Eyewitness Reports Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk Part 1
An eyewitness account of the Wright Brothers historic first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk.
The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk
When: Dec. 17, 1903
How: On a gray, bone-chilling Thursday in December, 1903, a 745-lb. wheelless biplane nicknamed the Flyer perched precariously on a dolly that was set on a wooden monorail anchored in the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, N. C. The aircraft's 12-hp motor roared, the wind whistled through the wire bracing, and the angry surf rumbled as Orville Wright lay face down in a hip cradle set in the middle of the 40-ft.-long lower wing. His brother Wilbur released the restraining cable, and the plane moved slowly forward into the 27-mph wind.
Wilbur Wright ran alongside, holding the right wing tip to steady the aircraft. Near the end of the runway, the Flyer rose smoothly into the air and climbed steadily to about 10ft. above the sand. It flew erratically for several seconds, rising and falling, then made a nose dive toward the ground, slapped sharply against the sand, and skidded to a halt. The flight, the first by a powered aircraft, had lasted a mere 12 seconds and traveled only about 120 ft. But as the Wright brothers recognized, it was the "first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in free flight, had sailed forward on a level course without reduction of speed, and had finally landed without being wrecked."
The Wrights made three more flights that morning before the Flyer was damaged by a sudden gust of wind. The final flight was 852 ft. in length and lasted 59 seconds.
Orville, 32, and Wilbur, 36, were not engineers; in fact, they were high school dropouts. The brothers owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, O., when in 1899 they began their methodical survey of existing aviation literature-little more than a confusing collection of rumors and untested theories. Then, over the next four years, they developed and tested their own theories. Inspired by German engineer Otto Lilienthal's success in glider flying, Wilbur Wright concluded that the secret to flight lay in developing airworthy rigid wings. Once a person could learn to balance and soar in the air on man-made wings, it would be easy to add a motor and propeller to complete the flying machine.
The Wrights conducted thousands of experiments on each part of the airplane, including testing scale models of over 200 wing formations in a wind tunnel they built themselves. For three consecutive autumns, they tested their theories by building and flying gliders at Kitty Hawk, selected for its ideal wind conditions and treeless sand dunes.
The brothers worked as a team, although the severe, silent Wilbur was the dominant partner and a more brilliant theoretician than Orville. Their debates were often heated, according to the recollections of Charles Taylor, the man they hired in 1901 to run the bicycle shop. "One morning following the worst argument I ever heard, Orv came in and said he'd guess he'd been wrong, and they ought to do it Will's way. A few minutes later Will came in and said he'd been thinking it over and perhaps Orv was right. First thing I knew they were arguing it all over again, only this time they had switched ideas."
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