The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention
Full Story, Part II

 

When You Come Among Us

The winds around Dayton appeared to be too weak and unsteady for testing a glider. Wilbur wrote to the National Weather Bureau and received a set of tables that listed average wind speeds for various locations around the country. One location that seemed promising to Wilbur was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

Average wind speed for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Kitty Hawk offered the isolation, the high average winds. Now when they read the high average wind figure for Kitty Hawk, they didn’t take into account that the winds were either forty miles an hour or zero—neither of which was any use to them whatsoever. They needed a steady average wind which the Outer Banks really didn’t provide as they discovered once they got there.

Stephen Kirk, author

Wilbur wrote to the Weather Bureau office in Kitty Hawk and received back an encouraging response from the station’s weather observer along with a letter from William J. Tate.

 

The Bill Tate family poses on the front porch of the Kitty Hawk Post Office, North Carolina.

He was a fisherman. He was also a farmer. He was also a county commissioner. He was also the postman of Kitty Hawk. He was basically a jack-of-all-trades. He was also the most educated man on the Outer Banks at that time.

Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

Local children of the Outer Banks; North Carolina.

Bill Tate promoted his little community as the ideal place “to practice or experiment with a flying machine.” He closed his letter with an invitation, promising that:

 

If you decide to try your machine here and come, I will take pleasure in doing all I can for your convenience and success and pleasure, and I assure you you will find a hospitable people when you come among us.

—William J. Tate, Kitty Hawk Station Weather Observer

Wilbur was sold. He immediately went to work assembling the parts he needed to build his glider. But one crucial part—the long and narrow spruce boards, or spars, needed to form the 18-foot wings—was not to be found at the local lumberyard. Rather than continuing the search at home, Wilbur decided to take a chance on being able to purchase the spars in Norfolk, Virginia, the largest city on his route to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Just two days before his departure, Wilbur wrote to his father, Milton, and revealed his plans.

 

He writes to the Smithsonian to ask for information about flight in May of 1899, and yet, it’s more than a year later that he tells Milton, almost as if he’s telling him for the first time, that he is gotten interested in this problem. If I could go back to Dayton 1899 and 1900, that’s one of the things that I’d like to watch and see. How much are they telling their father? How much are they telling other people? How kind of just embarrassed are they about what they’re doing?

James Tobin, author

 

Darius Green and his Flying Machine illustration.

 

One of the better-known poems of the day was “Darius Green and his Flying Machine”, which basically poked fun at the tradition of the backyard inventors and the Wrights certainly would have been seen as such if people knew about them.

—Stephen Kirk, author

 

We take flying so much for granted now and they took it for granted that that was impossible, and that people lived on the ground.

James Tobin, author

 

Katharine Wright.

Katharine wrote to their father:

 

We are in an uproar getting Will off.  The trip will do him good. I don’t think he will be reckless. If they can arrange it, Orv will go down as soon as Will gets the machine ready.

—Katharine Wright, sister

With his sister’s large trunk, a suitcase, and crates filled with glider parts in tow, Wilbur departed Dayton railway station on the evening of September 6, 1900. His six-day journey to Kitty Hawk was arduous and, at one point, nearly cost him his life.

Wilbur first ran into difficulties in Norfolk, Virginia when the narrow 18-foot spruce boards, or spars, needed to complete the glider were nowhere to be found. Exhausted by the search and the humid, 100-degree heat that blanketed the Virginia coast, Wilbur settled for shorter, 16-foot pine spars. He had no choice, even though the shorter spars would alter the wing design and could greatly compromise the performance of his machine.

 

Port of Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

Wilbur spent four frustrating days in Elizabeth City, trying to hire a boat to carry him across Albemarle Sound and the last 40 miles of his journey to Kitty Hawk. "No one seemed to know anything about the place or how to get there,” he described in a record of his trip.

 

A small flat-bottomed schooner.

He finally met Israel Perry, master of a small, flat-bottomed schooner who agreed to ferry him to his destination. Relieved, Wilbur checked out of his hotel and arrived at the dock only to discover that Perry’s boat was anchored three miles down river. Everything had to be loaded aboard a leaky skiff at the wharf, including baggage, lumber, Perry, a young deckhand, and Wilbur himself.

