The Wright Brothers 1900 Glider Experiments at Kitty Hawk

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

Before the Wright Brothers, all other attempts to fly were failures. In 1896, the death of the famous German glider pilot Otto Lilienthal, victim of a glider accident, discouraged further attempts to fly by the Europeans. The death of Lilienthal after six successive years of experiments involving 2,000 glides, had the opposite effect on the Wrights. It strengthened their resolve to find the solution.

Defining The Problem

They began by studying the available literature. They found no books on the subject of aeronautics in the Dayton Library. At the time, aeronautics was a discredited subject and consequently the libraries did not ordinarily carry books on that subject.

They wrote and received material from the Smithsonian Institution and from Octave Chanute. Chanute, author of “Progress in Flying Machines,” was an internationally respected Chicago aeronautic historian and experimenter. Wilbur wrote to Chanute and an extraordinary collaboration resulted that included 435 letters that continued until Chanute’s death in 1910

From Lilienthal they were reinforced in their idea to learn to fly gliders before advancing to powered machines and the use of cambered wings. They also used the aerodynamic coefficients that were developed by Lilienthal in their design calculations for their gliders.

On the whole, Wilbur was not impressed with the information he found. The main thing he learned was the mistakes that others had made. He concluded that the problem of flight was so vast and many-sided that no one could hope to win unless possessed with the unusual ability to grasp the essential points and to ignore the nonessentials.

Orville and Wilbur, unlike the others, who kept doing the same things and got the same unsatisfactory results, identified the essential issues of flight were lift and control, but especially control – the ability to balance and steer the machine in flight.

Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute, “My observation of the flight of buzzards leads me to believe that they regain their lateral balance when partly overturned by a gust of wind, by a torsion of the tips of the wings.”

To test his theory, in 1899, he built and flew a 5-foot biplane box kite at Ahlers Park not far from his home in Dayton. Wilbur rigged the kite with four cords that were arranged so that he could exercise control of flight by twisting the wing tips of the kite simultaneously in opposite directions, a process Chanute named as wing warping.

It worked! It would enable the Wrights to build the ability to control a flying machine into the machine itself.

Selection of Kitty Hawk

By 1900, the Wrights had progressed sufficiently in their engineering analysis of the mystery of flying that they were ready to conduct real life experiments using gliders.

Their 5-foot kite had worked, but they were not sure that it would work with a scaled-up glider. They remembered that a scaled-up version of a toy helicopter they made as children, did not work.

They designed a glider with a forward elevator (canard) and used the latest data available on the appropriate camber shape for the wings. The glider had a wingspan of 17-feet, 5-inches and weighed 52 pounds. It cost $15. Now they needed a place to experiment with the glider.

They wanted a location that provided privacy, sufficient wind for lift, and sand for soft landings. The latter was important because many others had died in their attempts at flying. A popular saying at the time was: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old and bold pilots.”

It is a good thing they considered safety because in hindsight their glider had many problems and was dangerous to fly.

They considered a number of locations such as California, Florida and South Carolina. Kitty Hawk was in sixth place on the list of windy locations provided by the weather bureau. What drew them to the little fishing village of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was Bill Tate.

Bill, 40 years old, was a Currituck County commissioner, notary public and the assistant postmaster of Kitty Hawk. He also was the best-educated citizen of Kitty Hawk, a town with a population of about 60. He found out about the Wrights when Wilbur wrote to the government weather station on Kitty Hawk on August 3, 1900 inquiring about weather conditions.

Somehow the letter was transferred to Tate to answer. Tate, who was interested in promoting this remote area, wrote the Wrights that Kitty Hawk offered excellent conditions for their experiments, “including a sandy beach with a bare hill in the center 80 feet high with no trees or bushes to obstruct the wind.” As further inducement, he offered his family’s hospitality.

The Wrights accepted the invitation and as it turned out, the Tate family was a big help. Bill and his half brother, Dan, assisted with the experiments and even Dan’s 9-year old son occasionally served as ballast on the glider. Orville used Bill Tate’s wife’s sewing machine to sew the French sateen fabric on the wings.

Wilbur wrote to his father, “It is my belief that flight is possible and, while I am taking up the investigation for pleasure rather than profit, I think there is a slight possibility of achieving fame and fortune from it.”

