Orville liked to play practical jokes. It started at an early age.

He stopped attending kindergarten after the first day of class. His mother did not suspect the truth because he continued to leave the house each morning at the appointed time for school and return on time. All the while, he was playing with his friend Ed Stine.

This charade went on for several weeks until his mother, Susan Wright, stopped by the school to see how Orville was doing. She home schooled him after that until the second grade.

In the second grade he won the teachers approval to move on to the third reader by taking a test. The test the teacher gave was to select a passage at random out of the second reader for Orville to read. Orville not only rapidly read the passage, but also did it with the book held upside down.

On another occasion, he and some friends dumped a package of hot pepper in his classroom’s hot air register to force the dismissal of class. Nothing happened until several days later when the pepper got hot enough to send fumes into the classroom. Their plan backfired when their teacher, unfazed, apologized to the class, opened the windows and continued with lessons while the students sat sneezing and wiping their eyes

He was sent home from school in the sixth grade for some unreported mischief. His eighth-grade teacher sat him in the front row in order to keep a watchful eye on him.

As an adult, Orville continued his pranks. Nephews were often targets.

One of the nephews liked mashed potatoes. One Sunday Orville pasted a thread to the bottom of a nephew’s plate. At the appropriate time Orville commented that it seems funny how Bus’s plate always made for the mashed potatoes as Orville moved the plate towards the mashed potatoes he was serving.

He used the thread trick in other ways. One of the family was having lunch with Orville when a big cockroach ran from under his plate. It turned out to be a tin cockroach attached to a thread manipulated by Orville.

Dayton put on a grand celebration for the Wright Brothers in 1909. Orville and Wilbur rode in a carriage in the parade with Ed Sines, boyhood friend of Orville and Ed Ellis, friend of Wilbur. All along the route people reached out to the carriage to shake hands with the famous Wrights. As a practical joke Sines and Ellis did much of the handshaking as if they were the heroes.

One night an English writer friend of Orville’s was visiting at Hawthorn Hill. After dinner Brewer committed, “you know, I have often thought after you and your brother learned to fly, the problem that baffled men for centuries suddenly seemed most simple. You’d think anyone could have done it. There is a passage of poetry that expresses that very well. I have been trying to think of it for years. All I can remember is “…so easy it seemed once found, which yet unfound most would have thought impossible.” There is more to it about invention. I wish I could find the whole passage. Do you know it?”

“No, I think not,” answered Orville, “but I have an extensive collection of poetry in the library. Let’s look.”

The two men spent several hours hunting for the lines, but the passage eluded them.

The very next morning one of the coincidences so common in life happened. A letter asking for Orville’s autograph arrived and in the letter the writer included the very quotation Brewer had asked about and gave the information that it came from Paradise Lost, Book VI. Orville took down his Milton and began to search. Finally at line 499 he came to the passage, which began

Th’ invention all admired, and how he

To be th’ inventor missed;…

It concluded as Brewer had quoted.

Orville put the book back on the shelf, at the same time pulling the book directly above it out from the shelf a shade of an inch.

When dinner ended that night, Orville said, “I’d still like to find the passage of poetry we talked about last night. I have never told you before, but I am somewhat psychic.”

“I thought I might try to locate the passage by using my psychic powers. I’ll blindfold myself, run my fingers along the books and perhaps my psychic genius will guide them to the book.”

“Amazing,” said Brewer. “Let’s try it.”

After blindfolding himself, Orville ran his fingers along the shelves. At last his fingers stopped at one book and pulled out a volume. He took off the blindfold. “H’mmmm. Milton. Something tells me this is the book.”

Brewer looked at the book. “Milton? I don’t think so. It doesn’t sound like Milton to me.”

“There must be a reason why my fingers were led to this book.” Orville leafed through the pages long enough to make his act look good. Then he handed the volume to Brewer and pointed to the lines.

Brewer looked at Orville with astonishment showing on his face. Orville placed the book back on the shelf. He never did tell Brewer how his psychic powers worked.

References: Tom Crouch, Fred Kelley, and Rosamond Young

Many people are unaware that Robert Frost wrote a poem about the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk. The poem is one of a collection of poems in his book, In The Clearing. It was his last book published before his death in 1963.

The poem is titled, “Kitty Hawk.” The four-time winner of the Pulitzer didn’t skimp on words. The poem consists of 473 lines. I must admit that I had to read it a number of times before I began to understand his meaning. Frost seems to be saying less than he really does. He requires you to read thoughtfully and think between sentences to become aware of his message.

