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“The Air Age Was Now”

July 2024
33min read

As well as being geniuses, the Wright brothers were methodical craftsmen of astonishing persistence. An aeronautical expert supplies the fascinating technical and personal details of their legendary achievement.

On a windy day on North Carolina ‘s Outer Banks, seventy-six years ago this month, two men in business suits coaxed the first powered aircraft into the sky, controlled it for a perilous 59 seconds, and changed the world we live in. Wilbur and Orville Wright ‘s breakthrough is here recounted by a veteran airman, Harry Combs—who first soloed in an open cockpit biplane when he was fifteen—with the novelist and aviation historian Martin Caidin. The article is excerpted from their forthcoming book, Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers , to be published by Houghton Mifflin in December. Our story opens when the Wright brothers, having worked all year on a new flying machine, return to their sandy island testing site in the fall of 1903.


The trip was familiar but always a little different. On September 23, Orville and Wilbur boarded a gasoline launch for the crossing from Roanoke Island to Kitty Hawk, and saw their camp by the middle of that day. It was now a matter of rolling up their sleeves and pitching in for some hard, unglamorous work, for in their absence thundering winter gales had slashed away at their camp buildings. Dan Tate, a resident of the island, shook his head at the torn boards, gaping holes beneath the structures, and sand blown everywhere; he told the brothers the Outer Banks had experienced the worst winter storms he could recall.

The more they studied their structures, the more the Wrights believed Dan, for their building literally had been blown from its foundation. They discovered, to their immense relief, that their 1902 glider had survived its wintry tribulations without damage; the brothers were intent on practicing with it to gain more experience with its controls. Their plan was to practice flying when the winds were acceptable and the weather fit to take to the air. Three days after arriving they were hovering above the sand dunes, several times managing to move forward slowly in good winds without losing altitude, their cloth wings hissing in the ocean breeze. They learned quickly that their reflexes had not suffered at all during the long winter. When the wind was calm or the weather poor, they would concentrate on work to be done in camp. Orville was able to write to his sister Katharine that “the hills are in the best shape for gliding they have ever been, and things are starting off more favorably than the year before.”

On October 1, Wilbur summed up the first few days in a letter to Octave Chanute, the respected aeronautical engineer with whom the Wrights conferred frequently: “We reached camp … at noon last Friday, and found everything all right about camp, except that a 90-mile wind last February had lifted our building off its foundation and set it over to the east nearly two feet. We made preparations to begin the erection of the new building on Monday but the conditions for gliding were so fine that we took the machine out and spent the finest day we have ever had in practice. We made about 75 glides, nearly all of more than 20 seconds’ duration. The longest was 302/5 seconds which beats our former records. We did some practice at soaring and found it easier than we expected. Once we succeeded in remaining almost in one spot for 262/5 seconds and finally landed fifty feet from the starting point. With a little more practice, I think we can soar on the north slope of the Big Hill whenever the wind has a velocity of 9 meters or more.…”

Fifteen days later another letter went off to Chanute from Wilbur: “We were delayed a week by the nonarrival of some of our goods, but now have everything. The upper surface of new machine is completed. It is far ahead of anything we have built before. The lower surface is about half done. It will probably be nearly Nov. 1st before we are ready for trial, especially if we have some nice soaring weather.…”

The Wrights now held the world’s record for glider duration flights. Yet there was a sad note in Wilbur’s letter, for during this period Professor Samuel Langley’s highly touted Aerodrome, built at enormous expense, had failed utterly in its first flight attempts from a barge on the Potomac River. Langley, one of the nation’s most respected scientists and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, took a terrible drubbing from the newspapers, which assailed him in every way imaginable. “Fiasco,” “complete failure,” and “foolishness” were some of the kinder remarks.

There is a curious circumstance here. The Wrights had worked diligently to produce their small engine of 12 horsepower with a weight of some 180 pounds. But Charles Manly, who attempted the flight in Langley’s airplane, had all the advantages of what was probably the most efficient engine in the world; it was a radical design, weighing only 125 pounds and producing an incredible 52 horsepower. Had the Wrights possessed an engine with this kind of performance, they would never have had to calculate down to the nth degree every facet of their machine. Compared with what they had, the Langley engine was a marvel of brute power.

In his letter to Chanute, Wilbur commented: “I see that Langley has had his fling, and failed. It seems to be our turn to throw now, and I wonder what our luck will be.”

What is not commonly known—although the Wrights were fully aware of the fact—was that there was a growing race between them and Langley (of which Langley was totally unaware) to get into the skies with the first truly successful powered and controlled flight. Never having seen it, the brothers had felt they faced serious competition in Langley’s machine, but they did not know that Langley’s Aerodrome was in reality a travesty of aerodynamic design and that, despite its excellent engine, could not possibly fly. Neither Orville nor Wilbur, nor even Chanute with his knowledge of almost everything that was happening in flight research, truly understood how far ahead of the rest of the world the Wright brothers stood.

