Dawn at Kill Devil Hill

Dec. 1, 2003

Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so that we could discover them!!”

The words were those of Orville Wright, written in June 1903. Within six months, Orville and his brother, Wilbur, were at Kitty Hawk, N.C., with their fully assembled and fully tested machine, the Flyer, waiting for all of the discovered secrets and hard work to come together as something momentous.

It was cold on the morning of Dec. 17—almost too cold to work outside. A cold, gusty north wind was blowing, and almost at gale strength. The steady, 25 mph wind made the 30-degree temperature feel like 16 degrees. The term “wind chill” was still unknown in 1903, but the Wright brothers understood the effects only too well. The body loses heat at an accelerated pace. Hands become stiff. Eyes water. The throat feels cold, the ears tingle. Hauling, lifting—indeed, any heavy work outdoors—makes the wind feel like an adversary.

The brothers had been to North Carolina before, but never had they stayed so late in the year. Through the fall, the weather had taunted them, bringing high winds and rain on some days and dead calm on others. On the worst nights, water puddles would freeze. They woke to wash basins filled with solid ice.

True, they had a good stove inside, built by Orv. They also had his French drip coffee pot, complete with a custom filter of wire mesh imported from Dayton, Ohio. Still, the brothers on several occasions that fall had given in to the cold wind and suspended their outdoor work. One day they noted they were “too sore” from gliding to do much work at all.

It is ironic, then, that, on the morning of Dec. 17, 1903, the fierce wind howling across the dunes would become the Wrights’ partner in one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

To Kitty Hawk

“They think that life at Kitty Hawk cures all ills, you know,” wrote Katherine Wright, speaking of her two brothers. Will and Orv had discovered Kitty Hawk in the late summer of 1900. “I never did hear of such an out-of-the-way place,” Katherine groused to their father, Bishop Milton Wright. “Probably the mail goes out but once a week.” She was right. It left each week in a small sailboat.

Kitty Hawk was a fishing village where no one ever sold a fish. The commercial catches all went to Baltimore, where they fetched a higher price. The Kitty Hawkers ate wild game—in or out of season—and fish if they caught it. Milk came only in cans. Orv thought the horses, cows, and hogs were the most pitiful-looking livestock he had ever seen.

The brothers loved the place. “The sunsets here are the prettiest I have ever seen,” Orville reported. “The clouds light up in all colors in the background, with deep blue clouds of various shapes fringed with gold before.”

They liked Kitty Hawkers, who returned the sentiment. “Our fame has spread far and wide up and down the beach,” Orv joked on one occasion. And it was the beach that hooked them. “The sand is the greatest thing in Kitty Hawk,” said Orville.

The Passion

In late 1903, Will was 36 and Orv was 32—middle-aged men for that era. Although unmarried, they were domestically settled, the youngest sons of the bishop, living contentedly in the family’s foursquare Dayton home with their father and sister. Orv liked camping and made caramels and fudge for his niece and nephews. At age 18, Will suffered an injury playing ice hockey and gave up the idea of going to Yale. Instead, he spent three years caring for his mother, a tuberculosis case, who finally succumbed.

Before long, the brothers set out to become newspapermen. They wrote and published a little local broadsheet, but they soon found that the money was in printing. Orv at age 17 built a high-speed printing press so peculiar it led a visiting pressman to declare, “It works, but I certainly don’t see how it does the work.”

Next came bicycles. In the early 1890s, these two-wheeled wonders were all the rage. The Wright brothers did well selling, repairing, and, occasionally, racing bicycles.

The two brothers since childhood had had what Will termed a “passive interest” in flight. It soon became a passion.

In summer 1896, 25-year-old Orville fell ill with typhoid fever. For six weeks he lay near death. Katherine and Will cared for him, often reading to him in the sick room even. In the midst of the crisis, Will spied a notice of the death of a German aeronaut, Otto Lilienthal, in a glider accident. Lilienthal had based much of his experimental work on the study of birds, and Will reread a book on animal mechanics. As Orv convalesced, Will read other, more modern works, and, by the time Orv was able to sit up in bed (in October), the two had begun analyzing what Lilienthal had done wrong.

Man knew how to make wings and engines, they reasoned. The brothers believed the barrier holding man back from flight must therefore center on equilibrium and control. Lilienthal hadn’t flown much. As they saw it, the German only had a total of about five hours’ time in the air in his gliders. No one could ride a bicycle on a crowded street after practicing 10 seconds at a time over five years.

The Wrights built kites, then small models, and then a glider sturdy enough for a pilot. The Wright brothers wanted time in the air. That was the purpose of Kitty Hawk. It was not the windiest place in America. Kitty Hawk, however, had an unbeatable combination of wind, remoteness, and marvelous sand.

At Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers learned by measurement, experience, and observation how to build a glider and fly it. Wilbur often spent time on the dunes watching the soaring antics of buzzards, eagles, and hawks. To the brothers, birds offered the one absolute proof that man could fly. Will saw that a bird expended much more energy chasing an insect or another bird; in comparison, their level flight looked easy.

In that first year, 1900, the trip to Kitty Hawk was a grand “vacation.” Every later visit brought the brothers dramatic progress toward their dream of flight. The year 1900 gave them a chance to work out their gliders. They camped under an oak tree. In the next year, 1901, they moved the camp closer to the prime gliding spot of Kill Devil Hill.

The experiences at Kitty Hawk taught them how little they—or anyone—really knew about designing an airplane. At Dayton they built a wind tunnel to test wing shapes, built new gliders, and itched for the chance to try them. Will opened a correspondence with Octave Chanute, who became their mentor and a source of strong encouragement.

Experiments in 1902

In a real sense, though, the brothers were on their own. They were pioneers in conceptualizing, constructing, and testing actual machines. Their work had taken them far beyond other, more famous experimenters such as Samuel P. Langley.

They had all of the required qualities: agile minds, a strong grasp of mathematics, and real talent for building, inventing, and repairing mechanical systems. They debated each other and kept to a strict code of fairness, equal work, and equal credit. Above all, they were motivated by a thirst to fly.

Lucky for them, bicycles provided a substantial income. “In the present stage of the game, aeronautical experimenting alone is not a very sure way of earning bread and butter,” Will wrote in February 1902. Promoters from the forthcoming 1903 Chicago World’s Fair talked with Chanute about staging a $200,000 flight competition. Chanute wanted the Wrights to compete, if the deal ever came off.

Wilbur, however, was no gambler. Or, rather, he had the quiet confidence of a gambler holding four aces. He and his brother sensed that their glider experiments had pushed them far ahead of the airplane-chasing pack. Will did not believe in “letting the opinions or doings of others influence you too much,” as he told a friend.

It seems that 1902 was the year that the brothers truly learned to fly. Gliding from the broad sand slopes of Kill Devil Hill that fall, they had 10-to-15-second bursts in which to learn how to control a flying machine. Sometimes, they opted to forgo meticulous measurements in order to gain more practice time. The machine, wrote Wilbur, was “almost perfect, or rather it controls both fore and aft and transversely just as we wish it to.”

On Sept. 23, the brothers had made about 75 glides when trouble arrived. Orv, gliding at 25 feet above the ground, became preoccupied with wing warping, the process by which he could control the aircraft. He let the front of the glider drift up to 45 degrees, with a predictable outcome.

“The result was a heap of flying machine, cloth, and sticks in a heap, with me in the center without a bruise or a scratch,” Orv wrote later. Or, as the accident investigation report from Will to Chanute stated: “My brother, after too brief practice with the use of the front rudder, tried to add the use of the wing-twisting arrangement also, with the result that, while he was correcting a slight rise in one wing, he completely forgot to attend to the front rudder, and the machine reared up and rose some 25 feet and sidled off and struck the ground on alighting on one wingtip and broke several pieces of the woodwork.”

They dragged the precious heap into the back of the low building where they camped to begin repairs. “In spite of this sad catastrophe,” Orv said, “we are tonight in a hilarious mood as a result of the encouraging performance of the machine.”

Setting Off in 1903

Back in Dayton after the successful 1902 season, the brothers set to work building their “power machine.” When no one could supply the engine they wanted, they, with the help of local mechanic Charlie Taylor, built one themselves.

Will and Orv were desperate to get back to Kitty Hawk. They started shipping dry goods, lumber, and parts of the Flyer in August but did not leave themselves until Sept. 23.

After they arrived, it didn’t take long for Kill Devil Hill to work its usual magic on the brothers. “Things are starting off more favorably than in any year before,” Orv wrote buoyantly to his sister. Orv spent his first full day in camp arranging the kitchen and making that French drip coffee pot.

Then it was down to work. They had a new building to construct. Plans called for practicing with the 1902 glider on good, windy days and working on the new powered machine when it was calm or rainy. They hoped that, if all went well, they could take a trial powered flight around Oct. 25.

The Flyer itself (though not the engine) was completely assembled by mid-October. To Orville, it was “the prettiest we have ever made, and of a much better shape, being smooth on both upper and lower sides.” All of their flying machines had personality; Orv described one of their first as “rather a docile thing, and we taught it to behave fairly well.” Each was hand-crafted. Every inch of the fabric covering the wings was marked and cut, often by Orv, then sewn with a machine by Will.

Gliding continued. On Oct. 26, they made 20 attempts at flight, six of which lasted for more than one minute. Their time in the air was building up.

