Orville and Wilbur returned to their old campsite on September 26, 1903. They put off repairing and enlarging their weather-beaten structures to take advantage of the good flying weather. Breaking out their 1902 glider once again, the brothers increased their record glide time to over 71 seconds in the air.
Their spirits were high, and their confidence was at its peak. Their only goal was to get their new machine—called the “Flyer”— into the air.
But as the weather intensified on the Outer Banks, so did the Wrights’ competition grow 200 miles away. While the brothers were contending with torrential rains and winds as high as 75 miles per hour, Samuel Langley—with his assistant, Charles Manly—prepared to test the Great Aerodrome flying machine.
Charles Manly climbed into position on the Great Aerodrome, ran up the engine, and gave the signal to launch. The machine shot out of the catapult and down the rail only to arc into the waters of the Potomac, in the words of one reporter, “like a handful of mortar.”
But Langley was not finished yet. He and Manley promised that another attempt would be made before winter set in, blaming the failure of the first test on a fault in the launch mechanism. The Aerodrome, they insisted, would fly.
Meanwhile, high winds and rainstorms repeatedly struck the Outer Banks, impeding the Wrights’ progress.
Tests of the engine brought an additional set of problems. The motor badly misfired and tended to overheat and bind up after only a short run. The magneto failed to produce an adequate spark and the rough-running engine continually shook loose the sprockets.
The heavy vibrations finally cracked and tore loose one of the steel tube propeller shafts, forcing the brothers to send both shafts back to Charlie Taylor in Dayton for strengthening. Chanute arrived at the camp the following day and expressed his own uncertainties.
After assessing their machine, Chanute asserted that the brothers had not allowed for a margin of power loss in the transmission. There were no greater experts in the field of aerodynamics than the Wrights in 1903, but the brothers were neophytes when it came to the mechanical principles of transferring power from the motor to the propeller. If Chanute was correct in his belief that the Flyer would have insufficient power, it would bring the year’s trials to an abrupt end. Chanute soon departed camp, and by mid-November, temperatures dropped below freezing.
We are now alone again, the first time for about a month... And we are now quite in doubt as to whether the engine will be able to pull it at all with the present gears... 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.
The repaired propeller shafts arrived, and the brothers set about testing for the suspected loss in power. To their relief, Chanute had been wrong. Their calculations were correct. The machine did generate enough thrust.
The brothers were vindicated and relieved. But their elation would not last for long. After a week of testing the engine and transmission, they noticed yet another hairline crack in one of the shafts. In that moment, their hopes of launching the Flyer that year had all but disappeared.
They determined that the only solution to the problem was to replace the hollow propeller shafts with rods of solid spring steel. Obtaining the new shafts would mean another long round-trip to Dayton, delaying any trials for many days. In the meantime, Langley would make his second attempt, which he had confidently predicted in the press would succeed.
And there was the weather to consider. Every week that passed put the Wrights deeper into the harsh winter season. The sensible thing, they realized, would be to pack up their camp and return in the spring.
Yet, after coming so far, their ultimate goal was within grasp. They would continue on. On November 30th, Orville left for Dayton to have the new shafts made while Wilbur stayed to hold down the fort.
While the Wrights struggled through setbacks, Langley was in a struggle to save his reputation. The Aerodrome’s second attempt would be their last chance to save face.
Charles Manly would again be the pilot. He stripped down to his long winter underwear to avoid being hampered by excess clothing in the water and put on a cork-lined jacket. Whether success or failure awaited him, Manly knew that he would be taking a plunge in the icy river below.
It was almost dark when Manly ran up the engine and gave the signal for release. The Great Aerodrome shot down the track, assumed a nose-up position for a fraction of a second, and then slipped tail-first into the icy Potomac.
Trapped beneath the water’s surface with his jacket hooked in the wreckage, Manly ripped off the garment and struggled through the tangled wire and debris. Finally clear of the wreck, he lunged toward the surface, only to find himself trapped beneath a section of ice. Manly managed to break through the ice, gasping for air a short distance from the houseboat. Langley’s Aerodrome debacle became the subject of newspaper editorials and jokes on the vaudeville stage. Samuel Langley’s days as an aerial experimenter were over.