The poem is too long to present in total here. Instead, I will provide selected passages. I have italicized some words for emphasis.

Frost first went to Kitty Hawk in 1894 as a young man of 19 years. He returned in 1953 for the 50th anniversary of the first powered flight.

Kitty Hawk, O Kitty,
There was once a song,
Who knows but a great
Emblematic ditty,
I might well have sung
When I came here young
Out and down along
Past Elizabeth City
Sixty years ago.

What did men mean by
THE original?
Why was it so very,
Very necessary
To be first of all?
How about the lie
That he wasn’t first?
I was glad he laughed.
There was such a lie
Money and maneuver
Fostered over long
Until Herbert Hoover
Raised this tower shaft
To undo the wrong.
Of all crimes the worst
Is to steal the glory
From the great and brave,
Even more accused
Than to rob the grave.

When the chance went by
For my Muse to fly
From this Runway Beach
As a figure of speech
In a flight of words,
Little I imagined
Men would treat this sky
Some day to a pageant
Like a thousand birds.
Neither you nor I
Ever thought to fly.
Oh, but fly we did,
Literally fly……

Though our kiting ships
Prove but flying chips
From the science shop
And when motors stop
They may have to drop
Short of anywhere,
Though our leap in air
Prove as vain a hop
As the hop from grass
Of a grasshopper,
Don’t discount our powers;
We have made a pass
At the infinite,
Made it, as it were,
Rationally ours,
To the remote
Swirl of neon-lit
Particle afloat.

Pilot, though at best your
Flight is but a gesture,
And your rise and swoop,
But a loop the loop,
Lands on someone hard
In his own backyard
From no higher heaven
Than a bolt of levin,
I don’t say retard.
Keep on elevating.
But while meditating
What we can’t or can
Let’s keep starring man
In the royal role.

God of the machine,
Peregrine machine,
Some still think is Satan,
Unto you the thanks
For this token flight,
Thanks to you and thanks
To the brothers Wright
Once considered cranks
Like Darius Green
In their home town, Dayton.
End

“Frost is a philosopher, but his ideas are behind his poems, not in them-buried well, for us to guess at if we please.” (Mark Van Doren, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1951)

When you enter the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., the first thing that strikes your eye is the Wright Flyer hanging from the ceiling of the great hall. Many people don’t realize that there is a tumultuous story behind how it got there.

In 1928, Orville Wright sent the Flyer, the most important artifact of man’s successful attempt to fly, to the Science Museum in London, England. Neither Dayton, the hometown of the Wright Brothers, nor Orville (Wilbur died in 1912 at the age of 45), ever saw it again. The same could almost have been said about America. By the narrowest of circumstances, the Flyer returned to America in 1948.

Rivalry with the Smithsonian

The story begins as a simple rivalry between the Smithsonian Institution and the Wright Brothers, and their claims of who was the first to fly. The rivalry was to take on an ugly nature that included dishonesty and deception on the part of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian at the time was primarily a research facility rather than a museum and Dr. Langley was America’s most respected scientist.

Langley, like the Wrights, dreamed of flying. His big opportunity came in 1898 when the U.S. War Department awarded him $50,000 (an additional $20,000 came from other funds) to develop an experimental flying machine. It was the largest appropriation ever granted by the War Department.

In 1898, the U.S. was at war with Spain and the War department was interested in a man-carrying flying machine. The project had the support of President McKinley, and the assistant secretary of war, Theodore Roosevelt.

Langley not only had the money, but the resources, of the Smithsonian in his favor. Working on the project were seven machinists, three carpenters and an engineer by the name of Charles Manly.

Langley Experiments

Langley was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1834 and graduated from Boston High School in 1851. He decided not to attend college; instead he joined an architectural firm in order to get a “practical education” in engineering and architecture.

Later he became interested in and self educated in astronomy. That resulted in a series of progressively important jobs in astronomy.

In 1887, he accepted an offer to become the third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Two years prior to his appointment he became interested in the possibility of manned flight after attending a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where the topic was discussed.

Soon after arriving at the Smithsonian, he pursued his interest further by establishing an aerodynamics laboratory. There, over a period of ten years, he experimented with nearly a hundred different model airplane configurations. He named these models “aerodromes” from the Greek words meaning, “air runner.”