On October 18 Wilhur wrote to Katharine to bring her up to date on the events at the camp. As if to keep the brothers from brooding about the awesome task they had set for themselves, nature was keeping them well supplied with distractions.

“The second day opened with the gale still continuing with a steady drizzling rain. The wind veered from the northwest to the north during the morning and dropped to about 30 miles, but after dinner it began to back up again. We set to work ‘tooth and nail’ (using a hammer instead of our teeth however) putting braces inside our new building. The climax came about 4 o’clock when the wind reached 75 miles an hour. Suddenly a corner of our tar-paper roof gave way under the pressure and we saw that if the trouble were not stopped the whole roof would probably go. Orville put on my heavy overcoat, and grabbing the ladder sallied forth from the south end of the building. At first it appeared that he was going down to repair some of the rents in the Big Hill which was being badly torn to pieces, for he began by walking backwards about 50 feet. After awhile I saw him come back past the side opening in our partially raised awning door.… I sallied out to help him and after a tussle with the wind found him at the north end ready to set up the ladder. He quickly mounted to the edge of the roof when the wind caught his coat and folded it back over his head. As the hammer and nails were in his pocket and up over his head he was unable to get his hands on them or to pull his coattails down, so he was compelled to descend again. The next time he put the nails in his mouth and took the hammer in his hand and I followed him up the ladder hanging on to his coattails. He swatted around a good little while trying to get a few nails in, and I became almost impatient for I had only my common coat on and was getting well soaked. He explained afterward that the wind kept blowing the hammer around so that three licks out of four hit the roof or his fingers instead of the nail. Finally the job was done and we rushed for cover. … The wind and rain continued through the night, but we took the advice of the Oberlin coach, ‘Cheer up, boys, there is no hope.’ We went to bed, and both slept soundly. In the morning we found the larger part of our floor under water but the kitchen and dining room were all right, the water being merely even with the under side of the floor boards. The front door step was six inches under water. The storm continued through Saturday and Sunday, but by Monday it had reared up so much that it finally fell over on its back and lay quiet.


“According to Dan Tate this storm broke all records for persistence and has been equalled by few in velocity. Five vessels came ashore between here and Cape Henry, the nearest being visible from the top of our Big Hill. My theory is that a cyclone got becalmed off this coast and could not get away again.

“The ‘whopper flying machine’ is coming on all right and will probably be done about Nov. 1st.”

That date was noteworthy, however, for an entirely different reason. A letter arrived from Chanute (written on October 24) announcing he would be arriving before long, and in the envelope was a news clipping describing Langley’s preparations for a second attempt at flying his machine. Langley was insisting—to the press, who loved a good story, and to the Army, which was paying for Langley’s expensive tests—that his problems lay with the launching mechanism and not with the machine itself.

Wilbur fretted over the news, for if the Army continued to sponsor Langley’s tests, he could be ready long before the Wrights and could have his second shot at flight before the Wrights could even attempt their first.

The brothers had had close calls before 1903, and this trip had not been without its share of problems in flying their year-old glider. Indeed, on October 3 Orville escaped only by a hair’s breadth what easily could have been a fatal accident; a sudden gust of wind literally threw him from his hip cradle and rolled him onto the lowered wing, from which position he was forced to scramble back frantically to reach the controls—barely in time to avoid a crash. In the days following, Wilbur did crash, slamming a wingtip into the ground hard enough to jostle him severely and rake a trough in the ground. And there was still another incident when a downdraft jerked the glider toward the sands despite Orville’s hard maneuvering, and a wingtip struck the side of Wilbur’s head sharply enough to give him a fine headache.

Nevertheless, the fear of being second prompted the Wrights, after intense discussion, to decide on a gross violation of their self-imposed safety code. They would fly this new machine as an airplane without first testing out its lift or systems as a glider. George Spratt, who was assisting them in their glider tests, was appalled and tried to dissuade them; the slightest miscalculation in design, not discovered before they tried powered flight, might wreck the machine on its first attempt to get into the air, and they would lose more than they might ever gain.

Wilbur would have none of it. He had absolute confidence in his ability to fly, and Orville’s as well.

They went to work, day and night, trying to be ready before the end of the first week in November. By November 4, Orville noted in his diary that they were “within half day of completion” of the flying machine. The next day they tested the engine. It balked and missed explosions, not surprisingly since it had breaker points instead of spark plugs and a sort of fuel pan instead of a carburetor. Also, because of a rather sketchy lubricating system, it tended to overheat—and bind up, lowering the number of rpm’s—after a short time. After final tuning it was brought down to a steady and reliable running. The irregularities of the engine explosions put them in an agony of frustration, for by the time they had gotten the balky creature to run well, certain damage had been done—the hubs to which the propellers were fastened jerked loose from both drive shafts. Then they found problems with the magneto. By now it was evident to Spratt that no matter how intently the Wrights worked, it would be a long time before they could make any attempt at their first flight. He decided to leave.

