Dec 17th, 2023

Wright Brothers Take Flight 120 Years Ago

The Wright Brothers achieve powered flight 120 years ago today! Below is a synopsis of their story. it did not begin at Kitty Hawk.

Wright Brothers: The Early Years

Wilbur Wright (left) was born two years after the Civil War.  Orville (right) was born four years later in 1871.  They were two of Milton and Susan’s five children.  Bishop Milton Wright was a godly man and a bi-vocational pastor.  From the bishop, the Wright’s developed a love of reading widely.  The Wright’s considerable mechanical prowess inherited from their mother, Susan.

Orville began a printing business at the age of 18 and was soon joined by his brother Wilbur.  Shortly thereafter, they took an interest in the new safety bike and started a thriving business.  The bicycle was all the rage having shed its original large front tire.

Wright Brothers: Birds and Mentors

Their attention was soon focused on the possibility of flight “like the birds”.  In fact, Wilbur and Orville literally spent hours watching birds fly;  Their goal was to determine how they were able to “steer” often without flapping their wings.  They also spent hours studying the works of Otto Lilienthal of Germany and French born Octave Chanute, pioneers in the pursuit of flight.

After ten years of study, Wilbur determined that the largest obstacles to overcome was how to maneuver the “flying machine” through the air.  He noted that birds would slightly raise one wing and lower the other in order to turn in the air.  Taking a cardboard box, and collapsing it, he showed Orville and his sister Katharine how by pulling a string connected to the ends of the cardboard he could warp the cardboard like a bird’s wing.  The concept of wing warping would be central to the Wright’s ultimate success.

Wright Brothers: Why Kitty Hawk?

A letter to the National Weather Bureau inquiring as to the windiest places in the United States was answered with an entry entitled, “Kitty Hawk, North Carolina”.  It proved to be ideal, with strong, steady winds, dunes from which to launch and soft sand on which to land.  Wilbur set out for the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Kitty Hawk in 1900.

Getting there proved to be an expedition in and of itself.  Wilbur, later joined by Orville, built a glorified hut as they tested ever increasingly larger gliders over a three-year period.  At one point, the brothers realized the aerodynamic information passed down by Lilienthal and Chanute was in error.  The constructed a wind tunnel (right) in their bicycle shop and developed a completely new (and accurate) table of aeronautical data.

Back at Kitty Hawk, the brothers endured storms, isolation, but gained the admiration of the few locals as two of the “hardest working men” they had ever seen.  This was high praise from a group that knew, from experience, hard work as the only way to survive on the Outer Banks.

Wright Brothers: Finding an Engine

The year 1903 was their target goal.  Unable to coax an established manufacturer to design and build an engine for them, one of their bicycle shop employees, Charlie Taylor, designed an 12 horsepower engine that did the trick.

On December 14, the Wrights gave powered flight a go with Wilbur at the controls.  The flyer takeoff ended in a crash and a heap.  Repairs followed for two days.  On December 17, 1903, the brothers put out the symbol indicating to the local lifeguards that they needed help in moving the flying machine into position.

Wright Brothers: The First Flight

As a result of a coin flip, Orville was at the controls.  Wilbur steadying one wing as the flying machine moved down a wooden rail, Orville went airborne at 10:35am while friend John T. Daniels snapped the memorable photo.  One hundred twenty feet and 12 seconds later, he touched down on the sands of Kitty Hawk.  Thirteen years of word rewarded in 12 seconds.

Three more flights followed with Wilbur going the longest at 59 seconds and 852 feet.  While hauling the flyer back to camp, it was caught by a gust of wing, tumbling several times.  The tumble ended the day and the career of the Wright Flyer I.  The flying machine never flew again and now hangs in the Smithsonian.

Wright Brothers: After Kitty Hawk

Far from an overnight success, the Wright Brothers continued to labor in virtual anonymity for five more years.  They built and tested the Wright Flyer II at their banker’s field outside of Dayton, Huffman Prairie (right).  The Wright Flyer III was another improvement and the Wright’s first truly successful machine.

Success and notoriety finally came five years after the initial flight.  The European powers showed much greater interest than the Wright’s home country.  The United States rebuffed several efforts by the Wright’s to demonstrate their machine.  In Le Mans, France, in the late summer of 1908 Wilbur Wright stunned the world with his seemingly effortless control of the flying machine.

Wright Brothers: Lessons Learned

What lessons can we draw from the Wrights?  Simon Sinek, in a very popular TED Talk rightly points out that the Wright’s were not in the pursuit of powered flight for the money (unlike some of their better-funded rivals like Samuel Langley).  He, however, erroneously chalks up the Wright’s success to their team. The Wright’s did not have a team, they had each other.

I recently finished David McCullough’s excellent biography of the Wright’s.  Along with The Bishop’s Boys, they are the definitive works on their efforts.  What I came away with was the Wright’s amazing ability to focus study and persevere at the task at hand.  It was truly remarkable.  That, above all else, led to their success 120 years ago today.

This blog was originally posted on December 17, 2018.

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