Wright Brothers – The Kitty Hawk Years

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

Returning to Dayton after their 1901 glider experiments at Kitty Hawk, Orville and particularly Wilbur were dejected. The glider did glide but the lift generated by their glider was much less than they had expected and they experienced control problems as well. Wilbur was so puzzled that he declared, “Not within a thousand years would man ever fly.”

The Speech

Shortly after returning home, an unexpected event shook Wilbur out of his funk. He received a letter from his friend, Octave Chanute inviting him to be the featured speaker at the upcoming meeting of the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago.

His immediate reaction was to refuse the invitation. Katharine, however, thought it would be a wonderful occasion to introduce her brother to influential people. She prevailed upon him to accept.

In a letter to their father Milton, she admitted, “Will was about to refuse but I nagged him into going.”

There was one other problem. Wilbur didn’t have any suitable clothes to wear for such an occasion. Orville, who always dressed well, offered his.

“We had a picnic getting Will off to Chicago,” Katharine wrote to her father. “Orville offered all his clothes so off went Ullam (Wilbur), arrayed in Orv’s shirt, collars, cuffs, cuff-links and overcoat. We discovered that to some extent clothes do make the man for you never saw Will look so swell.”

“We asked him (Wilbur) whether it (the speech) was to be witty or scientific,” wrote Katharine, “and he said it would be pathetic before he got through with it.”

Wilbur titled his speech, “Late Gliding Experiments.” Thinking about what he was going to say forced him to think seriously about what caused the lift problem. He decided that the trouble was with the Lilienthal data for curved airfoils that they had used to calculate wing size and shape.

In his Chicago speech, Wilbur boldly declared that the data in the Lilienthal tables contained serious errors. “The lifting capacity seemed scarcely 1/3 of the calculated amount.”

The speech was printed in the December, 1901 issue of the Journal of the Western Society of Engineers. The written version, however, was toned down somewhat. At this point Wilbur had no proof of his claim.

Wilbur also told his audience that “… if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

The speech was important because it gave Wilbur a new boost in confidence. These were people of high position. Their acceptance of what he said was a big moment for him.

The Wind Tunnel Experiments

The Wrights decided they needed to generate their own data to support their assertion that there was something wrong with the historical data they were using in their calculations. These test reveal the true genius of the Wrights.

Orville designed and their employee Charlie Taylor built a wind tunnel.

It consisted of a wooden box, six feet long, sixteen inches on a side, with a window on top that allowed the interior to be viewed. A fan mounted at one end was capable of producing 25 to 35 mph winds. They also created the instrumentation necessary to measure lift and drag forces at various angles and the effect of lift on varying wing curvatures as well as leading and trailing edge thickness. This was the first use of a wind tunnel to conduct aeronautical research.

Initially, they had mounted a bicycle wheel rim free to spin horizontally on a bike to test the wing shapes. The results showed they were on the right track, but the apparatus didn’t work very well.

Orville followed that up by building a small wind tunnel out of a starch box while Wilbur was in Chicago.

Their final wind tunnel was one of just ten existing in the world and the third in the U.S. The other wind tunnels were in academic environments and were used for specific airflow studies. The Wrights were interested in designing a wing, not theoretical studies.

The one trouble they had with the wind tunnel was that it produced too much turbulence. To correct the problem, they built a baffle in front of the fan. Modern wind tunnels place the fan at the other end so as to pull the air through the tunnel.

They conducted parametric studies (e.g. compare long, narrow wings with short, narrow ones) with nearly 200 different miniature metal wing foils in their wind tunnel, including stacked wings. Based on this data they determined the most efficient shape or configuration to create the most lift with the least drag. In the course of their tests over a period of only two months they redefined aeronautics for the next century.

Among other things, they proved the fallacy of sharp edges at the front of wings, the inefficiency of deeply cambered wings and the inefficiency of wings with low aspect ratio (short length, narrow wings). These were design features thought important by others.

They found that the Lilienthal data was valid only for the specific shape of the wing used by him. That and another factor they discovered was in error, known as the Smeaton coefficient, caused them to overestimate the lift of their gliders by 40%.