Spratt’s departure was hastened, too, by a decline in creature comforts. Food was starting to run low, getting new supplies was difficult, and the brothers preferred to live on short rations rather than waste any time even on food. The weather also had become an implacable foe. On November 1, five days before Spratt left, Orville had written to his sister that “a week ago the weather turned very cold (about zero according to my backbone) and another rain set in which continued for several days without intermittence. We found that a fire was absolutely necessary, especially on account of Spratt, who suffers much from cold. We took one of the carbide cans and, after punching some holes in the bottom for air, built a fire in it inside the building. Of course the smoke was so intense that there was no standing up in the room, so we sat down on the floor about the can with tears streaming down our cheeks enjoying its kindly rays of heat. Everything about the building was sooted up so thoroughly that for several days we couldn’t sit down to eat without a whole lot of black soot dripping down in our plates. We decided a change was necessary, so we got a little stove pipe and built a stove out of the can, adding strap iron legs to it, and a number of patent dampers, so that now we have about as good control in our stove as we have on our machine.…”


George Spratt left Kitty Hawk late in the afternoon on November 5 in a launch and took with him the two shafts to be sent to Dayton for repair. Octave Chanute came to Kitty Hawk briefly from November 7 to 12, and it was not the most pleasant of visits, mainly because of the weather, the short rations, and the fact that there was no flying machine ready to take to the air. As to the food, by now, Orville wrote to Katharine, “We had to come down to condensed milk and crackers for supper, with prospects of coffee and rice cakes for breakfast.”

The cold had become so severe Wilbur was prompted to note that the nights called for “5 blankets & 2 quilts. Next come 5 blankets, 2 quilts & fire; then 5,2, fire & hot-water jug. This is as far as we have got so far. Next comes the addition of sleeping without undressing, then shoes & hats, and finally overcoats.”

When he left, Chanute sent back several pairs of gloves, which were received most gratefully.

On November 15 Orville wrote to both his sister and father: “We are now alone again, the first time for about a month. Mr. Chanute came just as Dr. Spratt left. Spratt, by the way, left about two hours after the breaking of our propeller shafts, taking them along with him to express at Norfolk. We got Pop’s letter yesterday saying that they had been received and were nearly ready to be sent back. We will not get them for three or four days yet. At the time they broke we were trying to get the engine in order. The strains on the shafts were enormous as a result of the sprockets being a little loose. The weight of our machine complete with man will be a little over 700 lbs. and we are now quite in doubt as to whether the engine will be able to pull it at all with the present gears, as we will not be able to use more than ¾ of our power in getting started. The screws came loose before we had time to either measure the speed of the engine or the thrust of the screws. Mr. Chanute says that no one before has ever tried to build a machine on such close ‘margins as we have done to our calculations. He said that he nevertheless had more hope of our machine going than any of the others. He seems to think we are pursued by a blind fate from which we are unable to escape.”

But the Wrights, despite their personal relationship with Chanute, were not pleased with the visitor’s attitude toward their work. Orville explained that Chanute “has been trying to purchase the Ader machine built by the French government at an expense of $100,000.00 which he was intending to have us fix and run for him. He thinks we could do it! He doesn’t seem to think our machines are so much superior as the manner in which we handle them. We are of just the reverse opinion.…”

There were certain indications of wry head-shaking on the part of the brothers. They were amazed at the power of the Langley machine—four times greater than their own—but they also saw that Langley had headed down blind alleys and was too concerned with details that had no effect on the aerodynamic performance of his aircraft. “Our track for starting the machine (total cost about $4.00) amused Mr. Chanute considerably,” wrote Wilbur, “as Langley is said to have spend nearly $50,000.00 on his starting device which failed in the end to give a proper start, he claims.…”

By November 19 water was freezing on the ponds by the camp, but the next day the propeller shafts arrived and the brothers threw themselves into their work. As quickly as they could, they prepared for another engine test. When the shafts were in place, they were plagued again by the irregular firing of the engine and the violent jerking of the chains. By the next day they seemed to have solved the engine problem; Wilbur recorded in his notes that the trouble lay in the system that fed fuel to the engine.

Orville wrote to Charlie Taylor, the mechanic who had made the repairs: “The shafts arrived day before yesterday noon (Friday).… You did a most excellent job of brazing, and we are highly pleased that the bearings were not injured at all. I suppose you remember how the chains and propellers jerked when we were testing them at home, but you ought to have seen them here. We thought that when we could get both propellers on the shock would be divided between the two, but on the contrary we found the shock greatly increased on each. The jerking of the propellers back and forth would loosen up the sprockets in spite of all the tightening we could do. This play was probably the cause of breaking the brazing loose, although they had been already brazed so many different times that the fit was very poor. While the shafts were away we had lots of time for thinking, and the more we thought, the harder our machine got to running and the less the power of the engine became, until stock got down to a very low figure. … As soon as the shafts arrived we set them up and got ready for a test. The engine, of course, had been run only a few minutes since we had been here, so that two of the cylinders were full of oil and only exploded now and then. As a result, after about ten seconds’ run, both sprockets were loose. We used a chain and six-foot 2 x 4 to tighten them and the nuts, but ten seconds’ more run and they were loose again. We kept that up all Friday afternoon, and by evening stock had gone still lower, in fact just about as low as it could get, about 100 percent below par. But the darkest hour comes just before dawn. The next morning, thanks to Arnstein’s hard cement, which will fix anything from a stop watch to a thrashing machine, we stuck those sprockets so tight I doubt whether they will ever come loose again. After a few minutes’ run to get the adjustments, and to burn out the surplus oil, the engine speeded the propellers up to 351 rev. per min. with a thrust of 132 pounds. Stock went up like a sky rocket, and is now at the highest figure in its history. … We will not be ready for trial for several days yet on account of having decided on some changes in the machine. Unless something breaks in the meantime we feel confident of success.

