Second Trip to Kitty Hawk (1901)

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Kitty Hawk Years

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.

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