The Wright Brothers' Journey of Inventing the Airplane.
by David Garrigus
edited by Fred Howard
The following true story chronicles the invention of the airplane and includes nearly two-hundred images that illustrate this dramatic saga. 
You can also experience the Brothers' adventures vividly brought to life in the award-winning film Kitty Hawk. The film will be available to you in both the feature-length version and the 52-minute version that matches the story below. Kitty Hawk captures Wilbur and Orville Wright's epic journey as no written story can. Experience the exhilaration—watch Kitty Hawk right now!
Dreams and Flying Machines
Most school-age children know about Kitty Hawk and Wilbur and Orville Wright—the story of two self-reliant brothers who single-handedly invented the airplane, and in doing so, gave form to the tradition of individualism and “Yankee Ingenuity.”
"These guys were geniuses of creativity—of making something out of nothing. That, to me, is the most inspirational part of their story. Airplanes are amazing, but the act of human creativity is more universal and more amazing."
—James Tobin, author
May 6, 1896. On the Potomac River 40 miles south of the capitol, Samuel Pierpont Langley watched from a riverbank as his assistants on the deck of his modified houseboat prepared his latest in a series of flying machines for a test run. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, had been conducting experiments with flying models for the past ten years. His team had developed numerous steam-powered models—all pilotless— that were launched by a spring-driven catapult.
At the signal, Langley’s one remaining model launched down the rail. It left the track twenty feet above the water, began to drop, but then suddenly and miraculously angled up and started to climb. The men on the launch boat—who had grown so accustomed to failure—were amazed. Langley’s team launched another flight later that afternoon which was also successful.
"No one had ever gotten a flying machine that big into the air on what was clearly a sustained and impressive flight before. Langley was big news."
—Tom Crouch, author
But Samuel Langley wasn’t the only inventor to receive attention for his flying experiments. A few months later, another aeronautical researcher—Otto Lilienthal—and his assistant carried a monoplane glider up the side of a large hill near Berlin. Over the last five years, this talented engineer had made close to two thousand short flights using a dozen different glider designs.
Lilienthal launched his glider by leaping into the wind from the side of a hill. Its bat-like wings, spanning 23 feet, lifted him gracefully into the air.  The machine soared to fifty feet above the slope.
But suddenly and without warning, the nose of the machine pitched dangerously high. Alarmed, Lilienthal attempted to right the aircraft by shifting his weight to bring the nose down, but it was not enough. The glider stalled and plummeted back to earth.  The world’s greatest aeronautical experimenter lay unconscious inside his crumpled machine.  Lilienthal was without visible injury, but the crash had broken his spine, and he would die the next day.
At that time, Wilbur Wright, now age 29, was still living in his father’s house in Dayton, Ohio. Two weeks after Lilienthal’s fateful crash, Wilbur and his sister Katharine found themselves attending their gravely ill brother.
The duties of a caregiver were all too familiar for Wilbur. From the age of twenty, he had spent three years caring for his dying invalid mother.
The responsibility of his mother’s care seemed to give purpose to Wilbur’s melancholy existence and helped to distract him from his own feelings of frailty and vulnerability. At the end of high school, when most young men would strike out on their own, Wilbur stayed home and struggled through several years of indecision and lack of confidence—a disposition that had started earlier with a seemingly minor sports injury.
"He was playing this game in the winter on ice similar to ice hockey that we play now. One of the players let go of his hockey stick and it hit Wilbur in the mouth. He lost a few teeth and it was at least a year that he took recovering."
­—Ann Honious, US National Park Service
As the years passed and Wilbur watched his peers move on in their career pursuits, he began to see his young adulthood as a series of missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams.
After his mother’s death, Wilbur’s focus again seemed to drift, lacking direction. It would be Orville who would draw his older brother into new realms of interests. Orville convinced Wilbur to join him in publishing a neighborhood newspaper and running a small printing business.
