They Began a New Era

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Special Collections and Archives/Wright State University
Wilbur Wright flying his and Orville Wright’s 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with the brothers’ camp and shed visible in the distance, 1903

The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, come down to us in photographs as somewhat stiff, unromantic figures in dark jackets and white shirts, often with hats. They were not twins—Wilbur was four years older—but they were remarkably similar in their thinking and abilities. They worked and for the most part lived together all their lives, sober, intelligent, virtuous to a fault. Neither of them ever married, and the only woman in their lives seems to have been their younger sister, Katharine, who when she finally married so angered Orville—Wilbur was by that time dead—that he refused to go to her wedding. As for Wilbur, even during the days in Paris living at the Hotel Meurice he favored long, solitary walks admiring the architecture and public spaces, with many visits to the Louvre.

Their father, Bishop Milton Wright, was an itinerant churchman with high principles. The household in Dayton, Ohio, then a city of 40,000, was moral but not emphatically religious. All of them read. There seem to have been no family quarrels or divisions, and Bishop Wright talked freely to his children on all subjects, Orville said, except money-making, a matter to which he gave little consideration. “All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others.”

Orville was the more enterprising. While still in high school he had started his own print shop and then a local newspaper in which Wilbur joined him. Together they opened a bicycle business in 1893, selling and repairing bicycles. It was soon a success, and they were able to move to a corner building where they had two floors, the upper one for the manufacturing of their own line of bicycles. Then late in the summer of 1896 Orville fell seriously ill with typhoid fever. His father was away at the time, and he lay for days in a delirium while Wilbur and Katharine nursed him. During the convalescence Wilbur read aloud to his brother about Otto Lilienthal, a famous German glider enthusiast who had just been killed in an accident.

Lilienthal was a German mining engineer who, starting with only a pair of birdlike wings, designed and flew a series of gliders—eighteen in all—and made more than two thousand flights in them to become the first true aviator. He held on to a connecting bar with his legs dangling free so they could be used in running or jumping and also in the air for balance. He took off by jumping from a building or escarpment or running down a man-made forty-five-foot hill, and he wrote ecstatically of the sensation of flying. Articles and photographs of him in the air were published widely. Icarus-like he fell fifty-five feet and was fatally injured, not when his wings fell off but when a gust of wind tilted him upward so that his glider stalled. Opfer müssen gebracht werden were his final words, “sacrifices must be made.”

Reading about Lilienthal aroused a deep and long-held interest in Wilbur that his brother, when he had recovered, shared. They began to read intensively about birds and flying. It was a period when interest in flying did not need much to stimulate it. Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Samuel Langley, and others were engaged by the possibility of flight. Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution expressing his interest in human flight and asking for whatever papers the Smithsonian had published as well as a list of other works in English on the subject.

When these were forwarded to him, the brothers began serious study of them. They had no experience, no formal technical training, and no funds, but as David McCullough writes in The Wright Brothers, a dream had taken hold. Having twice won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling histories and biographies, McCullough is a much-loved dean of Americana, and his new book, a dual biography, has a warm appeal.

The Wrights’ first aircraft, really a large kite, was made of bamboo and paper and had two wings, one over the other, with struts and crisscross wires connecting them. A system of control cords enabled its flight to be directed from the ground. Although they ended with a crash, the tests were successful, the brothers felt, and the following summer they built a full-sized glider with an eighteen-foot wingspan meant to be flown as a kite and, if that went well, to carry a man. Like any kite, this very large kite-glider needed wind to rise on, and Wilbur had written to Octave Chanute, an eminent engineer and a leading authority on aviation and gliders, asking for advice—they were looking for a location with good weather and reliable wind where they could conduct tests. Chanute suggested the coast of South Carolina or Georgia where there was also sand for soft landings. Poring through Weather Bureau records they became focused on a wide strip of land in the Outer Banks of North Carolina occupied only by fishermen, called Kitty Hawk. The winds there, they were informed, were reliably steady at ten to twenty miles an hour.

Kitty Hawk was isolated and accessible only by boat. It was seven hundred miles from Dayton, most of it by train. Wilbur went first. It was September and still extremely hot. It took him four days to find a boatman who agreed to take him across Albemarle Sound and they ran into a storm. The voyage was only forty miles but it took them two days. Kitty Hawk, Wilbur saw, was comprised of not much more than a lonely stretch a mile wide and five miles long with a single small hill. There were some houses but almost no vegetation. To the east lay the open Atlantic.