On May 6, 1896, one of his unmanned, steam-powered, heavier-than-air aerodromes flew under its own power for more than a half mile on a wide portion of the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia.

Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and friend of Langley photographed this significant event. It was Langley’s greatest contribution to aviation.

On November 28, a larger model flew for two minutes for three-fourths of a mile. The scientific community now recognized Langley as the most prestigious aeronautical researcher and designer in the world.

The year 1896 was significant for another reason. It was the year that the famous Gustave Lilienthal died in a glider accident in Germany. Lilienthal’s death rekindled the Wrights’ interest in the riddle of man’s ability to fly.

The Great Aerodrome

Langley theorized that he could accomplish the terms of the War Department contract by scaling-up to full size his successful aerodromes. He called the new machine the “Great Aerodrome.”

Langley hired Charles Manly, a new mechanical engineering graduate from Cornell University as his assistant. By 1901 Manly had designed the first radial gasoline engine in aeronautical history for the Great Aerodrome. It was a remarkable engine that produced 52.4 horsepower yet weighted only 124 pounds.

In June 1901, a quarter-scale, unmanned version of the Great Aerodrome successfully flew several straight-line flights. Langley still had not figured out how to steer, balance or land the machine although he did make a futile attempt by adding a Penaud tail that Manly (assigned as pilot) could operate by a wheel.

Time and money was in scarce supply so Langley decided to leave that task for later. For the present they would concentrate on achieving a successful straight-line flight of a few miles. Manly didn’t reveal how he felt about the sure prospect of a crash landing.

By 1903 both the Wright Brothers and Langley were rapidly closing in on their attempts to fly their manned airplanes.

The Great Aerodrome would be the first to make the attempt with Manly as the pilot. Langley designed the Great Aerodrome to be catapulted from the roof of a houseboat in the Potomac River.

The Dayton Daily News carried the following story:

“The house boat containing the flying machine is anchored off Quantico on the Potomac River about a half mile below Washington. Buoys have been placed in the river about two miles from the Virginia shore and a little north of Liverpool Point to mark the course that the aerial vessel shall take in its flight. That there is any doubt that the mapped out course can be followed is not for a moment admitted by the inventor, who is confident that the steering gear and shiftable propeller which he has designed will answer all requirements.”

It was not to be. Twice, once on October 7 and once on December 8, the machine plunged into the Potomac River at launching. Charles Manly had to swim for his life both times and emerged drenched but unhurt. The last attempt was made barely nine days before the Wrights’ successful first flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.

After the failed attempts, the Washington Post pronounced the flying ability of the Aerodrome to be like “a handful of mortar.” In fact the machine was aerodynamically and structurally unsound.

The Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, questioned, “If it is to cost $73,000 to construct a mud duck that will fly 50 feet, how much is it going to cost to construct a real flying machine?”

Note: In today’s dollars, the cost was about $1.5 million.

Representative Robinson of Indiana sarcastically commented: “Langley is a professor, wandering in his dreams, who is building castles in the air.”

The War Department, after an official investigation, concluded: “We are still far from the ultimate goal, and it would seem as if years of constant work and study by experts, together with the expenditure of thousands of dollars, would be necessary before we can hope to produce an apparatus of practical utility on these lines.”

Nine days later on December 17, the Wrights made the first successful powered flight with an airplane.

The War Department was oblivious to this memorial event. The embarrassment associated with Langley’s failure would blind the War Department from seeing the success of the Wright Brothers until 1908.

It was now clear that Langley was not destined to be the first human to fly. He did ask for additional money from the War Department, but was refused. Humiliated by the ridicule and his money exhausted, he never again pursued his aeronautical studies. He died of a second stroke three years later on November 22, 1905 at the age of seventy-one.

Alexander Graham Bell was one of the pallbearers. In his tribute to Langley, Bell said his flying machine never had an opportunity of being fairly tried. “Ridicule, I repeat, shortened his life.”

Manly left the Smithsonian in March 1905 to take a job as a consulting engineer in New York. Manly still believed “that the work could be brought to a successful completion…”

In the fall of 1905, Manly visited the Wrights at Huffman Prairie. He was shown around, but the Wrights did not fly their machine for him. The brothers did not find out until later that their visitor had been Manly.

Shortly before Langley died, The Aero Club of America published a resolution honoring Langley’s contributions to the cause of flight. One of the authors of the resolution was Charles Manly.

