Here I am again, off into the wild blue yonder. Though I never take flying for granted – knowing most destinations are a few hours away, a day at the most, always impresses me – this flight to Raleigh, North Carolina, to explore the origins of air travel, is particularly thought-provoking. Is it really possible that man’s first powered flight took place less than 100 years ago?
Most people know of the Wright brothers’ extraordinary breakthrough on a raw, windy December day on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1903. But few really grasp the details of the Wrights’ incredible journey that brought them to the windswept fishing village of Kitty Hawk, 170 miles east of Raleigh. In a grand display of Southern hospitality, the Raleigh-based First Flight Centennial Commission, together with the national Centennial of Flight Commission, is inviting the world for a refresher course to remember and cheer 100 years of flight. Throughout 2003, North Carolina will be center stage for the Centennial Celebration of Flight, with major events slated for Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Kitty Hawk.
“The celebration is a milestone commemorating the past century, and the amazing achievements that took place in a very compressed period of time,” says Kathryn I. Holten, First Flight’s executive director, adding the celebration will also serve as a launching pad for a second century of flight, and future innovations. “It also gives us the chance to highlight the passion and romance and the history of flight.”
The history of the Wright brothers is worth remembering, almost as much for its improbability as its success. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright were introduced to flight when their father brought home a winged toy powered by a rubber band. The brothers were soon consumed with the idea of flying, joining audacious imagination and uncanny commitment. Wilbur and Orville didn’t finish high school, but they studied aeronautics ceaselessly and fashioned their aircrafts — from wings to propellers to engines — at their Dayton bicycle shop.
Their first creations were gliders built of cloth and wood, designed to ride the wind and provide the Wrights the necessary “air time” to learn the intricacies of flight. The concept of lift had already been established and refined by aeronautical pioneers. However, the Wrights knew they needed to control the craft, the pitch (up and down movement of the nose), roll (rotation of the wings), and yaw (right and left movements). They challenged the conventional wisdom of “inherent stability,” believing instead that the pilot had to manage lateral movement. Wilbur thought of warping, or rotating, the craft’s wings, much like a bird, to achieve stability. The results were huge, precarious gliders, with wings that evolved from 17 feet to 40 feet. Next, the brothers needed a testing ground.
“The Wright brothers researched a number of places where they might attempt the first flight, and only North Carolina invited them to come,” says Holten. “The postmaster at Kitty Hawk wrote, telling them they would find generous and hospitable people, and they were welcomed to practice their inventions there.”
The Wrights accepted (“I choose Kitty Hawk because it seemed the place which most clearly met the required conditions,” Wilbur wrote in September, 1900. “At Kitty Hawk … there are neither hills nor trees, so that it offers a safe place for practice. Also, the wind there is stronger than any place near home and is almost constant.”). From 1900 to 1903, the Wrights paid several extended visits to the Outer Banks, piloting the gliders on the seabreezes of the sandy shoreline.
“It would have been very difficult for the Wright brothers to physically accomplish what they needed to do without the assistance of the small community of Outer Banksers,” Holten adds. “The life-saving station men literally carried the glider up the hill thousands of times. They’d carry it up, and the Wright brothers would glide down, over and over again. So the assistance of the locals is something that we’re very proud of, because they helped the Wright brothers persevere.”
Persevere they did, despite setbacks that revealed they relied too heavily on previous false, information. Rather than quit, they built a wind tunnel, producing new, more reliable data. The Wrights were also battling competition. Just 250 miles north in Washington, D.C., Samuel Pierpont Langley of the Smithsonian Institution, was racing to be first in flight. Well financed by Congress, Langley made two highly publicized attempts in October and December, 1903, with an assistant at the controls of a fixed-winged craft powered by steam engine. Both times, Langley’s “aerodrome” was catapulted out over the Potomac River, and promptly plunged into the water.
Six days after Langley’s second attempt, Wilbur Wright nearly succeeded, but he oversteered the ’03 Flyer as it left the 60-foot starting track. It stalled and crashed. The Wright brothers quickly repaired the damaged Flyer; three days later it was ready for another attempt.
The beaches below Big Kill Devil Hill were blustery on December 17, the sky overcast. A 27-mile-an-hour wind blew in from the south, stirring sand and whitecaps. There were no throngs - just Orville, Wilbur and five volunteers. At 10:35 a.m., Orville aimed the revolutionary but fragile twin-prop, gas-engine, 605-pound biplane into the wind, and lifted off. For 12 momentous seconds, he flew. Three more flights followed that day. During the last, Wilbur kept the Flyer aloft for almost a full minute, flying 852 feet. A new frontier was laid open.
However, without reporters present, there were no headlines, no fanfare (Orville telegraphed his father that evening, asking him to “inform Press.”). Despite meticulous diaries and stark, black-and-white photographs as proof, the brothers were met by a skeptical scientific community. Even a U.S. patent granted in May, 1906, to the Wrights for their "Flying Machine" failed to quell the controversy. Sadly, Wilbur Wright never enjoyed the rewards of his labors. The older Wright died in 1912 at 45, still battling for respect and patent fees (Orville lived to see the famous flight of 1903 finally recognized in 1914 by the Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania).
“That flight changed the world forever,” says Holten. “We’ve seen it in every single aspect of life, across the globe and out into space. There’s nothing that you can think of today that’s untouched by flight.”
In Raleigh, the centennial celebration will be a yearlong party. The calendar includes the premiere of “Celebration of Flight,” at the Exploris Museum’s IMAX Theatre, new exhibits at North Carolina’s Museum of Art, Museum of History, Museum of Natural Sciences, and the Raleigh City Museum, and a new composition by the North Carolina Symphony. The celebration will culminate on Dec. 17, 2003, at the Wright Brothers National Memorial (commissioned in 1927 by President Calvin Coolidge, and completed in 1932) in Kill Devil Hills, halfway between Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, with a re-enactment of the Wrights’ first flight. The ’03 Flyer will then be accompanied by a fly-over of 99 of the most famous aircraft (reproductions and originals) that followed, including those piloted by Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, and Chuck Yeagher.
Charged with recreating the moment, in exact detail, is Ken Hyde of the Wright Experience, a joint venture between the Experimental Aircraft Association and Ford Motor Company. Dedication to authenticity is paramount, though it comes with a price. So unpredictable was the ’03 Flyer that an exact reproduction will present a risky proposition for its pilot.
Ironically, the impending media attention will be in stark contrast to the first flight. The Wright Brothers National Memorial looks relatively unchanged, save for the 60-foot granite monument that looms atop the 90-foot Big Kill Devil Hill, the same hill where the Wrights launched their gliders. Inscribed is this passage: "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." Something to think about.
Editor’s note: For information on the events of the First Flight Centennial Celebration, visit www.firstflightnc.com.
Brion O’Connor, Continental’s Time Out columnist, enjoys racking up his own frequent flyer miles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.