It was Orville’s fascination with cycling, the new craze of the day, that led the brothers to start a bicycle repair shop and to eventually manufacture their own brand of bicycles.
In spite of Wilbur’s interests in cycling and the mechanical challenges of bicycle design, he felt trapped in a business career—a career in which he thought himself ill-suited.
A Strategic Opening
Like many informed Americans of his day, Wilbur Wright had followed the exploits of Otto Lilienthal through stories in several newspapers and magazines.
With Lilienthal’s death, Wilbur felt that a void had opened in the field of aeronautical research. But if Wilbur saw himself as the one who might fill the experimental void left by Lilienthal, he was not to begin in any tangible way for nearly three years.
Defining the Problem
Wibur’s first step into the world of aeronautical research was to write to the Smithsonian Institution:
"I wish to obtain such papers as the Institution has published on this subject, and if possible, a list of other works in print..."
—Wilbur Wright
By 1899, the Smithsonian Institution had become a national center for aeronautical research. After his successful tests over the Potomac River, Samuel Langley had been granted an unprecedented $50,000 from the United States War Department for the construction of a full-scale, man-carrying version of his steam-powered flying model.
After spending three months pouring over the suggested aeronautical literature, Wilbur was encouraged by what he read. Nowhere did he find any means for controlling a flying machine when, and if, it got off the ground.
From his studies, Wilbur perceptively ascertained that a successful flying machine would need three basic elements—wings for lift, a way to propel itself through the air, and, above all, a method of balance and control while in flight.
The Wrights believed that much of the work on basic wing design and surfaces that generate lift had already been done by Lilienthal and other experimenters, and that powerful and efficient internal combustion engines had already been invented. But by the summer of 1899, Wilbur and Orville concluded that balance and control had barely been addressed.
Balance and Control
Lilienthal had attempted to maintain balance and control in his gliders by shifting his body weight, but Wilbur reasoned that there must be a better way.
"...My observations of the flight of birds, convince me that birds use more positive and energetic methods of regaining equilibrium than that of shifting the center of gravity."
—Wilbur Wright
But to adapt these subtle organic movements into a man-made wing would be no easy task. Wilbur would need a system that could easily twist the wings without compromising the structural integrity of the airframe.
One Summer evening in 1899, Orville accompanied his sister Katharine to a friend’s house, leaving Wilbur to mind the bicycle shop alone. When a customer dropped in to purchase an inner tube, Wilbur removed the tube from its package and fidgeted with the empty box as he spoke with the customer.
Out of this absent-minded fiddling, Wilbur arrived at the solution to his problem: as he watched the empty box twist back and forth between his fingers, he saw in his mind’s eye a pair of wings—trussed together, twisting back and forth, yet still maintaining their strength and integrity. In this moment of inspiration, he had discovered a way to make a flying machine’s wings perform the subtle maneuvers needed to maintain side-to-side—or lateral—control.
Wilbur put his concept to the test—he built a working model—a kite that he could test in the air. Made of a pine-strip frame covered with fabric and sealed with shellac, the kite spanned five feet.
"He’s controlling the glider from the ground with two sticks that he can vary back and forth to pull strings that make the glider warp or twist just like he twisted the box."
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
But the innovative principles Wilbur successfully tested in this model did not automatically translate into a full-size glider. Wilbur would devote another year of research and planning before attempting to build a glider that he would trust with his own life.​
I Have Been Afflicted
One of the books that was suggested for further study by the Smithsonian Institution was Progress in Flying Machines, written by Octave Chanute.
In May of 1900, Wilbur wrote Chanute and described his own plans for testing a flying machine:
"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."
—Wilbur Wright
Read on or watch the movie right now with legendary astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn portraying the voices of Wilbur and Orville in Kitty Hawk. It was the only time that the two most-famous American astronauts collaborated together on such a project. Armstrong's and Glenn's inspiring voice performances of the Wright Brothers' words provide a fitting tribute from two of the greatest heroes of space to the historic pioneers of aviation.
