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


When You Come Among Us

The winds around Dayton appeared to be too weak and unsteady for testing a glider. One location that seemed promising to Wilbur was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


Average wind speed for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

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.



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:


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. Wilbur decided to take a chance on being able to purchase the spars on his route to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.


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

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. Wilbur settled for shorter, 16-foot pine spars 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. As they slowly sailed out, the wind shifted to the south and east and began to grow stronger.

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 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. 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. Orville arrived in Kitty Hawk at the end of September.


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.





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.

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.


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.


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


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


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 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

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


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.


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.


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







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.

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.


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.

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.


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.






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. 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. 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.


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.


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


The brothers departed for Kitty Hawk on July 7th, 1901. 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. 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.”





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 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

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.

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


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. 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.


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.


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.


Flying a replica 1901 Wright glider.









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


Flying a replica 1901 Wright glider.

The alterations to the wings were nearly complete by the time Octave Chanute arrived in camp. The small group 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. 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.



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.

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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