Wright Brothers – History of Flight

Articles relating to the history of the first flight.

The Wright Brothers were not always revered in Dayton as they are now. Here are some examples:

First Flight News: When Loren Wright presented the telegram from Orville and Wilbur describing their first flight on Feb. 17, 1903, the editor of the Dayton paper didn’t publish the news because he didn’t he didn’t see anything significant enough to publish.

The City of Dayton didn’t get around to publicly honoring the Wrights until it held a homecoming celebration on June 17, 1909, six years after the first flight.

The Wright Family Homestead, 7 Hawthorne St., where Orville was born, was sold to Henry Ford in 1936, then dismantled and moved to Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Wright Cycle Shop, 1127 West Third St., the Wright brothers’ fifth bicycle shop, where the Kitty Hawk Flyer was built also ended up in Greenfield Village.

Orville Wright’s Laboratory, 15 N. Broadway was demolished in 1976 for a gas station that was never built. A nice park containing a statue of Orville and a false front of the laboratory has been built in recent years. It also contains an operating ATM machine.

Hawthorn Hill in Oakwood was the home of Orville, Katharine and the bishop beginning in 1913. The National Cash Register Company bought the house after Orville’s death in 1948. That action saved the house but it is not open to the public except for rare occasions.

The first Wright Aircraft Company manufacturing building was built in 1910 on West Third St., further west of the fifth bicycle shop. A second building was built a year later. It was in these two buildings that the American aviation industry was born. Delphi now owns them and Delphi is currently in serious financial trouble. The buildings, pictured below, are still in use and in good condition. The Wright buildings are not open to the public and were not even during the Wright centennial celebration in 2003. Will the city be able to save these historic buildings if Delphi puts them up for sale?

Lawrence Blake, Superintendent of the Dayton Heritage National Historical Park provided the latest information on this question.

The National Park Service in 1992 studied the Wright Company Factory buildings for inclusion within the Dayton Aviation Heritage Historical Park. The study concluded that the buildings were outstanding examples of a particular type of resource and potentially, they offer exceptional value in illustrating and interpreting cultural themes of our nation’s heritage. However, the Park Service did not recommend inclusion in the park primarily because the buildings were inaccessible to the public.

Note: Delphi would not let me in the gate to photograph the buildings during the Centennial. The picture above was taken on Sunday through the chain link fence while no was there.

Since 1992, ownership of the property has shifted from General Motors to the Delphi Corporation. It is currently part of a complex of manufacturing buildings still in operation. Delphi has not made commitments for the future of the plant, which includes the Wright Company buildings, but has indicated a strong interest in the preservation of these buildings.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (P.L 108-447) included a provision directing the National Park Service to update the previous study, and to specifically include an analysis of alternatives for incorporating the Wright Company factory buildings as a unit of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

The National Park Service initiated a Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment of the Wright Company factory buildings in January 2005 with the active participation of Delphi and the Aviation Heritage Foundation. A draft Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment is scheduled for release and a 30-day public review in January 2006. A public meeting will be held in Dayton during the public review period.

The Special Study/Environmental Assessment of the Wright Company Factory buildings will be completed later in 2006.

Community organizations and individuals in Dayton have been actively supporting this 5th site of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park.

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.