The Dangerous Trip

The technical problems of flying weren’t the only problems that Orville and Wilbur Wright had to overcome. Getting themselves and their equipment from Dayton, Ohio, to Kitty Hawk was difficult and dangerous. Wilbur almost drowned in a storm in Albermarle Sound on this first trip in 1900.

On September 6, 1900, Wilbur left Dayton by train headed for Kitty Hawk for the first of what became four annual trips. Orville would follow later with the camping equipment. Wilbur had with him the disassembled glider and all the tools needed for the experiments, except for the long spruce spars used in the wings. He planned to buy those in Norfolk, Virginia.

He arrived in Old Point Comfort, Virginia and a day later took the ferry to Norfolk. The next day he tried to buy the spruce wing spars but had to settle for white pine that were two feet shorter than the planned eighteen-foot length. As a result, this required an unplanned design modification to the wings upon arrival at Kitty Hawk. That change reduced the area of the wings and consequently the effectiveness of their “lift” experiments.

The day in Norfolk was an unseasonably hot 100 degrees. Wilbur, always properly dressed in a suit and wearing a starched collar, almost had a heat stroke. However, the greatest obstacle to his health was yet to come.

In those days there were no bridges to Kitty Hawk. The usual way people ventured to Kitty Hawk was by a small sailboat from Manteo, Roanoke Island, NC. Manteo is located 50 miles from Elizabeth City.

Wilbur was impatient and decided to take a shortcut, bypassing Manteo. Arriving in Elizabeth City, he decided to rent a boat to take him directly to Kitty Hawk.

He was able to secure passage on a schooner owned by Israel Perry, a resident of Kitty Hawk. Perry’s schooner was anchored several miles away and could be reached only by a flat-bottomed fishing boat that Perry lived on.

Wilbur set out on the fishing boat with a trunk and the 16-foot wing spars. There wasn’t room for the crates that held the dissembled glider so he left them behind in storage to be forwarded later by a freight boat.

The fishing boat rode low in the water and it wasn’t long before all hands, including Wilbur, had to bail water to keep the boat afloat. In this manner they reached Perry’s schooner, the Curlicue. Any feeling of relief the party may have had wouldn’t last long.

The worst was yet to come.

The Curlicue set sail down the Pasquotank River into Albemarle Sound about nightfall. Shortly thereafter, with little warning, a storm struck. The Curlicue began to violently roll in the waves and sprung an ominous leak. Once again everyone had to bail water.

The schooner couldn’t be turned around because of the danger of being swamped, so they headed into the wind and managed to go back up around the tip of Camden Point. In the process, the foresail blew loose and Wilbur was pressed into service to help take it down. Then the mainsail tore loose and caused the stern to swing around to the wind, allowing waves to break over the stern.

Fortunately, the schooner made relative safety of the North River by reaching a sandbar with only the jib taking the wind. Disaster was prevented. They rode out the rest of the storm at anchor. A drenched Wilbur spent the night on the deck trying to sleep.

The next day the weather cleared and the Curlicue set sail again for Kitty Hawk, arriving that night at the wharf. It was dark when they arrived. Not knowing the way, Wilbur spent another night sleeping on the deck.

The next morning Wilbur arrived at the Tate house famished, exhausted and bedraggled. He hadn’t eaten anything in the past 48 hours but some jelly his sister, Katharine, had packed for him.

A young neighbor boy, Elijah Baum, showed Wilbur the way to the house. When Tate answered the door, Wilbur took off his cap and introduced himself as the man “to whom you wrote concerning this section.” His arrival was a surprise to the Tates because he had not bothered to write and tell them he was coming. However, the Tates were very gracious and made room for Wilbur in their house.

It had taken Wilbur a week to journey from Dayton to Kitty Hawk. He stayed at the Tate’s house until Orville arrived two weeks later. Orville had an easier trip of four days. His only problem was his boat became becalmed on Albemarle Sound for a day because of no wind.

The people at Kitty Hawk thought they were eccentric as they dressed in suits as the middle class did in those days. The villagers also were not sure that God meant man to fly. But it turned out that it wasn’t long before the Wright were accepted.