On Nov. 2, they began to mount the engine onto the aircraft. Chanute visited them, and, on Nov. 7, they took the 1902 glider out for a demonstration. “After four or five flights,” wrote Orville, they “came back to camp on account of cold.”

A week later, the brothers broke two propeller shafts, which were shipped by express train to Dayton. There, Charlie Taylor worked feverishly to fix them.

In mid-November, Orville and Wilbur settled in to wait. They had a half cord of wood, chopped from the forests nearby, and “the best stove in Kitty Hawk.” Cold and fog troubled them, and so did the lack of flying. The 1902 glider was almost too dilapidated to fly safely. They had made only two glides in three weeks.

They also brooded on the thrust of their engine. The 630-pound Flyer had propellers designed for 90 pounds of thrust, but, with a pilot aboard, the Flyer’s weight rose to 700 pounds. The Flyer was overweight by a margin of 10 percent, a fact which left the pair, said Orville, “quite in doubt as to whether the engine will be able to pull it at all with the present gears.”

On his visit to Kitty Hawk, Chanute had been pessimistic. “He doesn’t seem to think our machines are so much superior as the manner in which we handle them,” Orv wrote. “We are of just the reverse opinion.”

That confidence—grounded in logic, mathematics, and experience—kept the brothers going. They joked and made frequent comparisons between their enterprise and the stock market. One day the “stock” in flying was at rock bottom, another day it was a sure winner.

The propeller shafts arrived on Nov. 20, but the Wrights had trouble with the sprockets. “Day closes in deep gloom,” wrote Orv.

Final Tests

Their ingenuity cheered them up again on the next day. They filled the troublesome sprockets with tire cement. They fixed the gas feed, and the engine smoothed out. Best of all, they put the power plant through a test run. They rested the center body of the machine on rollers, attached a pulley to a 50-pound box of sand, and cranked the engine to 350 rpm. It gave them a pleasing 132 to 136 pounds of thrust. “Our confidence in the success of the machine is now greater than ever before,” Orv wrote.

But their troubles were not over. It snowed on Nov. 27. On Nov. 28, the brothers started having trouble with engine runs and found a crack in the propeller shaft.

The only solution to the shaft problem was to send Orville home to Dayton to make new ones before the weather got any worse. Will stayed alone at Kitty Hawk. With his free time, he split, hauled, and stacked a three-week supply of wood.

Twelve days later, Orv was back. He came into camp at 1 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 11, bringing new propeller shafts as well as stunning news. On Dec. 8, Langley’s own flying machine had crashed on takeoff at Arsenal Point near Washington, D.C. For the brothers, the path to the first flight was wide open.

On the morning of Saturday, Dec. 12, they set the propeller shafts and eagerly hauled the Flyer out for a trial. But the wind was flat, and they had to settle for running it along the track.

The next day, Dec. 13, was Sunday, and even steady west winds could not tempt them to break the Sabbath. The bishop’s children kept their custom. They never worked on a Sunday. Not even after two-and-a-half months at Kitty Hawk. Not even with the new propeller shafts ready to churn out thrust. Not even when they were the only two men in the world poised on the edge of fulfilling mankind’s dream of powered flight.

“Air warm,” Orv wrote in his diary. “Spent most of day reading.”

Monday, Dec. 14, dawned clear, cold, and calm. After breakfast, the brothers hauled their machine out from its hangar. The hangar was just wide enough to hold the Flyer. To fly, they had to reattach the front elevator and rear rudder. At 1 p.m., they completed the task and hung signal panels to summon the men from the local lifesaving station to help them move the Flyer.

With no wind, they had to take off from the slope of Kill Devil Hill. They laid out the 60-foot track, slid the Flyer down, then halted while they picked up the track, relaid it in another section, and slid the machine down it once more. Finally they reached the big hill. Will and Orv tossed for first whack. Will won, and laid himself down in the pilot’s position on the Flyer.

The engine started. Now the propeller thrust was so great that the rope fastener would not come loose. Men from Kitty Hawk pushed the Flyer back a little, releasing the rope, and then Will started. “I grabbed the upright the best I could and off we went,” wrote Orv. After a run of some 40 feet, the machine was moving so fast that Orv had to let go. Up it rose, 15 feet above the ground, but then it turned up 20 degrees and sank back down on the ground. One front skid plowed into the sand and broke. In the excitement, “Will forgot to shut off the engine for some time,” Orv noted.

The brothers called it a “partial success”—a 3.5-second flight covering 105 feet, according to Orv’s measurements. The engine banged along at more than 1,000 rpm. “However the real trouble was an error in judgment, in turning up too suddenly after leaving the track,” Will wrote his father and sister. The Flyer lost what little speed it had, and Will was, essentially, out of airspeed and ideas, as pilots would later say. Tongue in cheek, he did credit himself with “a nice easy landing for the operator.”