Part II
When You Come Among Us
The winds around Dayton appeared to be too weak and unsteady for testing a glider. One location that seemed promising to Wilbur was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Wilbur wrote to the Weather Bureau office in Kitty Hawk and received back an encouraging response from the station’s weather observer along with a letter from William J. Tate.
Bill Tate promoted his little community as the ideal place “to practice or experiment with a flying machine.” He closed his letter with an invitation, promising that:
"I will take pleasure in doing all I can for your convenience and success and pleasure, and I assure you you will find a hospitable people when you come among us." 
—William J. Tate, Kitty Hawk Station Weather Observer
Wilbur was sold. He immediately went to work assembling the parts he needed to build his glider. But one crucial part—the long and narrow spruce boards, or spars, needed to form the 18-foot wings—was not to be found at the local lumberyard. Wilbur decided to take a chance on being able to purchase the spars on his route to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Katharine wrote to their father:
"We are in an uproar getting Will off.  The trip will do him good. I don’t think he will be reckless. If they can arrange it, Orv will go down as soon as Will gets the machine ready." 
—Katharine Wright, sister
Wilbur departed Dayton railway station on the evening of September 6, 1900. His six-day journey to Kitty Hawk was arduous and, at one point, nearly cost him his life.
Wilbur spent four frustrating days in Elizabeth City, trying to hire a boat to carry him across Albemarle Sound and the last 40 miles of his journey to Kitty Hawk. "No one seemed to know anything about the place or how to get there,” he described in a record of his trip.
He finally met Israel Perry, master of a small, flat-bottomed schooner who agreed to ferry him to his destination. As they slowly sailed out, the wind shifted to the south and east and began to grow stronger.
By eleven o’clock that night, high winds were driving the flat-bottomed vessel dangerously close to shore. Suddenly, the foresail blew loose from the boom with a roar.
"The mainsail also tore loose from the boom, and shook fiercely in the gale. The only chance was to make a straight run over the bar under nothing but a jib, so we took in the mainsail and let the boat swing round stern to the wind. This was a very dangerous maneuver in such a sea but was in some way accomplished without capsizing."
—Wilbur Wright
"Eventually, they found haven in one of the rivers and they rode the storm. You can imagine a city boy. I mean, this was enough to discourage anyone to ever come back to the Outer Banks again."
—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service
It was late the following evening before the schooner tied up at the dock in Kitty Hawk Bay. The next morning, hungry and tired, Wilbur made his way to the home of William Tate, where he received a warm welcome and a hearty meal.
Wilbur promptly set to work assembling his glider under a canvas shelter erected in the Tates’ front yard. Orville arrived in Kitty Hawk at the end of September.
Over the next few days, the Wrights put the finishing touches on their glider, which spanned over 17 feet and weighed less than 50 pounds.
The brothers set up their campsite at the edge of the dunes, still within sight of the village.
They started by flying the glider as a kite, but within a few minutes Wilbur found it impossible to resist trying his hand at piloting the tethered machine. With Orville and Bill Tate on the tether lines, Wilbur stood inside a cutout on the lower wing.
In a twenty-five mile an hour wind, Orville and Bill managed to kite the glider with Wilbur aboard. But Wilbur immediately ran into trouble and became alarmed. “Lemme down!” he yelled. Orville and Bill reeled in the tether lines until the machine was back on the ground.
The next time the glider flew it was with the weight of a chain taking the place of a pilot.  These unmanned flights were useful, though, in that they allowed the brothers to take careful measurements of the drag the kite created in various winds using a simple fish scale tied to the lead line.
But a sudden mishap brought their tests to a halt.  While adjusting the controls with the machine on the ground, a gust of wind caught a wing, flipped the glider into the air, and dashed it to the ground 20 feet away. The right side was completely smashed; the front and rear struts were broken; the ribs were crushed, and the wires snapped. The brothers dragged the pieces back to camp and talked of going home.