 

The boat leaked very badly and frequently dipped in the water, but by constant bailing, we managed to reach the schooner in safety.

—Wilbur Wright

Wilbur’s feeling of security may have been short-lived, however:

 

When I mounted the deck of the larger boat, I discovered at a glance that it was in worse condition, if possible, than the skiff. The sails were rotten, the ropes badly worn and the rudder post half rotted off, and the cabin so dirty and vermin-infested that I kept out of it from first to last.

—Wilbur Wright

As they slowly sailed out, the wind shifted to the south and east and began to grow stronger.

 

The waves which were now running quite high struck the boat from below with a heavy shock and threw it back about as fast as it went forward. The strain of rolling and pitching sprang a leak, and this together with what water came over the bow at times, made it necessary to bail frequently.

—Wilbur Wright

By eleven o’clock that night, high winds were driving the flat-bottomed vessel dangerously close to shore. Suddenly, the foresail blew loose from the boom with a roar.

 

The boy and I finally succeeded in taking it in, though it was rather dangerous work in the dark with the boat rolling so badly... The mainsail also tore loose from the boom, and shook fiercely in the gale. The only chance was to make a straight run over the bar under nothing but a jib, so we took in the mainsail and let the boat swing round stern to the wind. This was a very dangerous maneuver in such a sea but was in some way accomplished without capsizing.

—Wilbur Wright

 

Eventually, they found haven in one of the rivers and they rode the storm. You can imagine a city boy. I mean, this was enough to discourage anyone to ever come back to the Outer Banks again.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

 

Sunset from a dock.

It was late the following evening before the schooner tied up at the dock in Kitty Hawk Bay. Unwilling to touch any of the food aboard the boat throughout the entire journey, Wilbur had subsisted on a single jar of jelly that his sister had tucked into his suitcase.

The next morning, hungry and tired, Wilbur made his way to the home of William Tate, where he received a warm welcome and a hearty meal.

 

Wilbur Wright assembles 1900 glider at sewing machine (reinactment).

Wilbur promptly set to work assembling his glider under a canvas shelter erected in the Tates’ front yard. Mrs. Tate loaned Wilbur her sewing machine so that he could modify the size of the wing fabric to fit the shortened glider dimensions.

Orville arrived in Kitty Hawk at the end of September, equipped with tent and cots as well as coffee and other provisions that were scarce on the Outer Banks.

 

Replica 1900 Wright glider.

Over the next few days, the Wrights put the finishing touches on their glider, which spanned over 17 feet and weighed less than 50 pounds.

 

1900 Wright campsite on the edge of the dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

With the glider completed, the brothers set up their campsite at the edge of the dunes, still within sight of the village.

 

Kiting the replica 1900 glider.

They started by flying the glider as a kite, but within a few minutes Wilbur found it impossible to resist trying his hand at piloting the tethered machine. With Orville and Bill Tate on the tether lines, Wilbur stood inside a cutout on the lower wing.

 

These gliders were traveling at very low air speeds. The Wrights decided to have the pilot lay prone on the glider to reduce that wind resistance.

Peter Jakab, author

In a twenty-five mile an hour wind, Orville and Bill managed to kite the glider with Wilbur aboard. But Wilbur immediately ran into trouble and became alarmed. “Lemme down!” he yelled. Orville and Bill reeled in the tether lines until the machine was back on the ground.

 

Up until now, everybody who has gone the route that Wilbur is pursuing—that is the airman’s route, the route to attempt to control the machine, Lilienthal, Pilcher, other glider pilots have died. So Wilbur is thinking, “You know, there’s a good chance this will happen to me.”

Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

Adding chain weight to the replica 1900 Wright glider.

The next time the glider flew it was with the weight of a chain taking the place of a pilot.  These unmanned flights were useful, though, in that they allowed the brothers to take careful measurements of the drag the kite created in various winds using a simple fish scale tied to the lead line.

