“We look back now, and it’s so obvious that December 17, 1903, was the date flight happened. It wasn’t so obvious back then,” says James Tobin, author of To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight, published this month. “The Wrights were just two people, really, among a large number of tinkerers, scientists and adventurers around the world who were fascinated by the problem of flight.” At the time, the brothers’ claim that they had flown 852 feet in 59 seconds that chilly day at Kitty Hawk was merely one of many reported attempts to fly. It wasn’t until Wilbur’s historic 1909 flight over Manhattan that the world finally understood what the pair had achieved six years before: piloted flight in a powered airplane.
The fierce rivalry to be first in the air included far more prominent, better funded men than the Wright brothers, bachelors who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and lived with their father. Alexander Graham Bell (not satisfied with having invented the telephone) promoted his tetrahedral-cell kites as “possess[ing] automatic stability in the air.” Newspapers followed Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont as he steered gas-powered airships over Paris beginning in 1898.
Most enthusiasts would have predicted that the innovator of piloted heavier-than-air flight would be the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the astrophysicist Samuel Pierpont Langley, who held the office from 1887 to 1906. Since 1886, Langley, then 52, had been consumed with the raw science of aeronautics. By 1899, with a large endowment from the U.S. War Department, he was directing an entire staff on the design and construction of his piloted “aerodromes.”
Langley and the Wrights, says Tobin, “defined the problem very differently, and Langley got it wrong.” He and his young engineer, Charles Manly, concentrated on designing a light, powerful engine; the frame to which they attached it, however, lacked a method for steering. Wilbur and Orville Wright believed that balance and steering defined the problem; it was almost as an afterthought that they added an engine to one of their gliders, which they had been testing since 1900. Ultimately, what separated the Wrights from their more illustrious rivals, wrote Tobin, was “their particular aptitude for learning how to do a difficult thing.” Of Wilbur, the author says: “I can’t think of anyone who stuck to a plan so carefully, who figured out what he needed to do, and just did it.”
The excerpt that follows begins in Dayton in August 1902 as the brothers frantically prepare to turn over their bicycle shop to mechanic Charlie Taylor, 34, and return for their third summer in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wilbur, 35, and Orville, 31, hoped the new glider design they had worked on all winter would finally solve their problem of lift and control.
All the parts they needed had to be planned correctly in advance and none could be forgotten. Once they reached Kitty Hawk, it would be too late to buy or order anything left behind. They could not make the curved wingtips and ribs themselves. This was work for specialists who made parts for the carriage industry and had the equipment needed for steaming strips of ash, then bending the pliant wood to the required curvature. The Wrights would have handed over sketches with precise dimensions, all based on data from the wind tunnel they built in their shop workroom in the fall of 1901.
They planned to reuse the uprights from their 1901 glider, but everything else had to be new. Most parts they could make themselves from spruce lumber they had ordered cut up into pieces of roughly the right length and shape. Then they went at them with drawknives and spokeshaves, rounding the corners to preserve the wood’s essential strength while reducing weight and wind resistance. When this was done, the pieces were ready to be drilled and notched, to make holes for screws and mortises for joining. Then the brothers brushed all the wood parts with several coats of varnish, to protect against the humid North Carolina air. Now the wooden skeleton of the wings could be assembled. In place of screws or nuts and bolts, the brothers used waxed linen cord, an all-purpose twine that conveniently stuck to itself and the wood, making it easy to tie tight lashings and knots. In a jolting landing, the lashed joints gave a little, then snapped back, minimizing the possibility of broken joints.
Next came the skin, made from yard upon yard of Pride of the West white muslin. This was the trickiest part of the entire job, and it depended entirely on the sewing skills that Susan Wright had taught her sons. Kate, 28, watched, aghast, as her brothers pushed furniture out of the way and filled the first floor of the house with ribs and spars and endless yards of linen. “Will spins the sewing machine around by the hour while Orv squats around marking places to sew. There is no place in the house to live,” she wrote to her father, Milton.
