I Have Today Seen Wilbur Wright and his Great White Bird

The airplane debuted to rave reviews.

MEN CLAMBERED UP TREES FOR A BETTER VIEW WHILE THE LADIES RAISED their long skirts and ran down the grassy runway to keep up with the crowd. People came by the thousands to see the most remarkable sight of their era: Wilbur Wright flying an airplane over the fields of France in 1908. His performance and Orville’s later equally dramatic time trials at Fort Myer, Virginia, were the brothers’ first official public flights and the first time the masses had witnessed the Wright aircraft in action.

It’s impossible today in our technology-saturated society to grasp the awe people felt as the thresher-like sound of the engine filled their ears and the 32-foot-long white wings rose over their heads. They might have imagined that man could fly, but as Orville himself later observed, “Flight was generally looked upon as an impossibility and scarcely anyone believed in it until he had actually seen it with his own eyes.”

The two men from Dayton, Ohio, seemed an unlikely pair to be the first to build a workable airplane. Quiet, reserved, extremely devoted to family and a select group of friends, Wilbur and Orville Wright did not relish the limelight. Orv, the dapper younger brother, felt most at home tinkering in the bicycle shop or horsing around with his nieces and nephews. Will read extensively and kept to himself. Captivated on an intellectual level by the mysteries of flight, they aggressively picked away at each intricate piece of the problem. They did not, however, want the world to gawk at them while they worked toward a solution.

But after Wilbur completed his first controlled turn over the field at Le Mans, France, the brothers could no longer hide from the public eye. To their chagrin, they had become the century’s first international celebrities. For years their secrecy had made many doubt their claims of success at Kitty Hawk, but after Wilbur’s flights in France, the world “instead of doubting that we could do anything [was]...ready to believe that we can do everything,” the pilot wrote his brother.

The two men never adjusted to fame. When they returned from their flying exhibitions in Europe in 1909, their hometown, Dayton, Ohio, wanted to throw an elaborate parade and party in their honor. Mortified, and intent on getting back to work so Orville could complete his tests for the U.S. military at Fort Myer, the two brothers pleaded, to no avail, with city officials to cancel the event. Ever proper, the Wrights attended, but when asked to speak, Wilbur stepped to the microphone, said, “Thank you, gentlemen,” and sat down.

FIRST WITNESSES From 1901 to 1903 the skittish brothers allowed only a few people to their campsite, most of them local men who could help them move their gliders and, later, the 600-plus pound Flyer around in the sand. The end result: a post office worker, rescue station volunteers, and a curious beekeeper, not scientific colleagues, provided the first detailed public accounts of the Wrights’ progress.

“We couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, sort o’ like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d ever see one another again.”

—A volunteer from the nearby U.S. Life Saving Station, who witnessed the brothers talking as Orville prepared for his first flight in the Flyer on December 17, 1903

At the time, few lay people understood the difference between flying for miles in an airship and piloting an airplane. The fact that Orville stayed aloft for 12 seconds in front of a handful of men didn’t make very good copy. A Virginian-Pilot reporter decided to embellish his story.

“Flying Machine Soars 3 Miles in Teeth of High Wind Over Sand Hills and Waves at Kitty Hawk on Carolina Coast

“Steadily it pursued its way, first tacking to port, then to starboard, and then driving straight ahead.

“ ‘It’s a success,’ declared Orville Wright to the crowd on the beach after the first mile had been covered.

“But the inventor waited. Not until he had accomplished three miles, putting the machine through all sorts of maneuvers en route, was he satisfied.

“Then he selected a suitable place to land, and gracefully circling drew his invention slowly to earth, where it settled, like some big bird, in the chosen spot.

“ ‘Eureka,’ he cried, as did the alchemists of old.”

Virginian-Pilot, December 18, 1903 The Dayton Evening Herald, which had run the Virginian-Pilot’s outlandish version of the Wrights’ first flight, published the brothers’ correction three weeks later.

“Only Correct Account of the Two Trials Given to the Public for the First Time by Inventors, Who Denounce Previous Reported Interviews As Fakes

“It had not been our intention to make any detailed public statement concerning our private trials of our power ‘Flyer’ on the 17th of December last; but since the contents of a private telegram... was dishonestly communicated to the newspaper men at the Norfolk office...we feel impelled to make some correction. The real facts were as follows:

“On the morning of Dec. 17, between the hours of 10:30 o’clock and noon, four flights were made, two by Orville Wright and two by Wilbur Wright. The starts were all made from a point on the level sand about a hundred feet west of our camp...

“Into the teeth of a December gale the ‘Flyer’ made its way forward with a speed of 10 miles an hour over the ground and 30 to 35 miles an hour through the air. It had previously been decided that for reasons of personal safety these first trials should be made as close to the ground as possible. The height chosen was scarcely sufficient for maneuvering in so gusty a wind, and with no previous acquaintance with the conduct of the machine and its control mechanisms. Consequently the first flight was short.”

Dayton Evening Herald, January 6, 1904 In 1904 and 1905, the brothers took the trolley to Huffman Prairie, a field outside Dayton, every day but Sunday to work ontheir Flyer. The locals had their own opinions about what the Wrights were up to.

“I felt sort of sorry for them. They seemed like well-meaning decent young men. Yet there they were, neglecting their business to waste their time day after day on that ridiculous flying machine. I had an idea they must worry their father.”