Experiments Had Mixed Results

The results of their glider experiments were mixed. They used a spring scale to measure lift and measured the angle of attack and wind speed. Their biggest disappointment was that the glider did not produce as much lift as they had predicted. The unmanned glider would not fly in a wind of less than 22 mph. They thought it might be because they had had to substitute the two-foot shorter spars than called for in their design.

Their original design would have provided a wing area of 250 square feet. Because of the design change, the area was reduced to 165 square feet.

They also considered other causes of inadequate lift. The camber of the wing might be insufficient, the cloth used in the wings might not be sufficiently air tight, and the Lilienthal tables that they used in their lift calculations might be in error.

They mostly flew their glider as a kite, sometimes attached to a derrick. They even tried throwing it off the brow of a dune. Sometimes they placed chain on the craft to add weight. Young Tom Tate, Bill Tate’s eight-year-old nephew, rode the glider several times.

The first day they began glider experiments flying the glider as a kite. It didn’t take long before Wilbur wanted to try his hand at flying on the glider. Orville and Bill Tate each grabbed the wing tips on each side along with 15-20 feet of coiled line tied to each side. Wilbur took a position in the cutout on the middle of the lower wing. It was much like a beginner at hang gliding learns to fly today.

At Wilbur’s signal, all three ran with the glider into the wind. Wilbur jumped aboard and grabbed the elevator control while placing his feet on the T-bar at the rear.

Meanwhile Orville and Tate begin playing out the line slowly as the glider rose in the wind. At the height of 15-feet the glider began to pitch rapidly up and down. Wilbur yelled, “Let me down.”

Orville and Tate pulled on the ropes and gently the glider came down and landed without incident. Wilbur commented: “I promised Pop I would take care of myself.”

On September 23 Wilbur wrote to his father: “I do not intend to take dangerous chances, both because I have no wish to get hurt and because a fall would stop my  experimenting, which I would not like at all. The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and over confidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.”

Wilbur decided that they would continue their testing with the glider unmanned. They erected a derrick from which a rope was attached to the glider. They would send the glider up to about 20 feet and control it by manipulation of strings attached to the elevator (they called it the rudder at that time). They had problems, however, because the glider wanted to keep climbing in the wind and when they pulled hard on the strings to bring it down, it would dart for the ground.

They decided that flying the kite from a tower wasn’t going to work. They then flew the glider from the ground but discovered that it was very difficult to manipulate the wing warping and rudder mechanism’s simultaneously. The problem seemed to be with the elevator.

The wing warping system for lateral control worked satisfactorily, but there were problems with the elevator used for pitch control (nose up and down). Orville wrote home to his sister, Katharine, “We tried it with tail (elevator) in front, behind, and every other way. When we got through, Will was so mixed up he couldn’t even theorize.”

They even tossed their unmanned glider off the brow of a dune to see what would happen. They learned that the glider would come down with little damage. That gave them confidence in the airworthiness of their design.

Their last day at Kitty Hawk, October 19, was perfect for gliding. Wilbur decided to get on and fly the glider again. The wing warping was tied off. Orville and Tate at the wingtips ran with the glider as long as possible to maintain lateral balance as it skimmed down the slope of the dune. By the end of the day Wilbur made a number of glides of 300-400 feet, lasting as long as 15 seconds, flying within 5-feet of the ground. This was as good as Octave Chanute and Lilienthal had been able to achieve. He was jubilant, sufficiently so to look forward to returning next year with an improved glider.

Before departure from Kitty Hawk, they gave the glider one last toss from the top of the dune. The Wrights told Mrs. Tate she could have the French sateen fabric covering the wings to make new dresses for her two daughters. One of her daughters, interviewed years later, still had her dress.

Although they were disappointed with the lift of their glider, they were pleased overall with their first attempt to fly. Wilbur wrote to Chanute, “The short time at our disposal for practice prevented as thorough tests of these features as we desired, but the results obtained were very favorable and experiments will be continued along the same line next year.”

They also had a good time on what they considered their vacation. They supplemented their food supply by hunting. “This is a great country for fishing and hunting,” Orville wrote to his sister. “The fish are so thick you see dozens of them whenever you look down into the water. The woods are filled with wild game, they say; even a few “b’ars” are prowling about the woods not far away.”

It was also significant that Orville became committed to the project and Wilbur for the first time began using “we” when describing their activities.

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