They scissored the fabric into strips, then machine-sewed the pieces back together so the threads would run “on the bias” at a 45-degree angle to the ribs. Thus each thread acted as a tiny cross-brace, helping to hold the wing together under the pressures of flight. With painstaking measuring, stretching and sewing, the Wrights created a long, snug pocket for each rib, to keep the fabric anchored and to preserve the wing’s precise curvature when it was subjected to the forces of lift. Then, inch by inch, starting at the trailing edge of the wings, they slipped the tight-fitting cloth skin over the wooden skeleton. The tips of the wings were covered separately and required an artist’s touch at folding, tucking and stitching.
In search of a remote place where they could test their gliders, the Wrights had first camped at Kitty Hawk, a village in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in September 1900. In July 1901, at Kill Devil Hills, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, they built a shed near a large dune they called the “big hill.” The brothers returned to campAugust 28, 1902.
A year in the wind had so buckled the Wrights’ wooden shed that the roof sloped sharply at either end and the interior, Wilbur reported to their sister, Kate, “strongly resembles the horror of an earthquake in its actual progress.” Wilbur and Orville bolstered the shed’s sagging floors and built a 16- by 16-foot addition. With a device of their own invention, they drilled the best well in Kitty Hawk, finding “good water” 17 feet down.
In ElizabethCity, the mainland town nearest Kitty Hawk, they had picked up an oven and a barrel of gasoline. Orville had brought a rifle to shoot small waterfowl, so they had occasional fresh meat. To ease the long round- trip between the village and the camp, they had brought a bicycle, in parts, and fussed with the gears so they could ride it over sand. Their shelves were soon stocked with precise rows of canned goods.
“We fitted up our living arrangements much more comfortably than last year,” Wilbur wrote to colleague George Spratt. “There are . . . improvements too numerous to mention, and no mosquitoes, so we are having a splendid time.”
By this, their third summer, the Wrights were now treated as familiar and welcome guests in Kitty Hawk, though they had not been the easiest men to get to know. “They didn’t put themselves out to get acquainted with anybody,” said John Daniels, one of the regular lifeguards at the nearby Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station. “Just stuck to themselves, and we had to get acquainted with them. I never saw men so wrapped up in their work in my life. After their day’s work was over they were different; then they were the nicest fellows you ever saw.” The brothers shared good food and asked questions about the land, the weather and the families of the village. They were good with the children. That surely scored points, as did their “uniform courtesy to everyone.”
The flying proposition remained dubious among the villagers. Two years earlier, they had regarded the Wrights as “a pair of crazy fools,” Daniels said. “We laughed about ’em among ourselves.” Sometimes the lifeguards would look over from their post and see the Ohioans standing near the beach, faces upturned, watching intently as gulls soared and banked overhead, even spreading their arms and twisting their wrists in imitation of the birds. An hour later the lifesavers would look again, and there the brothers would be, still watching the birds.
In fact, the brothers spent less time watching the gulls than they did watching the eagles, hawks and buzzards that soared some distance inland from the crashing waves, above the dunes where the brothers themselves flew. The soaring bird enjoys a perfect balance among the forces of lift, drift and gravity. It was what the brothers aspired to.
Wilbur’s favorites were the buzzards, which soared more often than the others. One day, atop the summit of the West Hill, he watched a buzzard at eye level only 75 feet away. It hung all but motionless over the steep slope. Wilbur believed his own artificial wings were—or could be—as good as this bird’s. He was less sure he could develop the buzzard’s skill. “The bird’s wings are undoubtedly very well designed indeed, but it is . . . the marvelous skill with which they are used. . . . The soaring problem is apparently not so much one of better wings as of better operators.” To develop that skill remained the brothers’ chief desire, and they could attain it only with the prolonged practice that long, safe glides could afford them.
In the shed at Kitty Hawk, the brothers took apart their old glider from the summer of 1901 to make room for their new one. Over 11 days, the machine took shape.
It was an extraordinary work of art, science and craft. It was created to serve a function, so the form, following the function, took on its own ungainly beauty. The leading corners of the wings were quarter-circles, the trailing corners shaped like scoops. In cross-section, the wings humped in front and trailed away in a graceful curve to the rear. The linen skin was taut, the wires tight. Viewed directly from in front or from the side, there was hardly anything to see but a spare collection of lines—horizontal, vertical, diagonal and curved. Only when viewed from above or below did the craft seem substantial, owing to the wings, 32 feet tip to tip and 5 feet front to back. Yet the glider weighed only 112 pounds. Three men could pick it up and carry it with little trouble. “It was built to withstand hard usage,” Wilbur said, and though it looked thin and spare, it felt sturdy. When they faced it into a steady breeze, it no longer seemed ungainly. Suddenly they were no longer holding it up but holding it down.
