The First Season at Kitty Hawk


The Wrights had stepped into an area caught in the throes of change. Local fishermen still paid tribute to “Mad Mabe” (her name rhymed with Abe), the witch of Nags Head Woods, to ensure fair weather and a good catch. Orville remarked that his gasoline cooking stove was a curiosity in the neighborhood “more feared by the natives than those ‘bars’ up North River, where Israel Perry wouldn’t land ‘for a thousand dollars.’”

Bill Tate, whom Orville described as “postmaster, farmer, fisherman, and political boss of Kitty Hawk,” was particularly intrigued by the wonders of the Wright camp. “He gets interested in anything we have,” Orv noted. “[He] wants to put acetylene gas in his house because he saw my bicycle gas lamp, has decided to buy our gasoline stove when we leave….

“Mr. Tate would also like to spend his remaining days—which might be few—in experimenting with flying machines…. Tate can’t afford to shirk his work to fool around with us, so he attempts to do a day’s work in two or three hours so that he can spend the balance with us and the machine.”

Dr. Cogswell, Tate’s brother-in-law, warned Orville that “Captain” Bill would “be dead before Christmas from excitement if we don’t get out.”

But the Wrights were by no means the sole agents of change on the Outer Banks. The Audubon Society sent its first professional agent onto the Banks in 1903 in an attempt to control the annual slaughter of egrets, terns, and other migratory waterfowl. By 1903 a significant proportion of the male population was made up of seasonal employees of the federal government manning the lifesaving stations, lighthouses, Weather Bureau stations, postal service routes, or telegraph stations. A spidery fifty-foot radio antenna now rose from the Roanoke Island pines that had sheltered Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated colony. It was the work of R. A. Fessenden, a onetime employee of Thomas Edison, who was Guglielmo Marconi’s closest competitor in the drive to perfect wireless telegraphy.

Just as Kitty Hawk presented a paradox to the Wrights, so the locals were never completely certain what to make of the brothers. The Wrights were likable enough, and. they certainly did not put on airs. Yet the down-to-earth fishermen of the Outer Banks remained dubious about these two Yankees who came here at the worst time of the year, at the very onset of the winter storm season, and spent their time skimming down the dunes on enormous white-winged contraptions. After all, as one of their number later recalled, the Bankers were a “practical hard-headed lot who believed in a good God … a hot hell … and, more than anything else, that the same good God did not intend that man should ever fly!”

But fly they did. The Wrights had the repaired glider/kite back in the air three days after the accident, conducting additional flight tests designed to provide a detailed record of the performance of the craft over a wide range of wind and load conditions. Dan Tate, Bill’s half-brother, pitched in to assist with the trials. They flew the machine empty (fifty pounds), as well as loaded with up to seventy-five pounds of chain.

There was no question of repeating Wilbur’s kite ascent of the first day. The machine would not leave the ground under these conditions in anything less than a twenty-five-mile-per-hour wind. Fortunately a lightweight volunteer was at hand. Young Tom Tate, Dan’s son, was more than willing to take an occasional ride on the kite. The ascents were not made for Tom’s amusement, however. While he weighed seventy pounds less than either of the brothers, he presented almost the same surface area to the resistance of the air as did an adult. It was one more bit of information to be recorded in the notebooks.

The Wrights were developing some firm notions about what their machine would and would not do. The result was a puzzling mix of satisfaction, disappointment, and confusion. The overwhelming disappointment was to be found in the fact that the machine simply did not generate the amount of lift predicted by Wilbur’s calculations.

Young Tom Tate loved to take a ride on the glider, and his flights told the Wrights things they needed to know.

The obvious explanation was that there was an error buried somewhere in the wing design data that they had inherited from earlier experimenters. They would have to unravel that puzzle once they returned to Dayton.

The real disappointment was their inability to test the control system. Will had hoped to spend hours aloft, mastering the controls while the machine was flying as a tethered kite. But much higher winds were required to lift the weight of man and machine than they had expected, and attempting to operate the controls from the ground while kiting the machine proved impossible.

Convinced that the mysteries of control would remain unsolved so long as they were restricted to kiting, the brothers had little choice but to try making free glides. The additional lift generated by a craft moving forward into the wind would be sufficient to support an adult in flight in a reasonable wind.