You might think that was the end of any argument of who was the first to fly – Langley or the Wrights. But it was just the beginning.

The Wrights’ Patent

What happened next was the result of the Wrights’ patent. The United States granted patent No. 821,393 for a flying machine designed by Wilbur and Orville Wright on May 23, 1906. Aviation pioneer Glen Curtis challenged the patent because he was making machines in violation of it. On January 13, 1914, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the patent was airtight.

The patent was powerful because it was not about any particular aircraft configuration. Rather, it was on the Wrights’ system for controlling an airplane in flight. No aircraft could get airborne without paying a royalty of about 20% on the sale of an aircraft, or alternately, making some other arrangement with the Wrights.

The Wrights’ system remains to this day the only efficient way to operate a winged vehicle.

Some important people were not happy with this situation. Henry Ford, for instance, believed that the Wrights’ patent would stifle new development.

Actually, the brothers original plan was to sell the airplane and rights to their patent for a one-time price of 250,000.The Wrights would then devote themselves to research. Unfortunately, the U.S. and European countries weren’t interested. Some like the U.S. didn’t believe that the Wrights had an airplane that could fly. All were turned off by the Wrights’ ‘buy before fly policy” in which there would be no demonstration flights unless there was a signed contract in hand.

Curtiss Develops a Nefarious Plan

Bell, Curtiss and others hatched a plan to undermine the Wright patent. Curtiss in particular was desperate because a few months earlier a judge had issued the final resolution against him in the Wright patent suit. Bell and Curtiss believed that if it could be shown that the Langley Aerodrome could have flown, but failed because of a faulty launching mechanism, the Wrights’ patent would be placed in doubt.

Bell contended that the Great Aerodrome itself “was a perfectly good flying machine. There was nothing the matter with it. It stuck in the launching ways.”

This launched a nefarious plan in cooperation with the Smithsonian to rebuild and attempt to fly the Great Aerodrome.

Curtiss was born in 1878. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and educated himself to become an aeronautical engineer and industrialist. As a young man he raced motorcycles, earning the reputation of a “hell-rider.” He became involved in aeronautics when he was requested to furnish one of his motorcycle engines for a dirigible. This subsequently lead to supplying engines to flying machines. In 1907, he even offered to supply one free to the Wright Brothers, who declined the offer.

In 1909, he designed and built his first air machine under contract with the Aeronautical Society of New York. The society named it the Golden Flyer, an obvious play on words of the Wright Flyer.

The design incorporated ailerons to perform the function of the Wrights’ wing warping. Curtiss hoped that the use of ailerons would get around the Wrights’ patent. He was wrong.

On March 30, 1914, Curtiss called a meeting of several influential people. Attending were Alexander Graham Bell, the famous inventor and friend of Langley, and Charles B. Walcott, the new secretary of the Smithsonian. They met in Bell’s home in Washington.

Secretary Walcott was the successor to Langley who died in 1906. Walcott was an active supporter of the failed Langley’s Aerodrome project and was anxious to redeem both Langley’s and the Smithsonian’s reputation. Bell was a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents.

The group agreed to give Curtiss $2,000 of Smithsonian funds to reconstruct and test the original Langley Aerodrome. The objective was to prove that it could fly. Most importantly, Curtis had the sponsorship of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution for the task.

Restoring the Aerodrome

The Smithsonian gave Glen Curtiss the existing pieces of the Aerodrome from which to reconstruct the 1903 aircraft. Curtiss, however, did more than reconstruct the original airplane. He redesigned many features including wings. The wings had a different camber, leading edge, and aspect ratio (ratio of span to cord). Curtiss also redesigned the wing spars, the carburetor for the engine and added hydroplane floats.

The Smithsonian assigned Dr. Albert Zahm as its official representative at Hammondsport. Zahm would later falsely claim that the design changes were inconsequential. Zahm was not an unbiased observer. He had once sought employment with the Wrights as an expert witness but was spurned.

The rebuilt Aerodrome was test flown on May 28, 1914 on a lake at Hammondsport, New York. The machine allegedly flew 150 feet in a straight-line flight according to Zahm, who was also the official observer for the Smithsonian. Conveniently, there were no other observers or pictures of the flight because it occurred beyond the sight of shoreline spectators.

On hearing the news of the flight, Bell was elated and sent a telegram to Curtiss congratulating him for his vindication of Langley’s machine.

