Wright Brothers – History of Flight

Articles relating to the history of the first flight.

Hidden Images

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

If you have seen the classic Wright brothers’ photographs, the chances are you didn’t see everything revealed in those pictures. Now you can see them in an exciting new book by Larry Tise, Hidden Images: Discovering Details in the Wright Brothers Photographs, Kitty Hawk, 1900-1911.

This unique illustrated history brings to the reader previously unseen vivid images that allow a much more comprehensive understanding of the trials and errors endured by the Wright brothers during the historic years of early aviation.

Orville and Wilbur were skilled amateur photographers who had their own photo lab in their home in Dayton. They documented their aeronautical experiments and their surroundings with a profusion of pictures reflecting their serious tasks as well as their enjoyment of taking a vacation.

Now, through advances in technology, readers can see many details of their first cautious flights as well as a glimpse into the lives and the people who surrounded the Wright brothers during their stay at Kitty Hawk.

I have seen most of these pictures before, but I never noticed the hidden images contained in them. Here are a few examples:

The basic 1900 picture of their Kitty Hawk camp shows a tent on a lunar-like landscape. The hidden images that Tise brings out lets you see inside the front opening of the tent to reveal a neat cot piled high with folded blankets. Details of the outside of the tent reveal the tent reinforcements including diagonals on top, beams along the base on the side and a rope to a tree.

A long-range shot from their 1900 camp of buildings around the Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station reveals hidden images of the many details of the lifesaving station, including a dog house, and the weather station where a telegram was sent home in 1903 of the Wrights’ success.

Another great photo is the 1902 glider flying off Big Kill Devil Hill with the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station complex barely seen on the horizon.

A hidden photo of an enlargement of the life saving station reveals a group of buildings around the station.

These are only a few examples. All together, there are over 100 pages of photographs with hidden images.

Tise also includes brief narratives introducing each year of photos. I was pleasantly surprised to find new information that I hadn’t read before in some of these narratives.

Some examples are:

I knew that Orville didn’t make speeches but I didn’t know that he stopped giving them in 1914. His last one was at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

I knew the Wrights weren’t entirely pleased on the occasion of being awarded the Langley Medal by the Smithsonian Institution for achievement in aerodynamic investigation and its application to aviation. The Smithsonian gave Langley priority over them for his role in developing flight. Tise provides the following commentary:

“The Smithsonian’s declaration about Langley’s priority drove Wilbur and Orville to total distraction. They bit their tongues and made brotherly eyebrow-raising and winking gestures of disrespect when they received the first Langley Medal awarded by the Smithsonian on 10 February 1909, for advancing the science of aerodromes (Langley’s word) in its application to aviation by their successful investigations and demonstrations of the practicality of mechanical flight by man.”

During the visit to Kitty Hawk during 1908, only a few of the many photographs the Wrights’ shot came out. It seems that a hole was punctured in the bellows of the camera and was not discovered until their return to Dayton when they developed the pictures.

The author, Dr. Larry E. Tise, is an historian and authority on the Wright brothers. He is currently the Wilbur and Orville Visiting Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University. He also served as consulting historian for the NC First Flight Centennial Commission.

Born in Winston-Salem, NC, he has degrees from Duke University (AB, 1965; MDiv, 1968) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (PhD, 1974). This is his third book.

Orville has Nine Cat Lives

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

Flying early gliders and aircraft was dangerous business and Orville Wright survived a number of crashes. Had he been a cat, one could say that he came close to losing all of his nine lives.

Orville’s first crash occurred on September 23, 1902 at Kitty Hawk. Wilbur, looking after the welfare of his younger brother, didn’t permit Orville to learn to fly until 1902. It wasn’t until then that Wilbur believed that they had a glider safe enough for Orville to learn to fly on.

Orville and Wilbur made a few short glides on Little Hill in the morning and then moved to the steeper slope of Big Hill (site of the current Wright Memorial). Orville made a couple of glides without any problems and then on either his third or fourth glide, he noticed that one wing was too high.

He became so absorbed in making a correction by shifting the hip cradle that controls wingwarping, that he failed to notice he had forgotten to adjust the rudder. The result was the nose of the glider pointed up at a sharp angle and initiated a steep stall.

Dan Tate and Wilbur shouted a warning but they couldn’t be heard over the noise of the wind.

By the time that Orville noticed his predicament, he was 30 feet over the hill and rapidly slipping backward toward the sand. Orville reported the crash in his diary as, “a heap of flying machine, cloth, and sticks in a heap, with me in the center without a bruise or a scratch.”

Plenty of sand to provide a soft landing was one of the reasons they had picked Kitty Hawk. It was a decision that saved Orville from injury that day.

