Never has so brief a trip had such lasting impact.
What astonishes many visitors to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in the Outer Banks region of North Carolina is the fact that the world’s first airplane flight on Dec. 17, 1903, ended after only 12 seconds. The Wright Flyer, piloted by Orville, barely left the ground and touched down after traveling all of 120 feet — scarcely half a modern airliner’s wingspan.
Yet that modest flight in Kitty Hawk effectively launched the age of aviation.
“Orville summed it up the best,” said Darrell Collins, historian at the 431-acre park. “He said the first flight was only 120 feet, but it was the first time in the history of the world that a machine took off under its own power, flew forward with no reduction in speed under complete control by a pilot, and landed at a site equal [in elevation] from which it had taken off.”
A 60-foot monument perched atop 90-foot-high Kill Devil Hill overlooks the sandy spit of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound where Wilbur and Orville Wright made four flights that chilly morning. Inscribed at the base are these words: “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.”
Their momentous feat in Kitty Hawk might never have occurred had Bishop Milton Wright, an itinerant preacher with the Church of the United Brethren of Christ, not purchased at a state fair a special gift for his young sons that sparked their interest in flight: a rubber band-powered toy helicopter designed by French engineer and aviation pioneer Alphonse P￩naud.
They stood transfixed as it fluttered across the living room of the family home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“This would have been 1878, when Wilbur was 11 and Orville was 7,” said Nick Engler, pilot, writer, authority on the Wright Brothers and director of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company in Dayton, Ohio, where the brothers operated a bicycle shop. “Bishop Wright would always bring home something from his travels that he felt was educational, so he brought them the P￩naud helicopter. The helicopter itself was invented in 1870, so this was an extremely new thing, comparable to bringing home the latest Xbox.”
The brothers played continually with their toy until it broke. But rather than toss the little helicopter in the trash, they repaired it, then utilized their mechanical skills to build replicas. P￩naud’s creation would have a profound influence the Wrights’ future endeavors.
“When Orville was an old man in the late ’40s, in the last interview that he gave, they asked him how he and his brother were inspired with the idea of flight,” Collins said. “And he went back to that little toy their father brought home to them when they were children in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”
The Wrights opened their Dayton bicycle shop in 1892, but biking wasn’t the only mode of transportation they focused on there. When business was slow the brothers retreated to a back room and designed intricate plans and blueprints for a flying machine.
Their dream of flight ultimately grew into an obsession. On May 13, 1900, Wilbur wrote a letter to engineer and aviation pioneer Octave Chanute that contained this passage: “For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.”
The Wrights resolved to travel someplace where they could test the gliders that, they hoped, would advance their knowledge of the principles of flight. They wrote to the United States Weather Bureau in Washington, requesting information on locations that might be suitable for their endeavors, places with plenty of wind and sand for soft landings.
Kitty Hawk was not No. 1 on the weather bureau’s list.
“I think it was the No. 3 place,” said Edward Roach, historian at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, who earned a master’s degree in history from IUP in 1997. “No. 1 was the Indiana Dunes area on the coast of Lake Michigan near Chicago. But the brothers didn’t want to go there. There were other people trying to fly, so they were trying to be as secretive as they could. It would have been easy for somebody to come over from Chicago and stand on the dunes and watch. Kitty Hawk was much more isolated.”
The Wrights wound up in North Carolina after their letter to the Kitty Hawk weather station was passed on to William Tate, the village postmaster who served as sort of a one-man chamber of commerce for the Outer Banks, which even then was a popular tourist destination. The picture he painted of the area piqued the brothers’ interest.
“You could, for instance, get a stretch of sandy land one mile by five with a bare hill in the center eighty feet high [and] not a tree or bush anywhere to break the evenness of the wind current,” Tate wrote in reply.
When the Wrights arrived in Kitty Hawk late in 1900, they found precisely what Tate had described: a wide-open expanse with constant wind and sand as far as the eye could see.
“Back then there were no trees here,” Collins said. “When he first saw it, Orville remarked that this is how he always imagined the Sahara Desert looked.”
Over the next three years the Wrights conducted more than 2,200 glider flights from Kill Devil Hill and three other large dunes (known as The Three Sisters) near their campsite. By 1903 they were prepared to take the next step.
The brothers constructed the Wright Flyer, a 21-foot-long biplane with a spruce and ash frame, a 40-foot wingspan, two propellers and a 12-horsepower gasoline engine (a full-scale reproduction is on exhibit in the visitor center). Because the plane couldn’t get traction in the sand during takeoffs, they launched it from a 60-foot wooden monorail.