On June 2, the Aerodrome was tested for the second time to accommodate photographers and prove that the machine could fly. Two photographs were taken of the machine showing its pontoons just above the surface of the lake as it made several short hops of less than five seconds duration.

Based on this flimsy evidence, it was announced to the world that the original Langley Aerodrome had flown.

Comparison to the Wrights’ First Flight

In comparison to the Curtiss hops, It is interesting to note that Wilbur made the first flight at Kitty Hawk, but because it was only a hop lasting a few seconds in duration, it was not considered a valid flight. Three days later, Orville flew 120 feet in 12 seconds and that was counted as the first flight. The Wrights still were not satisfied, however, until the fourth flight of the day that flew 852 feet in 59 seconds.

Orville’s Intelligence Gathering

In the meantime, during the activity at Hammondsport, Orville Wright was not idle. He kept himself informed by sending observers to find out what was happening. He sent Griffith Brewer to Hammondsport. Brewer was an English attorney and supporter who was writing a book on flying. There, Brewer rented a rowboat and managed to get close enough to the Aerodrome to note the changes to the original design that were being made.

Upon his return, Brewer not only reported to Orville what he had observed, he wrote a stinging letter to the New York Times. In the published letter, Brewer enumerated the various design changes made to the aerodrome and asked the rhetorical question of why an impartial person wasn’t selected to make the tests rather than a person (Curtiss) found guilty of infringement of the Wrights’ patent.

The following year Orville sent his older brother Lorin to Hammondsport. Lorin adopted the pseudonym of W. L. Oren as a disguise. He was not known to the Curtiss people and was able roam about unrecognized.

He was caught taking pictures of one of the test flights in which the wings collapsed as the machine was attempting to take off. He was forced to hand over the pictures before the Curtiss people would allow him to leave.

Aerodrome Moved to the Smithsonian

The Aerodrome was restored to its original configuration and on January 15, 1918 it was placed on display in the Smithsonian with the following label:

“The first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight. Invented, built, and tested over the Potomac River by Samuel Pierpont Langley in 1903. Successfully flown at Hammondsport, N.Y., June 2, 1914.”

This was a blatant distortion of the truth. First, the Aerodrome on display was not the redesigned version that allegedly was capable of flight. Second, the only claimed flight of any length at Hammondsport was on May 28. The two pictures provided with the display were of the June 2nd hops that had lasted only a few seconds. There is no evidence that the flights of May 28 or June 2 could be called sustained flights.

Smithsonian Invites Flyer to Smithsonian; Orville Objects

The Smithsonian wanted the Wright Flyer to be displayed side-by-side with the Langley Aerodrome. The Aerodrome would be described as embodying the theoretical solution to flight; the Wright Flyer would represent the first practical application of flight.

Orville, incensed at what he viewed as the Smithsonian’s complicity in fraud, vowed that the Flyer would never be displayed there. He viewed the offer as particularly offensive because he and Wilbur had offered to restore the Flyer and present it to the Smithsonian in 1910, but were rebuffed.

In 1923, at the suggestion of his British friend, Griffin Brewer, Orville offered the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum of London on a long-term loan. He wrote:

“If I were to receive a proposition from the officers of the Kensington Museum offering to provide our 1903 machine a permanent home in the Museum, I would accept the offer, with the understanding, however, that I would have the right to withdraw it at any time after five years, if some suitable place for its exhibition in America presented itself.”

In 1909 Orville and Wilbur Wright were flying before excited fans on two continents. It had been six years since their history making first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903. Honors long due were beginning to roll in. Unfortunately, many honors were a sham because they did not recognize the brothers as the inventors of flight.

Conspicuously absent was the date, December 17, 1903, and of what happened there on that date.

This is the story.

President Taft Presents Medals

In mid-June the Wright Brothers were invited to visit the White House by President William Howard Taft to receive medals awarded by the Aero Club of America. Accompanying the brothers was their sister Katharine. Before the presentation there was a grand luncheon attended by members of Congress at the exclusive Cosmos Club. Their “all male” rule was suspended to allow Katharine to attend.

That afternoon, the portly President presented the medals in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. In a good mood, he jested that his own girth would keep him on the ground.

The gold medals showed busts of the Wrights, their airplane and the dates of the first flight made by Orville at Fort Myer, Va. and Wilbur in France. But, what wasn’t inscribed was more significant. Despite all the pomp and ceremony, there was no indication on the medals that the brothers were the inventors of flight.

