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.

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