- 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
Early on the morning of October 18, they set out for the sand hills a mile or so south of camp, only to find that the wind had died before they arrived. Nothing daunted, the brothers began tossing their unmanned machine off the brow of a dune to see what would happen. “We were greatly pleased with the results,” Orv told Katharine, “excepting a few little accidents to the machine.
“It would glide out over the side [of the dune] at a height of 15 or twenty feet for about 30 feet, gaining, we think, in altitude all the while. After going about 30 feet out, it would sometimes turn up a little too much in front, when it would start back, increasing in speed as it came, and whack the side of the hill with terrific force. The result generally was a broken limb somewhere, but we hastily splint the breaks and go ahead.”
If nothing else, the experience of simply tossing the machine loose into the air and watching it fly after a fashion and return to earth without catastrophic damage gave them confidence in its strength, resilience, and basic airworthiness.
The next day was perfect for gliding. The technique was precisely the same that had been used to get Will aloft on the first day. With the pilot stretched out on the lower wings, his hands on the controls, Orv and Dan Tate, Bill Tate’s half-brother, each grasped a wingtip and started running downhill into the wind. When the machine outran the men at the tips, Wilbur, who made most, if not all, of the flights, landed.
They had originally planned for the pilot to pull himself back into a sitting position for landing. In actual practice it proved not to be necessary. The prone position looked dangerous but was perfectly safe, except for the occasional mouthful of sand. Wilbur could bring the craft back to earth with such precision that two light thin lines, the tracks of the skids, could be seen extending back twenty or thirty feet from the point where the machine finally came to rest after each landing.
Just before heading home, the brothers gave the much-patched machine one last toss from the top of a dune.
By the end of the day, glides-of three to four hundred feet had become commonplace. The flights lasted no more than about fifteen seconds apiece. Wilbur finished the day with a grand total of perhaps two minutes of flying time.
What was really important, however, was the fact that the brothers had been able to extend their knowledge of the performance of the craft as a glider. Additional bits of information that would be of value in designing the next machine went down into the notebooks.
But the facts and figures on paper mask the excitement of the moment. The exhilaration was incredible. Racing down the slope, holding his machine within five feet of the surface, Wilbur was traveling twice as fast at the end of a flight as at the beginning. He was flying. He had experienced sensations known only to a tiny handful of human beings.
Light winds returned the following day. There would be no more manned glides before they broke camp for the return to Dayton on October 23. The 1900 Wright glider, the machine on which they had first taken to the air, was no longer of any use to them. The fifteen dollars spent on the materials that had gone into its construction had been a wise investment. Broken and repaired many times, the woodwork of the machine was now held together by a collection of splints and splices. The once-glistening French sateen fabric was patched and grimy.
Just before they boarded Perry’s boat for the trip back across the sound, the brothers carried the machine back down the trail going south out of town and gave it one last toss from the top of a dune. It came to rest in a sand hollow. Bill Tate’s wife salvaged the sateen, and after a good washing it provided the raw material for two new dresses for her young daughters. When the Wrights returned the next year, the skeletal remains of one wing could still be seen protruding from the sand, but it disappeared forever in a ninety-three-mile-per-hour gale that swept over the bank in July.
They were back on the Outer Banks with a new glider in 1901. This time they established a camp at the base of the Kill Devil Hills, four miles south of Kitty Hawk. The third, and much improved, glider flown here in 1902 finally demonstrated the effectiveness of their control system. The last step came when they returned with the world’s first airplane, a powered machine that they flew four times in a single day, December 17, 1903.
They did not fly very far, or very high, or very fast on that first day. On the best of the four flights, Wilbur covered 852 feet through the air in fifty-nine seconds. Moreover, it would be some years before the world recognized and appreciated what had occurred at Kitty Hawk.