Their first gliders, especially the one built in 1900, had flown as any child’s kite flies, with the line at a slanting angle of about 45 degrees. The closer a kite’s line ascends to the vertical, the greater the kite’s efficiency. One whose cord runs on a vertical line down to the operator is, in effect, soaring. It is aerodynamically perfect. If it could move forward under its own power, it would be flying.
On Wednesday, September 10, 1902, the brothers tested the upper wing as a kite. Two days later they tested the lower wing. They found that these curved surfaces, flown by themselves, exerted less pull on the lines than had their 1901 machine. This meant the wind was guiding the wing into a flatter angle of attack, which promised flatter, longer glides.Next, the brothers assembled the entire glider and carried it to a slope they measured at about seven degrees. In a steady wind, they let out their lines. The glider rose. The lines stood nearly straight up and stayed there.
On the morning of Friday, September 19, Wilbur made the first 25 test glides of the season, with Orville and their assistant, Dan Tate, running alongside with a hand on the wingtips. That day and the next, Wilbur found that slight adjustments in the angle of the new front elevator, a smaller pair of movable wings, offered him control of the glider’s fore-and-aft movements.
But the new control device was tricky. To turn up, the operator had to push the elevator-control bar down—the reverse of the 1901 controls. With this movement not yet instinctive, Wilbur found himself aloft in a cross-gust that caught the left wingtip and pushed it skyward “in a decidedly alarming manner.” Wilbur, in confusion, turned the elevator up instead of down and found the glider suddenly “bent on a mad attempt to pierce the heavens.” He recovered and landed without damage. But he continued to have problems keeping the wingtips level in crosswinds.
For a long, rainy Sunday the brothers stewed and debated, “at a loss to know what the cause might be.” What new forces had they summoned by lengthening the wings and adding a tail? The next day, they retrussed the wings so that the tips dipped slightly below the level of the center section. With this slight arch, the glider took on the droop-winged look of gulls, which fly well in high winds. Kite tests vindicated their intuition. Now crosswinds, if anything, seemed to improve their lateral balance. “The machine flew beautifully,” Orville wrote that evening, and “when the proper angle of incidence was attained, seemed to soar.”
He began the morning after the wings were retrussed, practicing assisted glides to get the feel of the controls. The tips were so responsive that in one flight he “caused the machine to sway from side to side, sidling one way and then the other a half dozen times in the distance of the glide.” Orville managed one respectable flight of 160 feet at an admirably low angle of descent. Then, while concentrating on a wingtip that had risen too high, he lost track of the elevator controls and rushed upward to a height of 25 or 30 feet. Wilbur and Dan Tate cried out. Orville stalled, slid backward and struck the ground wingfirst with a crackle of splintering spruce and ash. “The result was a heap of flying machine, cloth, and sticks, with me in the center without a bruise or a scratch,” he wrote in his diary. This “slight catastrophe” meant days of repairs. But that evening the brothers were so pleased with the glider that “we are . . . in a hilarious mood.” Orville wrote Kate: “The control will be almost perfect, we think, when we once learn to properly operate the rudders.”
The control was not perfect. The winds of the Outer Banks blew in turbulent swirls, and on the dunes there was no lift balance to hold the glider’s wings safe and steady. In the next few days, the repaired machine made many more glides under good control. But every so often, “without any apparent reason,” one wingtip would rise and fail to respond when the pilot pulled the cables that warped, or twisted, the wings—the key to the Wrights’ system of staying balanced in the air. Tilting heavily to one side, the machine would go into a sickening slide sideways in the direction of the tilt. One side of the glider rose and gathered speed, the other side dipped low and slowed, and the whole craft spun into a frightening, out of control circle. The problem was dangerous and bewildering, and they could not claim control of the glider until they had solved it.