 

I think the notion of saying to themselves, “well look, this thing looks as though it’s not quite giving us what we had calculated for this wing area. Why don’t we just measure it? Why don’t we just find out how much it’s lifting?”

Tom Crouch, author

 

Damaged 1900 Wright glider after mishap.

But a sudden mishap brought their tests to a halt.  While adjusting the controls with the machine on the ground, a gust of wind caught a wing, flipped the glider into the air, and dashed it to the ground 20 feet away. The right side was completely smashed; the front and rear struts were broken; the ribs were crushed, and the wires snapped. The brothers dragged the pieces back to camp and talked of going home.

 

A Gentleman's Adventure

 

1900 Wright glider flown as a kite.

 

It’s interesting, when you go back and you look at the pictures of that first year at Kitty Hawk. There is one picture of their airplane flying. The rest of the pictures, all of them, are scenery—everything but airplanes. You get the sense that these guys really aren’t all that serious about what they’re doing. This is sort of a gentleman’s adventure for them.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

Bird in a tree photographed by the Wrights in 1900, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

You have to remember that neither of them had really been anywhere else in the country. They’ve been to Chicago, but that’s about it. This was a real holiday for them.

—James Tobin, author

The morning after the wreck, things looked brighter. Damage to the glider was extensive, but it could be repaired. Orville noted in a letter to his sister, “The next three days were spent in repairing, holding the tent down, and hunting; mostly the last...”

 

The Wright brothers had an opportunity here to hunt wild geese and ducks. They did fish and they said the fish were so plentiful that anywhere you look down in the water, you could see hundreds of them.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

 

Dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

They liked the outdoors. They spent a lot of time outdoors in Dayton both hiking and bicycling. And so, Kitty Hawk was a different place to do those kinds of things. So I think they very much enjoyed being in this sort of remote, unusual landscape very different from what they were used to.

—James Tobin, author

 

Dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

Wind and sand is what brought the Wright brothers to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And Orville said that this area looked as he always imagined the Sahara desert looked.  Sand would get into everything—the machinery, in their clothes, in their shoes, even the food that they were eating. The wind was a constant element here on the Outer Banks.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

Wind gusts reaching speeds up to 45 miles per hour often caused major problems for the experimenters, and even interrupted their sleep. Orville wrote to his sister:

 

The wind shaking the roof and sides of the tent sounds exactly like thunder. When we crawl out of the tent to fix things outside, the sand fairly blinds us. It blows across the ground in clouds.

—Orville Wright

 

They almost enjoyed the adventure of braving the elements. They liked to be able to brag to their sister about these trials that they had been through.

—James Tobin, author

 

The sand is the greatest thing in Kitty Hawk, and soon will be the only thing. The site of our tent was formally a fertile valley. Now only a few rotten limbs, the top most branches of trees protrude from the sand.

—Wilbur Wright

One morning after a particularly hard gale:

 

...the Kitty Hawkers were out early peering around the edge of the woods and out of their upstairs windows to see whether our camp was still in existence.

—Wilbur Wright

 

There were certain forward-thinking people like Bill Tate who was a man who believed in the science of progress, even though he did not have a great deal of training himself. And the lifesavers, I think liked the Wright brothers, but I think the rank-in-file people were probably much like people everywhere. They saw them as highly eccentric, which they, in fact, were, as hard workers, as good men, but as dabblers and dreamers who were not going to accomplish anything of value whatsoever.

—Stephen Kirk, author

 

Oriville and Wilbur Wright stop to rest on a dune (reinactment).

The locals were never completely certain what to make of the Wright brothers—two Yankees who were always dressed in business suits with starched collars.

 

The dress that they wore was a costume that identified them as professionals, as craftsmen, as mechanics, and they were very proud of this.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

I don’t think there was anything unusual about their dress. There was a great conformity in dress in that period, a great sense of class differences in dress. They dressed the way middle and lower middle-class, fairly well educated people dressed.

—James Tobin, author

 

I think the image of a couple of over-dressed men in stiff collars running up and down sand dunes chasing gliders makes a technical story rather romantic.