Wilbur wrote to Chanute: “I am absolutely certain that Lilienthal’s table is very seriously in error. But that the error is not so great as I had previously estimated.” (Wilbur found that the Lilienthal data wasn’t that much in error, the major error was in the value of the Smeaton coefficient.) Chanute, had trouble grasping their ideas.

Now, for the first time, wings could be designed efficient enough to support the flight of a machine. This was an important breakthrough because the Wrights established an important concept ignored by others. It is the wings, not the engine, which lifts an airplane into the air.

Their wind tunnel results permitted them to rapidly close in on being able to fly. Everybody else was designing “full scale.” Build a full-scale glider, see the results; then go back and build another one. This was a wasteful trial-and-error approach that cost money and time.

In contrast the Wrights completed all of their work in six weeks by working fourteen hours a day and finished in time to enjoy Christmas with their family.

The glider experiments at Kill Devil Hills in 1902 were to put to the test all the Wright Brothers research on flight. They knew they were closing in on the secret of flight.

Their data exceeded anything that was to be available for the next decade. They used their new data to build a larger glider that for the first time added a twin tail. Also, they changed the manipulation of the wing warping from foot control to the movement of the hips in a cradle on the lower wing.

Both the wing warping and the elevator controls were made more instinctive for the pilot. For example, the pilot would shift his weight to the high wing when the glider tipped.

Back in 1899 the brothers thought they might make some contribution to man’s effort to fly. Now they were confident that they could solve the problem of flight by themselves.

Orville later wrote, “When we were carrying on our wind-tunnel work we had no thought of ever trying to build a powered plane. We did the work just for the fun we got out of learning new truths.” After the plane’s performance affirmed the accuracy of their tables, Orville said, “we saw it would not be hard to design a man-carrying power aeroplane.”

The Third Trip to Kitty Hawk

The prior trips to Kitty Hawk were difficult and living was basic outdoor camping. This trip they were determined to camp in comfort.

The trip to Kitty Hawk, unlike the first two, was problem free. Upon arrival on August 28th they set about expanding and improving the crude building they had built the year before that was badly in need of repair. They now had a combination kitchen, dining room and bedroom. Their dining table consisted of oilcloth over two thicknesses of burlap. Their beds were reached by a ladder and consisted of two thicknesses of heavy burlap stretched between wooden frames up among the rafters. It was rustic, but a vast improvement from tent living.

“Will is thin and so is Orv,” Katharine wrote to their father. “They will be all right when they get down in the sand where salt breezes blow, etc. They think that life at Kitty Hawk cures all ills you know.”

The Mouse

Soon after arrival, they had an uninvited guest, a mouse, whose noises while searching for food kept them awake at night. Orville built a mousetrap to get the mouse. He confidently called it the death trap.

That night Orville was awakened with the mouse crawling over his face. Orville, with his dry humor, commented that the mouse was waking him up to put more corn bread in the trap.

He never did catch the smart little mouse. It was found dead ten days later under a trunk.

Gliding Experiments

It took three weeks to assemble their glider.

During the day, the Wrights’ concentrated on flying. Wilbur in his Chicago speech said that the key to the secret of flying is practice. It was like learning to ride a horse.

One of their critical concerns was whether the wings they had designed using the data from their wind tunnel tests would generate sufficient lift. They based the design of the glider’s wings on airfoil number 12.

Their test data predicted a long, narrow wing is more efficient than a shorter one with the same area. The 1902 glider’s wing span was ten feet longer than the previous year’s glider and the cord was two feet shorter. As expected, they found the 32-foot wings with a 5-foot cord and chamber of close to 1:30 provided excellent lift.

Another feature of their new glider was that the wings were set in a negative dihedral. In other words they drooped. This feature provided greater stability and pilot control.

Perfecting the Turn

They had another concern. This one was with the wing warping mechanism that they used to control roll from side-to-side.

