Tom Crouch Talks Wright Brothers

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Inventing The Airplane

The following is a talk that Tom Crouch gave on August 19, 2007. Crouch is senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and author of “The Bishop Boys” and other books. The talk took place during the morning in the Pavilion auditorium at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills.

Crouch: Today, August 19, 2007 is a special day. It is Orville Wright’s birthday. It is also since 1938, National Aviation Day as well. And to really top it off, it is Katharine Wright’s birthday. Orville Wright and his sister, who is three years younger than Orville, were born on the same day. If Orville were alive today he would be 136 years old.

Orville was half of the team who invented the airplane. Wilbur was four years older than Orville. They lived in Dayton, Ohio where I was born. Their father was a bishop in a church and had an extraordinary impact on their lives.

When I wrote a biography of the Wright brothers, I called it, “The Bishop Boys,” to honor their father. Their mother was extraordinary as well. The Bishop couldn’t pound a nail straight; he wasn’t a very mechanical guy. Their mother was interested in mathematics and science and grew up in her father’s carriage shop and developed suburb mechanical skills.

Both parents contributed enormously to the invention of the airplane. They had great parenting skills and techniques. They were the kind of parents that did everything they could to encourage the curiosity of their children. They tried to answer the questions that the kids had and encouraged them to conduct their own experiments to get answers to their questions and it gave them enormous self confidence in their own capacity to do things.

One of the most extraordinary things about the Wright brothers psychologically, without which they never would have invented the airplane, was this extraordinary intellectual self-confidence that they had. These were two guys who had not gone to college and yet they were absolutely sure that when they conducted a piece of work they could trust the answer. So, they had that going for them.

Wilbur and Orville were close to one another. They had often said that growing up they had shared lots of things together such as their toys and ideas. They had played together and conducted experiments together and all that. Again, that is something else they had going for them.

I think that if they hadn’t been as close as they were, the two of them, they might not have been able to do what they did as single individuals. When it comes to the Wright brothers the whole was a whole lot greater than the sum of the parts. Together they were a pretty extraordinary team.

But they had distances too. Wilbur, for example, cared very little about personal appearance and that sort of thing.

Orville on the other hand was very much interested in all of that. He was the snappiest dresser in the family. To such an extent that when Wilbur went off in November 1901 to give the biggest speech of their lives, one of the most important speeches in the entire history of aeronautics, he went wearing his brother’s suit because Kate, their sister, recognized that Orville’s suit was in better shape and a lot better looking than Wilbur’s best outfit. So Wilbur gave his speech in Orville’s suit, shirt and tie.

Why did they go to Kitty Hawk? Why didn’t they do what they were going to do in Dayton? The answer is that Dayton is not a very windy place.

When the Wright brothers first became interested in flight, the first thing they did was to really take a look at the literature of flight that existed at that time. These guys were not college graduates, but at the same time, they were engineers of absolute genius. And they started out exactly the right way by reading what other people had written about flight.

As they drew some conclusions out of that reading, it was Wilbur who said, “look you can reduce this problem to three basic systems. If you are going to invent an airplane you have to have wings that are going to generate lift, you got to have a propulsion system that will move the wings through the air and you got to have a way to control the wings once you’re in the air. Lift, aerodynamics, propulsion and control – that’s it.”

As they looked around they recognized that people had learned something about wing design, for example. Not as much as the Wright brothers had originally thought they had, but at least enough to give them a starting point. And from the looks of what other experimenters had done with wings. They saw that they could actually calculate the amount of lift that a given wing design would generate in a wind of a particular speed.

When they ran the numbers they discovered that you were either going to have to build a pretty huge machine or you were going to have to fly in a pretty substantial steady headwind. They couldn’t find that kind of headwind in Dayton.

So they wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau which kindly sent them weather statements with average winds at all the weather stations from coast to coast in the United States. It turned out that the windiest places actually were, as you might expect, cities on lakes. Places like Chicago and Buffalo, New York and places like that.

The Wright brothers didn’t want to conduct their experiments in urban areas. They really wanted to do this sort of on their own away from prying eyes and newspaper reporters and that kind of thing. So they went down the list. The first really rural isolated place on the list was Kitty Hawk, NC.

Where we are sitting now at the memorial is not Kitty Hawk, rather it is Kill Devil Hill. Kitty Hawk is located some four miles north of here. That is where the weather station was also located. And so when the Wright brothers found out about this windy little place on the isolated outer banks of NC, they wrote a guy named Joe Dosher who was running the weather station at that point and the only employee of the weather service at that time.

Dosher sent a short note back to the Wrights, but he recognized there were probably people in the village who were better than him to explain what this place was like to the Wright brothers than him. He turned Wilbur’s letter over to Bill Tate. Tate’s wife was the postmaster of Kitty Hawk. Bill had been the postmaster of Kitty Hawk, but his wife was doing it at the time.

Bill Tate wrote the brothers a very long and wonderful letter back talking about the fact that yes, if you guys want winds to fly into, we have dunes that you could conduct your experiments from and there are not a lot of trees that you can run into. The letter was just enough to let the Wright brothers know that in fact this was going to be a pretty good place to come.

But I think the clincher was that at the end of the letter Tate said something like “if you come down here, I can promise you one thing, you will find friendly people who will do what they can to extend a hand and help you with your experiments.”