A Gentleman's Adventure

The morning after the wreck, things looked brighter. Damage to the glider was extensive, but it could be repaired. Orville noted in a letter to his sister, “The next three days were spent in repairing, holding the tent down, and hunting; mostly the last...”
"The Wright brothers had an opportunity here to hunt wild geese and ducks. They did fish and they said the fish were so plentiful that anywhere you look down in the water, you could see hundreds of them."
—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service
"So I think they very much enjoyed being in this sort of remote, unusual landscape very different from what they were used to."
—James Tobin, author
Wind gusts reaching speeds up to 45 miles per hour often caused major problems for the experimenters, and even interrupted their sleep. Orville wrote to his sister:
"The wind shaking the roof and sides of the tent sounds exactly like thunder. When we crawl out of the tent to fix things outside, the sand fairly blinds us. It blows across the ground in clouds."
—Orville Wright
One morning after a particularly hard gale:
"...the Kitty Hawkers were out early peering around the edge of the woods and out of their upstairs windows to see whether our camp was still in existence."
—Wilbur Wright
The locals were never completely certain what to make of the Wright brothers—two Yankees who were always dressed in business suits with starched collars.
"We need no introduction in Kitty Hawk. Every place we go we are called Mr. Wright. Our fame has spread far and wide up and down the beach."
—Orville Wright
Not accustomed to being thought of as rich men, the Wrights discovered that their presence on the Outer Banks was a threat to the local economy.
"This was a rough environment. You scratched and clawed your way to make a living off of fishing during the spring and summer or hunting during the fall and the winter. But there was also during the winter and fall months with the United States Lifesaving Service. These men would have a twenty-four-hour patrol walking up and down the beach, basically looking for shipwrecks. And during the fall and winter months, some of these stations on the Outer Banks would average a shipwreck a week."
—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service
The Flying Business
After three days of repair, the glider, flown as a kite was still without a pilot. A 20-mile-per-hour wind was not enough to sustain the glider in the air with the full weight of a man aboard.
"Then they persuaded Tom Tate to jump into the glider and they flew him as a kite—not too far off the ground. And he flew it several times with him on it. So he was one of the first to fly—a local boy."
—Darrell Collins, US National Park Service
Tate’s body was a more accurate representation of a pilot’s shape in the wind than a pile of chain.
"Wilbur is probably the first airplane builder ever who made an effort to measure the lift generated by his airplanes."
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
"Rather than plugging in data that received from Lilienthal and other people, they can take this thing out in the wind. They can fly it with a fish scale, which gives them total force on the machine. They can find a way to figure out the angle of attack at which it’s flying, and they got an anemometer to measure the wind speed. When they put those things together, they can calculate exactly what the performance is."
—Tom Crouch, author
Why, Wilbur thought, were their wing surfaces creating insufficient lift? He had designed the wings based on tables of lift coefficients—tables compiled from research conducted by the great Otto Lilienthal. Other highly regarded men of science, including Octave Chanute, had used the same tables for building gliders and had found no error. Wilbur was baffled.
And there were other obstacles. The wing-warping system worked well, but by simply flying the machine as a kite the Wrights would never be able to fully test the elevator pitch control. Orville confided in his sister:
"We have not been on the thing since the first time we had it out, but merely experiment with the machine alone, sometimes loaded with 75 pounds of chain. We tried it with the tail in front, behind, and every other way. When we got through, Will was so mixed up that he couldn’t even theorize. It has been with considerable effort that I have succeeded in keeping him in the flying business at all."
—Orville Wright
Soon the brothers would need to return to Dayton. Wilbur knew that he must face his fears and climb back into the machine, not suspended in a kite, but as the pilot of a glider.
Two days later, the winds picked up. Bill Tate helped the brothers carry the glider four miles south to Kill Devil Hills.
Tate and Orville each took a wing tip while Wilbur readied himself in the middle. At Wilbur’s signal, the three men trotted forward with the glider into the wind. Wilbur hoisted himself onto the glider. The other two continued running with the machine as long as they could, and then let go.