Orville’s second crash was on August 24, 1904 at Huffman Prairie outside Dayton. Orville and Wilbur were using Huffman Prairie as a test ground as they were developing the Flyer into a practical airplane.

They had flown 23 times during the month without incurring any serious crashes. The 24th flight, flown by Orville, would end in a crash that could have caused serious injury.

Orville had just taken off when a sudden gust of wind caused the flyer to dive toward the ground. Instead of moving the lever to turn the elevator up, he moved it down. The flyer hit the ground with the tail sticking up in the air.

Orville ended up lying on the ground with a splintered front spar from the upper wing across his back. Fortunately, the impact of the crash created a two-foot gap in the center of the spar. Otherwise his back may have been broken. He ended up with nothing worse than a scratched hand and bruises.

This incident caused the Wrights to develop the catapult launching system as an assist for take-off.

Orville’s third accident occurred on November 1, 1904 at Huffman Prairie. He started the engine and was in the process of conducting a preflight inspection when the stake to which the restraining wire was anchored pulled out of the soft ground. The flyer started down the track without Orville. He leaped onto a skid and managed to depress the elevator lever. That stopped the Flyer and limited damage to a few broken struts. Orville sustained a sprained shoulder.

The fourth accident occurred on July 14, 1905 at Huffman Prairie. Orville was making a test flight. Both Wilbur and Orville had been having trouble with the control system and were making design modifications. He was only in the air 23 seconds when the machine started wobbling and undulating and as a result Orville lost control of the elevator. The flyer hit the ground while moving at 30-mph, bounced three times down the field and upended on the front edges as it slid to a stop.

Orville was catapulted out of the wingwarping cradle and through a broken section of the upper wing. He emerged dazed and bruised but otherwise without a scratch.

Orville’s fifth accident was his worse. It occurred during U.S. Army qualification tests at Fort Myer, VA on September 17, 1908.

Orville was on the fourth circuit of the parade grounds before some 2,000 spectators at around 5:00 p.m. with Lt. Tom Selfridge as a passenger when he heard a strange tapping sound in the rear. He was flying at an altitude of at least 100 feet at the time. He turned and saw nothing, but thought it best to immediately prepare to land.

Suddenly, there were two loud thumps and the machine began to shake. Orville shut off the engine but found that the control levers didn’t work. The machine turned to the left, paused a moment, made a complete turn and went into a dive. About 25 feet from the ground it seemed that he had regained some control and the plane started to right itself, but it was too late.

The Flyer hit the ground with a terrific force near the gate in the cemetery wall. Orville and Selfridge were pinned under the wreckage, unconscious, with their faces buried in the dust. Soldiers and spectators ran across the field and assisted in lifting Orville and Selfridge from under the tangled mass of machinery, wires and shreds of muslin.

At the hospital it was found that Orville had fractured several ribs, fractured his left thigh including a dislocation, and suffered a scalp wound. While serious, miraculously, it was not life threatening, although it left him with frequent back pain for the rest of his life and his left leg 1/8-inch shorter than the other.

Unfortunately, Lt. Selfridge died of his injuries.

Orville’s sixth accident was also at Fort Myer the following year on July 2, 1909. Wilbur and he had returned to complete their qualification requirements that had been interrupted by the previous year’s accident.

Orville had been in the air less than eight minutes when the engine stopped. He was gliding for a routine landing when he hit a small dead thorn tree at the south end of the parade ground. The tree ripped through the fabric, broke several ribs and two skids were also broken when the Flyer hit the ground hard. Orville was shaken but uninjured.

The crowd ran to the site and began ripping off branches of the tree as souvenirs. Wilbur spotted a photographer taking a picture of the damaged Flyer and became incensed. He picked up a piece of the Flyer’s broken frame and threw it at him while demanding the photographic plate. This was the second incident like this for Wilbur. He had done the same thing in France after his second flight in 1908.

In the fall of 1911 Orville returned to Kitty Hawk with a glider to test an automatic-stabilizer he had designed. Accompanying him were his brother Lorin, Lorin’s son and an Englishman, Alexander Ogilvie.

They soon observed that photographers were around so they flew for sport only.

On October 17, Orville had his seventh accident. He flew the glider straight into the side of a sand hill. The left side of the glider was smashed but Orville was not injured.

Just six days later on October 23, Orville had his eighth accident. Just after Lorin and Ogilvie released the glider for Orville, it reared up and flipped over on its back. The glider was badly damaged but Orville emerged without injury.

By this time Orville had used up eight of his nine “cat lives.” He didn’t have any more airplane accidents, but he did have one on a train.