“I suppose you find things a littly chilly of mornings. We had ponds of ice all about our camp the other morning and the wash basin was frozen to the bottom. But the carbide can has kept us very comfortable indoors.…”

Several days of poor weather turned into several days of terrible weather. Light rains worsened until Kill Devil Hill was the scene of howling winds and biting cold, and to add to their misery it began to snow. Unexpectedly the weather changed; on November 28 the wind changed to an easterly heading and the thermometer rose. Immediately they were hard at work to ready the machine for its first test flight, and they ran the engine with a new apparatus that would judge engine and wind speed simultaneously. Engine speeds averaged 1,000 rpm, and in one test the geared-down propellers wound up to 350 revolutions per minute, a much better performance than they had anticipated. They were jubilant with the results, and the lingering doubts of the machine being able to support itself in the air vanished. They ran the engine half a dozen times, and then, examining the machine, they saw something that made it clear that these tests had been an excellent idea.


Along one of the propeller shafts, barely visible, was a hairline crack. If put under the stresses of flight, the shaft might well have flown apart, destroying the machine in the air or sending it tumbling out of control to the ground.

The Wrights knew that Langley might try again—if he had not done so already—and they felt their chances of being first into the air were becoming slighter every day. They were also aware that they could look forward to worsening weather, to screaming winds, sleet, and snow; they knew about winter at Kitty Hawk. Yet, they vowed that they would stay there long enough to make at least one attempt at flight.

They also agreed that to waste more time on the old propeller shafts would be a dead end. Accordingly, on November 30, Orville left for Dayton to make new shafts of spring steel.

Their expectations of the weather were borne out; on December 3 there was a great storm. This time Orville was not present to share the miseries suffered by his brother. He was in Dayton, hard at work, and on December 9, as Bishop Wright noted in his diary, “Orville started at nine o’clock, with his new propeller shaft, for Kitty Hawk.…”

He also brought news of Langley. On December 8 Charles Manly had again tried to fly Langley’s Aerodrome on the Potomac. The great craft had been boosted from its launch rail, where, poised in midair, the engine howling, it had promptly broken in two and tumbled into the river. Manly had nearly drowned in the snarled wreckage; only the courage of an assistant, who dived at once into the frigid river, had saved his life. The newspaper reactions to this second expensive disaster were razor-sharp, and Langley was slashed to ribbons in the national press. Manned flight, in the general consensus of editors as well as congressmen, had about as much chance of success as perpetual motion.

But on December 12, two hundred miles to the south of the Potomac, new propeller shafts were in place and the Wright brothers moved their own machine outside its hangar to prepare for their first trials. They were chagrined to find the sands of Kill Devil Hill lying quiet under a lazy breeze. There simply wasn’t enough wind to take off from level ground, and they had to settle for testing their aircraft along its launching rails. Again fate intervened on their behalf. The frames supporting the tail snagged on the end of the launch track, breaking the point of the rudder. Back to the hangar for repairs and modifications.

December 13 was perfect, the skies and the winds made to order. A warm breeze of 15 miles an hour sighed across the desolate sands. The moment for flight could not have been better. But Orville and Wilbur spent the day relaxing. They caught up on some personal chores, read books, walked along the beach. December 13 was a Sunday, and the brothers had given their word to their father they would not break the Sabbath by working.

Half past one on the afternoon of Monday, December 14, the brothers extended a flag from the side of the working shed, which could be seen from the Kill Devil Life Saving Station just over a mile distant. This was the prearranged signal that a powered flight would be attempted, for the Wrights wanted every opportunity to have witnesses present if they were successful in sustaining their aircraft for any distance.

Soon after the flag went up, John T. Daniels, Robert Wescott, Thomas Beacham, W. S. Dough, and “Uncle Benny” O’Neal came to the shed and the waiting airplane. They pitched in to move it a quarter mile to the intended launch site. To make it easier to move the 600-pound airplane that distance, the brothers had the men roll it on its 60-foot track (which Wilbur had named the “Junction Railroad”) to the end; then they would pick up the rear sections of track and move them forward to become the front section. It took about forty minutes to get into position.

The airplane’s skids rested on a launching dolly—a six-foot plank which itself rested on a smaller wood section attached to two small wheels in tandem. The wheels were modified from bicycle hubs, with ball bearings to reduce friction, and ran along the metal top of a two-by-four-inch monorail.