—Stephen Kirk, author

 

We need no introduction in Kitty Hawk. Every place we go we are called Mr. Wright. Our fame has spread far and wide up and down the beach.

—Orville Wright

Not accustomed to being thought of as rich men, the Wrights discovered that their presence on the Outer Banks was a threat to the local economy.

 

We, having more money than the natives, have been able to buy up the whole egg product of the town and about all the canned goods in the store. I fear some of them will suffer as a result.

—Orville Wright

 

US life savers photographed by the Wrights.

 

This was a rough environment. You scratched and clawed your way to make a living off of fishing during the spring and summer or hunting during the fall and the winter. But there was also during the winter and fall months with the United States Lifesaving Service. These men would have a twenty-four-hour patrol walking up and down the beach, basically looking for shipwrecks. And during the fall and winter months, some of these stations on the Outer Banks would average a shipwreck a week.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

The Flying Business

 

Kiting the replica 1900 glider.

After three days of repair, the glider, flown as a kite was still without a pilot. A 20-mile-per-hour wind was not enough to sustain the glider in the air with the full weight of a man aboard, and as the brothers discovered from the wreck, higher speed winds were simply unsafe for flying. But a lighter “pilot” was soon to be found.

 

Tom Tate poses before 1900 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

First they would put chains on the glider and fly it like a kite. Then they persuaded Tom Tate to jump into the glider and they flew him as a kite—not too far off the ground. And he flew it several times with him on it. So he was one of the first to fly—a local boy.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

Tate’s body was a more accurate representation of a pilot’s shape in the wind than a pile of chain.

 

Fish scale to measure kite lift.

 

Wilbur is probably the first airplane builder ever who made an effort to measure the lift generated by his airplanes. There’s no indication that Chaute or Lilienthal or Pilcher or any of the other glider pilots actually went to the step that Wilbur did of flying his airplanes like kites with spring scales attached to the control ropes and measuring the lift that was generated.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

Anemometer used to measure wind speed.

 

Rather than plugging in data that received from Lilienthal and other people, they can take this thing out in the wind. They can fly it with a fish scale, which gives them total force on the machine. They can find a way to figure out the angle of attack at which it’s flying, and they got an anemometer to measure the wind speed. When they put those things together, they can calculate exactly what the performance is.

Tom Crouch, author

 

Otto Lilienthal.

Why, Wilbur thought, were their wing surfaces creating insufficient lift? He had designed the wings based on tables of lift coefficients—tables compiled from research conducted by the great Otto Lilienthal. Other highly regarded men of science, including Octave Chanute, had used the same tables for building gliders and had found no error. Wilbur was baffled.

 

He’s using Smeaton’s Coefficient of Lift, which is a number that was generated in the 1750’s and has been around for a long, long time in order to design his glider. These are the best numbers that anyone has ever generated and they were for the time, but they weren’t accurate enough to adequately predict lift.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

Kiting the replica 1900 glider.

And there were other obstacles. The wing-warping system worked well, but by simply flying the machine as a kite the Wrights would never be able to fully test the elevator pitch control. Orville confided in his sister:

 

We have not been on the thing since the first time we had it out, but merely experiment with the machine alone, sometimes loaded with 75 pounds of chain. We tried it with the tail in front, behind, and every other way. When we got through, Will was so mixed up that he couldn’t even theorize. It has been with considerable effort that I have succeeded in keeping him in the flying business at all.

—Orville Wright

 

Wilbur Wright and a replica 1900 glider flown as a kite.

Perhaps Wilbur’s old fears and insecurities had prevented him from mounting the glider again—but time was running out. Soon the brothers would need to return to Dayton. Wilbur knew that he must face his fears and climb back into the machine, not suspended in a kite, but as the pilot of a glider.

 

Tossing a replica 1900 Wright glider off a dune.

 

The next morning, they carried the glider to the dunes located a mile south of camp. But by the time they arrived, the winds had died down. Literally throwing caution to the wind, they began tossing the unmanned glider off the top of one of the dunes. To the brothers’ delight, the device worked.

 

It would start back sometimes 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.