Orville arrived two weeks later, and they set up camp in a tent. Conditions were primitive; there was not even water at first. They were not outdoorsmen, but the weeks and months they spent on Kitty Hawk with their glider were the happiest, they said, of their lives. Orville wrote:

Part of the time we eat hot biscuits and eggs and tomatoes; part of the time eggs and part tomatoes. Just now we are out of gasoline and coffee. Therefore no hot drink or bread or crackers. The order sent off Tuesday has been delayed by the winds. Will is “most starved.”

Into the fall, nights grew bitterly cold. There were storms. They had to hold the tent down in strong winds. They flew the glider like a kite when the wind was too strong, holding it down and testing control by the use of the cords. They had spent countless hours observing and analyzing bird flight at home, and they continued this at Kitty Hawk. A man on the island recalled:

They would watch the gannets and imitate the movements of their wings with their arms and hands. They could imitate every movement of the wings of those gannets; we thought they were crazy, but we just had to admire the way they could move their arms this way and that and bend their elbows and wrist bones up and down and which way, just like the gannets.

Birds have vaulted wings, that is to say they have camber. By slight movements at the tips of their wings they can change direction and attitude. And it was by warping the outer part of the wing of their glider slightly with the pilot controlling it that the Wright brothers believed they could control flight and maintain balance.

Wilbur did the early flying. Down the sand slope headed into the wind they would trot the glider until it began to be airborne, and Wilbur would pull himself up onto the lower wing, take hold of the controls, and, with mooring lines still attached, briefly fly. By mid-October that year he was flying untethered three and four hundred feet.

They returned to Kitty Hawk the following year, 1901, and were discouraged by the results, as well as by a plague of mosquitoes. They had changed the camber of the wings in accordance with a shape that Lilienthal had concluded was optimal; but it turned out that their first glider had flown better. That fall, upstairs in the bicycle shop, they built a six-foot-long wind tunnel, powered by a gas engine since the shop had no electricity. They tested at various angles and wind speeds some thirty-eight wing shapes made from hacksaw blades in order to have reliable figures for lift and drag, both of which change in flight with changes in angle and speed.

Equilibrium and control were a separate matter. Wilbur had explained it adroitly in a speech before a gathering of the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago. He had been invited to appear by Chanute and had reluctantly accepted. What was needed for a flying machine, he said, was balance and control in the air. He had taken a sheet of paper and holding it parallel to the floor let it drop. Its erratic fall, turning over and slipping one way and the other, he compared to an untrained horse that men had to learn to manage if they were to fly, and “if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

Late the next fall, 1902, they came back to Kitty Hawk. They had built a new glider, larger than before, and were working eight and ten hours a day to do the final preparations, tacking and sewing on the fabric. They began flying it first as a glider, unmanned, and then, cautiously proceeding, piloted. Orville flew for the first time and also later crashed for the first time; the early accidents were not infrequent. “We hope to have repairs made in a few days,” Wilbur wrote.

Chanute came to visit for a week with an associate named Augustus Herring and a glider of their own that they wanted to test and that refused to fly. The weather turned wintry and the last of the men who had been helping (including their older brother Lorin Wright and George Spratt, a young enthusiast from Pennsylvania) departed. Late in October in a cold rain at dawn, the two brothers broke camp and walked the four miles to Kitty Hawk. During the two months they had been there they had made nearly a thousand flights and accomplished everything they had hoped. McCullough writes:

They knew exactly the importance of what they had accomplished. They knew they had solved the problem of flight and more. They had acquired the knowledge and the skill to fly. They could soar, they could float, they could dive and rise, circle and glide and land, all with assurance.

Now they had only to build a motor.

The engine they were now in a position to install was not to be found; all the ones they considered were too heavy. Their hired helper at the shop, a machinist named Charlie Taylor, solved the problem and built one from scratch, though he had little experience. It had four cylinders, a cast aluminum engine block, and weighed 152 pounds. The two eight-and-a-half-foot propellers were made of laminated wood, shaped by hand.

