Recreating Wright Artifacts Not Easy

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1902 glider was left behind again after the first flight of the Flyer in 1903. When the Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk in 1908, they found the skeleton of its wing sticking out of the sand outside the original hanger. The roof of the hanger had collapsed spilling the 1902 glider and two Chanute gliders on the ground. A resident of the area told the Wrights that a group of boys had carried away everything that looked interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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