The elevator pitch control seemed to work perfectly.  By the end of the day, the brothers were able to achieve several glides lasting as long as 15 seconds. At last, Wilbur was flying.
Light winds returned the following day. There would be no more manned glides before they would need to break camp and return to Dayton.
Before leaving Kitty Hawk, the brothers gave Bill Tate permission to salvage what he could from their glider. Mrs. Tate used the sateen fabric from the wings to fashion dresses for her girls.
In all, Wilbur had spent barely two minutes at the controls of his glider, but he was exhilarated and encouraged. His glider had actually flown.
"We considered it quite a point to be able to return without having our pet theories completely knocked in the head by the hard logic of experience, and our own brains dashed out in the bargain."
—Wilbur Wright
As an added bonus to the trip, Orville had become strongly committed to the project. In the fall of 1900 Wilbur began using “we” instead of “I” in his letters and journals. The next glider project would be the brothers’ team effort from the start.
Hopeless Desperation
The design for next season’s glider would be similar to the earlier 1900 machine, except on a much larger scale. This time, the Wrights would take no chances with their wings’ shape. They increased the curvature, or camber, of their wings to equal the “proven” camber that Otto Lilienthal had used in the wings of his gliders.
But only nine days before departing for Kitty Hawk, Wilbur received a letter from Octave Chanute, requesting that two members of his research team be allowed to join the Wrights’ camp in order to test Chanute’s latest glider—and to assist the Wrights in testing theirs. The brothers preferred to choose their own assistants and were naturally suspicious of outsiders. Even so, Wilbur reluctantly consented to Chanute’s request.
The brothers departed for Kitty Hawk on July 7th, 1901. They pitched their tent four miles down the beach from Kitty Hawk, near Kill Devil Hills—the same dunes Wilbur had flown from the previous year. This year’s camp included the construction of a primitive hangar to house their larger machine.
The first of Chanute’s men to arrive signaled the coming of a plague. Edward Chalmers Huffaker appeared in camp, bringing with him Chanute’s glider. He also brought with him, as Orville lamented, “a swarm of mosquitoes.”
"The sand and grass and trees and hills and everything was fairly covered with them. They chewed us clean through our underwear and socks, Lumps began swelling up all over my body like hen’s eggs...We passed the next ten hours in a state of hopeless desperation. Morning brought a little better condition, and we attempted on several occasions to begin work on our machine, but all attempts had to be abandoned."
—Orville Wright
It would be nearly a week before the mosquito plague subsided. In the mean time, George Alexander Spratt, the second of Chanute’s men, arrived in camp.
The Wrights enjoyed Spratt’s company, but found Huffaker to be presumptuous, lazy, and given to borrowing personal articles without asking.
By the end of July, the brothers had finished assembling the glider and began their trials by flying their new machine as a kite.
As in the previous year, Wilbur would be the primary test pilot. He made his first glide from the side of Big Kill Devil Hill—and problems with the new machine became apparent from the start. Wilbur was forced to make large, unwieldy corrections in the forward elevator control just to keep the glider in flight.
Twice, the machine climbed out of control and then stalled dead in the air. Hearing screams from the ground, Wilbur scrambled forward. Each time, the glider wafted to the ground without catastrophe. The small group was concerned; the two stalls were alarmingly similar to Lilienthal’s fatal crash.
Wilbur managed to struggle through a few impressive glides that day, with one reaching a distance of over 300 feet. But the overall performance of the glider was disappointing and confusing.
The wings the brothers had designed—based on Lilenthal’s “proven” camber and lift figures—had only produced a third of the lift that was expected.
"They would have liked to go back to their old wing, but ordinarily that would have meant completely rebuilding the glider—something they couldn’t do out in the middle of nowhere. So they came up with this ingenious trussing system. Posts pushed down on the bottom wing and cables pulled down on the top wing. Together, they changed the curvature of both wings."