On January 16, 1909 Orville was involved in a train wreck in France. Orville and his sister Katharine were in France to be with Wilbur. They were traveling on the train from Paris to Pau where Wilbur was flying exhibitions when the wreck occurred.

Orville and his sister were in a sleeper car of an express train when 30-miles from Pau it collided with a slower local train. Many people were injured and two were killed. Orville and Katharine emerged without injury.

Orville “nine lives” were now used up. He rarely flew as he got older because the vibration bothered his back – a legacy of his tragic accident at Ft. Myer in 1908.

He must have thought that his days of high-risk travel were over because he didn’t bother to have insurance on his automobile even though he often broke the posted speed limit in the city of Oakwood where he lived.

A heart attack in 1948 did take Orville’s life. His funeral was held on January 30, 1948, at the First Baptist Church in Dayton. Burial was held in Woodland Cemetery. The pastor Dr. Charles Seasholes proclaimed, “Orville Wright: Simple Man of Genius.”

References: Bishops Boys by Tom Crouch, Wilbur and Orville by Fred Howard

Recent survey of a sample of the U.S. population found that 80 % of the people questioned knew that Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane, but only 14 % knew that they did it in Ohio. Half of the people that knew about Wilbur and Orville thought that they invented the first powered airplane in North Carolina.

Surprisingly, only 20 % of the respondents from the five states surrounding Ohio knew that the airplane was invented in Ohio.

The facts are that the Wrights conceived of and built the first airplane in Dayton, Ohio and flew it for the first time at Kitty Hawk, NC., in 1903. They transported their Flyer to NC to take advantage of the better winds, the soft sand and the privacy that Kitty Hawk provided.

The survey was conducted by Visual Marketing Associates, a Dayton firm, and paid for by the nonprofit Aviation Heritage Foundation of Dayton. The national survey was conducted by telephone over a three-day period.

Dayton’s centennial celebration committee (Inventing Flight) spent some $2 million on national advertising. Apparently it wasn’t that effective.

The Heritage Foundation, a recently formed organization that has combined a number of organizations interested in the Wright brothers, plans to launch a new aggressive image-building and marketing effort to position Dayton as the home of the Wright brothers. The survey was the first step.

The Dayton area and neighboring counties have recently been designated as a National Aviation Heritage area. As a result the Foundation will receive $165,000 in federal funds this year and has raised some $250,000 in private funds. They hope to receive a total of federal and private funds of at least $500,000 in 2006.

The Kitty Hawk Flyer was an experimental airplane that demonstrated that a heavier-than-air powered flight was possible. But, it was far from being a practical airplane.

After the Wrights returned to Dayton, they devoted two years to experimentation and design changes at Huffman Prairie, now a part of Wright-Patterson Air Force. The 1905 Flyer, during its final flight over Huffman Prairie on October 5, 1905, flew over 24 miles in almost 39 minutes at a speed of 38-mph. The local newspaper wrote that they were making sensational flights every day. The Wrights were pleased that they now had a practical airplane that they could market.

The 1905 airplane is one of the prized possessions on display in Dayton.

Many scientific people around the world, including the US Government, doubted the Wrights’ claim that they flew an airplane.

The prestigious Scientific American published an editorial in 1906 questioning the validity of the 1903-1905 flights.

Wilbur and Orville, fighting for proper recognition sent a letter outlining their experiments to the Aero Club of America on March 12, 1906. Their letter was the first public announcement in the United States that they had flown distances up to 24 miles.

The club in turn passed a resolution congratulating the Wrights for successfully developing a practical man-carrying flying machine.

As a result, The editor of the Scientific American decided to take another look at the Wrights claim to success by sending questionnaires to the alleged witnesses to the flights in Dayton.

The questionnaires were sent to 17 witnesses and eleven of them filled out the questionnaires and returned them. The positive response convinced the editor that the Wrights did do what they claimed.

The April 7, 1906 issue of the Scientific American withdrew their original story and included the Wrights’ letter to the Aero Club. The article included a letter from Charles Webbert, the Wrights bicycle shop landlord, who was a creditable eyewitness to a number of Wright flights at Huffman Prairie.

The David Beard family lived closest to the Huffman Prairie flying field and observed most of the activities that were going on. Whenever Mrs. Beard observed a hard landing of the flying machine, she would send one of her children over to the prairie with a bottle of liniment.

Other neighbors observing the activities in 1904 were the Harshmans, Millers, and Amos Stouffer, all of which had visited and talked with Wilbur and Orville.

Amos Root of Medina, Ohio, stayed with the Beards and observed Wilbur make the first complete circle in an airplane on September 20 1904. Root accurately described the flight in his publication, Gleanings in Bee Culture.

