and chain that drove the propellers, a frame structure similar to the tubular steel double-triangle frames used in their bicycles, and the bicycle chain that was used in the wing warping linkage.

There were other bicycle-related uses. They laid on the wing instead of sitting upright in order to reduce drag just as bicycle riders do in a race. They used two modified bicycle hubs as wheels on the unattached dolly that was used to ride the launching monorail during takeoff. The twisting of an inner tube box resulted in developing the structural solution for implementing wing warping.

Their bicycle business provided them with the machine tools and skills for building their gliders and airplanes. They learned to work with sprockets, spikes, tires, metals, lathes and drills.

The Wrights also knew that one had to learn how to fly an airplane, the way one learned to ride a bicycle. To learn to ride a bicycle, one must learn to balance; to learn to fly, one must learn to balance — through constant practice. The first flight in 1903 went 120 feet, the second 175 feet, the third 200 feet, and final flight went 852 feet. They were learning. In the process they invented the concept of an airplane pilot.

Home for Christmas

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

When the Wright brothers left Dayton for Kitty Hawk on September 23, 1903, they never thought that they would have trouble making it back to Dayton in time for Christmas. Christmas was a traditional family celebration that they didn’t want to miss and they had promised the family they would be back in Dayton for Christmas.

To make it back on time, they took uncharacteristic risks in dangerous weather conditions. Bad weather and mechanical failure had conspired to delay their progress.

The brothers arrived at Kitty Hawk on Sept. 25. They planned to build a new larger hanger in which to assemble and test their new Flyer. The Flyer was never assembled in Dayton.

They were pleased to find that their tools, provisions and lumber for the new building had arrived. The parts for the Flyer would arrive later.

They found that the existing building that served as their living quarters the previous year was wrecked by the winter’s storms. Fortunately, the 1902 glider they had left in the building was undamaged. That was important because they planned to fly the glider to sharpen their piloting skills.

They hired Dan Tate to help them rebuild the old building into a real home away from home and build the new hanger. Tate would also help in launching the glider. They wanted to maximize the amount of practice time in the air before trying out their Flyer so they worked on the new building on rainy and calm days and practiced gliding on days when the wind and weather permitted.

They first flew their glider on Monday September 28. They flew some 75 times off Big Kill Devil Hill that day. The wind was blowing 31 mph at times. The buffeting gave them good practice in controlling the craft.

In total they made some 300 glider flights. Their best flight lasted over 30 seconds and broke all of their old records. It was fun and they were improving their piloting skills with each flight. It was a good beginning.

On October 8 the new hanger was completed just in time to receive the last shipment of parts for the Flyer. Unfortunately, bad weather also arrived. The driving wind and rain almost blew the roof off of their living quarters. The storm lasted for four days and then turned cold. Many days were too cold to work. Their wood-burning stove made things uncomfortable inside, spouting smoke filled soot. They eventually were able to acquire a stovepipe and vent the smoke through the roof.

Orville and Wilbur were worried about other things besides the weather. They knew that Samuel Pierpont Langley was intending to fly his machine in early October. If successful he would win the race to be the first to achieve manned, heavier-than-air, powered flight.

They needn’t have worried. Langley’s machine, with Charles Manly at the controls, crashed into the Potomac River upon takeoff using a catapult system mounted on a houseboat.

Orville and Wilbur were still concerned about Langley’s effort, so they planned to launch their new Flyer by Nov. 1 as soon as it was ready instead of taking the more cautious approach of first flying it as a kite and then as a glider as they had originally intended.

By mid October the upper wing of the Flyer had been assembled and covered. On Nov. 5, the machine was nearly completed and ready for the first power plant test. They needed to confirm the accuracy of their theoretical propulsion calculations, which couldn’t be confirmed in Dayton. It was doubly important because they now found that the Flyer weighed 75 more pounds after assembly than they had originally calculated.

From the beginning, they experienced problems with the engine. It misfired which caused the propellers to vibrate so severely that the propeller hubs broke loose from where they were welded to the propeller shafts.

This caused a considerable delay in their plans, because there were no machine shops at Kitty Hawk, forcing the Wrights to return the shafts to Charlie Taylor for repair in Dayton. To add to their concern, Octave Chanute arrived in camp with news that Langley intended to try again to fly in early December.

The delay caused by repairing the propellers would be 15 days. Chanute added more cause for concern.

Chanute, with half a century of engineering experience behind him, told the brothers that no one had designed a flying machine with such small margins of safety as theirs. He disagreed with their calculations that their chain drive system would experience only a 5% power loss due to friction. Chanute said that the loss would be at least 25-30%. He didn’t think the propellers would receive enough power to achieve flight.

After 6 days Chanute departed camp leaving the brothers doubting themselves.

As was their routine when faced with problems they went to work conducting tests, going over their calculations and making adjustments.

They tested their launching procedures by laying a 60-foot launching rail on the side of Big Kill Devil Hill and launching the 1902 glider using the front elevator control. The glider successfully lifted off the ground 5 out of 6 times.

That was the end of using the aging glider, however. It was beginning to deteriorate and the wood and the cloth were showing the effects of the heat in the hanger. It was no longer safe to fly.

They next tested the strength of the front elevator of the Flyer to withstand strong wind loads. Their test method was to suspend the Flyer by the wing tips from the rafters of the hanger and add 450 pounds of weight.

The wings passed the weight test but the “Pride of West” fabric on the wing tips badly wrinkled. The fix was to rearrange the control wires to maintain aerodynamic efficiency.

