The First To Fly

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Chanute was graciously included in the brothers’ plans for the next session at Kitty Hawk and visited the Wright family in Dayton on June 25 and 26. The return to Kitty Hawk was imminent, and Chanute made arrangements to visit the Wright camp during the summer and to have an experimental machine of his own tested by two protégés, Edward C. Huffaker, who had formerly worked with Langley, and George A. Spratt. On Sunday, July 7, 1901, Wilbur and Orville left together for the Carolina beaches. The trip was much easier this time, and within four days they had begun making a camp at Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk. The biggest of the dunes there was about one hundred feet high; it was from this “big hill” that the Wrights had made their successful glider flights just before returning home in 1900.

Since they were expecting company, the Wrights’ camp was a bit more elaborate this time. For living quarters, they had a large tent. They also built a wooden shed to house their new glider. “The building is a grand institution, with awnings at both ends; that is, with big doors hinged at the top, which we swing open and prop up,” Orville wrote home to his sister Katherine. “We keep both ends open almost all the time and let the breezes have full sway.”

But this arrangement left them defenseless against a natural hazard—mosquitoes. On this subject Orville waxed eloquent in his letter to Katherine:

“Mr. Huffaker arrived Thursday afternoon, and with him a swarm of mosquitoes which became a mighty cloud, almost darkening the sun. This was the beginning of the most miserable existence I ever passed through. The agonies of typhoid fever with its attending starvation are as nothing in comparison. But there was no escape. The sand and grass and trees and hills and everything was fairly covered with them. They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks. Lumps began swelling up all over my body like hen’s eggs. We attempted to escape by going to bed, which we did at a little after five o’clock. We put our cots out under the awnings and wrapped up in our blankets with only our noses protruding from the folds, thus exposing the least possible surface to attack. Alas! Here nature’s complicity in the conspiracy against us became evident. The wind, which until now had been blowing over twenty miles an hour, dropped off entirely. Our blankets then became unbearable. The perspiration would roll off us in torrents. We would partly uncover and the mosquitoes would swoop down upon us in vast multitudes. We would make a few desperate and vain slaps, and again retire behind our blankets. Misery! Misery!…

“The next night we constructed mosquito frames and nets over our cots, thinking in our childish error we could fix the bloody beasts. We put our cots on the sand twenty or thirty feet from the tent and house, and crawled in under the netting and bedclothes, and lay there on our backs smiling at the way in which we had gotten the best of them. The tops of the canopies were covered with mosquitoes till there was hardly standing room for another one; the buzzing was like that of a mighty buzz saw. But what was our astonishment when in a few minutes we heard a terrific slap and a cry from Mr. Huffaker announcing that the enemy had gained the outer works and he was engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with them. All our forces were put to complete rout. … Affairs had now become so desperate that it began to look as if camp would have to be abandoned or we perish in the attempt to maintain it.”

Next they tried building bonfires around the camp, and these helped somewhat, but apparently relief came in a natural way: in a day or two the mosquitoes simply went away. “Yesterday,” Orville wrote to Katherine, “most of the mosquitoes had disappeared and we had a fine day and wind for testing the new machine. We took it off to the Big Hill, about a thousand feet distant, and began our experiments. Our first experiments were rather disappointing. The machine refused to act like our machine last year and at times seemed to be entirely beyond our control.”

The 1901 glider was similar in design to the aircraft that had been such a success the previous year, but slightly larger. Its biplane wings had a span of twenty-two feet and a total area of roughly three hundred square feet. (The earlier glider had a wingspan of seventeen feet and a total wing area of 165 feet.) The system of control was the same, in principle, as on the earlier craft. Despite its apparent success, the previous year’s glider had failed to produce as much lift as Lilienthal’s tables indicated it should have; thus the Wrights gave the wings of their 1901 machine a greater curvature to produce a shape more nearly like that used by Lilienthal. All in all, the 1901 glider was a well-built, carefully thought-out aircraft, and it should have performed well.