“The Air Age Was Now”


Finally five people from the lifesaving station appeared, hands in pockets, jacket collars pulled up, to watch the proceedings and, if needed, to help. Daniels and Dough had been there on the fourteenth, and with them were three visitors.

Orville set his tripod and camera in place, aiming carefully so that when the release was pressed the airplane would be shown just as it left the track, and he assigned this task to Daniels. Thirty minutes after the flag was raised, the 600-pound glider had become an airplane, with its engine running to warm up. The two brothers stood aside from the others, talking quietly. It was to be Orville’s turn first today, and he exchanged his usual bowler for a cap, taking the extra precaution of fastening it securely with a safety pin. “After a while they shook hands,” Daniels later explained, “and we couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, sort o’ like they hated to let go; like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d ever see each other again.”

Orville slipped aboard the bottom wing, grasped the controls, and secured himself within the hip cradle. He studied the instruments—there were just three. First was a Richard hand anemometer mounted on the front center strut adjacent to his body; this one instrument actually held two units. The upper part had an eight-bladed fan within a cylindrical case that rotated as air blew against it; the rotation was transmitted along a shaft to a recording device two and one-half inches below. This presented a watch-type face with two hands. As the machine traveled, the hands kept track of the actual distance flown through the air; when the plane stopped, so did the hands, thus providing an on-board record of distance traveled. The second instrument—a stopwatch—was as vital then as it is today; by combining the reading of the two gauges, the pilot knew the distance traveled within a specified time and could later calculate his speed from the flight log. A Veedor engine-revolution recorder kept a record of propeller turns; it, too, provided an accounting of distance traveled through the air.

Resting on the wing, waiting, with the wind rocking the craft from side to side and swinging and howling through the struts and wires, Orville counted away the final moments. Wilbur took his position at the right wing tip and then motioned to the five onlookers, urging them, as Daniels related, “not to look sad, but to laugh and hollo and clap our hands and try to cheer Orville up when he started.” Wilbur turned back to his position as the five whooped and shouted and clapped. Above all this noise, the sputtering engine and its staccato barking, the whirl of the propellers, and muted thunder of wind, came Orville’s cry that he was ready.

“On slipping the rope,” he recorded in his diary, “the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles [an hour]. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks. I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground.”

The Flyer dashed out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks and, in a final lunge for the ground that covered an additional 20 feet, whacked solidly against the sand, skidding along, and cracking one skid as it slid straight ahead and came to a halt. Orville’s hand reached out at once to shut off the fuel-supply petcock. The props whispered as they wound down, blurred, and clacked to a halt.

In light of the conditions and circumstances, the results were impressive. Orville had flown into the teeth of a 27-mile-an-hour gale and had managed to cover some 120 feet. He had been in the air for 12 seconds, and he had struggled against the double-layered elevator, which, put as kindly as we may, was simply too big, oversensitive, and a thundering pain to the operators who tried to gain consistent control. The single greatest obstacle in these flights was overcontrol.

The Wrights were not yet aware of the great strain they placed upon themselves in controlling the machine. Not even an expert pilot could have flown this first Wright machine without practice and plenty of room for maneuvering. Too often, the airplane handled like a berserk dragonfly.

Few people are aware that flying is less a matter of doing things right than it is of being able to correct swiftly and accurately, and as smoothly as possible, those things that go wrong. Flying is constant correction . Newcomers to flight training almost always hear words that have been repeated countless times: “The toughest part of flying is to fly straight and level.” That is, to fly a steady course without changes in direction or height. It’s impossible to do so without these constant minor corrections to the controls, and here were the Wrights, seeking maximum distance under control, in an almost angry flying machine, and doing so in weather conditions that would have been challenging even for a modern aircraft of equal size.