To the brothers’ delight, their older brother, Lorin Wright, 40, walked into camp on the last day of September, and, equally welcome, George Spratt arrived the next afternoon. The barren expanse of sand increasingly took on the look of a sportman’s camp. Spratt and Lorin snagged crabs for bait and caught an eel and some chubs. The three brothers competed in target shooting with Orville’s rifle. To the rhythm of the nearby surf, they talked over the evening fire, Lorin lending his own assessments of the glides.
Wilbur climbed to his bunk early, often by 7:30. Orville stayed up later. On the night of October 2, Orville drank more coffee than usual and lay awake for a long time. The glider’s curious geometry floated through his mind—and a perception dawned. In the out of control episodes, he saw that as the glider went into its sideways slide, the fixed vertical tail in the rear not only failed to keep it straight, but it also collided with stationary air, and pushed the machine into its dangerous spin.
Orville glimpsed a solution—make the tail movable. If the pilot entering a turn could alter the tail’s angle, then pressure would be relieved on the lower side of the glider and exerted on the higher side. The machine would turn under control and neither slide sideways nor spin.
In the morning, Orville presented his idea. Wilbur saw the point—yes, the tail should be movable. By shifting his hips, the pilot would twist the wings and alter the tail’s angle at the same time. Suddenly it was clear to both of them. The two movements were intimately connected and ought to be performed simultaneously. Wing and tail and wind would act in concert.
The skies cleared and the wind blew steady and strong. Spratt had to leave on October 20, leaving the brothers alone with only Dan Tate to help. Wilbur and Orville now looked to see what this glider could do. In five days they made hundreds of glides, stretching their distances to 300, 400, 500 feet in buffeting winds up to 30 miles per hour. On October 23, Wilbur traveled 622 feet in a glide lasting nearly half a minute. Orville bubbled with excitement and pride. “We now hold all the records!” he wrote Kate on the night of October 23. “The largest machine ever handled . . . the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind!!!”
Their long glides had grown out of their aptitude for learning how to do a difficult thing. It was a simple method but rare. They broke a job into its parts and proceeded one part at a time. They practiced each small task until they mastered it, then moved on. The best example was their habit of staying very close to the ground in their glides, sometimes just inches off the sand. “While the high flights were more spectacular, the low ones were fully as valuable for training purposes,” Wilbur said. “Skill comes by the constant repetition of familiar feats rather than by a few overbold attempts at feats for which the performer is yet poorly prepared.” They were conservative daredevils, cautious prophets. “Athousand glides is equivalent to about four hours of steady practice,” Wilbur said, “far too little to give anyone a complete mastery of the art of flying.”
Langley and Manly had spent most of four years building an extraordinary engine to lift their heavy flying machine. The Wrights had spent most of four years building a flying machine so artfully designed that it could be propelled into the air by a fairly ordinary internal combustion engine. Still, they had expended a minimum of thought and energy on their power plant. At first they hoped simply to buy an engine. But when they sent inquiries to manufacturers, specifying one of less than 200 pounds that would make at least eight horsepower, only one manufacturer said he had such an engine, and the brothers concluded he was overrating its power. So, back in Dayton in the winter of 1902, they sketched a design of their own and handed it to their bicycle shop machinist Charlie Taylor, who did most of the work in the back room. After six weeks, he produced a simplified four-cylinder auto engine without a carburetor, spark plugs or fuel pump. In February 1903, the engine block cracked in a shop test. When a new block was delivered and the engine reassembled, it made 12 horsepower at 1,025 revolutions per minute. With four more horsepower than the brothers believed they needed, and 20 pounds fewer than their maximum, the engine, said Orville, was “a very pleasant surprise.”
The brothers had assumed that propellers would cause them less trouble than the engine, but they soon learned that ships’ propellers were designed by trial and error, vessel by vessel. No one knew exactly how they worked, so no one had worked out a theory of propeller design, least of all for flying machines. So the brothers had no choice but to plumb the mystery themselves. They began to consider the problem seriously soon after their return to Dayton from Kitty Hawk in 1902, and “it was not till several months had passed,” Orville recalled, “and every phase of the problem had been thrashed over, that the various reactions began to untangle themselves.”