The design provided for the wings to be warped by the sideways movements of the pilot’s hips. The pilot was prone in a cradle (used for the first time) attached to warping wires that in turn were attached to the wings. In such a fashion the pilot could control the lateral direction of the glider.

They had added a fixed vertical double tail to their new glider to improve control while making a turn. They found that control was improved but not perfect.

Performance exceeded expectations except under some mystifying conditions, instead of the glider righting itself when the wing warping was applied, the craft would go into a tailspin. The Wrights called the phenomenon “well-digging,” because one wing tip would be forced into the ground with a screwing action.

This was a serious problem because most flying accidents are caused by a stall-spin sequence.

Orville solved the problem. One night he had trouble sleeping because he drank too much coffee. Not one to waste time, he thought about the problem. His solution was to change the double tail to a single tail and make the tail movable like a ship’s rudder.

As was typical, when one Wright brother had an idea, the other would improve on it. Part of their success in solving problems was derived from the fact that they were a great team.

Wilbur suggested that the wires used for wing warping should also be interconnected with the rudder control wires. In that way the two could be synchronized.

The glider could now be rolled left or right while still maintaining stability and control in flight. Also, the pilot could control two things at once, instead of three.

The wing warping cradle mechanism simultaneously controlled the wings and the tail, and a vertical lever operated by hand was used to control the elevator. In this way they could perform the basic aerial maneuvers necessary for controlled flight about three axes.


Some 1,000 glides, the longest being 622.5 feet in 26 seconds, demonstrated that they had solved most of the problems of stability and control and had the first workable airplane. They demonstrated that control and stability were related and that an airplane turned by rolling. The glider could hover like a bird, and turn and fly at right angles to the wind. Orville longest flight was 615.5 feet.

Their basic patent issued in 1906 was based on their concept of flight control used on this glider. The Wrights were forced to defend their patent many times, but never lost a court fight. It has withstood the test of time and still defines the basis for flight of all machines that fly, including the space shuttle.

Visitors in Camp

Octave Chanute asked the Wrights if he could bring two gliders of different designs to their camp for testing. Chanute wanted them to observe these designs with the hope that the gliders would attain automatic stability in flight. The Wrights humored Chanute, believing a better approach was to use human control as they were doing.

Chanute brought with him Augustus Herring to assemble and fly the gliders. One glider was a multi-wing machine that Chanute had designed, and the other was an oscillating-wing machine that a C. H. Lamson, of kite fame had designed. Neither flew successfully.

Herring turned out to be a scoundrel who would cause the Wrights trouble in the future. For example, after the Wrights filed for their patent in 1903, Herring wrote them and falsely claimed he held a prior patent on a machine similar to theirs and wanted a 1/3 interest in their machine.

Also in camp were George Spratt, a flying enthusiast and friend whom the Wrights invited, and a surprise visitor, their older brother Lorin.

Gliding with Ease

Orville and Wilbur made up for lost time after the “crowd” left.

“The past five days have been the most satisfactory for gliding that we have had,” Orville wrote Katharine. “In two days we made 250 glides, or more than we had made all together up to the time Lorin left. We have gained considerable proficiency in the handling of the machine now, so that we are able to take it out in any kind of weather. Day before yesterday we had a wind of 16 meters per second or about 30 mile per hour, and glided in it without any trouble. That was the highest wind a gliding machine was ever in, so that we now hold all the records! The largest machine we handled in any kind of weather, made the longest distance glide (American), the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind!!! Well, I’ll leave the rest of the “blow” till we get home.”

Orville and Wilbur were having fun flying.

After five weeks of testing, they broke camp October 28th to return to Dayton.

They were ready to work on the design of a new machine that they proposed to propel through the air with propellers driven with a gas engine.

Note: A reproduction of the 1902 glider that was built under Orville Wright’s guidance is on display at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kitty Hawk, N.C.

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.

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.

The celebration of the Wright Brother Centennial has created new interest in recreating the 1900-1902 Wright gliders and the 1903 Flyer. The brothers didn’t make the job easy because they didn’t give much thought to preservation or documentation.