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
The alterations to the wings were nearly complete by the time Octave Chanute arrived in camp. The small group set about launching the Wright’s reworked glider into the air. Within his first few glides, Wilbur could tell that the wing modifications were working. But the total amount of lift generated by the glider was still only a fraction of what was forecast by Lilienthal’s revered lift figures.
Things went from bad to worse. While on a longer glide, Wilbur felt his machine skid, or slide, dangerously to the left. In a brief moment of confusion, he failed to notice that his glider was diving towards the sand. The impact sent Wilbur smashing through the front elevator.
Chanute left camp soon after, while the Wrights continued to struggle with the perplexing difficulties. Wilbur made a few additional glides, but the recent problems had clouded his usually adept intuition and judgment, throwing him into a state of self-doubt and confusion.
Rain set in on the Outer Banks, making further trials seem pointless. The brothers’ new friend George Spratt bid farewell, and the less-endearing Edward Huffaker departed soon after, taking with him one of Wilbur’s blankets.
The Wrights left Kitty Hawk in a fog of lost hopes and melancholy. Staving off a head cold, Wilbur gazed out the train window most of the trip home. He spoke very little of gliders, except to make the prediction, “that men would not fly for fifty years.”
"We doubted that we would ever resume our experiments. Although we had broken the record for distance in gliding, and although Mr. Chanute assured us that our results were better than had ever been attained, yet when we looked at the time and money which we had expended, and considered the progress made and the distance yet to go, we considered our experiments a failure."
—Wilbur Wright
Read on or Watch It All Now for only $9.98.
You'll sign on to the Vimeo free video player to get started. Buy. Watch. Easy.
Watch It All Now includes "Kitty Hawk" and hours of bonus videos!

• Kitty Hawk award-winning feature-length documentary.
• Kitty Hawk shorter 52-minute version of the documentary.
• Today's test pilots attempt to fly a replica 1902 glider.
• Eight most important Machines of the Wright Brothers.
• Letters from Kitty Hawk by author Fred Howard.
• Additional Experts' Analysis by leading Wright scholars.
• Early Motion Pictures of the Wright Brothers in Flight.
Part III
Witty or Scientific
Back at their home in Dayton, Katharine sensed that things had not gone well for her brothers.  She wrote to her father:
"They haven’t much to say about flying. They can only talk about how disagreeable Mr. Huffaker was."
—Katharine Wright, sister
Less than a month after their return, a letter arrived at 7 Hawthorn Street that would help bring Wilbur out of his melancholy and change the course of aviation history. The letter was from Octave Chanute and it was a request for Wilbur to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming meeting of the Western Society of Engineers—one of the most august and distinguished bodies of engineers and scientists in the country.
Katharine asked Wilbur if his speech was to be “witty or scientific,” to which he replied that, “he thought it would be pathetic before he got through with it!”
Wearing a borrowed shirt and cuffs from his brother, Wilbur addressed the seventy members of the Western Society of Engineers.
With lantern-lit slides of the brothers’ flying machines, Wilbur detailed the successes and failures of the last two years.
Wilbur’s speech to the Western Society of Engineers gave him a boost of confidence and a renewed determination to solve the problems the brothers had encountered.
Their quest would lead them to conduct hundreds of tests on airfoil surfaces and shapes. They built a small wind tunnel in the back room of their bicycle shop and spent hours upon hours peering down through the glass viewing window at delicate testing balances.
In the course of two months, a pair of Dayton bicycle mechanics, using only a small, wooden wind tunnel and little bits of metal, redefined aeronautics for the new century.
Kitty Hawk Cures All Ills
By August of 1902, the Wrights were absorbed in preparations for the trip to Kitty Hawk. Katharine thought her brothers were looking thin and nervous. She wrote to her father:
"They will be alright once they get down in the sand where the salt breezes blow... They think that life at Kitty Hawk cures all ills, you know."
