Conquest of the Air, A Wright Brothers Commemoration

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

By Darrel Collins

Darrel Collins is the knowledgeable and articulate Wright brothers historian at the Wright Brothers National Memorial Park, Kill Devil Hills, NC. This article is an edited version of one his interpretive talks that he recently gave at the park. Bob Holland and David Brinkley of radio station WCRS Akron, Ohio who provide programming for the blind recorded it.

Control, Key to Human Flight

How many children like homework? The key to the success of the Wright Brothers was that they did do their homework

They didn’t just jump head first to try to solve this problem.

They wrote to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. in 1899 asking for all available information on man’s early attempt to solve the problem. In essence the Wright Brothers learned from other people’s mistakes. They studied those that had attempted flight as far back as the 500-year-old drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci.

From all the information they identified problems that would have to be solved by the scientific method in order to achieve powered flight. They were true engineers.

The problem the Wright Brothers identified in 1899 as the key to human flight was the problem of control. And that is the problem the Wright Brothers solved at Kitty Hawk. It would take them four years to solve that one problem.

One of the very first books that the Wright Brothers studied on the subject was a book by Octave Chanute. He was an expert at that particular time. He published a book in 1894 named, “Progress in Flying Machines.”

This is a letter that Wilbur Wright wrote to Octave Chanute on May 13, 1900. It is probably the very first letter written by the Wright Brothers dealing with the subject of aerodynamics.

I want you to listen to Wilbur Wright’s passion, his desire, and his commitment in trying to solve this problem.

Dear Sir:

“For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life.”

On the cold windy morning of Dec. 17, 1903 the dream came true. Wilbur and Orville Wright made the world’s first successful powered flights in a heavy than air machine.

Five years after this historic event in Paris, France after Wilbur Wright had taught the Europeans to fly, at a banquet held in his honor on the evening of Nov. 5, 1908 Wilbur Wright spoke to members of the Aero Club of France.

“It is not really necessary to look to far into the future. We have seen enough already to see that it will be magnificent.”

The prediction is much truer for us today than it was in his lifetime. Four years after that speech in Paris at the age of 45 years old, Wilbur would pass to the great beyond. His brother, Orville Wright, would live to see it all.

Wright Memorial, Kitty Hawk

At the Wright Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, NC there is a large granite boulder that marks the spot where the Wrights made their famous flights in 1903. It was first placed at the site on Dec. 17, 1928 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first flight. This boulder was the first marker placed on this site.

We are getting ready for the big celebration now on Dec 17, 2003. It will mark an important milestone in the history of the world – 100 years of powered flight. But it also marks the end of a great era. Technology born at this site shortly after the turn of the 20th century has allowed man to travel to the moon in the lifetime of a human being.

Orville Wright was here for the 25th celebration. Along with Orville was a young lady. She was very much interested in aviation, Amelia Earhart. She had become the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean in June 1928.

They started work on this park in 1927. That monument on the hill was dedicated to Wilbur and Orville in 1932. Orville was there that day. Remember his brother, Wilbur, had been dead for 20 years. Wilbur died of Typhoid Fever at the age of 45 in 1912. He didn’t live long enough to see the dream of his and his brother fulfilled.

Orville lived to 76 years of age and died in 1948.

On the other hand, do you realize what Orville Wright saw in his lifetime?

He saw Dogfights of WW I, he saw the rocketry in WW II and the beginning of the jet age with German jets. The year before Orville died, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. It was an inventor’s lifetime.

At that time the Wright Memorial was the largest monument and probably still is dedicated to a living human being in America. Other monuments were constructed all over the world for the Wright Brothers in Germany, in France and in Dayton.

The most impressive monument, however, is in Kitty Hawk where it all began.

Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk

They were looking for a place to fly gliders and kites. He wrote to the National Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. inquiring of a place on the East Coast where the wind was constant.

Kitty Hawk, NC was on the list. They tried to write a letter to all of these places and tried to get people to reply.

Wilbur wrote to the Kitty Hawk weather station, established in 1875. It was located four miles up the beach on the ocean side. That’s where the Federal telegraph office was located.