The 1899 kite that Wilbur flew in Dayton to confirm his wing warping idea did not survive.

The 1900 glider was abandoned in the sand at Kitty Hawk. They had given it one last toss from the top of a dune. Bill Tate’s Family put glider to good use. Bill received permission to use the remnants of it. As a result, Tate’s daughters had new dresses made out of the French sateen wing fabric. The skeletal remains of a wing could still be seen when they returned the next year. It disappeared in a storm with 93-mph winds that hit the Outer Banks on July 25, 1901.

The 1901 glider was stored in a shed and later some of the struts of the salvaged 1901 glider were used in the 1902 glider.

Milton Wright, son of Lorin Wright, in a speech at the Smithsonian in 1948 commented that, “Since no one in our family could afford to waste good wood or metal or fabric, it was usual to use parts of old machines to make up new machines.”

The 1902 glider was stored in the rafters of their shed when the Wrights left camp on August 28 because they planned to fly it again when they returned in 1903.

The 1902 glider was left behind again after the first flight of the Flyer 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 and two Chanute gliders on the ground. A resident of the area told the Wrights that a group of boys had carried away everything that looked interesting.

The 1903 Flyer was virtually destroyed after its fourth and most successful flight of the day on December 17, 1903. A gust of wing caught the stationary Flyer and sent it tumbling over the sand. The engine legs were broken off and the chain guides bent. Many of the rear ends of the ribs and the struts were broken.

The Wrights did decide to save the remains. The wreckage was boxed up and shipped back to Dayton. There the crates were stored without unpacking in a shed behind their bicycle shop on Third Street where they remained until 1928 when the Flyer was reassembled for display in England.

In 1913 the great flood that engulfed Dayton rose to the height of 12 feet. The crate with the Flyer was submerged under water. Records, letters, and diaries of invention were stored on the second floor of the bike shop.

On a shelf behind their house on Hawthorn St. were stored the irreplaceable photograph negatives of their Kitty Hawk and Huffman Prairie flights, including the famous picture of the “first flight.”

The Flyer was partially protected by a layer of mud. Orville cleaned mud off the top of the crates and put them back into the shed.

The records survived with little damage. The glass plate negatives had some damage but were not a total loss. The famous photograph of the “first flight” was slightly damaged on the lower left corner.

Orville at one point talked about burning the Flyer, but was talked out of that drastic measure. In 1928 he took the remains of the Flyer out of the crates, restored it from memory and sent it to his friends in England for display in the British Science Museum.

At question is how good was Orville’s memory. The Wrights made no detailed engineering drawings of the Flyer or the gliders because they treasured secrecy. Wilbur drew one 3-view sketch of the Flyer on brown wrapping paper (now housed at the Franklin Institute). They really didn’t require engineering drawings because they built what they conceived and made changes in the field.

Also, Orville was restoring the Flyer for display, not for flight. Absolute adherence to historical accuracy was unnecessary.

After the Flyer returned to America, The National Air and Space Museum constructed a set of engineering drawings based on the restored Flyer. But, there still remain many construction details that are unknown.

The 1904 Flyer was burned to make more room in their Dayton hanger at Huffman Prairie.

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

After 1903

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

In their career in aviation, they designed, built and flew about 1/2 dozen different designs. Total production of airplanes in America from 1909-1915 was 100. They also built and sold airplanes all over the world.

The airplane stayed in those same crates untouched for 13 years. In 1916 some of Orville’s friends persuaded him to rebuild that airplane. He used some parts he could use from the original and replaced other parts that couldn’t be used. All these other parts that couldn’t be used are scattered all over America.

Kitty Hawk has the cracked engine block, one broken propeller and some of the cloth. The other broken propeller is in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. Some parts are in the Air Force Museum in Dayton. Other parts are in the Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania.

When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon he had in his possession a piece of the original cloth of the Wright Brother’s airplane.

So our journey has taken us from the lonely wind swept sands of Kitty Hawk, NC to Tranquility Base on the lonely windless surface of the moon and we did it all in the lifetime of a human being.