As long as there have been humans watching birds soar through the skies above them, mankind has wanted to fly. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes floated skyward above Paris in 1783 using a hot air balloon. In 1853, George Cayley witnessed the successful manned flight of a glider that he had invented in England. It was he who identified the four basic principles of flight that a heavier-than-air aircraft uses today: thrust, gravity, lift, and drag. He also identified the cambered shape of a bird’s wings, which create lift as air passes over them.
In the 1890’s, two bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio, decided to try their hand at building an airplane. Orville and Wilbur Wright used Cayley’s principles to construct a two-winged glider. In order to test it, they needed a location with a soft landing surface (sand), a hill, and sustained winds. Noting the media circus that had taken place near Chicago when Octave Chanute had tested his gliders, the Wrights were also looking for privacy. They contacted the weather bureau for locations with the best sustained winds. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was chosen, after the hamlet’s postmaster responded favorably to an inquiry from the brothers. William Tate’s reply included help with the endeavor in any way he could. The crew of the local U.S. Lifesaving station also offered to lend a hand when needed. In 1900, the Wrights brought their first glider to Kitty Hawk by train to give it a try. The first tests were flown unmanned and tethered as a kite. Then Wilbur flew aboard untethered to see if he could control it. They had come up with an idea they called wing warping…a process in which the wings were bent in one direction or another to steer the plane, along with an elevator to maneuver up and down. They determined the glider needed to be larger, as they weren’t able to stay in the air long enough to adequately test the controls. In 1901, they brought a larger glider to Kitty Hawk, only to find that their wings weren’t producing enough lift. They had been relying on data produced by Germany’s Otto Lilienthal, who had died in 1896 in a glider crash.
After abandoning Lilienthal’s figures and testing 200 wing designs in their homemade wind tunnel, the Wrights set out for Kitty Hawk in late 1902 to try out their new glider. They had also added a rudder to the plane, thereby giving them three ways to control it. It worked. Over a one month period, they made approximately 1,000 flights…with one being 622 feet. Systems they developed that year, are still the basis for aircraft today.
In 1903, they decided to add power to their aircraft. Their bike shop employee, Charlie Taylor, machined a light weight engine for them out of a solid block of aluminum. The Wrights fashioned propellers out of laminated wood. They had no basis for design, other than the props from ship motors. After much discussion, it was decided that the propellers should exhibit the properties of a glider wing. Their theory proved correct, and their creation was over 80% efficient. Not bad for not having a starting point!
On December 14, the brothers flipped a coin to see who would fly first. Wilbur won. They attempted to take off from Big Kill Devil Hill, the large sand dune they had been using for glider flights. The plane lifted off for three seconds and then stalled, as he had attempted to rise too quickly. The landing broke the front elevator. Three days later, they summoned the lifesaving crew over to the hanger. The group aimed the airplane into a cold, 27 mile-an-hour headwind on level ground. Since Wilbur piloted the previous attempt, Orville climbed on board.
The aircraft lifted off for a 12 second, 120 foot flight! Orville was able to bring the plane in for a somewhat controlled landing. Wilbur then took the plane for a 12 second, 175 foot flight. Orville followed with a 15 second, 200 foot flight. The last flight of the day was by Wilbur; a 59 second, 852 foot flight. That is almost the length of three football fields! The plane landed hard and again broke the front elevator. While bringing it back to the hanger, a gust of wind caught the plane and caused it to tumble end over end, which made repairs much more difficult. They decided to call it a season, as they wanted to be back in Ohio for Christmas. The plane was packed up, and sent back to Dayton, never to be flown again. Eventually, the restored plane made its way to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. where it hangs from the ceiling today. They continued improving upon their design, and eventually achieved their goal of selling planes to the military.
When Diana and I found our way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina this spring, we knew Kitty Hawk was one of the ‘must see’ destinations. The National Park Service operates the site of the flights as the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
At the top of Big Kill Devil Hill, a large granite pillar is erected to signify their accomplishment. Note that the area is completely covered in grass now, planted to keep the hill from shifting southward from the prevailing winds.
When we got to the front of the structure, we noticed the sun was positioned directly in line with it. The clouds also had an interesting pattern to them, which we thought was neat.
The size of the memorial is impressive, to say the least. The inscription that is inscribed in the base 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.”
The view from the top shows the position of the hanger and their workshop and living quarters, along with the markers that signify the length of each flight. In 1903, neither those houses in the distance nor trees were there.
From the large granite marker at the end of the rail where they took off, a path runs along four smaller markers that signify the length of each flight. Walking along it, I thought of all of the subsequent accomplishments in the 115 years since that day. All of us have been touched in one way or another by what happened at Kitty Hawk.
On the back side of Big Kill Devil Hill is an interactive sculpture of Orville’s first flight, shown here from the photographer’s point of view.
All of the men who were present for the event are depicted. The second man from the right is a lumberman from Manteo who just happened to be at the lifesaving station when the Wrights signaled the crew to come over and help.
Visitors are encouraged to climb aboard the plane. Diana and I took turns flying with Orville. A fun way to end a perfect visit!
Stay tuned to see what else we find as we explore the rest of the Outer Banks in our next post. Until then, safe travels!