By now two small boys and a dog had joined the group to watch the strange behavior of these strange adults. They stayed only long enough for the engine to start, with its popping clatter, whereupon they took off in full flight for the nearest hill, scurrying beyond the crest to safety.

The rail rested along the gentle slope of the hill, and the machine was secured on its launching dolly by wire to keep it from moving until the operator pulled the wire free. The brothers moved the coil box into position, connected the wires to start the engine, and moments later heard staccato thunder and saw their propellers whirling. They removed the wires and the coil box, inspected everything carefully. Just after three o’clock, Wilbur tossed the coin. He waited as Orville called out his choice—Wilbur won. The older brother slid onto the wing, snugged himself onto the hip cradle, looked to his right to see Orville nod. Another man was at the left wingtip. Wilbur judged everything about him. The machine rested on a downslope because the wind was but five miles an hour. He might fly; and he might not. The wind made it all marginal. Wilbur readied himself.

It was a long moment for the witnesses. They had seen the gliders, but now the powered machine, propellers whirling and engine rumbling like hard, irregular thunder, fascinated them. They could see only the gross details, of course, but had they known what to look for, they would have determined the first powered aircraft to have a wing span of 40 feet and 4 inches, a camber of 1 in 20, a wing area of 510 square feet, and a length of 21 feet and 1 inch. Without the pilot, it weighed 605 pounds. The practiced eye would have seen that from side to side this was not a symmetrical craft: the engine was placed to the right of center on the bottom wing to reduce the danger of the engine falling upon the hapless pilot in a crash. And the pilot, as he had done with the gliders, lay prone, but now to the left of center in order to sustain proper balance. Also, the right wing was some four inches longer than the left wing, to compensate for the engine, which weighed between 30 and 40 pounds more than the pilot—depending upon whether Wilbur or Orville was aboard.

A hand lever operated the elevator, which extended well ahead of the wings, moving it up or down as the pilot intended. The new machine had twin movable rudders rather than the single vertical rudder of the 1902 glider, and the rudders were linked by wires to the wing-warping system. To coordinate controls, the pilot worked the rudders and wing warp by wires attached to his hip cradle. If he wanted to turn to the left, the pilot moved his body in that direction, and the cradle moved to the left. This warped the right rear wing tips to the down position, and the left rear wing tips to the up position, and at the same time, automatically, the rudders moved to compensate for yawing effects in the turn. By now the Wrights understood their system well enough to know the heavier machine needed two rudders. These counteracted fully the added resistance of the wing with the greater angle and the resulting tendency of the craft to swing in a direction opposite to a desired turn; the rudders also assisted the turn by their effect on the airstream.

The engine rumbled, the propellers whirled, and Wilbur shouted he was ready to fly. He reached down before him and grasped the restraining wire to release its grip.

Nothing happened. The wire was pulled so tight his hands could not overcome its restraining force. Orville’s shouts brought the men to pull back on the Flyer to slacken the wire and Wilbur at once jerked it free—“… before I myself was ready,” Orville related, “Will started machine. I grabbed the upright the best I could and off we went. By the time we had reached the last quarter of the third rail (about 35 to 40 feet) the speed was so great I could stay with it no longer. I snapped watch as machine passed end of track. (It had raised from track six or eight feet from end.) The machine turned up in front and rose to a height of about 15 feet from the ground at a point somewhere in neighborhood of 60 feet from end of track. After thus losing most of its headway it gradually sank to ground turned up at angle of probably 20° incidence. The left wing was lower than the right so that in landing it struck first. The machine swung around and scraped the front skids (bows running out to front rudder) so deep in sand that one was broken, and twisted around until the main strut and brace were also broken, besides the rear spar to lower surface of front rudder.

“Will forgot to shut off engine for some time, so the record of screw turns was mostly taken while the machine was on the ground. The engine made 602 rev. in 35½ s. Time of flight from end of track was 3 ½ sec. for a distance of 105 ft. Angle of descent for the 105 feet was 4° 55 ′. Speed of wind was between 4 and 8 miles.”

That evening, in a letter to their family, Wilbur provided this account: “We gave machine first trial today with only partial success. The wind was only about 5 miles an hour so we anticipated difficulty in getting speed enough on our short (60 ft.) track to lift. We took to the hill and after tossing for first whack, which I won, got ready for the start. The wind was a little to one side and the track was not exactly downhill which caused the start to be more difficult than it would otherwise have been. However the real trouble was an error in judgment, in turning up too suddenly after leaving the track, and as the machine had barely speed enough for support already, this slowed it down so much that before I could correct the error, the machine began to come down, though turned up at a big angle. Toward the end it began to speed up again but it was too late, and it struck the ground while moving a little to one side, due to wind and a rather bad start. A few sticks in the front rudder were broken, which will take a day or two to repair probably. It was a nice easy landing for the operator. The machinery all worked in entirely satisfactory manner, and seems reliable. The power is ample, and but for a trifling error due to lack of experience with this machine and this method of starting the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully.…”

Details notwithstanding, neither of the brothers thought IWilbur had achieved a successful flight—only its promise. The machine had left the ground higher than its landing and in an unsustained flight, and obviously had touched down out of control. Thus it failed to meet the hard definitions of sustained and controlled flight.

