“The Air Age Was Now”


And then the five witnesses and Orville were shouting and gesturing wildly, for it was clear that Wilbur had passed some invisible wall in the sky and had regained control. Four hundred feet out he was still holding the safety altitude of about 15 feet above the ground, and the airplane was flying smoother now, no longer darting and lunging about, just easing with the gusts between an estimated 8 and 15 feet.

The seconds ticked away and it was a quarter of a minute since Wilbur had started, and there was no question now—thé machine was under control and sustaining itself by its own power.

It was flying.

The moment had come. It was here, now. Five hundred feet. Six hundred. Seven hundred!

My God, he’s trying to reach Kitty Hawk itself, nearly four miles away!

And indeed this is just what Wilbur was trying to do, for he kept heading toward the houses and trees still well ahead of him.

Eight hundred feet…

Still going, still flying. Ahead of him, a rise in the ground, a sprawling hump, a hummock of sand; Wilbur brought the elevator into position to raise the nose, to gain altitude to clear the hummock, for beyond this point lay clear sailing, good flying, and he was lifting, the machine rising slowly. But hummocks do strange things to winds blowing at such high speeds. The wind soared up from the sands, rolling and tumbling, and reached out invisibly to push the flying machine downward. The nose dropped too sharply; Wilbur brought it up, and instantly the oscillations began again, a rapid jerking up and down of the nose. The winds were simply too much, the ground-induced roll too severe, and, as Orville later said, the Flyer “suddenly darted into the ground.”

They knew as they ran that the impact was greater than that of an intentional landing. The skids dug in, and all the weight of the aircraft struck hard, and above the wind they heard the wood splinter and crack. The aircraft bounced once, borne as much by the wind as by its own momentum, and settled back to the sands, the forward elevator braces askew, broken so that they hung at an angle. Unhurt, aware that he had been flying a marvelously long time, mildly disappointed at not having continued his flight, stuck in the sand with the wind blowing into his face and the engine grinding out its now familiar clattering, banging roar, Wilbur reached out to shut off power. The propellers whistled and whirred as they slowed, the sounds of the chains came to him more clearly, and then only the wind could be heard. The wind, the sand hissing against fabric and his own clothes and across the ground, and certainly the beating of his own heart.

It had happened. He had flown for 59 seconds. The distance across the surface from his start to his finish was 852 feet. The air distance, computing air speed and wind and all the other factors—more than half a mile. He—they—had done it. The air age was now .

Just fifty-six days before, Simon Newcomb, the only American scientist since Benjamin Franklin to be a member of the Institute of France, in an article in The Independent had shown by “unassailable logic” that human flight was impossible.