—Orville Wright

 

A replica 1900 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Two days later, the winds picked up. Bill Tate helped the brothers carry the glider four miles south to Kill Devil Hills.

 

Launching a replica 1900 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

Tate and Orville each took a wing tip while Wilbur readied himself in the middle. At Wilbur’s signal, the three men trotted forward with the glider into the wind. Wilbur hoisted himself onto the glider. The other two continued running with the machine as long as they could, and then let go.

 

Launching a replica 1900 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

The elevator pitch control seemed to work perfectly.  By the end of the day, the brothers were able to achieve several glides lasting as long as 15 seconds. At last, Wilbur was flying.

 

Launching a replica 1900 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flight bug bit him and he was real charged up. And they felt that that 1900 glider was very successful.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

 

Launching a replica 1900 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And there’s an indication that Wilbur made some pretty good flights between 300 and 400 feet, which was as good as anything Chanute had ever done. So that they were fairly satisfied with the glider with the caveat that it did not produce enough lift.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

 

Launching a replica 1900 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

I think the gliding on that last day was critical because they could say to themselves, “well, now we’ve glided like Lilienthal and like Chanute. We didn’t get hurt. We can even do it better than they did because we can lay flat, operate the controls of this thing, and we’re fine.”

—Tom Crouch, author

 

Light winds returned the following day. There would be no more manned glides before they would need to break camp and return to Dayton.

 

Mrs. Tate salvaged fabric from 1900 Wright glider to make dresses.Before leaving Kitty Hawk, the brothers gave Bill Tate permission to salvage what he could from their glider. Mrs. Tate used the sateen fabric from the wings to fashion dresses for her girls.

In all, Wilbur had spent barely two minutes at the controls of his glider, but he was exhilarated and encouraged. His glider had actually flown.

 

We considered it quite a point to be able to return without having our pet theories completely knocked in the head by the hard logic of experience, and our own brains dashed out in the bargain.

—Wilbur Wright

As an added bonus to the trip, Orville had become strongly committed to the project. For over ten years, Orville and Wilbur had been in business together and had shared almost every aspect of their lives. But until this trip, building a flying machine had been Wilbur’s project.

 

Wilbur’s the one who sort of leads the way. They don’t know that they’re the inventors of the airplane yet. This is a great adventure they’re going off on. Probably when they’re at Kitty Hawk that first year, they come to the realization that this is something they’re going to do together and it’s going to be a joint project and that’s the way they’re going to present it.

—Tom Crouch, author

In the fall of 1900 Wilbur began using “we” instead of “I” in his letters and journals. The next glider project would be the brothers’ team effort from the start.

Hopeless Desperation

 

Illustration comparing the Wright 1900 glider to their 1901 glider.

The design for next season’s glider would be similar to the earlier 1900 machine, except on a much larger scale. The 1901 glider would be the largest glider anyone had yet attempted to fly.

This time, the Wrights would take no chances with their wings’ shape. They increased the curvature, or camber, of their wings to equal the “proven” camber that Otto Lilienthal had used in the wings of his gliders.

 

Mechanic Charlie Taylor.

The brothers hired a full-time machinist, Charlie Taylor, to run the bicycle shop in their absence.

 

They had contracted with him to do some work on bicycles with coaster brakes and building bicycles and some technical things that they couldn’t do in their shop or didn’t have the time to complete. So when they were looking for an employee, Charlie Taylor was one that was ready to step into the role and was familiar with their business and someone that they already knew.

Ann Honious, US National Park Service

 

They were just starting up in the bicycle business and I got acquainted with the Wrights and I did all the repair work while they went down Kitty Hawk to try out their gliders.

—Charlie Taylor, mechanic

 

Octave Chanute.

But only nine days before departing for Kitty Hawk, Wilbur received a letter from Octave Chanute, requesting that two members of his research team be allowed to join the Wrights’ camp in order to test Chanute’s latest glider—and to assist the Wrights in testing theirs. The brothers preferred to choose their own assistants and were naturally suspicious of outsiders. Even so, Wilbur reluctantly consented to Chanute’s request.