As the observations of both brothers showed clearly, Wilbur understood his fault in trying an angle of climb so steep that the Flyer almost at once lost its air speed and began settling to the ground. With the high angle of attack, slow speed, and limited power, this was inevitable. If Wilbur had not overcontrolled immediately upon lifting from the track, December 14 would have been the date of the first successful powered flight. Wilbur recognized that the forward elevator, much larger than in their 1902 machine, was now too sensitive. They now knew what to expect, and as they started their repairs, Orville wrote out a telegram he dispatched the next day to Bishop Wright: “Misjudgment at start reduced flight one hundred twelve power and control ample rudder only injured success assured keep quiet.”

They could hardly wait to make another flight the next day. The Flyer was repaired and they chafed to get into the air. But the winds hardly stirred for two days. When they awoke Thursday they couldn’t believe their ears. A subdued roar came to them, a rumble that rose and fell in the distance. They looked toward the ocean and saw the surf boiling before a bitter, howling wind of nearly thirty miles an hour.

They went outside and stared. Finally, there was nothing else to do but return to their shed to be out of the numbing wind. They sat about, depressed, listening to the wind shrieking through loose boards, blowing jets of sand around them.

They shared the same thoughts. They were already two months behind schedule, and this wind could easily become a screaming gale or hurricane.

They might not have another chance until spring.


It is important to understand what exactly is meant by the term “flight.” “In the history of flying one is often faced with claims for this, that, or the other ‘first,’ ” states the eminent British aeronautical historian, Charles Gibbs-Smith, “regardless of whether the achievement in question has any true historical significance. Whatever tributes can be paid to certain experimenters on the score of ingenuity, persistence, or personal courage, it is essentialto decide whether their contribution was important historically, and to what degree.…

“In order to qualify for having made a simple powered and sustained flight, a conventional aeroplane should have itself freely in a horizontal or rising flight-path—without loss of airspeed—beyond a point where it could be influenced by any momentum built up before it left the ground: otherwise its performance can only be rated as a powered leap; i.e. it will not have made a fully self-propelled flight, but will only have followed a ballistic trajectory modified by the thrust of its propeller and by the aerodynamic forces acting upon its aerofoils. Furthermore, it must be shown that the machine can be kept in satisfactory equilibrium. Simple sustained flight obviously need not include full controllability, but the maintenance of adequate equilibrium in flight is part and parcel of sustentation.…”

Gibbs-Smith then quotes the man he regarded as the most eminent authority on the subject—Wilbur Wright: “From our knowledge of the subject we estimate that it is possible to jump about 250 feet, with a machine which has not made the first steps toward controllability and which is quite unable to maintain the motive force necessary for flight. By getting up good speed a machine can be made to rise with very little power, and can proceed several hundred feet before its momentum is exhausted.… There is all the difference in the world between jumping and flying.”

So the flight of December 14 was never considered successful by the Wright brothers. It failed to meet their own criteria, but it did show them that they were doing things the right way, that their equipment functioned, and that their hopes for future success were excellent. As they waited out the gusty winds on the morning of December 17, while sand whistled along the floor, they knew that getting into the air would be flirting with death itself.

As I imagine the discussion they must have had that morning I get cold chills because I know what is about to take place. And I know that their machine has never been flown before. Although the brothers had been practicing with gliders, their total experience with a power machine was the three and one-half seconds of Wilbur’s attempt three days before. Their tank contained enough fuel to fly the machine about eight miles in calm air and, although the brothers did not seriously set their aim on such a distance, they had discussed the possibility of remaining low over the sands and flying off the four miles to the village of Kitty Hawk. Ideal conditions could make it possible, they mused. But conditions were far from ideal; the winds blew at twenty-four to thirty miles an hour.

At ten in the morning they marched into the teeth of the wind and raised their signal flag for their witnesses and helpers to join them. In the meantime they began laying their launching track, less than 200 feet now west of their large work hangar and pointing straight north. It was so cold that the brothers often had to return to their shed so that they could cup their hands over their stove to get feeling back into their fingers. However, they were perfectly dressed, as was their custom, in full suits, right on down to starched white collars and ties.

Finally five people from the lifesaving station appeared, hands in pockets, jacket collars pulled up, to watch the proceedings and, if needed, to help. Daniels and Dough had been there on the fourteenth, and with them were three visitors.

Orville set his tripod and camera in place, aiming carefully so that when the release was pressed the airplane would be shown just as it left the track, and he assigned this task to Daniels. Thirty minutes after the flag was raised, the 600-pound glider had become an airplane, with its engine running to warm up. The two brothers stood aside from the others, talking quietly. It was to be Orville’s turn first today, and he exchanged his usual bowler for a cap, taking the extra precaution of fastening it securely with a safety pin. “After a while they shook hands,” Daniels later explained, “and we couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, sort o’ like they hated to let go; like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d ever see each other again.”