—Katharine Wright, sister
Orville and Wilbur arrived at their old campsite near Kill Devil Hills only to find the shed they had built the previous year badly in need of repair. The brothers took the opportunity to improve the structure and make it more comfortable than it had been previously.
Wilbur described their new lodgings to George Spratt in an invitation to join them:
"Our kitchen is immensely improved and then we have made beds on the second floor and now sleep aloft. It is an improvement over cots... There are other improvements too numerous to mention, and no Huffaker and no mosquitoes, so we are having a splendid time."
—Wilbur Wright
Once their accommodations were in place, the brothers spent the next three weeks assembling their new glider. A fixed vertical tail was added to this year’s model in hopes of correcting the lateral control problem Wilbur encountered at the end of last season.
The foot bar that controlled wing warping in the two previous gliders was now replaced by a unique hip cradle control.
The Wrights, joined by Will Tate’s half-brother, Dan, carried the glider up the gentle slope of the smallest of the three Kill Devil Hills. Wilbur’s glides were cautious at first, gingerly hugging the slope just above the sand.
But it soon became apparent that the months of wind tunnel experiments were paying off. The performance of the 1902 glider exceeded the brothers’ hopes and expectations.
On this, their third trip to Kitty Hawk, the journals kept by the brothers begin to document Orville’s attempts at piloting glides.
For over two years, he had seldom taken the controls himself to learn how to fly.
"He’s fascinated with printing presses. He was fascinated with bicycles. Why wouldn’t he be fascinated with the kites? Why wouldn’t he be fascinated with the early airplanes?"
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
"My assumption has always been that they’re figuring, at this point, they’re getting really short flights, and maybe the more experience one of them gets, the better off they’ll be.”
—Tom Crouch, author
Orville’s first flights in 1902 were made with some of the controls tied off in a fixed position, but by the end of the day, Orville was making free, sustained flights with all the controls operating.  For the rest of their flying experiences together, the brothers would share the piloting duties equally.
During one of Orville’s glides, the right wing began to rise too high. He actuated the wing warping to correct the imbalance, but instead of leveling, the wing rose higher.
Wilbur and Tate watched in horror as the machine reared up and suddenly rose twenty-five feet. The glider then slid to the left and smashed into the ground.
That evening, Orville recorded in his diary:
"The result was a heap of flying machine, cloth, and sticks in a heap, with me in the center without a bruise or a scratch. The experiments thereupon suddenly came to a close till the repairs can be made."
—Orville Wright
"They were running a state-of-the-art aeronautical design laboratory out in the middle of nowhere. And they have to figure out a way that they can repair these aircraft when they’re breaking, because they’re crashing on a regular basis. So what they did is they brought with them lacing cord, scrap iron, a little bit of round rod, some eighth-inch rod, some quarter-inch rod and they made their own hardware as they would go along."
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
George Spratt and Lorin, one of the Wrights’ older brothers, arrived at the camp. With the glider repaired, Wilbur and Orville again took to the air, growing more proficient at the controls with each new attempt.
Yet one nagging problem still plagued them. For the most part, the brothers were able to execute smooth and controlled turns. But on several harrowing attempts, their wing warping failed to work at all, sending the glider into corkscrew impacts with the ground.
The brothers concluded that the fixed vertical tail was the source of the problem. Yet without a tail, they knew that the glider would return to its equally troubling behavior of pivoting around the higher wing while banking.
"They had undoubtedly been arguing about how to correct this. And one night, October 2nd, Orville had drunk too much coffee and he lay awake for some time. And according to his diary, he said he figured out the solution to the problem."
—Fred Howard, author
Over breakfast, Orville described his idea of hinging the vertical tail so that the pilot could change the angle at which the tail met the wind—and thus counteract the warp-induced drag.
Octave Chanute and Augustus Herring arrived at the camp just as the modifications to the glider were completed.
Older brother Lorin and Octave Chanute captured Orville and Wilbur’s astounding success in a series of photographs taken on the dunes of Kill Devil Hills.