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Special Collections and Archives/Wright State University
Orville and Wilbur Wright, circa 1906

In late September 1903, they returned to Kitty Hawk. Their camp in a large shed had survived the storms of the previous winter, but they built a bigger one to house the aircraft they were now assembling. The next month, their main rival, Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian, for the second time saw his big, awkward-looking airplane with upward sloping wings dive straight into the Potomac after launch. “It seems to be our turn to throw now,” Wilbur wrote to Chanute. But the weather turned cold and rainy. In November, snow fell. They were waiting for replacements for their new propeller shafts, which kept breaking.

The first real attempt to fly, with Wilbur at the controls, ended abruptly. He mishandled the plane and it kangarooed back to earth almost immediately, and it was three days before they hung a bedsheet on the side of the shed to signal for help from the nearby Life-Saving Station for another try.

It was Orville’s turn this time, and in an icy wind, stronger than they would have liked, he started forward and at a speed hardly greater than a walk lifted up and—with the engine turning the propeller—flew unevenly for 120 feet. Later that day on a fourth try, Wilbur was able to fly a little over 850 feet. What was it like to fly that first airplane? There is an interactive simulation of it on the Internet at firstflight .open.ac.uk where you can fly it, or try to. There are several choices of speed as well as real speed with a gusting wind.

Surprisingly, there was little mention of the flight in the Dayton newspapers and the Associated Press turned the story down. The Norfolk paper, the Virginian-Pilot, published a grossly inaccurate account that was picked up by other papers including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The telegram that was sent from the weather station read:

SUCCESS FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING ALL AGAINST TWENTY ONE MILE WIND STARTed FROM LEVEL WITH ENGINE POWER ALONE AVERAGE SPEED THROUGH AIR THIRTY ONE MILES LONGEST 57 SECONDS INFORM PRESS HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.

OREVELLE [sic] WRIGHT

The airplane they flew, the First Flyer, was wrecked when a sudden gust blew it end over end across the beach, breaking the wings. That spring in Dayton they built another and flew it from a big open field called Huffman Prairie eight miles from town. It became their flying school. There they learned to master takeoffs and landings and maneuvering in flight, which was the most impressive thing. The flights themselves were not secret, anyone could come and watch, but no photographs were permitted. There was always the concern that what they had developed could be copied by others.

The government, to whom they offered the airplane first, turned them down with a virtual form letter expressing no interest. The British, however, sent an officer to investigate, and although he was only shown photographs of the plane in the air, he invited them to submit a sales proposal. The French were interested also and sent a delegation of military men in civilian clothes to Dayton. Their offer turned out to be a million francs, which was then $200,000, for one airplane providing that it demonstrated it could achieve certain levels of altitude, range, and speed. They had not seen the airplane itself either, but only photographs and eyewitness testimony, and there was open skepticism in Paris, as this editorial suggests:

The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly…. It is easy to say, “We have flown.”

No contracts had been signed, there was nothing in hand but a new, more powerful version of the Flyer and the overtures of a New York firm called Flint & Company that had experience selling war materials in Europe. At the same time interest and impatience in Europe were growing hand in hand, increased by the achievements of some French aviators. Alberto Santos-Dumont had flown a contraption a distance of 726 feet before a thrilled public. The Wrights were confident their lead was solid in both their aircraft and their experience in the air. In response to the uneasiness of Flint & Company’s European representative it was decided that one or both of the Wrights should come to Europe to back up the validity of their claims. Large amounts of money and sales were at stake.

In the end, Wilbur was chosen to go, and he sailed to Europe in May 1907 carrying only a single suitcase. Hart Berg, the Flint representative, recognized him on sight as he got off the train. Wright had “the peculiar glint of genius in his eye,” he reported, “which left no doubt in my mind as to who he was.” In Paris Wilbur was installed at the Hotel Meurice, then as now a palace. Negotiations with the French started almost immediately.

McCullough gives a sentimental, almost Baedeker portrait of Paris, in part from the letters home that Wilbur wrote. There is a kind of wistful quality to it, the long walks alone pleased by things he sees, his unexpected interest in art—paintings in the Louvre especially—admiration for the parks and outdoor cafés, the soul of the city enhanced by dining in fine restaurants as Berg’s guest.