Awards in Dayton

A few days later in Dayton, Ohio, there was a two-day grand celebration in which the brothers received additional medals. Brigadier General James Allen, U.S. Signal Corps, awarded them a special U.S. Congressional Medal. Ohio Governor Judson Harmon presented them a State of Ohio Medal. Dayton Mayor Edward Burkhart presented them a City of Dayton Medal. (Click image for larger version.)

There were parades, fireworks and speeches by dignitaries, but again, none of the medals said that the brothers were the inventors of flight. The inscriptions on the medals were as follows:

U.S. Congress Medal: On one side, “In recognition and appreciation of their ability, courage and success in navigating the air.” The other side showed an angel with the inscription: “shall mount up with wings as angels.”

Ohio Medal: “Presented to Wilbur Wright (and Orville) by an act of the General Assembly of the State of Ohio.”

Dayton Medal: “A testimonial from the citizens of their home in recognition and appreciation of their success in navigating the air.”

The brothers, being modest, said nothing about it, but they were not pleased. They did not want the celebration and had asked the city officials to cancel it. Wilbur complained that the celebration “has been made the excuse for an elaborate carnival and advertisement of the city under the guise of being an honor to us.” Following the presentations, Wilbur stepped to the microphone and said, “Thank you, gentlemen,” and sat down. They left the ceremony in Dayton as soon as they could.

No doubt some of the oversight can be attributed to ignorance. But much of it may have been perpetuated by the venerable Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian claimed that Dr. Samuel Langley, a Secretary of the Smithsonian, discovered principles of heavier-than-air flight prior to the Wright Brothers. The Smithsonian claimed that Langley deserved to be honored as a co-equal along with the Wrights. They did not retract this claim until 1942.

Smithsonian Awards Langley Medal

On February 1910, the Smithsonian awarded the brothers the first Langley Medal for “achievement in aerodynamic investigation and its application to aviation.” Again there was no reference to the invention of flight.

To make matters worse, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and regent of the Smithsonian, effusively praised Langley in his introductory speech at the award ceremony. It may be that the scientists associated with the Smithsonian couldn’t accept the reality that two bicycle makers without college diplomas had bested them.

A side note: In 1922 the first U.S. aircraft carrier was commissioned the “U.S.S. Langley”.

Wright Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the first flight, December 1928, marked the laying of the cornerstone of the national memorial and the unveiling of a large granite boulder marking the takeoff spot of the flight. Orville was in attendance as was Amelia Earhart and four of the original witnesses of the event.

Orville returned for the dedication of the completed monument in November 1932. The inscription on the monument’s exterior reads:

“In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, conceived by genius, achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”

It may be implicit that the inscription refers to the invention of flight, but it doesn’t explicitly say so. At the time of the dedication, the 1903 Flyer was in exile on England.

Wright Memorial in Dayton, Ohio

As time went on, the weight of overwhelming evidence supported the Wright’s claim of being first in flight. The Wright Brothers Memorial, dedicated in 1940 in Dayton, Ohio, represents this new confidence. It recognizes the Wrights by boldly stating:

“As scientists Wilbur and Orville Wright discovered the secret of flight. As inventors, builders and flyers they brought aviation to the world.” It goes on to state: “— enabled them in 1903 to build and fly at Kitty Hawk the first man-carrying aeroplane capable of flight.”

Wilbur died in 1912. Orville had many honors given to him in his old age. These included the Distinguished Flying Cross and six honorary doctorates.

On December 17, 2003 there will be a grand celebration at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, NC to celebrate the first flight that took place there on December 17, 1903. It is being billed as the event of the century. The occasion will include air shows, a hot-air balloon race, and the most exciting of all, an actual flight of an exact reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer.

With thousands of visitors expected to attend the five day event, it will be a boon to tourism. That is exactly what Congressman Lindsay C. Warren had in mind in 1926 when he proposed the memorial in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first successful powered, heavier-than-air flight, and also as a means of attracting tourist dollars to boost the Outer Banks.

The area needed a boost. Orville Wright once commented that the outer banks were “like the Sahara.”

Today, the memorial, a great 60-foot pylon of Mount Airy granite quarried in NC with wings sculpted into the sides and an aeronautical beacon on top, can be seen for miles at night. Since its dedication in 1932, it has exceeded Congressman Warren’s greatest dream.