 

They always recognized that Chanute is their connection to the world, and they know this. Chanute’s the guy who’s going to tell the rest of the world, “there are these guys out in Dayton who are really doing good things and here’s how they fit into the general picture.

—Tom Crouch, author

The brothers departed for Kitty Hawk on July 7th, 1901. They were delayed for a week in reaching their final destination by some of the worst winds and rainstorms to hit the Outer Banks in recent memory.

 

The Wrights' 1901 campsite near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

They pitched their tent four miles down the beach from Kitty Hawk, near Kill Devil Hills—the same dunes Wilbur had flown from the previous year. The location was convenient for flying but made finding drinking water and provisions a problem. This year’s camp included the construction of a primitive hangar to house their larger machine.

 

Edward Chalmers Huffaker.

 

The first of Chanute’s men to arrive signaled the coming of a plague. Edward Chalmers Huffaker appeared in camp, bringing with him Chanute’s glider. He also brought with him, as Orville lamented, “a swarm of mosquitoes.”

 

Mosquitoes.

 

 

 

 

 

The sand and grass and trees and hills and everything was fairly covered with them. They chewed us clean through our underwear and socks, Lumps began swelling up all over my body like hen’s eggs. We attempted to escape by going to bed…We put our cots out under the awnings and wrapped up in our blankets with only our noses protruding from the folds, thus exposing the least possible surface to attack...We passed the next ten hours in a state of hopeless desperation. Morning brought a little better condition, and we attempted on several occasions to begin work on our machine, but all attempts had to be abandoned.

—Orville Wright

 

They said, “misery, misery.” It was unbelievable. They weren’t used to that. They were city boys. Mosquitoes would tear them up.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

It would be nearly a week before the mosquito plague subsided. In the mean time, George Alexander Spratt, the second of Chanute’s men, arrived in camp.

 

George Alexander Spratt.

 

Good ‘ole George Spratt was a theoretical genius. He just had loads of ideas. He and Wilbur argued back-and-forth, back-and-forth about how to solve this problem; that problem.

Larry Tise, author

The Wrights enjoyed Spratt’s company, but found Huffaker to be presumptuous, lazy, and given to borrowing personal articles without asking.

 

Edward Chalmers Huffaker.

 

He was not particularly fastidious and they think he wore the same shirt when he left then when came. And one of the bad things was that they were into photography. They wanted to record the results of their experiments and they had a new box camera. Huffaker would use it for a stool, and this could be very disheartening.

Fred Howard, author

 

Kiting the 1901 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

By the end of July, the brothers had finished assembling the glider and began their trials by flying their new machine as a kite.

 

Flying the 1901 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As in the previous year, Wilbur would be the primary test pilot. He made his first glide from the side of Big Kill Devil Hill—and problems with the new machine became apparent from the start. The first glide ended abruptly with a nosedive into the sand. With every subsequent attempt, Wilbur moved his body further back on the wing to keep the nose up until he was a full foot behind his original position. Also, the glider handled poorly. Wilbur was forced to make large, unwieldy corrections in the forward elevator control just to keep the glider in flight.

 

Flying a replica 1901 Wright glider.

Twice, the machine climbed out of control and then stalled dead in the air. Hearing screams from the ground, Wilbur scrambled forward. Each time, the glider wafted to the ground without catastrophe. The small group was concerned; the two stalls were alarmingly similar to Lilienthal’s fatal crash.

 

But because they had designed their elevator in the front instead of the back, the airplane wouldn’t spin and spiral into the ground like it would with a more conventional-type tail on it. So instead of just crashing to the ground, it would kind of pancake to the ground with a soft landing.

—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service

 

Flying the 1901 Wright glider near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Wilbur managed to struggle through a few impressive glides that day, with one reaching a distance of over 300 feet. But the overall performance of the glider was disappointing and confusing.

 

1901 Wright camp members near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

 

 

 

The other guys who were in camp in 1901 just saw this wonderful machine that flew the way nothing ever had before. And it was huge. It was big. The Wrights were the ones who knew what it was supposed to do and knew that it wasn’t doing that.