—Luther Beard, part-time school teacher, who often saw them on the trolley

How fitting for the publicity-shy Wrights that the most accurate published account by a witness of their flights appeared in an obscure journal called Gleanings of Bee Culture. The editor, a beekeeper, wanted to find out for himself if the rumors of the Wrights’ flying machine were true. On September 19, 1904, he drove 175 miles from Fairfield to Dayton, Ohio; the next day he walked over to Huffman Prairie and watched as the two brothers went to work.

“When it first turned that circle and came near the starting point, I was right in front of it; and I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and it is climbing up in the air right toward you—a locomotive without any wheels, we will say, but with white wings instead.... Well, now imagine that locomotive, with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and you will have something like what I saw... I tell you friends, the sensation that one feels in such a crisis is something hard to describe.”

—Amos Root, Gleanings of Bee Culture, January 1, 1905

SKEPTICS Afraid that others would steal their technology, the Wright brothers stopped test flights by 1905 and focused instead on securing patents for their control system and contracts with the U.S. and French military. For three years they refused to fly their machines, and their secrecy left them vulnerable to naysayers’ lambasting.

“It seems that [the Wrights’] alleged experiments were made at Dayton, Ohio, and that the newspapers of the United States, alert as they are, allowed these sensational performances to escape their notice. When it is considered that...Langley’s experimental model never flew more than a mile, and that Wright’s [sic] mysterious aeroplane covered a reputed distance of 38 kilometers at the rate of one kilometer a minute, we have the right to exact further information before we place reliance on these French reports. Unfortunately, the Wright brothers are hardly disposed to publish any substantiation or to make public experiments, for reasons best known to themselves.”

Scientific American, January 13, 1905

WORLD’S FIRST AIRPLANE PASSENGERS Some brave souls had to be the first people to sit as passengers in the fragile-looking Flyer. A view from coach:

“The air was bumpy and I had the feeling that there were moments when Orville didn’t have full control of the machine as we dipped groundward. It was as if someone on the ground had a string attached to us and would pull occasionally as they would a kite. But each time Orville would raise the elevator slightly and we would gain back the lost altitude.”

—Benjamin Foulois on flying a test run with Orville at Fort Myer, Virginia, July 30, 1909

FANS AND RIVALS By the time Wilbur and Orville began regularly staging public flights in the United States, most Americans and Europeans had read about their exploits in the newspapers. But even this more savvy audience found itself transfixed by the sight of an actual airplane buzzing overhead. For many it was tantamount to a religious experience.

“I’ve seen him! I’ve seen him! Yes, I have today seen Wilbur Wright and his great white bird, the beautiful mechanical bird. There is no doubt! Wilbur and Orville Wright have well and truly flown.”

—Le Figaro, August 11, 1908

“The whistles of the passing tugs and ferry boats were tooting a mighty chorus and the Battery sea wall was black with people. The news was flashed over the city, and from the windows of the towering buildings thousands forgot all else and watched the huge artificial bird sailing up the river.”

—The New York Times’ account of Wilbur Wright’s flight up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb on October 5, 1909

“I have never seen such a look of wonder on the faces of the multitude. From the gray-haired man to the child, everyone seemed to feel that it was a new day in their lives.”

—A clergyman in Chicago after seeing the Wrights fly at an air meet in 1910

Even the Wrights’ most avid critics had to admit that the brothers’ flights were infinitely more sophisticated and successful than anything anyone had done in an airplane before. But that didn’t keep some competitors and aviation “experts” from chiding the brothers, especially Will, for their arrogant and aloof manner or the peculiar design of their Flyer.

“The Wright machine is astonishing in its simplicity not to say apparent crudity of detail—it is almost a matter of surprise that it holds together. The Voisin machine has at least some pretensions to be considered an engineering job.”

—Aerodynamics expert Frederick Lanchester of England

THE TWILIGHT YEARS Both of the brothers loved the process of invention more than the business of capitalizing on their success. Just three years after Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 45, Orville quit his job as the president of their airplane manufacturing company. Without his brother Wilbur around to argue with, life just didn’t seem as stimulating for Orville, who attended as few public functions as possible.

“Strange to look at this quiet, mild gray-headed man and to realize that he is the one who flew the plane at Kitty Hawk on the December day.”

—Charles Lindbergh’s impression of Orville Wright in 1939, when Orville was 68

LOOKING BACK We all have our own personal aviation history: The first time we flew in an airplane or watched a jet leave a trail overhead. Betty Wright Strother, 97, has memories that rise above such standard fare. She was on hand for two of aviation’s most significant events. In December 1941, she was living in Pearl Harbor, where her husband was stationed, when the Japanese attacked.

“Some planes came overhead and I was about to call the field and tell them they were being careless with their planes,” she says. “But then that first plane bombed the house about three blocks from us.”

Thirty-two years earlier, Betty and her parents had been in the crowd that gathered at Fort Myer when Orville Wright (no relation) flew.

“Whenever something of interest came up, my mother and father got us inter-ested too, so that was the case on us going over there and seeing that plane. We went in a horse and buggy.

“The main thing that stuck in my mind at the time was those big dusters—you know, those overcoats—and how as he started to get into the plane he had to wrap it around himself. I remember him getting into the plane and just taking off.”

—Elizabeth Strother, Opelika, Alabama

In 1902 the brothers took turns: When Orville flew, Wilbur launched, aided by friend Bill Tate (at right). Library of Congress NEG. #LC-W861-1

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