The Proposal

Warren’s proposal for a memorial received strong support from the local citizens and NC legislators. Some Dayton citizens were not happy because they wanted the memorial in Dayton. However, before the Ohio delegation could mount an effective campaign, Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut, a friend of Warren and the President of the National Aeronautical Society, quickly introduced a $50,000 appropriation bill to build the memorial at Kill Devil Hills. The bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Coolidge on March 2, 1927.

Neither the Congress nor the Fine Arts Commission could agree on what the memorial should look like. About 35 designs were presented. Some of the ideas were bizarre. Senator Bingham wanted a Greek Temple made of granite from his home state of Connecticut.

Time was drawing short because the anniversary was in 1928. So, they decided to lay a cornerstone on top of Kill Devil Hill for the anniversary and decide later on the nature of the monument.

At the same time they decided to place a commemorative six-foot granite boulder at the spot where the Flyer took off. There was a problem. No one knew for sure where that spot was. In the intervening twenty-five years, the sands had shifted.

Fortunately, they found three surviving witnesses of the first flight who were willing to help find the spot. Two of them had been from the lifesaving station and one had been a boy who just happened to wander by. On November 4,1928, they met and came to an agreement as best they could as to the exact location.

The Ceremony Became a Calamity

The plan was to hold an International Civil Aeronautics Conference in Washington, D.C. Orville Wright and members of his family would be honored guests. After the conference the 200 attendees would travel to Kitty Hawk, NC for the ceremony.

The Achilles Heel in the plan was the gross underestimation of the difficulty of traveling to Kitty Hawk in those days with that many people.

The road down the Currituck County, NC peninsula was under construction, but not finished. There was no bridge at that time over the sound to Kitty Hawk, and there was only a crude corduroy road in the sand through Kitty Hawk to Big Kill Devil Hill.

On Saturday, December 15, the 200 conference attendees boarded the steamer, District of Columbia, for the trip to Norfolk, VA. The first of many problems presented itself even before they left the dock. A heavy fog delayed departure for four hours until 2 a.m. The continued presence of mist and patches of fog meant slow passage to Norfolk and necessitated a stay on the steamer over night.

The next day they piled into buses for the trip down the Currituck peninsula. That part of the trip went well until they reached the end of the paved road. The buses couldn’t negotiate the rest of the way, so everyone was transferred to a fleet of seventy automobiles. In some places the automobiles had to detour around muddy roads by driving over resident’s front yards and farmlands.

After reaching Point Harbor at the end of the peninsula, they transferred to a ferry. On the ferry trip to Kitty Hawk, one man somehow fell overboard and almost drowned before being rescued.

At Kitty Hawk, another fleet of cars driven by local farmers drove the attendees through the sand to Big Kill Devil Hill. Along the way, the nice ladies of Dare County treated them to lunch.

The last challenge for the attendees was the tough climb up the 90-foot Big Kill Devil Hill for the ceremony.

The ceremony held that December 17 went according to plan except that the high winds that made it almost impossible for anyone to hear the dedication speeches by Senator Hiram Bingham and Secretary of War, Dwight Davis.

Orville Wright placed sealed documents and descriptions of the first flight in a special box in the cornerstone. Orville, typically modest, turned to Congressman Warren, whose idea it was to build the memorial, and said that this whole thing might be a mistake. “To do it now seems like an imposition on the taxpayers.”

Then everyone went back down the hill and reassembled at the spot of the takeoff of the first flight. There, the six-foot boulder was dedicated to mark the event. The famous aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart proclaimed the “Queen of the Air” by the United Press, stood next to Orville during the ceremony.

She was not an official delegate to the aviation conference but she was invited to accompany the 200 delegates on the trip from Washington. She wrote to her mother, “I was considered important enough to be the guest of the government so I am riding and eating free…”

The trip home by the attendees, if possible, was an even worse experience. Many automobiles left early because of the cold, leaving a number of attendees stranded. This caused some of them to miss the returning ferry. They were diverted to a leaking rumrunner patrol boat that proceeded to get lost.

On the ferry, Allen Heuth, a New Jersey sportsman who with Frank and Charles Baker had donated the land for the memorial, keeled over and died of a heart attack while talking to the Secretary of War Davis.

Building the Memorial

A great pylon of granite was selected as the winning design for the memorial. Robert P. Rodgers and Alfred E. Poor, New York architects, were the winning architects.