Orville arrived back in camp and the new shafts were installed by the next afternoon, but light winds prevented any attempts at taking off from level ground. After two more days of light winds, the brothers lost all patience and decided to attempt a launch off the slope of Big Kill Devil Hill. They would use gravity as well as wind to assist in their takeoff.
They tacked a large red flag (or a white sheet) on the side of the hanger, signaling the men of the Kill Devil lifesaving station to come lend a hand. It would be no easy task hauling the 600-pound machine a quarter of a mile away and up the side of the big dune. Even with the help of five men from the station, it took the Wrights over 40 minutes of hard slogging to get the machine into position on the launch rail halfway up the slope.
Orville and Wilbur tossed a coin to see who would make the first attempt. Wilbur won.
Orville took hold of the right wing while Wilbur climbed into the pilot’s position, lying prone on the lower wing. When everything was ready, Wilbur pulled the release, but nothing happened. The weight of the machine on the slope and the thrust created by the propellers jammed the restraining rope in place. Orville wrote in his diary that evening:
We had to get a couple of the men to help push the machine back till the rope was slipped loose. While I was signaling the man at other end to leave go, but before I myself was ready, Will started the machine. I grabbed the upright the best I could and off we went.
Orville held on until he could no longer keep up, and the Flyer left the rail. The machine climbed a few feet and started to stall. Wilbur immediately turned the elevator down too far, not realizing how sensitive it was. The left wing struck the ground first, swinging the machine around and slamming the front skids into the sand.
The resulting trial was too short to be considered a true flight. The only damage, however, was a splintered elevator support that would require a day or two of repairs.
They would not attempt another start from a slope. Launching down an incline would not be considered by others to be a true unassisted first flight. It was obvious to the brothers now that with the right amount of breeze, the Flyer would take off from level ground. All they needed was a proper wind.
The brothers arose early on Thursday, December 17th to cold northerly winds gusting up to 25 miles per hour.
They were apprehensive about starting their trials in such strong wind with an unfamiliar machine. Hoping that the frigid gusts would diminish, they waited by their stove and tried to keep warm. The high winds continued throughout the morning with no sign of relief. By ten o’clock, the brothers could wait no longer. They decided to risk it all—the machine they had toiled over for so long and their very own lives.
By 10:30 the machine was ready to go. It was now Orville’s turn to attempt a flight. Life saver Daniels was assigned to Orville’s box camera positioned on a tripod and pointed at the end of the track. His only duty would be to squeeze the camera’s shutter ball if the machine left the launch rail.
Orville climbed into the hip cradle and grasped the controls. With Wilbur in position at the right wing tip, Orville flipped the starting lever. The action released the restraining rope and simultaneously set in motion the Flyer’s stopwatch, anemometer, and revolution counter. Slowly, the machine began to move down the rail.
Wilbur easily jogged alongside for the first forty feet until it began to rise. Then the Flyer leapt ten feet in the air, and just as quickly darted to the ground and slid to a stop. Orville immediately killed the engine, which also stopped all the instruments. Orville had left the earth for only 12 seconds. He had covered a mere 120 feet in the air, but man had flown. The hard landing cracked one of the skids and would require a quick repair.
John Daniels was still milling around the camera. When asked if he had gotten the picture, Daniels seemed disoriented and confused. He wasn’t sure if he had even tripped the shutter.
Little did John Daniels know that the image he captured on film that day would be reproduced millions of times and become one of the most famous photographs of all time.
At 11:40, it was Wilbur’s turn to make a second attempt. The result was a quick hop similar to Orville’s, but covering close to 175 feet.
An hour later, Orville piloted the third trial but did no better.
As high noon approached, the brothers decided to make one more attempt before lunch. Wilbur took his place at the controls, pushed the launch lever, and started down the rail. As the Flyer left the track, it behaved no better than in the previous trialslunging up and down as Wilbur tried desperately to control the oversensitive elevator.