Orville slipped aboard the bottom wing, grasped the controls, and secured himself within the hip cradle. He studied the instruments—there were just three. First was a Richard hand anemometer mounted on the front center strut adjacent to his body; this one instrument actually held two units. The upper part had an eight-bladed fan within a cylindrical case that rotated as air blew against it; the rotation was transmitted along a shaft to a recording device two and one-half inches below. This presented a watch-type face with two hands. As the machine traveled, the hands kept track of the actual distance flown through the air; when the plane stopped, so did the hands, thus providing an on-board record of distance traveled. The second instrument—a stopwatch—was as vital then as it is today; by combining the reading of the two gauges, the pilot knew the distance traveled within a specified time and could later calculate his speed from the flight log. A Veedor engine-revolution recorder kept a record of propeller turns; it, too, provided an accounting of distance traveled through the air.

Resting on the wing, waiting, with the wind rocking the craft from side to side and swinging and howling through the struts and wires, Orville counted away the final moments. Wilbur took his position at the right wing tip and then motioned to the five onlookers, urging them, as Daniels related, “not to look sad, but to laugh and hollo and clap our hands and try to cheer Orville up when he started.” Wilbur turned back to his position as the five whooped and shouted and clapped. Above all this noise, the sputtering engine and its staccato barking, the whirl of the propellers, and muted thunder of wind, came Orville’s cry that he was ready.

“On slipping the rope,” he recorded in his diary, “the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles [an hour]. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks. I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground.”

The Flyer dashed out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks and, in a final lunge for the ground that covered an additional 20 feet, whacked solidly against the sand, skidding along, and cracking one skid as it slid straight ahead and came to a halt. Orville’s hand reached out at once to shut off the fuel-supply petcock. The props whispered as they wound down, blurred, and clacked to a halt.

In light of the conditions and circumstances, the results were impressive. Orville had flown into the teeth of a 27-mile-an-hour gale and had managed to cover some 120 feet. He had been in the air for 12 seconds, and he had struggled against the double-layered elevator, which, put as kindly as we may, was simply too big, oversensitive, and a thundering pain to the operators who tried to gain consistent control. The single greatest obstacle in these flights was overcontrol.

The Wrights were not yet aware of the great strain they placed upon themselves in controlling the machine. Not even an expert pilot could have flown this first Wright machine without practice and plenty of room for maneuvering. Too often, the airplane handled like a berserk dragonfly.

Few people are aware that flying is less a matter of doing things right than it is of being able to correct swiftly and accurately, and as smoothly as possible, those things that go wrong. Flying is constant correction . Newcomers to flight training almost always hear words that have been repeated countless times: “The toughest part of flying is to fly straight and level.” That is, to fly a steady course without changes in direction or height. It’s impossible to do so without these constant minor corrections to the controls, and here were the Wrights, seeking maximum distance under control, in an almost angry flying machine, and doing so in weather conditions that would have been challenging even for a modern aircraft of equal size.


After Orville’s first trial, which produced a ground distance of 120 feet and an air distance of 600 feet, and while they were repairing their craft, the brothers discussed the extreme sensitivity of the front elevator. If they had made glider tests, as was their original plan, they would have taken a few days to reduce the size of the elevator or in some way modify the system to reduce the sensitivity. But time had become so bitter an enemy, as strong as the cold itself, that structural changes were out of the question. Now that they understood the problem, they would use extreme care in controlling the amount of elevator travel.

Orville recorded that “at 20 min. after 11 o’clock Will made the second trial. The course was about like mine, up and down but a little longer over the ground though about the same in time. Dist. not measured but about 175 ft. Wind speed not quite so strong. With the aid of the station men present, we picked the machine up and carried it back to the starting ways. At about 20 minutes till 12 o’clock I made the third trial. When out about the same distance as Will’s, I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and sidled the machine off to the right in a lively manner. I immediately turned the rudder to bring the machine down and then work the end control. Much to our surprise, on reaching the ground the left wing struck first, showing the lateral control of this machine much more effective than on any of our former ones. At the time of its sidling it had raised to a height of probably 12 to 14 feet.…”

The problem was not so much the sudden gust from the left as it was the fact that Orville still didn’t know how to fly . When the gust hit him, the nose also started up; Orville immediately threw in full down elevator so that he could hold his altitude. At the same time he operated the warp control to raise the lowered right wing. The wing came up so swiftly, as Orville recalled, that “on reaching the ground the left wing struck first. …” What had happened was simple enough. Orville had worked the controls in reaction to the wind gust and had overcontrolled.

Ten years later Orville wrote: “With all the knowledge and skill acquired in thousands of flights in the last ten years, I would hardly think today of making my first flight on a strange machine in a twenty-seven-mile wind, even if I knew that the machine had already been flown and was safe. After these years of experience I look with amazement upon our audacity.…”

It was approaching midday, and Wilbur prepared for the fourth flight. It began at exactly twelve o’clock.