—Tom Crouch, author

 

Replica 1901 Wright glider.

In nearly all respects, the glider failed to perform the way the brothers’ carefully measured calculations predicted it should.

 

They weren’t sure if the equations were correct. In fact, I think they suspected that there might be some problems with those equations.

Gary Bradshaw, Mississippi State University

 

Lilienthal lift coefficients table.

The wings the brothers had designed—based on Lilenthal’s “proven” camber and lift figures—had only produced a third of the lift that was expected. Over the next several days, the brothers tested various parts of the glider, trying to determine what was wrong.

 

Flying a replica 1901 Wright glider.

 

The Wright brothers found that their new wing didn’t produce as much lift as their old wing. They would have liked to go back to their old wing, but ordinarily that would have meant completely rebuilding the glider—something they couldn’t do out in the middle of nowhere. So they came up with this ingenious trussing system. Posts pushed down on the bottom wing and cables pulled down on the top wing. Together, they changed the curvature of both wings.

—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company

Field modifications to the glider resulted in a change from their one-in-twelve camber to a more shallow camber of one-in-nineteen.

 

Rain-soaked remains of Octave Chanute's 1901 glider.

 

 

 

 

 

The alterations to the wings were nearly complete by the time Octave Chanute arrived in camp. Chanute’s anticipation of finally seeing a Wright glider in action was no doubt tempered by the sight of the machine he had financed—now a rain-soaked pile of fabric and paper tubing. Huffaker had long before discarded the glider after a few half-hearted attempts to fly the flimsy machine.

 

 

 

Flying a replica 1901 Wright glider.

The small group now set about launching the Wright’s reworked glider into the air. Within his first few glides, Wilbur could tell that the wing modifications were working. By reducing the camber of the wings, the modified glider created less drag and had a more responsive elevator control. But the total amount of lift generated by the glider was still only a fraction of what was forecast by Lilienthal’s revered lift figures.

 

Replica 1901 Wright glider wing-warping control.

Setting aside the lift problem for the moment, Wilbur decided to revisit an issue in which he felt he was on solid ground. He would attempt a turn by utilizing his novel wing-warping technique, a technique he had invented the previous year.

Wilbur started in a level glide. He pushed his left foot control and the glider responded accordingly with a gradual bank to the left. Then things went awry. Instead of completing the turn as expected, the glider reversed direction and began to rotate around the higher wing. Startled by the sudden reversal, Wilbur abruptly steered the glider to the ground. A second attempt at turning ended with the same disturbing results.

 

Illustrating 1901 Wright glider during well-digging.

Things went from bad to worse. While on a longer glide, Wilbur felt his machine skid, or slide, dangerously to the left. In a brief moment of confusion, he failed to notice that his glider was diving towards the sand. The impact sent Wilbur smashing through the front elevator.  He rose from the wreck disgusted and bleeding from cuts on his face.

 

 

Chanute left camp soon after, while the Wrights continued to struggle with the perplexing difficulties. Wilbur made a few additional glides, but the recent problems had clouded his usually adept intuition and judgment, throwing him into a state of self-doubt and confusion.

 

Rain on the dunes of the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

Rain set in on the Outer Banks, making further trials seem pointless. The brothers’ new friend George Spratt bid farewell, and the less-endearing Edward Huffaker departed soon after, taking with him one of Wilbur’s blankets.

The Wrights left Kitty Hawk in a fog of lost hopes and melancholy. Staving off a head cold, Wilbur gazed out the train window most of the trip home. He spoke very little of gliders, except to make the prediction, “that men would not fly for fifty years.”

 

We doubted that we would ever resume our experiments. Although we had broken the record for distance in gliding, and although Mr. Chanute assured us that our results were better than had ever been attained, yet when we looked at the time and money which we had expended, and considered the progress made and the distance yet to go, we considered our experiments a failure.

—Wilbur Wright

 

Next   »

Witty or Scientific - A letter arrives at the Wrights' Dayton home that sets in motion the invention of modern aeronautical engineering, in Part III of The Wright Brothers' Journey of Invention.


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