Kitty Hawk and the Aerial Age

Wilbur and Orville Wright, bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, made history on December 17, 1903, after successfully manning the first powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Inventors and innovators for a large part of their lives, tackling powered flight was their biggest accomplishment.

Wilbur Wright, 1897.  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wilbur Wright, 1897. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

Orville Wright, 1897.  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Orville Wright, 1897. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It all started when their father brought them home a rubber band powered helicopter in 1878.  When it broke, they built their own copies, and continued to build small helicopters for their nieces and nephews in the following years.  Throughout the 1890s, the brothers followed the developments of others’ experiments with flight, and eventually wrote to the Smithsonian Institution for information on further experiments involving flying machines.  Within the next 5 years, the Wrights would build several examples of gliders and kites, with the ultimate intent at machine powered flight.

After obtaining publications concerning wind speeds in different parts of the country from the federal weather bureau in Washington D.C., the brothers chose Kitty Hawk, then a remote strip of beach, because of its ideal wind conditions, lack of trees, and privacy.

One of the brothers flying over Kitty Hawk in their 1902 glider.  Their camp is in the lower right corner.  Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

One of the brothers flying over Kitty Hawk in their 1902 glider. Their camp is in the lower right corner. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Between 1900 and 1902, the Wrights made several trips to Kitty Hawk with test models of gliders, which they first flew as kites before manning them.

 

kite

The Wright Brothers testing out one of their gliders first as a kite. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum 

 

The Wright Brothers with their first successful glider. Photo courtesy of Corbis.

The Wright Brothers with their first successful glider. Photo courtesy of Corbis.

 

In September of 1903, the Wrights, with their mechanically powered Flyer, traveled to Kitty Hawk, hoping to fly by lifting off from a flat surface, a feat yet to be accomplished.

 

The 1903 powered aircraft outside its hangar in Kitty Hawk.  Wilbur stands at the right.  Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The 1903 powered aircraft outside its hangar in Kitty Hawk. Wilbur stands at the right. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

 

With all the kinks worked out by December, the Wrights tried their first powered flight,  but were unsuccessful as the plane stalled soon after takeoff.  Their second flight, however,  traveled a short distance of 120 feet in twelve seconds before landing.  They flew the plane three more times that morning: traveling distances of 175 feet, 200 feet in 15 seconds, and finally 852 feet in 59 seconds. This last flight secured their future in the history books.

telegram

Telegram from Orville Wright to his father the morning after their successful flight. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Unfortunately, shortly after the last flight, a gust of wind overturned the aircraft, making it irreparable on the island.  They headed home, and in the subsequent years, the brothers built two more powered planes, but stayed in Ohio for these flights (1904-1905.)  After these models proved much better than their 1903 model, their success took off.  Unfortunately, Wilbur wouldn’t see the eventual success and adaptations of all their hard work, as he passed away from tuberculosis in 1912 at the age of 45.  Orville died in 1948, at the age of 76.

One of the most amazing things about the Wrights successful flights is that they flew from flat ground, and not from the top of a dune.  The Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk (dedicated in 1932) sits atop a large grass covered hill, and when I was little, I misunderstood that they flew from the top of that hill (they actually flew their gliders from the top of this hill.)  The museum on the grounds does a really good job of interpreting the successful flights of 1903 by including the 60 foot launching rail where they started, and the subsequent flight distances marked by big stones, illustrating where they landed with each flight.

 

dad at bronze statue

My dad at Stephen H. Smith’s bronze First Flight sculpture at the Wright Memorial.

First Flight sculpture with the Wright Memorial in the background.

First Flight sculpture with the Wright Memorial in the background.

 

Further Reading:

All images were taken from Tom D. Crouch and Peter L. Jakab’s The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age. National Geographic and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Washington D.C: Smithsonian Institute, 2003. Print.

Crouch, Tom D. and Peter L. Jakab. The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age. National Geographic and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Washington D.C: Smithsonian Institute, 2003. Print.

Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989. Print.

Heppenheimer, T.A. First Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003. Print.

National Park Service. ‘Wright Brothers National Memorial.’ National Park Service. 24 July 2013. Web. 26 July 2013 http://www.nps.gov/wrbr/index.htm

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