The First To Fly

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Instead of a single propeller, the brothers decided to use a pair of them rotating in opposite directions. For in addition to producing thrust, a whirling propeller also produces torque, a twisting force that tends to pull an airplane to one side. The Wrights figured correctly that they could cancel out this sidewise pull by mounting two propellers that would turn, and thus pull, in opposite directions. Connecting the propellers to the engine was a chain-and-sprocket drive—the only feature on the machine that betrayed its humble bicycle-shop origin.

As in the 1902 glider, a hip cradle controlled the warping of the wings and caused the aircraft to bank. The movable tail was also connected to the hip cradle. The front horizontal rudder, which made the plane climb and dive, was once again controlled by a wire that ran back to a lever within reach of the pilot. The engine was essentially uncontrollable. Once it was started and adjusted on the ground, the only thing the pilot could do to it was to stop it by pulling on a lever that interrupted the ignition.

The lower wing, rudder, and tail surfaces were completed toward the end of October, and most of the uprights and wire braces had been installed between the two wings. On November 2 the Wrights began hooking up the engine and the propellers. Two days later Orville optimistically noted in his diary: “Have machine now within half day of completion.” But now, after such a long period of success, they ran into a frustrating series of setbacks.

First, two propellers came loose on their shafts the first time the engine was started up. The shafts were sent via Spratt back to Charley Taylor in Dayton. The new shafts arrived on November 20. This time the sprockets for the chain drives from the engine began to slip. No amount of tightening seemed to help. In desperation the two men turned to a tire cement known as Arnstein’s, which Orville claimed would fix anything from a stop watch to a threshing machine. It must have been a remarkable compound, for after they had filled the threads of the sprocket screws with Arnstein’s and let it set awhile, they had no more difficulty with loose sprockets.

On November 25, just as the brothers were getting ready to take the new machine out for their first trial flight, it began to rain. Before the skies cleared up again, a crack developed in one of the propeller shafts. Orville left for Dayton on November 30 to make new and, he hoped, foolproof shafts. He arrived back at the camp on Friday, December ll. The shafts were installed, and the machine was hauled out on Saturday for another attempt at flight, but the brothers judged that there was not sufficient wind to take off from the level ground right near their camp and not enough time to try for a launching down the big hill, almost half a mile away. The next day the weather was perfect, but it was Sunday, and that, to the bishop’s jons, meant no flying.

The Wrights’ activities in four seasons at Kitty Hawk had generated considerable interest among the few residents there. The brothers had consequently acquired a set of loyal fans who didn’t want to miss the final act. They arranged to hoist a signal on a small flagstaff when they were about to make their first attempt at flight so that the men at the Kill Devil Hills lifesaving station just about a mile away would have enough notice to walk over in time for the attempt.

At half past one on the afternoon of Monday, December 14, the Wrights hoisted their signal and started walking their machine toward the big hill. There they were met by six men from the lifesaving station, who helped them lug the 605-pound aircraft to the top. The brothers tossed a coin to decide who was to go first, and Wilbur won.

Since the new plane was so heavy—the 1902 glider had weighed only 112 pounds—the Wrights were concerned about the possibility that its skids would dig into the sand during the take-off run and prevent a lift-off. So they built a sixty-foot wooden track made of four 15-foot two-by-fours placed end to end on the sand. To the top surface they nailed a metal strip. A small wooden dolly or “truck” ran along this track on two rollers made from bicycle hubs. The sledlike skids of the aircraft rested on this dolly.

Unfortunately the attempt on Monday, with Wilbur at the controls, was a flop. “The machine turned up in front and rose to a height of about 15 feet from ground at a point somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 feet from end of track,” Orville wrote. “After thus losing most of its headway it gradually sank to the ground turned up at an angle of probably 20° incidence.”

Some early aviators might have been tempted to call this first sixty-foot hop a “flight,” but not the Wrights. However, they were now confident of ultimate success. They got off a telegram to their father telling him, “Success assured keep quiet.”

It took them a day to repair the damaged plane. Then the weather failed to co-operate again. Thursday, December 17, was perfect for flying, though seasonably cold. The wind was blowing from the north at twenty to twenty-five miles an hour, and the puddles near camp were covered with ice. The two brothers waited awhile to see whether the wind would hold. By this time they had been at their camp eighty-four days, their food was mostly beans, and it was beginning to be bitterly cold. But they knew their machine would work. So they hoisted their signal and were soon joined by several men from the lifesaving station. They must have been moved by an uncanny sense of history that morning, for they painstakingly adjusted their cumbersome glass-plate camera so that it could snap a picture at the precise moment of lift-off.