As the Flyer passed its longest previous distance mark, the pitching became even more violent. Like before, the aircraft staggered and dove toward the ground. Wilbur managed to pull the machine up and by the time he reached a distance of 300 feet from the takeoff point, he had the Flyer on a straight and level course. There was no doubt now that Wilbur had finally achieved the personal goal that had brought him to this place. He had attained sustained flight, while maintaining balance and control of his machine. Seconds continued to tick by and the machine kept going. 800 feet from his starting point, Wilbur tried to gain altitude to clear a sandbank, but the nose dropped too fast. He overcompensated the control and the wild bucking up and down began again. A moment later, the skids smacked into the ground with the sound of splintering wood.
Orville detailed the events in his diary that evening:
While standing about discussing the last flight; a sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it. Will, who was near one end, ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us.
Orville knows enough to let go. Daniels doesn’t, and he stays with the aircraft. And the aircraft begins to tumble over and over and over wrapping Daniels up inside this wire and wood and cloth. They’re convinced that he’s just going to be mangled, but when they finally get to the aircraft when it stops rolling over, Daniels is in the middle of all this mess completely unscathed. And for the rest of his life, he tells people that he made the fifth flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17th.
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
Having done what they set out to do, the brothers looked forward to being home for Christmas. “We at once packed our goods and returned home,” they wrote in a statement to the press, “knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.”
During the two years following the first four flights, the brothers would continue to make improvements to their airplane design by testing new machines in a cow pasture near Dayton called Huffman Prairie.
They were able to practice flying in relative secrecy—until October of 1905, when their increasingly dramatic circling flights over Huffman Prairie became noticed by the press, and they finally stopped flying altogether. By that time, they had developed the first truly practical airplane.
For the next three years, the Wrights attempted to convince the world that they had built and successfully flown a flying machine without ever demonstrating the fact.
It was not until 1908 that the US Army and a syndicate of French businessmen each agreed to purchase Wright airplanes contingent upon their making demonstration flights. Wilbur first provided proof of their achievement at a racecourse near Le Mans, France. The sparse crowd was skeptical and growing impatient after waiting all day under the hot August sun. At six in the evening, Wilbur finally climbed aboard his machine. To the shock and amazement of everyone present, Wilbur not only flew, but also circled the field twice.
For two years, Wilbur and Orville conducted demonstration flights before enthusiastic crowds of thousands on both continents, with U.S. President Taft and many of the crowned heads of Europe in attendance. The Wright brothers became the first internationally-known celebrities of the twentieth century.
The United States and other countries granted patents on the Wrights’ system of controlling an airplane about all three axes—the same system used by all airplanes today.
The patents entitled the brothers to broad proprietary rights and enabled them to impose infringement suits on competitive airplane manufacturers.
It was during one of his countless out-of-town consultations with lawyers that Wilbur became ill from eating contaminated seafood. When he returned home, his illness was diagnosed as typhoid fever. Wilbur’s condition deteriorated over the next three weeks until it took his life in 1912. He died at the age of 45.
Orville would carry on for thirty-six more years as the senior statesman of aviation and as the protector of the Wright brothers’ claim as the inventors of the airplane and the first to fly. His future contributions to aviation would be few and would quickly become outmoded. Like Wilbur, he would never marry. Disliking crowds and speech-making, he made as few public appearances as possible, preferring life at home in the mansion he called Hawthorn Hill, in the company of friends, relatives, and his dog Scipio.
The Wrights’ testing ground near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is now a park facility and National Monument.
The inscription on the monument reads, “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, Conceived by genius, achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”
Within one lifetime, the human species progressed from being earthbound pedestrians to moon walkers. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 lunar lander touched down on the moon.
On board was a small square of fabric cut from one of the original wing coverings of the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer and a small wooden sliver from one of its propellers. This symbolic final fight of the world’s first airplane was a fitting tribute to the two pioneers who created it—and who taught mankind how to fly.