- 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
Wilbur was expected and received a warm welcome. He arranged to lodge and board with the Tates, at least temporarily. He had only one request: Having inspected the shallow open well in the yard, Wilbur asked that he be provided with a pitcher of boiled water each morning. The danger of typhoid was never far from his mind.
He set to work immediately, assembling the glider beneath a canvas shelter erected in the Tates’ front yard. The woodwork and rigging went quickly enough. Mrs. Tate allowed Wilbur to use her pride and joy, a Kenwood sewing machine, to stitch the fabric wing-panels together. Orv appeared at the Tates’ door on Friday, September 28. Unable to wait any longer, he had hired a young fellow to watch the shop.
Orville shared his brother’s room at the Tates’ for a few days while they were putting the finishing touches on the machine. They moved out of the Tate house on October 4 and set up camp in a tent pitched half a mile away. The weeks and months of dreaming were over. The time had come to test their theories in the harsh and dangerous laboratory of the sky.
We are not certain when they made their first trial, but it was probably on Wednesday, October 3, 1900—the day before they set up their camp on the edge of the dunes. The day began with a series of tests during which the machine was flown as an unmanned kite. After a few minutes of this, Wilbur found it impossible to resist trying his hand at the game. Orv and Bill Tate towed him aloft by running into the wind.
The two of them would fly the machine like a kite, playing out the line as slowly and carefully as possible considering the excitement of the moment. Many years later Orville recalled that Wilbur had reached an altitude of perhaps ten feet when the glider began to bob rapidly up and down. That was quite enough for Will, who began to scream, “Let me down!” A sustained tug on both tether ropes was enough to settle the craft gently back onto the sand. Orville had difficulty containing himself. Why all the worry just when things were getting interesting? Wilbur could only comment, “I promised Pop I’d take care of myself.”
Those first few seconds aloft were enough to convince Wilbur of the need for continued testing of the glider as an unmanned kite. Using a borrowed fish scale to measure the pull of the glider on the line and an anemometer to determine the wind speed, the brothers set to work calculating the forces operating on the machine in flight.
Just how dangerous this flying business really was became clear to them on the afternoon of October 10. They had just completed a test flight and were adjusting the control lines when, as Orville recalled, “without a sixteenth of a second’s notice, the wind caught under one corner, and quicker than thought, it [the glider] landed twenty feet away.”
It was over in a flash. The right side of the machine was completely smashed. The brothers dragged the pieces back to camp and spoke of going home.
Things looked brighter the next morning. The damage was extensive but not irreparable. Wilbur and Orville had the required woodworking skills, and it would be a shame to abandon the tests so soon. They had been out only three days and had made only one aborted attempt at a manned ascent.
As Orville reported, “The next three days [October 11,12, and 13] were spent in repairing, holding the tent down, and hunting; mostly the last….” It was a respite from the excitement of experimentation and their first opportunity to look around. They were fascinated by what they found.
Compared with the amenities of life in middle-class Dayton, this was a harsh and unforgiving country. “But the sand! The sand is the greatest thing in Kitty Hawk, and soon will be the only thing,” Orville said. He noted that the dune on which they were camping rested on what had once been a small house. Fierce winter storms sweeping across the Banks had buried the homestead. The rotting upper branches of a shade tree protruding above the dune was all that remained to mark the spot. Bill Tate was in the process of tearing down a house near the Wright campsite, “to save it from the sand.”
The Wrights had never encountered anything like a storm on the Banks. The wind shaking the tent sounded like thunder, Orville explained to his sister, Katharine, a few days after arriving in Kitty Hawk. “About two or three nights a week we have to crawl up at ten or eleven o’clock to hold the tent down. When one of these 45-mile nor’easters strikes us, you can depend on it, there is little sleep in our camp for the night…. When we crawl out of the tent to fix things outside the sand fairly blinds us. It blows across the ground in clouds. We certainly can’t complain of the place. We came down here for wind and sand, and we have got them.”