Wright Brothers – The Kitty Hawk Years

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

Home for Christmas

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining The Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selection of Kitty Hawk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dangerous Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The worst was yet to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiments Had Mixed Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The previous year at Kitty Hawk in 1900 the Wright Brothers found that the lift provided by the wings of their glider were less than predicted by published data developed by German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal in his “Aeronautical Annual.” They also had trouble when trying to make turns. The brothers returned in July 1901 with a redesigned glider that they hoped would solve the problems.

Their 1901 glider was a considerably larger version of the 1900 glider. They increased the camber (curvature) of the wings and lengthened the wingspan to 22 feet with a seven-foot chord (width). It weighed 98 pounds, nearly twice the weight of the previous year’s glider. The total area of the wing was 290 square feet, making this the largest glider that anyone had ever flown.

Also, the Wrights’ moved their camp from Kitty Hawk to Kill Devil Hills to take advantage of the large sand dunes there. Wilbur would start a flight by positioning himself in a horizontal position on the wing. When all was ready, the handlers would grasp the wing tips and run downhill as fast as they could into the wind.

Disappointing Results

Wilbur wrote to Katharine, his sister, “Our first experiments were rather disappointing. The machine refused to act like our machine last year and at times seemed to be entirely beyond control. On one occasion it began gliding off higher and higher until it finally came almost at a stop at a height variously estimated by Mr. Spratt and Huffaker (invited guests) at from 18 ft. to forty feet. This wound up in the most encouraging performance of the whole afternoon. This was the very fix Lilienthal had gotten into when he was killed. His machine dropped head first to the ground and his neck was broken. Our machine made a flat descent to the ground with no injury to either operator or machine.”

Fortunately serendipity was at work. Their unique design feature of a forward elevator had the effect of providing lift to bring the nose of the machine up whenever they encountered a stall. The glider would fall flat to the ground rather than in an uncontrollable dive. This was a great safety feature.

Modifications Help

In order to help determine why the glider wasn’t performing as expected they performed experiments flying the glider as a kite. As a result of their observations, they reduced the size of the elevator by almost half, hoping to improve the response to up and down commands. They reshaped the front spars to reduce drag and they flattened the camber of the wings from 1:12 to 1:19.

The modifications helped and Wilbur was able to achieve a long flight of 389 feet. The glider still didn’t achieve all their expectations. The lift was not much over 1/3 that should have been expected using the Lilienthal Lift Tables. They now suspected, but were not sure, that the Lilienthal data was in error.

Worse yet, they found another problem. Control of the glider was unpredictable when making a turn. When one wing was raised, the glider tended to slip to the opposite side of the turn.

They were now troubled. If proper lift could not be generated and if proper control could not be exercised, then controlled flight of a heavier than air machine was not possible.


Wilbur experienced these problems first hand when his glider crashed while trying to make a turn. The impact hurled Wilbur off the wing and into the front elevator, cutting his face, bruising his nose and blackening one eye.

Wilbur wrote about his concern to Octave Chanute: “The last week was without very great results though we proved that our machine does not turn (i.e. circle) toward the lowest wing under all circumstances, a very unlooked for result and one which completely upsets our theories as to the causes which produce the turning to right or left.”

Living Conditions

The weather and their living conditions did not help the Wrights’ state of mind. Their arrival at Kitty Hawk on July 10th was delayed by a violent storm with winds over 93 miles per hour. Orville wrote to Katharine that the “93-mile nor’easter demolished the only remaining piece of last year’s machine.”

The first night after arrival they stayed at Bill Tate’s house. (Tate was the one that had originally written to the Wrights’ about the advantages of doing their experiments at Kitty Hawk.)

Disturbed Sleep

The Tate’s had one hammock for the brothers to sleep in and it badly sagged in the middle. Orville wrote to his sister that when Wilbur slept in the bottom of the hammock, he (Orville) would have to hang on to the side of the hammock with both hands.

“When I played out and couldn’t stand it any longer, I rolled down into the bottom and made Will crawl up the side. The fellow in the bottom could get along pretty comfortably, for when he was attacked by any foe (which roams at large over most of the beds in these southern places) he had the opportunity of slapping back, but the poor fellow on the side was in a pretty fix, having both hands occupied, and had to endure the attacks the best he could.”

Mosquitoes Attack

After their arrival, it rained for a full week and that provided a perfect spawning ground for mosquitoes. According to Orville, “the mosquitoes arrived in a mighty cloud almost darkening the sun on July 18. “The sand and grass and trees and everything was fairly covered with them. They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks. Lumps began swelling up all over my body like hen’s eggs. We attempted to escape by going to bed, which we did at a little after five o’clock. We put our cots out under the awnings and wrapped up our blankets with only our noses protruding from the folds, thus exposing the least possible surface to attack.”

Water Shortage

The nearest water to their new camp at Kill Devil Hills was a mile away. They decided to install a Webbert pump but failed because they lost the point down in the sand. To get drinking water they placed a dishpan to collect rainwater running off the roof of the tent. The only problem was the water tasted like soap because they had previously rubbed soap on the canvas to keep it from mildewing.

Man Will Never Fly

Upon leaving Kitty Hawk, they stored the 1901 glider in their shed. The next year they used the uprights for their 1902 glider and destroyed what was left of the old glider.

Returning home to Dayton, they were dejected. Wilbur, not feeling well with a cold, declared, “Not within 50 years would man ever fly.”

Fortunately, his cold cured itself and the problem of wing lift and the control problem were solved during the next year. They were closing in fast on the first successful flight of their airplane in 1903.

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.