“The Air Age Was Now”


After Orville’s first trial, which produced a ground distance of 120 feet and an air distance of 600 feet, and while they were repairing their craft, the brothers discussed the extreme sensitivity of the front elevator. If they had made glider tests, as was their original plan, they would have taken a few days to reduce the size of the elevator or in some way modify the system to reduce the sensitivity. But time had become so bitter an enemy, as strong as the cold itself, that structural changes were out of the question. Now that they understood the problem, they would use extreme care in controlling the amount of elevator travel.

Orville recorded that “at 20 min. after 11 o’clock Will made the second trial. The course was about like mine, up and down but a little longer over the ground though about the same in time. Dist. not measured but about 175 ft. Wind speed not quite so strong. With the aid of the station men present, we picked the machine up and carried it back to the starting ways. At about 20 minutes till 12 o’clock I made the third trial. When out about the same distance as Will’s, I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and sidled the machine off to the right in a lively manner. I immediately turned the rudder to bring the machine down and then work the end control. Much to our surprise, on reaching the ground the left wing struck first, showing the lateral control of this machine much more effective than on any of our former ones. At the time of its sidling it had raised to a height of probably 12 to 14 feet.…”

The problem was not so much the sudden gust from the left as it was the fact that Orville still didn’t know how to fly . When the gust hit him, the nose also started up; Orville immediately threw in full down elevator so that he could hold his altitude. At the same time he operated the warp control to raise the lowered right wing. The wing came up so swiftly, as Orville recalled, that “on reaching the ground the left wing struck first. …” What had happened was simple enough. Orville had worked the controls in reaction to the wind gust and had overcontrolled.

Ten years later Orville wrote: “With all the knowledge and skill acquired in thousands of flights in the last ten years, I would hardly think today of making my first flight on a strange machine in a twenty-seven-mile wind, even if I knew that the machine had already been flown and was safe. After these years of experience I look with amazement upon our audacity.…”

It was approaching midday, and Wilbur prepared for the fourth flight. It began at exactly twelve o’clock.

The people of Kitty Hawk always had been kind to the Wrights—friendly and warm, sharing their food and worldly goods, sparing no effort to assist in any way they could to provide physical comfort, and open in their respect for the brothers. Most of them, however, felt less than convinced about the Wrights’ ability to fly; Kitty Hawk was an area where the reaction to flight was often expressed in such familiar bits of folk wisdom as “If God had wanted man to fly, He would have given him wings.”

Bill Tate, a Kitty Hawk resident who from the beginning had been a close friend to Orville and Wilbur, was not present at the camp on December 17,1903. This was not a sign of lack of faith in the Wrights; he had assumed that “no one but a crazy man would attempt to fly in such a wind.”

The brothers had different ideas. Shortly before twelve o’clock, for the fourth attempt of the day, Wilbur took his position on the flying machine, the engine sputtering and clattering in its strange thunder. His peaked cap was pulled snug across his head and the wind blowing across the flats reached him with a sandpapery touch. As he had felt it do before, the machine trembled in the gusts, rocking from side to side on the launching track. He settled himself in the hip cradle, feet snug behind him, hands on the controls, studying the three instrument gauges. He looked to each side to be certain no one was near the wings. There were no assistants to hold the wings as they had done with the gliders, for Wilbur believed that unless a man was skilled in what he was doing he ought not to touch anything, and he had insisted on a free launch, for he knew the craft would require only 40 feet in the stiff wind to lift itself into the air.

Wilbur shifted his head to study the beach area. Today was different. The wintry gale had greatly reduced the usual bird population. It had been that way since they awoke. Few of the familiar seagulls were about beneath the leaden skies.

Wilbur turned to each side again, looked at his brother, and nodded. Everything was set, and Wilbur pulled the wire free. Instantly, the machine rushed forward and, as he expected, was forty feet down the track when he eased into the air. He had prepared himself for every contingency of the wind, but the gusts were too strong and he was constantly correcting and overcorrecting. The hundred-foot mark fell behind as the aircraft lunged up and down like a winged bull. Then he was 200 feet from the start of his run, and the pitch motions were even more violent. The aircraft seemed to stagger as it struck a downdraft and darted toward the sands. Only a foot above the ground Wilbur regained control and eased it back up.

Three hundred feet—and the bucking motions were easing.