The meetings and negotiations were conducted in French and went on for months, always with the condition that everything was based on demonstration by flight. Things could proceed only so far until the airplane arrived, and it was finally crated and shipped in July. Orville came to France almost immediately after.

The maiden flight, so to speak, was made only after months of further delays caused by lack of agreement with the French, during which the Wrights kept their remarkable equanimity, while rival pilots and their machines were achieving various degrees of success.

The promised demonstration for the French took place at a racetrack outside of Le Mans and was flown in a greatly reconstructed airplane, since the one that had been shipped was virtually wrecked in customs at Le Havre. An expectant crowd, mostly local, sat in the grandstand along with many reporters and correspondents. It was August 1908, almost four years and eight months since the historic first flight. At three in the afternoon the gleaming white airplane was rolled out of its shed, and so deliberate were Wilbur’s preparations that it was after six before he quietly announced, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.” He was calm and self-confident though he and his brother had been continually regarded as bluffers and frauds. Berg said afterward:

One thing that, to me at least, made his appearance all the more dramatic, was that he was not dressed as if about to do something daring or unusual. He, of course, had no special pilot’s helmet or jacket, since no such garb yet existed, but appeared in the ordinary gray suit he usually wore, and a cap. And he had on, as he nearly always did when not in overalls, a high, starched collar.

He took off to cheers, then turned, and came flying back toward the crowd. He maneuvered gracefully, made several complete circles and ended by landing gently within yards of where he had started. He’d been in the air for a little less than two minutes. The crowd went wild. Louis Blériot, who was a flyer himself and present, was overwhelmed. So was France itself. There was immediate acclaim. Doubt about the Wrights’ achievement vanished; people were aware that another era had begun.

Through the summer and fall Wilbur remained at Le Mans flying and taking passengers up with him, continually drawing crowds that came by car and special train, magnates and kings as well as people from all over Europe.

Orville had been almost fatally injured in an accident at Fort Myer, Virginia, where he was preparing for the flights that would demonstrate the airplane to the army. A piece of one of the propellers broke off, starting a vibration that caused a stay wire to come free and wrap itself around the blade. The plane went out of control, twisting one way and the other and then diving straight into the ground. The passenger, a lieutenant named Thomas Selfridge, died within hours. Orville lay in the hospital with a fractured leg and hip and broken ribs, nursed by his sister, who came as soon as she heard the news. It was six weeks until he could get out of bed and stand on crutches. Nevertheless, he and Katharine would sail to Europe to be with Wilbur, who met them at the station in Paris at 1:00 AM wearing a silk hat and evening clothes.

In Pau, a resort town in southwestern France where the winter might be milder, the flights continued. The airplane was four years old by then. It had been flown hard, survived crashes, and been many times patched and repaired. Still, Wilbur was making five and six flights a day, taking passengers up at no charge. The king of Spain came to Pau to see the machine, and the king of England. In Rome, later, the king of Italy and J.P. Morgan watched flights. Katharine was having the time of her life. She flew with her brother more than once. She had begun to take French lessons in Pau.

When they sailed home in May 1909, Wilbur had been in Europe for more than a year, and an astonishing fifteen factories in and around Paris were now building airplanes. As McCullough writes:

It was there, in France…that he had flown as no man ever had anywhere on earth. At Le Mans and Pau he had flown far more than anyone ever had and set every record for distance, speed, altitude, time in the air, and made the first flights ever with a passenger….

In the years that followed, their time was consumed by business affairs and a series of bitter lawsuits filed to protect their patents and reputations. After 1910, except for one short flight he made in Berlin, Wilbur never flew again. He was constantly traveling to New York or Washington or back to Europe on business when, “worn down in body and spirit,” he fell ill and died of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of forty-five.

Orville flew on for seven years; he then sold the Wright Company that he and his brother had established and set up his own aeronautical laboratory. He died in 1948.

He and Wilbur had really made their farewell years before, when they invited the Aeroplane Club of Dayton and their family and friends as well as anyone interested to come to Huffman Prairie. That day Orville put on a remarkable demonstration, making many maneuvers while flying low and also climbing to the unbelievable height of 2,720 feet. He and Wilbur had never flown together so that if there were ever a fatal accident it would not involve both of them, and one of them would live to continue the work. On that one occasion, they took off to fly together, with Orville at the controls, side by side.