Naval engineers had proposed that a marine propeller cuts through water as a screw cuts through wood. The brothers conceived a different image. To them, “it was apparent that a propeller was simply an aeroplane [that is, a plane surface in the curved shape of a wing] traveling in a spiral course.” The problem sounded simple. But, wrote Orville, it “became more complex the longer we studied it. With the machine moving forward, the air flying backward, the propellers turning sidewise, and nothing standing still, it seemed impossible to find a starting- point from which to trace the various simultaneous reactions.”
“We worked out a theory,” Orville wrote in a June letter to Spratt, “on the subject, and discovered, as we usually do, that all the propellers built heretofore are all wrong, and then built a pair of propellers 8 1/8 ft. in diameter, based on our theory, which are all right! (till we have a chance to test them at Kitty Hawk and find out differently). Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so that we could discover them!!”
After waiting days for calm weather, Langley’s young engineer, Charles Manly, catapulted his boss’s aerodrome off a houseboat moored in the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia, just after 10 a.m., October 7, 1903. Manly’s “indescribable sensation of being free in the air” gave way to “the important fact . . . that the machine was plunging downward at a very sharp angle.’ The front wings struck the water and disintegrated.” Soon after, back in Kitty Hawk for their fourth season (they returned September 25, 1903),Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute, a distinguished civil engineer and aviation authority he had befriended: “I see that Langley has had his fling, and failed. It seems to be our turn to throw now, and I wonder what our luck will be.”
Until now, construction of what would become their famous “Flyer” had proceeded smoothly. But in a test on November 5, a misfiring engine conspired with loose propellers and loose sprockets to make a disaster. The propeller shafts tore loose from their mountings and twisted. The Wrights had no choice but to send the shafts back to Charlie Taylor to be repaired. Without them, there would be no powered flight for many days, and Chanute, who had arrived in Kitty Hawk November 6 for a visit, said he couldn’t stay that long. For his benefit the brothers labored up the slopes to make a few more glides in the 1902 machine. But the wood had grown dry and rickety in the heat of the shed, and they decided the glider was no longer safe. For most of their friend’s stay the weather remained so bad the three men did little but sit close to the stove and talk.
Chanute questioned the brothers closely about the mathematical calculations they had used in building their engine, and he didn’t like what they told him. Engineers usually allowed for a 20 percent loss of an engine’s power, yet the Wrights had only allowed for 5 percent. This worried the brothers. Unable to work because of the missing shafts, “We had lots of time for thinking, and the more we thought, the harder our machine got to running and the less the power of the engine became,” Orville wrote to Milton and Kate, “We are now quite in doubt as to whether the engine will be able to pull [the Flyer] at all with the present gears.” The brothers estimated their odds of success at no more than even.
It grew colder. The sky turned winter white. After Chanute left the camp on November 12, the Wrights devised a new mechanical test. The results confirmed their own earlier predictions of the engine’s efficiency, and they breathed easier. Orville wrote to Milton and Kate of Chanute’s worries, but also wrote that “he nevertheless had more hope of our machine going than any of the others. He seems to think we are pursued by a blind fate from which we are unable to escape.”
For Langley, it was now or never. After October’s debacle, he told skeptical reporters that the crash was caused by a launching failure. Federal funds that had been set aside for the project were almost exhausted. On December 8, the aerodrome skimmed off the 60-foot track, over the choppy gray river and hit the air. “The enormous wings,” wrote Tobin, “apparently could not withstand their sudden introduction to the forces of flight. They crumpled as soon as they were asked to fly.” The aerodrome plunged into the water and descended into the soft mud at the bottom of the Potomac River.
It took the brothers less than a day to install the new shafts. But on the first day the machine was ready, December 12, the wind was too slack for a start from level ground— a requirement, they felt, for a true powered flight. They practiced running the machine along the track.
On Monday, December 14, the breeze blew at a listless five miles per hour, but they were impatient for action and decided to run the machine down a slope. They laid a 60- foot wooden launch rail. The aeroplane’s skids would rest atop a small, one-wheeled truck that would roll down the rail at the urging of the engine and propellers. A man at either wingtip would keep the machine balanced as it rolled. If all went as planned, it would lift off the truck and fly.
