- Historic Sites
The First Season at Kitty Hawk
What the Wright brothers did in a wild and distant place made its name famous around the world. Their biographer visits the Outer Banks to find what remains of the epochal outpost.
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
The brothers knew that they would not be able to fly their machine in Dayton. They had calculated how much their glider would weigh when it was complete and how much lift its wings would generate. If they were to remain in the air for any length of time, the Wrights would have to locate a spot where there were strong, steady winds blowing from fifteen to twenty miles per hour, day in and day out. Ideally the site would also offer seclusion, high conical hills down which to glide, and soft sand to ease the shock of landing. Dayton had none of those things.
It was not in their nature to indulge in guesswork. The brothers wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, requesting information on prevailing wind conditions. A few weeks later they received the August and September 1899 numbers of the official Monthly Weather Review, which included a tabulation of the average hourly wind velocities recorded at 120 Weather Bureau stations.
They learned that Chicago was, indeed, one of the windiest cities in the nation, with an average daily velocity of 16.9 miles per hour for the month of September. But the Wrights had already decided that they would not conduct their experiments in an urban area, where they might attract the attention of the press. Nor did any of the other four stations recording average winds of more than 13.5 miles per hour meet the requirements of isolation, suitable hills, and sand.
Moving down the list, they discovered that the sixth highest average wind in the United States (13.4) had been recorded at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Neither of them had ever heard of the place. Few people had. Still, while the average wind was on the low side for the calculated performance of the planned glider/kite, additional tables in the journal indicated that Kitty Hawk offered a reasonable number of clear, rain-free days each fall, with occasional winds much above the average. It would bear looking into.
On August 3, 1900, Wilbur wrote to the Weather Bureau office at Kitty Hawk. Joseph J. Dosher, the sole bureau employee on the scene, sent a short reply indicating that the beach near his station was a mile wide and clear of trees and other obstructions. The winds in September and October blew from the north and northeast. Wilbur would be able to obtain board in the village, Dosher said, but housing would be a problem. He would have to bring a tent and camp out.
In an afterthought, Dosher passed Wilbur’s letter on to William J. Tate, a local postmaster, notary, and recently elected member of the Board of Commissioners for Currituck County. Tate responded to Wilbur on his own, commenting on the relative “fitness of Kitty Hawk as a place to practice or experiment with a flying machine, etc.
“In answering I would say that you would find here nearly any type of ground you could wish; you could, for instance, get a stretch of sandy land one mile by five with a bare hill in the center 80 feet high, not a tree or bush anywhere to break [the] evenness of the wind current. This in my opinion would be a fine place; our winds are always steady, generally from 10 to 20 miles velocity per hour.”
Kitty Hawk promised “any type of ground you could wish,” Tate wrote, with “not a tree or bush anywhere to break the wind ”
Tate was obviously a man of some warmth. He closed his letter with an invitation that was difficult to resist. “If you decide to try your machine here & come,” he remarked, “I will take pleasure in doing all I can for your convenience & success & pleasure, & I assure you you will find a hospitable people when you come among us.” Kitty Hawk it would be.
The task of building the glider would be split between Dayton and Kitty Hawk. The Wrights began by cutting, sanding, steaming, and bending the roughly one hundred wooden pieces that would form the wings and frame of the craft. In addition, they purchased other materials that would not be available at Kitty Hawk, including metal fittings and fasteners, spools of fifteen-gauge spring steel wire for trussing the wings, and yards of glistening sateen fabric to be cut and sewn into the panels that would cover the finished wings.
Wilbur, they had decided, would make the journey alone. Orv remained behind to tend the bike shop. He would join his brother only if conditions at Kitty Hawk seemed promising. Wilbur had never been a particularly adventurous soul. Years before, when they had first become interested in cycling, Orv had been the “scorcher,” the fellow who risked life and limb in the races at the county fairground. This time Will was the one traveling into the unknown. It was a trip he would never forget.