The people of Kitty Hawk always had been kind to the Wrights—friendly and warm, sharing their food and worldly goods, sparing no effort to assist in any way they could to provide physical comfort, and open in their respect for the brothers. Most of them, however, felt less than convinced about the Wrights’ ability to fly; Kitty Hawk was an area where the reaction to flight was often expressed in such familiar bits of folk wisdom as “If God had wanted man to fly, He would have given him wings.”

Bill Tate, a Kitty Hawk resident who from the beginning had been a close friend to Orville and Wilbur, was not present at the camp on December 17,1903. This was not a sign of lack of faith in the Wrights; he had assumed that “no one but a crazy man would attempt to fly in such a wind.”

The brothers had different ideas. Shortly before twelve o’clock, for the fourth attempt of the day, Wilbur took his position on the flying machine, the engine sputtering and clattering in its strange thunder. His peaked cap was pulled snug across his head and the wind blowing across the flats reached him with a sandpapery touch. As he had felt it do before, the machine trembled in the gusts, rocking from side to side on the launching track. He settled himself in the hip cradle, feet snug behind him, hands on the controls, studying the three instrument gauges. He looked to each side to be certain no one was near the wings. There were no assistants to hold the wings as they had done with the gliders, for Wilbur believed that unless a man was skilled in what he was doing he ought not to touch anything, and he had insisted on a free launch, for he knew the craft would require only 40 feet in the stiff wind to lift itself into the air.

Wilbur shifted his head to study the beach area. Today was different. The wintry gale had greatly reduced the usual bird population. It had been that way since they awoke. Few of the familiar seagulls were about beneath the leaden skies.

Wilbur turned to each side again, looked at his brother, and nodded. Everything was set, and Wilbur pulled the wire free. Instantly, the machine rushed forward and, as he expected, was forty feet down the track when he eased into the air. He had prepared himself for every contingency of the wind, but the gusts were too strong and he was constantly correcting and overcorrecting. The hundred-foot mark fell behind as the aircraft lunged up and down like a winged bull. Then he was 200 feet from the start of his run, and the pitch motions were even more violent. The aircraft seemed to stagger as it struck a downdraft and darted toward the sands. Only a foot above the ground Wilbur regained control and eased it back up.

Three hundred feet—and the bucking motions were easing.

And then the five witnesses and Orville were shouting and gesturing wildly, for it was clear that Wilbur had passed some invisible wall in the sky and had regained control. Four hundred feet out he was still holding the safety altitude of about 15 feet above the ground, and the airplane was flying smoother now, no longer darting and lunging about, just easing with the gusts between an estimated 8 and 15 feet.

The seconds ticked away and it was a quarter of a minute since Wilbur had started, and there was no question now—thé machine was under control and sustaining itself by its own power.

It was flying.

The moment had come. It was here, now. Five hundred feet. Six hundred. Seven hundred!

My God, he’s trying to reach Kitty Hawk itself, nearly four miles away!

And indeed this is just what Wilbur was trying to do, for he kept heading toward the houses and trees still well ahead of him.

Eight hundred feet…

Still going, still flying. Ahead of him, a rise in the ground, a sprawling hump, a hummock of sand; Wilbur brought the elevator into position to raise the nose, to gain altitude to clear the hummock, for beyond this point lay clear sailing, good flying, and he was lifting, the machine rising slowly. But hummocks do strange things to winds blowing at such high speeds. The wind soared up from the sands, rolling and tumbling, and reached out invisibly to push the flying machine downward. The nose dropped too sharply; Wilbur brought it up, and instantly the oscillations began again, a rapid jerking up and down of the nose. The winds were simply too much, the ground-induced roll too severe, and, as Orville later said, the Flyer “suddenly darted into the ground.”

They knew as they ran that the impact was greater than that of an intentional landing. The skids dug in, and all the weight of the aircraft struck hard, and above the wind they heard the wood splinter and crack. The aircraft bounced once, borne as much by the wind as by its own momentum, and settled back to the sands, the forward elevator braces askew, broken so that they hung at an angle. Unhurt, aware that he had been flying a marvelously long time, mildly disappointed at not having continued his flight, stuck in the sand with the wind blowing into his face and the engine grinding out its now familiar clattering, banging roar, Wilbur reached out to shut off power. The propellers whistled and whirred as they slowed, the sounds of the chains came to him more clearly, and then only the wind could be heard. The wind, the sand hissing against fabric and his own clothes and across the ground, and certainly the beating of his own heart.

It had happened. He had flown for 59 seconds. The distance across the surface from his start to his finish was 852 feet. The air distance, computing air speed and wind and all the other factors—more than half a mile. He—they—had done it. The air age was now .

Just fifty-six days before, Simon Newcomb, the only American scientist since Benjamin Franklin to be a member of the Institute of France, in an article in The Independent had shown by “unassailable logic” that human flight was impossible.


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