“The Air Age Was Now”


The Wrights knew that Langley might try again—if he had not done so already—and they felt their chances of being first into the air were becoming slighter every day. They were also aware that they could look forward to worsening weather, to screaming winds, sleet, and snow; they knew about winter at Kitty Hawk. Yet, they vowed that they would stay there long enough to make at least one attempt at flight.

They also agreed that to waste more time on the old propeller shafts would be a dead end. Accordingly, on November 30, Orville left for Dayton to make new shafts of spring steel.

Their expectations of the weather were borne out; on December 3 there was a great storm. This time Orville was not present to share the miseries suffered by his brother. He was in Dayton, hard at work, and on December 9, as Bishop Wright noted in his diary, “Orville started at nine o’clock, with his new propeller shaft, for Kitty Hawk.…”

He also brought news of Langley. On December 8 Charles Manly had again tried to fly Langley’s Aerodrome on the Potomac. The great craft had been boosted from its launch rail, where, poised in midair, the engine howling, it had promptly broken in two and tumbled into the river. Manly had nearly drowned in the snarled wreckage; only the courage of an assistant, who dived at once into the frigid river, had saved his life. The newspaper reactions to this second expensive disaster were razor-sharp, and Langley was slashed to ribbons in the national press. Manned flight, in the general consensus of editors as well as congressmen, had about as much chance of success as perpetual motion.

But on December 12, two hundred miles to the south of the Potomac, new propeller shafts were in place and the Wright brothers moved their own machine outside its hangar to prepare for their first trials. They were chagrined to find the sands of Kill Devil Hill lying quiet under a lazy breeze. There simply wasn’t enough wind to take off from level ground, and they had to settle for testing their aircraft along its launching rails. Again fate intervened on their behalf. The frames supporting the tail snagged on the end of the launch track, breaking the point of the rudder. Back to the hangar for repairs and modifications.

December 13 was perfect, the skies and the winds made to order. A warm breeze of 15 miles an hour sighed across the desolate sands. The moment for flight could not have been better. But Orville and Wilbur spent the day relaxing. They caught up on some personal chores, read books, walked along the beach. December 13 was a Sunday, and the brothers had given their word to their father they would not break the Sabbath by working.

Half past one on the afternoon of Monday, December 14, the brothers extended a flag from the side of the working shed, which could be seen from the Kill Devil Life Saving Station just over a mile distant. This was the prearranged signal that a powered flight would be attempted, for the Wrights wanted every opportunity to have witnesses present if they were successful in sustaining their aircraft for any distance.

Soon after the flag went up, John T. Daniels, Robert Wescott, Thomas Beacham, W. S. Dough, and “Uncle Benny” O’Neal came to the shed and the waiting airplane. They pitched in to move it a quarter mile to the intended launch site. To make it easier to move the 600-pound airplane that distance, the brothers had the men roll it on its 60-foot track (which Wilbur had named the “Junction Railroad”) to the end; then they would pick up the rear sections of track and move them forward to become the front section. It took about forty minutes to get into position.

The airplane’s skids rested on a launching dolly—a six-foot plank which itself rested on a smaller wood section attached to two small wheels in tandem. The wheels were modified from bicycle hubs, with ball bearings to reduce friction, and ran along the metal top of a two-by-four-inch monorail.

By now two small boys and a dog had joined the group to watch the strange behavior of these strange adults. They stayed only long enough for the engine to start, with its popping clatter, whereupon they took off in full flight for the nearest hill, scurrying beyond the crest to safety.

The rail rested along the gentle slope of the hill, and the machine was secured on its launching dolly by wire to keep it from moving until the operator pulled the wire free. The brothers moved the coil box into position, connected the wires to start the engine, and moments later heard staccato thunder and saw their propellers whirling. They removed the wires and the coil box, inspected everything carefully. Just after three o’clock, Wilbur tossed the coin. He waited as Orville called out his choice—Wilbur won. The older brother slid onto the wing, snugged himself onto the hip cradle, looked to his right to see Orville nod. Another man was at the left wingtip. Wilbur judged everything about him. The machine rested on a downslope because the wind was but five miles an hour. He might fly; and he might not. The wind made it all marginal. Wilbur readied himself.