The next test was a power transmission test to check out Chaunut’s claim that the Flyer could not develop sufficient power to get off the ground because of transmission loss.

Their test method was simple but effective. They hung a weight equivalent to what the engine would exert on the chains on a chain threaded over one of the sprockets. They were relieved to find that the force required to raise the weight indicated the power loss was just about equal to their original estimate of 5%.

They now needed to test the entire propulsion system in operation. The repaired propeller shafts arrived about noon on Nov. 20. They installed them and were ready to begin the test that evening.

Then they ran into another problem. The vibration from the engine was so severe that both sprocket wheels came loose within seconds. Nothing they did to tighten the nuts that locked the sprocket wheels to the propeller shafts did any good. Then they turned to a method they had used on bicycles. Glue them. They had brought Arnstein’s Hard Cement with them. They used it in Dayton to glue tires to wheels. They were using it at Kitty Hawk to seal letters. They spread it on the threads of the sprocket and heated the assembly. It worked.

They also found the source of the problem causing the vibration. The vibration had caused the fuel valve to slip resulting in an uneven flow of fuel.

At last they were ready to test the entire propulsion system.

First they checked propeller speed. The results exceeded expectations. They hoped for 305 rpm and got 350 rpm during a one-minute test.

Then they conducted a propeller thrust test. The test method was to set the Flyer on rollers. A rope was tied to the machine, strung over a pulley and tied to a 50-pound box of sand.

The engine was started and the propeller pushed the machine forward. The thrust force was measured by the weight lifted. The brothers found that their propellers were generating 132 pounds of thrust at a propeller speed of 350 rpm.

Their theoretical calculations predicted a thrust of only 90 pounds. That was great news. The extra thrust would handle the extra weight of their machine. Chanute was wrong; the machine would fly.

They performed one more test with the engine running. They again suspended the Flyer by the wing tips inside the hanger. This time a pilot was aboard while the engine was running. There were no problems, proving that the in-flight strength was satisfactory.

They were about ready to fly. Than disaster struck. They found hairline cracks in one of the propellers.

Orville went back to Dayton on Nov. 30 to make new propeller shafts from spring steel instead of the hollow steel tubing they had used.

Time was of the essence because they heard that Langley was about to make another attempt to fly and Christmas was only a month away.

Orville returned to Kitty Hawk on Dec. 12 with the new propellers. He had good news. On the return train trip he read in a newspaper that on Dec. 7, Langley had failed again, and for last time, because he had run out of funds.

The evening of Orville’s return they installed the propellers and were ready for a test flight that evening. They were disappointed; there was insufficient wind.

Instead, they tested the launching system by running the machine along the launching rail under its own power. On one of the runs the tailframe snagged the rail and broke. It was a minor repair and was quickly fixed.

Orville and Wilbur were now anxious to conduct a full flight test. December 13 was a perfect day to fly – warm weather and 18 mph wind. But it was a Sunday and they didn’t work on the machine or fly on Sundays because of their religious beliefs.

Dec. 14 was another beautiful day but the wind was only around 5 mph. They decided to give it a try with the launching rail on a slope of 9-degrees on Big Hill to provide a downhill start. Gravity would compensate for the light wind.

Five men from the local lifesaving station a quarter of a mile away with two boys and a dog answered the call to help drag the Flyer to Big Kill Devil Hill.

The engine was started and the 2 boys, startled by the noise, ran off.

A coin was tossed and Wilbur won the first chance to fly a powered flying machine. The machine, under power, moved down the rail with Orville running alongside steadying it at the right wing. About 40-feet down the rail the machine was moving too fast for Orville to keep up and Wilbur turned the front elevator up sharply, not realizing how sensitive it would be.

The Flyer surged in a steep trajectory upward to about 15 feet where it stalled and slowly lost altitude, hitting the ground with the left wing tip. The impact broke a skid and damaged the front elevator. Wilbur attributed the accident to his inexperience.

They were ecstatic despite the rough flight because they knew the machine was capable of flight. They just had to learn to fly the machine. Wilbur wrote his father, “Success assured keep quiet.”

The next two days they made repairs to the machine while watching two beautiful days pass by. On Dec. 16 they were ready to try again, but the weather wasn’t – there was no wind.

The next day, Dec 17, they got the wind and then some. Puddles from the rain that fell during the night had frozen and they measured the wind to be blowing 24-27 mph. Even the birds weren’t flying. That should have been an omen.

They did wait until 10 o’clock, but became impatient and with their mind set on being home by Christmas, decided to give it a try. They hug out the signal flag to notify the men at the lifesaving station they were going to make the attempt.

The rest is history. They made four successful flights on the 17th and became the first to make manned, heavier than air, powered, controlled, sustained flights. The last flight went 852 feet in 59 seconds.

They sent a telegram home with the exciting news of their success. According to their niece, Ivonette Miller, who was 7 in 1903, the children were more excited that Wilbur and Orville would be home for Christmas. She recalled that they said something like:

“Oh, goody, Uncle Will will be home in time to carve the Christmas turkey!”

Amanda Wright Lane, the great-grand niece of Wilbur and Orville, speaking at the Wright Memorial in Dayton on the occasion of the annual Wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the 102nd anniversary of the first flight said:

“The Wright family was thrilled to learn about that first flight, but they were happier yet to know that meant the boys, great cooks, would be home in time for Wilbur to stuff the Christmas turkey and for Orville to make his cranberry bunny, served at holiday meals.”

They arrived home the evening of Dec. 23 in time for a merry family Christmas.