The First To Fly

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The first time Wilbur and his younger brother Orville teamed up on a major enterprise was in the publication of a Dayton neighborhood newspaper, The West Side News , which made its debut in March, 1889. Then, in 1892, sensing the potential of the new “safety” bicycle, the brothers went into the business of selling several well-known makes in Dayton. In their first year in their new enterprise they also added a repair shop to their salesroom. Before long they were manufacturing their own line of bikes, the most popular of which was the Wright Special, which sold for eighteen dollars. As a foundation for the brothers’ aeronautical researches, the bicycle business was to prove ideal, for it provided them with the income they needed to support their experiments and a well-equipped machine shop that could turn out just about anything they needed to make an airplane.

The Wrights’ first attempt at flight was decidedly casual. A day or two after Wilbur conceived his wing-warping idea, the two brothers began building a large kite to test their new theory. Its design was simple enough: two 5-foot wings were mounted in biplane fashion, one above the other, and were trussed and braced in such a way that they could be warped in the desired fashion by control lines leading to sticks held in either hand. The kite also had a small rigid wooden tail which was supposed to steady it in the air. According to Wilbur’s accounts to his family, the model responded very well to the warping control. “We felt,” said Orville later, “that the model had demonstrated the efficiency of our system of control.”

With this intriguing experience behind them, the brothers began hatching more ambitious plans during the long winter days they spent in the bicycle shop building up their inventory for the heavy spring sales season. “We decided to experiment with a man-carrying machine embodying the principle of lateral control used in the kite model already flown,” said Orville. “We expected to fly the machine as a kite and in this way we thought we would be able to stay in the air for hours at a time, getting in this way a maximum of practice with a minimum of effort.”

Figuring correctly that a man-carrying kite would require quite a breeze to keep it aloft, the brothers began making inquiries about locations where strong, dependable winds prevailed. After consulting the U.S. Weather Bureau and Octave Chanute, they finally decided upon Kitty hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina; and on September 6, 1900, Wilbur set out from Dayton, carrying with him all the material needed for a man-carrying glider except some spruce spars which he hoped to purchase en route. Orville planned to follow as soon as the kite was ready to test.

The low, thin sand spits that make up the Outer Banks begin a few miles to the southeast of Norfolk, Virginia, and continue down the North Carolina coast in a meandering line that in places sticks close to the mainland and in others sweeps far out into the ocean. In spots, The Banks are high and wide enough to support sizable towns; in others the beach is barely above water at high tide. The easternmost limit of The Banks is Cape Hatteras, which juts out into the warm water of the Gulf Stream and is so temperate in climate that such southern flora as Spanish moss and scrub palmetto trees flourish there despite the fact that they normally do not occur north of South Carolina. In the summertime, a strong prevailing wind sweeps in off the ocean from the southeast and drives the sand across the dunes in stinging, shifting swirls during the day. When the wind dies down there are mosquitoes.

Arriving at Elizabeth City on the North Carolina coast, Wilbur spent several days trying to book passage to Kitty Hawk, and after a perilous voyage in a leaky fishing boat finally reached the island at nine o’clock in the evening of September 12, more than seven days outbound from Dayton. He boarded at the home of the Kitty Hawk postmaster, William J. Täte, until Orville arrived on September 28. After this the brothers pitched a tent among the dunes.

Almost a year had gone by since Wilbur had tested the controllable kite in Dayton, and the brothers’ concept of what the next step should be had undergone an important modification. Instead of simply experimenting further with a larger, man-carrying kite, they planned and built a craft which they hoped would not require a line to hold it into the wind as a kite does, but which would be capable of gliding freely for short distances in a good breeze. And in their thinking they went even beyond this development. A letter from Wilbur to his father, written shortly before Orville arrived in Kitty Hawk, provides the first hint that the brothers had at least considered the problems of powered flight.

“I have my machine nearly finished,” Wilbur wrote home. “It is not to have a motor and is not expected to fly in the true sense of the word. My idea is merely to experiment and practice with a view to solving the problem of equilibrium. I have plans which I hope to find much in advance of the methods tried by previous experimenters.” He added confidently: “When once a machine is under proper control under all conditions, the motcr problem will be quickly solved.”

The first Kitty Hawk glider was a biplane design like the Dayton kite and had two ly-foot wings. The ribs of the wings were made of ash and provided a gentle curvature to the upper surfaces; this, the brothers knew from reading about Lilienthal’s experiments, would enhance the lifting power of the wings. Both wings were covered with panels of French sateen which had been sewn to size in Dayton ahead of time.