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“The Air Age Was Now”
As well as being geniuses, the Wright brothers were methodical craftsmen of astonishing persistence. An aeronautical expert supplies the fascinating technical and personal details of their legendary achievement.
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
Nevertheless, the fear of being second prompted the Wrights, after intense discussion, to decide on a gross violation of their self-imposed safety code. They would fly this new machine as an airplane without first testing out its lift or systems as a glider. George Spratt, who was assisting them in their glider tests, was appalled and tried to dissuade them; the slightest miscalculation in design, not discovered before they tried powered flight, might wreck the machine on its first attempt to get into the air, and they would lose more than they might ever gain.
Wilbur would have none of it. He had absolute confidence in his ability to fly, and Orville’s as well.
They went to work, day and night, trying to be ready before the end of the first week in November. By November 4, Orville noted in his diary that they were “within half day of completion” of the flying machine. The next day they tested the engine. It balked and missed explosions, not surprisingly since it had breaker points instead of spark plugs and a sort of fuel pan instead of a carburetor. Also, because of a rather sketchy lubricating system, it tended to overheat—and bind up, lowering the number of rpm’s—after a short time. After final tuning it was brought down to a steady and reliable running. The irregularities of the engine explosions put them in an agony of frustration, for by the time they had gotten the balky creature to run well, certain damage had been done—the hubs to which the propellers were fastened jerked loose from both drive shafts. Then they found problems with the magneto. By now it was evident to Spratt that no matter how intently the Wrights worked, it would be a long time before they could make any attempt at their first flight. He decided to leave.
Spratt’s departure was hastened, too, by a decline in creature comforts. Food was starting to run low, getting new supplies was difficult, and the brothers preferred to live on short rations rather than waste any time even on food. The weather also had become an implacable foe. On November 1, five days before Spratt left, Orville had written to his sister that “a week ago the weather turned very cold (about zero according to my backbone) and another rain set in which continued for several days without intermittence. We found that a fire was absolutely necessary, especially on account of Spratt, who suffers much from cold. We took one of the carbide cans and, after punching some holes in the bottom for air, built a fire in it inside the building. Of course the smoke was so intense that there was no standing up in the room, so we sat down on the floor about the can with tears streaming down our cheeks enjoying its kindly rays of heat. Everything about the building was sooted up so thoroughly that for several days we couldn’t sit down to eat without a whole lot of black soot dripping down in our plates. We decided a change was necessary, so we got a little stove pipe and built a stove out of the can, adding strap iron legs to it, and a number of patent dampers, so that now we have about as good control in our stove as we have on our machine.…”
George Spratt left Kitty Hawk late in the afternoon on November 5 in a launch and took with him the two shafts to be sent to Dayton for repair. Octave Chanute came to Kitty Hawk briefly from November 7 to 12, and it was not the most pleasant of visits, mainly because of the weather, the short rations, and the fact that there was no flying machine ready to take to the air. As to the food, by now, Orville wrote to Katharine, “We had to come down to condensed milk and crackers for supper, with prospects of coffee and rice cakes for breakfast.”
The cold had become so severe Wilbur was prompted to note that the nights called for “5 blankets & 2 quilts. Next come 5 blankets, 2 quilts & fire; then 5,2, fire & hot-water jug. This is as far as we have got so far. Next comes the addition of sleeping without undressing, then shoes & hats, and finally overcoats.”
When he left, Chanute sent back several pairs of gloves, which were received most gratefully.
On November 15 Orville wrote to both his sister and father: “We are now alone again, the first time for about a month. Mr. Chanute came just as Dr. Spratt left. Spratt, by the way, left about two hours after the breaking of our propeller shafts, taking them along with him to express at Norfolk. We got Pop’s letter yesterday saying that they had been received and were nearly ready to be sent back. We will not get them for three or four days yet. At the time they broke we were trying to get the engine in order. The strains on the shafts were enormous as a result of the sprockets being a little loose. The weight of our machine complete with man will be a little over 700 lbs. and we are now quite in doubt as to whether the engine will be able to pull it at all with the present gears, as we will not be able to use more than ¾ of our power in getting started. The screws came loose before we had time to either measure the speed of the engine or the thrust of the screws. Mr. Chanute says that no one before has ever tried to build a machine on such close ‘margins as we have done to our calculations. He said 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.”