But for this “trifling error due to lack of experience with this machine and this method of starting,” said Will, “the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully.”

They sent home a terse telegram, which read, in part, “Rudder only injured. Success assured. Keep quiet.”

The Flyer was ready again at noon on Wednesday, Dec. 16. The brothers took it out and placed the rail just a few yards from the hangar. By then, the wind was “gradually dying.” They sat with it for hours to see if it would “breeze up” again. But it didn’t, and Will and Orv had to take the machine back inside its hangar. They spent another night waiting.

The Flight

Then it was Thursday, Dec. 17. The brothers woke up early that cold morning and left the cozy stove to step next door, raise the hangar’s front door, and prop it on stilts. They walked into the shadows of the windowless building and gently moved out the Flyer.

On went the rudder and elevator. Up went the signals for the Kitty Hawk men to join them. Orv set up his heavy glass-plate camera on its tripod. Then they all went back inside to warm their hands over the stove.

Soon they came back outside to the Flyer. The brothers warmed up the engine and rotated the airplane’s propellers. They propped the Flyer’s right wingtip on a small wooden bench.

Sand, the best sand in the world, stretched out for miles. The north wind was cold and constant, the kind of wind that presses steadily, insistently, lifting loose collars, ties, and locks of hair.

The noise of the propellers and engine drowned out other sounds.

At 10:35 a.m., Orv was ready, his hips in the upholstered wood cradle, his back slightly arched, his hands on the wooden controls. Will held the right wingtip.

Orv released the restraining rope, bringing an instant response. The Flyer slid down the track, going faster and faster.

At the fourth section of the track, the Flyer lifted up. Wilbur Wright let go. John T. Daniels, manning Orville’s camera, squeezed the bulb.

Then, Orville flew.

Up in the air, 10 feet above ground, Orville was flying, sailing over the sand below. His whole mind and body focused on the front elevator, striving to keep the Flyer level. The Flyer’s 700 pounds of spruce and spars and fabric and aluminum crank case and human flesh and bone were airborne. It was Orv’s to control, his to command, his to move through the air on feel and instinct and the pitch of the elevator and the power of the engines. The elevator wobbled, the Flyer darted down, and Orv, 120 feet and 12 seconds from the point of takeoff, ended mankind’s first powered and controlled flight.

Near Kill Devil Hill today, one finds a pale, granite boulder bearing a simple plaque. It marks the spot where Orville Wright and the Flyer ascended. About 120 feet north stands another marker—the point at which that first flight ended.

Then come three more white stone markers. Two are close together, and stand near the end point of Orville’s first flight. But the last stands far out on its own. It is a story in itself.

After the first flight, minor repairs took some minutes. With Will at the controls, the Flyer again rolled down the track. Will flew a little bit farther than Orv had—175 feet in 12 seconds. Orv then had the third flight, and he bettered Will’s mark, flying 200 feet in 15 seconds.

But it wasn’t over. At noon, Will took his second turn at the controls. Orv watched him start off and struggle with the pitch, as before. Then, 300 feet out, Will found the Flyer’s rhythm. According to Orv, his brother “had it under much better control and was traveling on a fairly even course.” Will flew for 852 feet, as the stopwatch in Orv’s hand ticked on to 59 seconds. Then a sharp wind set the Flyer pitching again, and Will brought it down in a hard but controlled landing.

As Will crawled out of the airplane, he must have looked back to where Orv and the Kitty Hawk men were standing at the start of the track. He’d gone so much farther. He’d really flown. The two sheds were far, far away, the men jogging toward him small in size, just now in shouting distance. He knew what it meant. Their beautiful flyer was a success. Watch the pitch and fly as far as you want. They could circle out toward the ocean shore, maybe fly out over the lifesaving station. They could think about turning and better control and flights, more flights, more and more flights.

Orv and the men reached Will and together they dragged the Flyer back and set it down a few feet from the hangar. They stood together, talking about Will’s super-long flight. Then, the wind that brought them to Kill Devil Hill put an end to their experiments that day. According to Orv, a “sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it.” Will grabbed the front, Orv and Daniels seized the rear uprights, but the wind took it, turning it over, then causing it to cartwheel along, with Daniels still clutching it from the inside. Engine chain guides bent, rear ends of the wing ribs broke.

Will and Orv crated it up and then sent a telegram to their father. It stated: “success four flights thursday morning … inform press home Christmas.”

A few days later, the brothers left for home.

The Flyer never took to the air again, but Will, Orv, and the rest of mankind did.

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “Eyes Wide Open,” appeared in the November issue.