“The Air Age Was Now”


On a windy day on North Carolina ‘s Outer Banks, seventy-six years ago this month, two men in business suits coaxed the first powered aircraft into the sky, controlled it for a perilous 59 seconds, and changed the world we live in. Wilbur and Orville Wright ‘s breakthrough is here recounted by a veteran airman, Harry Combs—who first soloed in an open cockpit biplane when he was fifteen—with the novelist and aviation historian Martin Caidin. The article is excerpted from their forthcoming book, Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers , to be published by Houghton Mifflin in December. Our story opens when the Wright brothers, having worked all year on a new flying machine, return to their sandy island testing site in the fall of 1903.


The trip was familiar but always a little different. On September 23, Orville and Wilbur boarded a gasoline launch for the crossing from Roanoke Island to Kitty Hawk, and saw their camp by the middle of that day. It was now a matter of rolling up their sleeves and pitching in for some hard, unglamorous work, for in their absence thundering winter gales had slashed away at their camp buildings. Dan Tate, a resident of the island, shook his head at the torn boards, gaping holes beneath the structures, and sand blown everywhere; he told the brothers the Outer Banks had experienced the worst winter storms he could recall.

The more they studied their structures, the more the Wrights believed Dan, for their building literally had been blown from its foundation. They discovered, to their immense relief, that their 1902 glider had survived its wintry tribulations without damage; the brothers were intent on practicing with it to gain more experience with its controls. Their plan was to practice flying when the winds were acceptable and the weather fit to take to the air. Three days after arriving they were hovering above the sand dunes, several times managing to move forward slowly in good winds without losing altitude, their cloth wings hissing in the ocean breeze. They learned quickly that their reflexes had not suffered at all during the long winter. When the wind was calm or the weather poor, they would concentrate on work to be done in camp. Orville was able to write to his sister Katharine that “the hills are in the best shape for gliding they have ever been, and things are starting off more favorably than the year before.”

On October 1, Wilbur summed up the first few days in a letter to Octave Chanute, the respected aeronautical engineer with whom the Wrights conferred frequently: “We reached camp … at noon last Friday, and found everything all right about camp, except that a 90-mile wind last February had lifted our building off its foundation and set it over to the east nearly two feet. We made preparations to begin the erection of the new building on Monday but the conditions for gliding were so fine that we took the machine out and spent the finest day we have ever had in practice. We made about 75 glides, nearly all of more than 20 seconds’ duration. The longest was 302/5 seconds which beats our former records. We did some practice at soaring and found it easier than we expected. Once we succeeded in remaining almost in one spot for 262/5 seconds and finally landed fifty feet from the starting point. With a little more practice, I think we can soar on the north slope of the Big Hill whenever the wind has a velocity of 9 meters or more.…”

Fifteen days later another letter went off to Chanute from Wilbur: “We were delayed a week by the nonarrival of some of our goods, but now have everything. The upper surface of new machine is completed. It is far ahead of anything we have built before. The lower surface is about half done. It will probably be nearly Nov. 1st before we are ready for trial, especially if we have some nice soaring weather.…”

The Wrights now held the world’s record for glider duration flights. Yet there was a sad note in Wilbur’s letter, for during this period Professor Samuel Langley’s highly touted Aerodrome, built at enormous expense, had failed utterly in its first flight attempts from a barge on the Potomac River. Langley, one of the nation’s most respected scientists and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, took a terrible drubbing from the newspapers, which assailed him in every way imaginable. “Fiasco,” “complete failure,” and “foolishness” were some of the kinder remarks.

There is a curious circumstance here. The Wrights had worked diligently to produce their small engine of 12 horsepower with a weight of some 180 pounds. But Charles Manly, who attempted the flight in Langley’s airplane, had all the advantages of what was probably the most efficient engine in the world; it was a radical design, weighing only 125 pounds and producing an incredible 52 horsepower. Had the Wrights possessed an engine with this kind of performance, they would never have had to calculate down to the nth degree every facet of their machine. Compared with what they had, the Langley engine was a marvel of brute power.

In his letter to Chanute, Wilbur commented: “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.”