On November 9, Mr. Brown and Mr. Read, two supervisors with the interurban railroad, ordered their crew of the inspection train to hold up at Simms station so that they could watch Wilbur fly four complete circles of the field.

Webbert and C.S. Billman and his son, Charley, witnessed the October 4, 1905 flight in which Wilbur flew for 33 minutes without stopping. Billman was a West Dayton neighbor and the Secretary of the West Side Building and Loan Company.

Charley, 3 years old, ran around the house for weeks afterward with arms outstretched making a sound like an airplane. One skeptic who visited the home after observing Charley remarked, “I’m about convinced. That boy could not be a paid witness.”

Wilbur flew his longest flight the next day, October 5th. He flew 29 circles for a distance of 24 1/5-miles.

Amos Stauffer, a tenant farmer on the Huffman property who was cutting corn at the time said to a helper, “the boys are at it again.” He walked down to the fence to watch commenting, “I thought the flight would never end.”

Also on that day, William Huffman accompanied his father, Torrence, out to the flying field on the interurban train. Torrence owned Huffman Prairie and permitted the Wrights to use the land free of charge as long as they moved the cows and horses out of the way.

William Huffman and David Beard’s son sat on a farm wagon and made a mark on the wagon floor after each circle of the prairie.

The next day the Dayton Daily News reported that the Wrights were making spectacular flights. John Tomlinson of the paper, offered $50 to Henry Webbert to keep him informed when the Wrights would be flying.

The Wrights now had the practical airplane they were working for and so they began decreasing the number of times they flew as the increasing crowd of spectators made them nervous that they might compromise their secrets of flight.

Then they decided to stop altogether until they had a contract in hand. Their last flight was on October 16, 1905. They would not fly again for the next 31 months. This made marketing their airplane more difficult, but it was a price that they chose to pay to protect what they had invented.

The word of their success was beginning to spread. In Paris, Frank Lahm, a representative for Remington Typewriter Co. and a native of Ohio, was interested in aeronautics and wanted to know more about the Wrights’ activities. He asked a relative of his in Ohio to investigate.

Henry Weaver visited the Wrights in Dayton on Dec. 3rd. Orville took him to Huffman Prairie and visited with David Beard and Amos Stouffer. They also met with William Fouts, who operated a drugstore near the Wrights bicycle shop and who had witnessed Wilbur’s record breaking flight on Oct 5th at Huffman Prairie.

That evening Weaver met the rest of the Wright family at their home.

Weaver was convinced that the Wrights had flown even though he had not winnessed a flight and sent a favorable report to Lahm.

A steady stream of visitors followed Weaver.

The French Government sent a commission to Dayton. They interviewed witnesses, examined photographs and were convinced of the Wrights’ claims, but nothing more came of it.

The British sent their military attaché in Washington, LtCol. A. E. Count to Dayton. He left impressed, but nothing came of it because the British thought the price was too high.

Finally, contracts were signed on two continents at almost the same time. The US War Department contract was awarded on Feb. 8, 1908.

Three weeks later a contract was signed with Lazare Walker of France.

Wilbur wowed the French and captured the imagination of the world at Les Hunaudieres on August 8th. Orville flew at Ft. Myer, Va. on September 3rd.

Reference: What Dreams We Have: The Wright Brothers and Their Hometown of Dayton Ohio by Ann Honious.

The French Competition

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

The French considered themselves the world leaders in flying. The Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly in a balloon filled with hot air in 1783. The French followed that up a hundred years later with the first successful dirigible. They even claimed six years later to be the first to fly a manned, heavier-than-air machine.

Their high-flying balloon of superiority was punctured and their national pride wounded when they learned of the Wright Brothers success in 1903.

Even their claim of being the first to fly a manned, heavier-than-air machine was an exaggeration. In actuality, Clement Ader’s steam-powered, bat-wing shaped machine made an uncontrolled hop in 1890. He tried again in 1897 with an improved machine, but it never got off the ground.

Frustrated, most French experimenters lost interest in flying machines and concentrated their efforts on balloons and dirigibles. There was one Frenchman, however, who maintained an avid interest in flying machines. He was Captain Ferdinand Ferber.

Ferber followed with interest the glider experiments of Octave Chanute, American French born internationally known aeronautical experimenter. From Chanute, Ferber learned of the activities of the Wrights in 1901. Subsequently, he began a correspondence directly with Wilbur Wright.

Ferber tried unsuccessfully to build some gliders based on what he had learned, but they performed poorly.