Together the men trundled the machine up the sand hill on its creaky truck and maneuvered it into position on the rail. One of the brothers tossed a coin. Wilbur won the toss. He fit himself into the hip cradle, ducking under the chain that led from the engine, on the operator’s right side, to the propeller shaft on his left. The machine began to roll before Orville, at the right wingtip, was ready to steady it properly. It raced downhill for 35 or 40 feet and lifted away from the rail, but the elevator was cocked at too sharp an angle, and the machine rose abruptly to 15 feet, stalled and thunked into the sand after only three seconds in the air, breaking a few parts. But Wilbur was encouraged. “The power is ample, and but for a trifling error due to lack of experience with this machine and this method of starting, the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully. There is now no question of final success.”
Repairs took a day and a half. Late on the afternoon of December 16, with the machine finally ready for another try, the brothers felt the wind fade. They waited futilely on the beach, tinkering and still hopeful.
Overnight a northerly wind put a new skim of ice on puddles and ponds. In the morning the brothers bided their time for a couple of hours. Then, convinced the wind would stay strong for a bit, they went to work. It was so cold they had to run in and out of the shed to warm their hands.
The wind was blowing at about 25 mph, strong enough for a launch on level ground. The launching track was relaid to face north-northeast, directly into the wind. The machine was hauled into its starting position. To the south, the hump of the big hill loomed over their shoulders. Ahead, the machine faced a blank, barren plain. Now it was Orville’s turn. The brothers padded through the sand around the machine, checking things. They cranked the engine and let it run for a few minutes. Acamera was put in position, and the brothers asked John Daniels to pull the cord to the shutter if the machine got into the air.
At 10:35 Orville inched into the cradle. He released the rope. With Wilbur jogging alongside, his left hand on the right wingtip, the craft lumbered forward, reaching a speed of seven or eight mph.
Between the two spruce skids and the one-wheeled truck running along the rail, a space appeared. An inch became a foot, two feet, three feet. Along shadow ran across the sand. John Daniels squeezed a rubber bulb to open the camera’s shutter (see p. 56 for the only photograph taken of the flight).
Wilbur, still jogging, saw the Flyer rise abruptly to a height of about ten feet, then dip just as suddenly, then rise again. Spread-eagled on the wing, Orville struggled to keep the elevator controls level. The craft dipped a second time, a wing tilted, and he was back on the ground, 120 feet from where he had left the launch rail.
A couple of parts were cracked, so an hour passed before Wilbur could take the next turn. He bettered Orville’s distance by about 50 feet. Orville, on his second try, went a little farther still, and kept the machine steadier than on his first try. Agust came at him from the side, lifting the tip. When he twisted the wings to bring the tip back to level, he found the lateral controls strikingly responsive, much better than on the glider. But the forward rudder was too sensitive. The machine bobbed and dipped in an “exceedingly erratic” path.
At noon Wilbur tried again, and the bobbing and dipping continued. But somehow he found the proper angle for the forward rudder, and the men at the launch rail realized he was not going to come back to the ground right away. The machine was leaving them far behind—200, 400, 600 feet, the noise of the engine fading, the wings on an even keel.
He was flying.
The machine approached a hummock in the plain. Wilbur moved to adjust the forward rudder “and suddenly darted into the ground.” He had gone 852 feet, a sixth of a mile, in 59 seconds. The rudder frame was cracked, but otherwise the machine was fine, as was the operator.
This fourth flight had been the most impressive, the fulfillment of the brothers’ hope for sustained, powered flight. But they also realized that Orville’s brief first try could also be described in words that applied to no previous effort by any experimenter. Orville himself, who took excruciating care in later years to express their history in precise terms, fashioned a description of what the first trial of the day had achieved. It was “a flight very modest compared with that of birds,” he said, “but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.”
That wasn’t an exciting or inspiring way of saying that two human beings had learned how to fly. But it was the way the Wrights thought about things. Hyperbole about events of this day would come from others—although not for years. The magnitude of what they had done could be appreciated only by those who fully understood the steps they had taken and the problems they had solved through four years of work. That included the two of them and no one else in the world. They had flown, barely. They were utterly alone in their comprehension of all that that really meant.