The inaugural flight was scheduled for Dec. 14. The brothers flipped a coin to determine who would pilot the Flyer, and Wilbur won. Due to a lack of wind — an uncommon occurrence in Kitty Hawk — the brothers and several helpers from the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station about a half-mile away carried the 605-pound Flyer to a nearby hill and launched it from there, with Wilbur working the controls from a prone position in the center of the lower wing. The plane did fly — for a few seconds — before the engine stalled and it landed hard, causing enough damage to necessitate repairs. The Wrights refused to consider the effort a true flight since they had taken off from a hill.
Three days later they were ready to try again.
The brothers tacked a red blanket to the east side of their hangar, signaling those at the lifesaving station that they were about to make another attempt and required assistance. It was Orville’s turn as pilot. At 10:35 a.m., with stiff headwinds blowing from the north, he climbed aboard the Flyer and released the restraining wire. The plane moved down the rail as Wilbur ran alongside, steadying the wing. As the Flyer left the ground, John T. Daniels of the lifesaving station, using Orville’s camera, snapped the iconic photograph that recorded for posterity man’s first flight.
Others present were Adam Etheridge and Will Dough from the lifesaving station; local businessman W.C. Brinkley, a curious bystander; and teenager Johnny Moore, who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. According to Collins, “The witnesses were just jumping up and down and whooping and hollering and going crazy” as the Flyer completed its 120-foot journey.
Everyone returned to the camp — a reconstructed hangar and living quarters/workshop stand on the site today, only steps from a granite boulder marking the takeoff point — to warm up by a fire before heading back out for three more flights. The second covered 175 feet, the third 200 and the fourth, which lasted 59 seconds with Wilbur at the controls, 852.
Visitors today stroll along a paved path to the small stones that mark the landing site for each flight, turn, look back at the takeoff boulder and sometimes shrug their shoulders, seemingly unimpressed by the piddling distance. Fact is, even the Wrights were unimpressed — at least with their first three flights.
“The only one of the four that day that fit their own criteria for a successful flight was the last one,” Engler said. “They figured that anybody could put a big enough engine on an ironing board and fly 300 feet. They actually said that. It wasn’t until the fourth flight where they actually figured out how to control this airplane, and they coaxed 852 feet out of it. That’s when they knew they had arrived. It was a proof of concept. They were on the right track.”
Unfortunately, the Wrights were so caught up in the moment they neglected to properly secure the Flyer, with disastrous results.
“They dragged the machine back to the corner of the hangar building,” Collins said. “The plan was to have a little lunch, fill it up with gas and then fly four miles up the beach to the Kitty Hawk weather station and send their father a telegram. But they were so excited about the fourth flight, the witnesses and the Wright Brothers standing around talking about it, that they forgot to tie the airplane down. A gust of wind rolled it and just tore it all apart, beyond repair.”
Instead of flying to the government telegraph office at the weather station — now the Black Pelican Restaurant — the Wrights walked. The Western Union telegram Orville sent, now displayed in the visitor center, is the epitome of understatement. The tone, given what the brothers achieved that day, is as matter-of-fact as if they were describing what they had eaten for lunch: “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 [sic] seconds inform press home Christmas.”
But that was typical of the brothers, restrained in a triumphant moment when they would’ve been excused for filling the air with shouts of exultation.
“To get to that point where you’ve actually succeeded when so many others have not, it’s a pretty big achievement for them,” Roach said. “But they’re not really the type to crow about it. Orville sends a fairly famous telegram back to his father and sister in Dayton saying, well, we did this, tell the media and we’ll be home for Christmas. That’s the brothers.”
Perhaps, as Engler suggests, their subdued reaction stems from the realization that they had yet to truly achieve their objective. Kitty Hawk was less the consummation of a dream than the continuation of one.
“The thing that is never stressed in the history books, if they had stopped there they would be nothing more than a footnote in history,” Engler said. “The fact is, they worked afterwards to take the concept and develop it into a practical flying machine. And Wilbur defined a practical flying machine as one that could take off in a variety of weather circumstances, navigate to a predetermined location and land without wrecking. That’s a direct quote.”
The brothers returned to Ohio and in 1904 made a five-minute flight in the Wright Flyer II, an improved version of the Kitty Hawk craft, above Huffman Prairie, an 84-acre cow pasture outside of Dayton. By October of 1905, they were able to keep the Wright Flyer III aloft as long as the gasoline lasted.
Orville and Wilbur had made phenomenal progress since their “conquest of the air” at Kitty Hawk. Granted, visitors to Wright Brothers National Memorial are often struck by the fact that history’s first flight lasted all of 12 seconds and covered only 120 feet.
But to paraphrase Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong — who carried with him to the moon a piece of the muslin fabric from the wing and a chunk of wood from the left propeller of the 1903 Flyer — what might seem to many a small step was in reality a giant leap.