Ferber was not one who was easily discouraged and he continued to advocate through lectures and articles that the French should direct more attention to heavier-than-air flying machines.

Ernest Archdeacon, a wealthy attorney and a founder of the Aero Club of France heard the message. He added his influence to publicize the urgent need for the French to develop a flying machine. “The airplane must not be allowed to reach successful development in America,” he emphatically stated.

In April 1903, Chanute, a friend of the Wrights and their guest at Kitty Hawk during the glider experiments in 1901 and 1902, was invited to give a lecture to the Aero Club of France. In his illustrated lecture, he provided a summary of the Wrights gliding experiments, including how they were able to execute controlled turns of their glider using wingwarping.

While not understanding all of the fine points of the lecture, the audience now knew that the Wrights were way ahead of them in the race to fly.

Ferber, who was present at the lecture, fired off an urgent letter to Archdeacon pleading for increased financial support for French experimentation.

It was too late, the word came in December 1903 that the Wrights were successful and had flown.

Archdeacon responded by commissioning the construction of a flying machine based on the information that Chanute had provided in his lecture and articles such as in the Aerophile that included drawings of the Wright gliders.

Further, as a incentive to others, he and a wealthy industrialist, Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe each contributed 25,000 francs ($5,000) to establish a prize to be awarded to the first powered flight around a course of one kilometer (.62 miles) long.

Archdeacon was skeptical of whether the Wrights actually flew. A newspaper reporter for L’ Auto was dispatched to visit Dayton to find out. The Wrights wouldn’t show him their machine, however, based on his interview of witnesses, he reported that “it was impossible to doubt the success of their experiments.”

Archdeacon still refused to believe they had flown. He challenged the Wrights through the French press to come to France and try for the 50,000-franc award that he and Deutsch had established. “It will assuredly not tire you very much to make a brief visit to France to collect this little prize.”

The Wrights did not respond.

The French, including Archdeacon, Santos-Dumont, Delagrange, Voisins, Kapferer, Bleriot and Farman tried hard to develop a machine that would fly by trying versions of the Wright design instead of doing their own basic research.

The problem with their approach was that the Wrights revealed few of their secrets in their drawings. Chanute, although a close friend of the Wrights,’ didn’t understand the subtleties of the Wright design, particularly wingwarping, enough to explain them in his lectures to the French. The French couldn’t figure it out even after the printing of the Wright patent and the publication of numerous pictures of the Wright machines in the Scientific American in 1906.

Still, the French regarded the Wrights as “bluffeurs.” “Fliers or Liars,” said the headline of the Paris edition of the New York Herald on February 10, 1906.

It wasn’t until January 13, 1908, that the French managed to fly a heavier-than air-machine over a one-kilometer circuit. On that date Henry Farman won the Archdeacon 50,000 francs cup in a flight lasting one minute and 28 seconds. The flight was far from perfect. His turn at the halfway point was awkward and the machine wobbled as it performed the wide flat turn.

In contrast, the Wright brothers had flown 39 times that distance (24 miles) two years earlier at Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio.

In June 1908, Wilbur finally made the trip to France after a group of French businessmen promised to manufacture the Wright machine contingent upon a successful demonstration in France.

The Wright machine was severely damaged during the French custom inspection, requiring Wilbur to spend seven weeks to rebuild the machine while in France. Finally on August 8, Wilbur was ready for a demonstration flight of his Wright Model A Flyer at the Hunaudieres racetrack near Le Mans.

Wilbur was dressed in his usual suit, a visor cap set backwards and starched collar. The engine started and quickly died when Wilbur’s back collar stud caught on the control wires.

Soon after, the weight dropped from the launching derrick, propelling the machine into the air.

French aviation reporter, Francois Peyrey, describes what happened: “We beheld the great white bird soar above the racecourse and pass over and beyond the trees. We were able to follow easily each movement of the pilot, note his extraordinary proficiency in the flying business, perceive the curious warping of the wings in the process of circling and the shifting and position of the rudders. After one minute and 45 seconds of flight, Wright returned to the ground, descending with extraordinary buoyancy and precision.”

The crowd cheered loudly. “Well, we are beaten!” exclaimed one spectator. Another said, “We are as children compared with the Wrights.”

Wilbur wrote Orville on August 15, “In the second flight, I made an “eight” and landed at the starting point. The newspapers and the French aviators went wild with excitement. Blenot and Delagrange were so excited they could scarcely speak, and Kapferer could only gasp and could not talk at all. You would have almost died of laughter if you could have seen them.”

Wilbur, between August 1908 and January 1909, made more than a 100 demonstration flights in France and took up 60 passengers, astounding spectators and bringing on instant fame.