Somehow this letter ended up in the hands of the postman of Kitty Hawk. His name was William Tate. He was the most educated man living on the Outer Banks at the time. So he was put in charge of writing back to Wilbur Wright.

Tate wrote Wilbur, there are no trees or grass, and this was open beach and deep sand.

To the west was the sound. You might see a few sailboats. To the east you would see waves breaking on the ocean shore.

In a bad hurricane the ocean would wash completely across the narrow beach all the way to the sound. It will still do that today in a bad hurricane.

At the time there was Kill Devil Hill, West Hill and two little hills. West Hill was 90-feet high, as high as Kill Devil Hill is now and there were two little hills that were each 40-feet high. The little hills blew away in a hurricane of 1912, the same year that Wilbur died.

On top of the hills, the Wright Brothers would carry on their glider experiments.

In 1902, the year before they built the first powered airplane; they flew their glider off the tops of these hills 1,000 times over a period of six weeks. Almost 500 times each.

Three-axis Control

In 1899, the Wright Brothers identified control as the key to human flight. It took them four years to solve that one problem.

The three axis of control consist of roll, pitch and yaw.

Roll: Roll is the motion controlled by ailerons. On the Wright machines it was known as wing warping. This is the motion that everyone in the world at that particular time thought was suicidal. No one would ever do this to an airplane or glider except the Wright Brothers. This is the trademark of the Wright Brothers invention. It allowed an airplane to turn under control. No one else in the world could make an airplane turn.

Pitch: Then we have pitch, the up and down motion controlled by the elevator.

Yaw: Then we have that old southern word, yaw, controlled by the rudder in the back.

The control that the Wright Brothers developed at Kitty Hawk in 1902 has withstood the test of time. It has proven to be the fundamental principles around which everything that flies has evolved in the last 100 years.

Airplanes and gliders are not the only man-made flying machines that utilize roll, pitch and yaw. Everything that flies – rockets, missiles, satellites, helicopters and the space shuttle on takeoff and final approach.

This is the immortal legacy of the Wright Brother’s achievements at Kitty Hawk. They did much more than just build and fly an airplane. They changed the world forever.

Flying at Kitty Hawk

Their gliders were hand launched. Two local fellows would take the glider to the top of the giant sand dune. The pilot would lie prone on the long wing of the glider. The two local fellows would run with the glider down the hill into the wind and let her go.

At this point in 1902 the Wright Brothers were having a ball. I don’t know about the local fellows.

Because on days when the wind was blowing right, they would log in that 1902 glider over 100 glides in one day.

Kill Devil Hill is a big pile of sand. In 1902 it was 120 feet high covering 31 acres of sand blowing in the wind. In the 25 years between 1903 and 1928 it had moved 450 feet toward the southwest.

I want you to imagine running up and down in ankle deep sand with an almost 250 pound glider 1,000 times. I don’t know where you are from, but that’s what we on the Outer Banks call southern hospitality.

They had wide-open spaces and deep soft sand to land on.

It was very hard to get here by sailboat. When you got here there weren’t too many people around to make fun of you. The Wrights walked around in suits and ties all day long.

Privacy, secrecy and isolation they found here that they couldn’t find anywhere else.

Tate said, “You boys come on down here and I will help you anyway I can. So they came and they would always come back until they died.

The Wright Brothers truly loved the Outer Banks of NC. They claimed that Kitty Hawk “cured all ills.”

The First Flight

On that morning of Thursday Dec 17 1903 the wind blew out of the northeast at 27 mph with gusts of nearly 30 mph. The open beach was cold. It had rained the night before and some of the fresh water puddles that had accumulated around the campsite had frozen over.

They waited until about 8 o’clock to see if the wind would die down some, but after a while they figured it wouldn’t get any better.

So Orville tacked a red sheet on the far side of their living quarters That bed sheet was a prearranged signal for the men at the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station, a quarter of a mile south on the beach, to come over and help them. They were about to fly the machine and it weighed over 600 pounds. The Wright Brothers couldn’t manhandle it by themselves.

Three men came from the station that morning – Etheridge, Dough and Daniels. A couple of locals also came. Brinkley, from Manteo, and Johnny Moore, a 16-year-old boy who just happened to be passing by.