In selecting the design the commission of Fine Arts and the Joint Congressional commission stated that it was “not only the most original and impressive as seen from land, but would also be extremely effective as seen from the air. It strongly manifests the dominant motive suggested in the program, namely, a memorial to the birth of human flight.”

The job of building the memorial consisting of a great pylon of granite was assigned to the Army Quartermaster Corps. In charge was Captain John A. Gilman, who had just completed building the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. The work on the memorial started in 1929.

The job presented a major engineering challenge. Big Kill Devil Hill was a 90-foot high, shifting sand dune that had to be stabilized. It was estimated that it had moved some 400 to 600 feet since the first flight in 1903.

Gilman began by fencing off the dune to keep out the cattle and pigs. Then, he spread two inches of mulch extending 300 feet up the hill. Next, he planted a hardy mixture of imported grass. Once that took root, he extended it up the rest of the slope.

Along with the grass, a cactus known as Prickly Pear was added. It hugs the ground and grows to the size of a pear. It may have been an effective ground cover but its up to inch long needles can be a pain to walkers. During the ensuing years it has spread throughout the park.

It took about a year for the vegetation to stabilize the hill. Work on constructing the monument itself began in February 1931.

Foundations were sunk 35 feet into the hill. The base on top of the hill consisted of a five-pointed star. Above the star rose a 60-foot high triangular pylon, making the total height of the memorial 151-feet measured from sea level. Marble from Salisbury and Mount Airy, NC were used in the construction.

Dedication

On November 19, 1932, Kill Devil Hills Monument was dedicated. (On December 1, 1953 it was renamed the Wright Brothers National Memorial)

Unlike the trip for the cornerstone laying in 1928, this time the trip for the participants was much easier. The roads to Kitty Hawk were paved and there was a new bridge, appropriately named the Wright Memorial Bridge, connecting the Outer Banks with the Currituck Peninsula.

The weather, however, was another story. A heavy downpour of rain drenched a weather reduced crowd of attendees. A make shift canvas covering stretched over the speaker’s platform as a shelter was torn away by the wind.

The airship Akron was turned away. Airplanes based at the army’s Langley Field were unable to take off, but a Navy biplane and two Coast Guard seaplanes were able to fly over the celebration and dip their wings in salute.

An address by Congressman Warren was cut short. A letter from President Hoover was read by Secretary of War, Patrick Hurley and then handed to Orville, who said a simple “thank you” and placed it in his pocket. The assembled group was not aware that President Hoover thought it was absurd to build the memorial at Kitty Hawk.

Ruth Nichols unveiled the granite pylon as the National Anthem was played by the Coast Artillery Band from Fort Monroe, Va.

By 1931 Ruth Nichols had flown higher and faster than any other woman in the world. She was an early favorite to be the first woman to repeat Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight but failed when her airplane crashed in St. John, New Brunswick on her attempt on June 22, 1931.

An interesting note is that Orville was not listed on the program at his request. When it was time for him to come forward many people in the densely packed crowd did not recognize him and he had to push his way through them.

The inscription around the base of the memorial reads:

“In Commemoration of the Conquest of the Air by the Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright – Conceived by Genius – Achieved by Dauntless Resolution and Unconquerable Faith.”

Other Wright Memorials

There is another memorial marker at Kitty Hawk that is little publicized. It is a simple obelisk in Bill Tate’s front yard that was dedicated by the citizens of Kitty Hawk in 1928. (See picture at the beginning of this article.)Tate is the one who responded to Wilbur Wright’s letter of inquiry about a suitable place to perform glider experiments and convinced him to come to Kitty Hawk.

On the obelisk is a carved image of the 1900 glider placed above the inscription that states that on this spot is where Wilbur began to assemble the Wright Brothers first experimental glider.

Dayton did belatedly dedicate their memorial to the Wrights on Orville’s 69th birthday August 19, 1940. The first proposal for a memorial in Dayton had been made in 1912. The memorial was to be built on Huffman Prairie where the Wrights conducted some 120 flights after 1903. A fund drive was underway when the great Dayton flood temporarily terminated the effort.

The completed Dayton memorial is a multifaceted thirty-foot shaft of pink North Carolina marble. It stands on a hill with a view of Huffman Prairie in the distance. Both the Monument and Huffman Prairie are now a part of the Wright Patterson Air Force Base complex.

People will again assemble around the memorials in 2003 celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the first flight.