I’m pretty sure that is what sold the Wright brothers on Kitty Hawk.

Wilbur set out for Kitty Hawk by himself. They had mostly prefabricated the glider in Dayton. So he set out on what was the greatest adventure of his life.

These guys were middleclass small businessmen from Dayton, Ohio. They had gone to the Chicago World’s Fair, but they really weren’t great travelers. So this really was an adventure for Wilbur Wright.

He set out from Dayton on a Big Four train for Cincinnati. In Cincinnati he changed to a B &O train which came all the way down the Ohio River, cut down across West Virginia, down through Virginia, passed Charlottesville, Gordonsville, and all the way down to Hampton Roads.

At Hampton Roads he had to get all his stuff on a steamer that would take him across Hampton Roads. He could catch the Southern Railroad train on the other side of Hampton Roads that would take him on down to Elizabeth City, where he had to buy some of the additional things he needed for the glider.

When he got to Elizabeth City, that was the end of the line. He had no idea how to get out here to Kitty Hawk. He had to go down to the docks and ask around for a guide who was willing to take him and his equipment across Albermarle Sound. He sailed on a leaky old sailboat into Kitty Hawk Bay spent the night on the boat anchored just off shore. The next morning he came ashore with all of his stuff.

Orville came down a little bit later that year. Wilbur told him it was a good place and I’m working on the glider. So Orville comes down.

They flew three gliders at Kitty Hawk — 1900, 1901, and 1902. The 1900 season was a little disappointing. They discovered that the glider they had designed so carefully didn’t generate as much lift as they had calculated it was going to.

They didn’t give up. They went back to Dayton. They decided there is some kind of a puzzle here; we will just build a bigger glider.

They came back to Kitty Hawk the next year, 1901, with a bigger glider and that was the first time they could really make genuine flights.

It was also the first time they got really scared. Now for the first time they were actually in the air and they discovered that although they had a pretty good notion of control, they could now recognize that they didn’t really have a good handle on control.

And once more this airplane was still not generating as much lift as their calculations had predicted. This meant that other people hadn’t known as much about wings as the Wright brothers had hoped they had.

So, they went back to Dayton and conducted some wind tunnel tests and came back with the 1902 glider in 1902. All the 1902 glider flights were made right outside here where the memorial now stands. There were actually four Kill Devil hills around here at the time, some of which were actually just small humps.

The 1902 flights were the first time that they had the feeling that they were home free. Now they had a machine that pretty much performed as predicted and was controllable, fairly so anyway. So they were ready to go ahead with the design of a powered flying machine, which they did.

And of course on December 17, 1903 at the base of the big Kill Devil Hill, their machine flew. They only made four flights that morning. Orville, whose birthday is today, made the first one

They took turns – Orville – Wilbur – Orville – Wilbur.

Orville’s first flight wasn’t all that much to write home to mother about – only about 120 feet, 12 seconds. But each flight was better than the one before it. By the fourth flight Wilbur was really beginning to get the hang of the thing. He flew almost 900 feet down the beach in the direction of Kitty Hawk. He was in the air almost a minute — 59 seconds.

Again, there were control issues, but he recognized that they were getting a handle on those.

He made a hard landing at the end of that fourth flight and they had to bring the airplane back down to the hanger. They reckoned that it was going to take a couple of days to perform the repairs on it. It was cold that day and they went into the shed to warm their hands up, and to make a long story short, a wind came up, tumbled the airplane, and when that episode was over, the world’s first airplane was sort of broken sticks, snapped wire, and torn fabric. They decided to take the pieces back to Dayton.

That’s why the world’s first airplane in our museum in Washington D.C. only made four flights, those four between 10:35 and noon on Dec 17, 1903.

That’s a little something about the guy whose work we are celebrating today and his brother. And I always include their sister too.

There have always been sort of epochal stories about the extent to which Katharine, who was a schoolteacher in Dayton and the only college graduate in that generation of the family, gave money to her brothers or helped them with higher mathematics. None of that is true. They did all of that on their own.

All the money that they spent coming down here, camping out, building the airplanes, testing them, all of that came out of the bicycle shop. Everything they needed to know to build that airplane – the mathematical base that they needed, the reading they had to do — that was all them. Kate had nothing to do with any of that.

On the other hand, I argue that if it hadn’t been for her, they might not have done what they did at all. Kate gave them a home. Neither of them ever married. They lived in their father’s home and Katharine Wright made that a home for them. After teaching at a high school all day in Dayton, she would supervise the cooks and the people that cleaned the house, and that kind of thing, and made it a home for all of them, for the Bishop as well as Wilbur and Orville.

And she was also the glue that sort of kept the family together. If you doubt that all you have to do is read Orville and Katharine Wright’s letters back and forth to one and the other. They’re wonderful letters. A friend of mine, a guy with whom I have been coming down here for 25 years, and I are editing a final volume of the Wright letters written between 1907 and the time of Wilbur’s death in 1912. We are bringing the project to an end that the original editor of the papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright always wanted to do.

But when you read those letters and again the unpublished ones too. It just comes home to you what wonderful writers and warm human beings made up this family, the extent to which they cared about one another, supported one another, and just really did their best to support one another.

So those are the two people, Orville and Kate, whose birthday we are celebrating today and its National Aviation Day too as I said. So actually we are celebrating the whole thing.

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