We don’t know where Johnny Moore was headed. It was 8:30-8:45 Thursday morning. He might have been running a little late. Johnny Moore didn’t make it to school that day. You see, Johnny Moore stopped to see an airplane fly.

They took the plane from the hanger and set it up at the end of the launching monorail. There were no wheels on the plane. They knew about wheels because Orville raced bicycles and they were in the bicycle business. But they couldn’t use wheels on the machine because of the deep sand.

They had to devise a way to launch the airplane. So they had to build a runway. Their runway consisted of just wooden 2 x 4s sitting straight up with a wood crosspiece on the bottom and a little metal strip on top. The four 15-foot long pieces were placed end to end to provide a runway that was 60 feet long. Talk about a short takeoff – 60 feet.

Along this rail a dolly would move down the rail on two bicycle hubs mounted one behind the other. They would balance the main weight of the airplane on the dolly.

This whole starting system cost the Wright Brothers a grand total of $4.00. They only spent $1,200 for the whole five years.

During takeoff the machine and dolly moved down the 60-foot rail driven by the thrusts of two 8-½ foot propellers in the back. They were the world’s first true propellers. They were designed from the Wright Bother’s wind tunnel tests. The Wrights were the first to understand that a propeller is a revolving wing.

Each propeller was hand carved out of laminated spruce from a mathematical equation. The propellers developed 75 pounds of thrust each. So you have 150 pounds of thrust pushing the 750-pound machine through the air.

Once the machine lifted off the rail it would leave the dolly on the rail. The machine had an undercarriage shaped liked a sled to land on the sand.

Then they would have to drag the machine all the way back, set it up on rail and start over again. Later they would put wheels on their airplanes.

One of the Wright’s hobbies was photography. They set the camera up in the background focused on the end of the rail where they thought that the machine would takeoff.

Orville instructed John T. Daniels, one of the witnesses, to squeeze the bulb when the machine took off. Daniels had lived on the Outer Banks his entire life. You had to put a cover over your head and when you looked through the camera everything looked upside down.

When John Daniels saw that 750-pound machine takeoff, he lost it all. He was so excited that he couldn’t remember if he had squeezed the bulb or not.

This was not Instamatic film. These were 5 x 7-inch glass negatives. They had to be kept in solution until you developed them.

Can you imagine the excitement when the Wrights returned to their home in Dayton in their darkroom when the images of that first flight appeared on that glass negative?

It is the most famous picture in aviation – man’s first successful powered flight. And Daniels almost blew it.

When they set the camera up, focused it and told John Daniels to squeeze the bulb, they were looking after every one of us. So when your children or grandchildren have children, they can bring their children here and they can witness for themselves the miracle that occurred at Kitty Hawk.

For many people at that time flight was considered a true miracle

This photograph is just another example of how far Wright Brothers were looking into the future. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words.

When Orville released his restraining bar that was physically holding the machine back, that machine was moving down the rail into an almost 30-mph wind. Moving at about 7-8 mph groundspeed, it was moving so slow that brother Wilbur, dressed in his suit and tie, could run along.

You can see his footprints in the sand as Wilbur ran along keeping the right wing balanced before the machine even took off.

Footprints in the sand; It always reminds me of footprints that were left somewhere else. Only 66 years after the first flight at Kitty Hawk, man walked on the moon. The footprints are probably still there too.

After a 40-foot run, down the 60-foot rail, the machine lifted into the air and Orville Wright flew 120 feet in 12 seconds. “Twelve seconds to the stars.”

The entire flight could have flown inside a C-5A airplane.

It was a dawning of a new era in the history of mankind. And, life as many of our fathers knew it would never be the same again. Remember that little things do go long ways.

They would take turns after that first flight. They dragged the machine all the way back and set it up on the rail. Wilbur flew the second flight. Orville flew the third Flight.

Do you see what they were doing? Do you remember the first time you ever tried to ride a bicycle? Who was helping you out? Your daddy was helping you out. He propped you up, got you going and let you go. Then what happened? You fell down. He picked you up and got you going again.

There was nothing wrong with your bicycle!

The Wright’s machine was capable of flying eight miles.

Wilbur flew the fourth flight. It went 852 feet and stayed in the air for 59 seconds.

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