The new movable tail arrangement had solved the “well-digging” problem.
The Wrights could routinely make extended glides and execute fully controlled turns.
Ideal gliding weather during the last week of October gave the Wrights the opportunity to fully test their machine in the air.
"One of the things that strikes me is that this is painstaking work at Kitty Hawk; a lot of trudging around the dunes; a lot of waiting for the wind to be right."
—James Tobin, author
"And so, when 1902 comes and they really have gotten it right; after all of this trying and all of this waiting and all of this patience, the idea of having a really successful glide—a glide that takes off and goes for many yards in which they can control the wings. That must have been enormously exhilarating and they must of had the sense right then that this was big. This was really something."
—James Tobin, author
Motors and Propellers
Now the Wrights’ future path was crystal clear—they would return to Kitty Hawk the following year and fly a powered machine.
Back in Dayton, the brothers immediately went to work on the project. Wilbur contacted at least ten engine manufacturers, only to discover that none were willing or able to build a motor that would be light enough for their new machine.
Propeller design would also prove to be more difficult than the brothers had anticipated. Throughout its 100-year-old technological history, ship propellers had been designed using trial and error methods only.
The Wrights had spent the previous four years designing and handcrafting every piece of hardware, shaping every rib, and sewing every stitch on their flying machines. Undeterred by the lack of reliable propeller data and a suitable engine, the Wrights resolved to do the work themselves.
But for the engine construction, they had an experienced assistant. Charlie Taylor, their bicycle shop machinist, fabricated the motor from plans prepared by Orville. The resulting engine was crude, but it was light and produced ample horsepower for their needs.
The breakthrough in propeller design came when the Wrights intuitively recognized that a propeller was in fact a wing traveling in a helical path.
"Once they established that, they could use all their ideas about lift and drag to design the propeller."
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
On the morning of August 8, 1903, a quarter-size version of Samuel Langley’s Great Aerodrome stood ready in its launch catapult atop a houseboat moored on the Potomac River. After several days of waiting, project leader and gifted young engineer Charles Manly decided that the winds on the river had finally let up enough to make a launch attempt.
The machine catapulted down the launch rail and shot out over the river. The model flew straight for a distance of 350 feet before beginning a quarter turn. Three times the engine wavered and the machine started a descent, and then sped up and rose again. With one last burst of speed, the model flew another 350 feet and dropped into the Potomac.
Manly was ecstatic. This one-fourth-scale model was an exact replica of the larger, man-carrying Aerodrome in every detail. He now felt more confident than ever that the full-scale Great Aerodrome would carry him into history as the first man to fly.
A Machine on Close Margins
Orville and Wilbur returned to their old campsite on September 26, 1903. They put off repairing and enlarging their weather-beaten structures to take advantage of the good flying weather.  Breaking out their 1902 glider once again, the brothers increased their record glide time to over 71 seconds in the air.
Their spirits were high, and their confidence was at its peak. Their only goal was to get their new machine—called the “Flyer”— into the air.
But as the weather intensified on the Outer Banks, so did the Wrights’ competition grow 200 miles away. While the brothers were contending with torrential rains and winds as high as 75 miles per hour, Samuel Langley—with his assistant, Charles Manly—prepared to test the Great Aerodrome flying machine.
Charles Manly climbed into position on the Great Aerodrome, ran up the engine, and gave the signal to launch.  The machine shot out of the catapult and down the rail only to arc into the waters of the Potomac, in the words of one reporter, “like a handful of mortar.”
But Langley was not finished yet. He and Manley promised that another attempt would be made before winter set in, blaming the failure of the first test on a fault in the launch mechanism. The Aerodrome, they insisted, would fly.
Meanwhile, high winds and rainstorms repeatedly struck the Outer Banks, impeding the Wrights’ progress.
Tests of the engine brought an additional set of problems. The motor badly misfired and tended to overheat and bind up after only a short run. The magneto failed to produce an adequate spark and the rough-running engine continually shook loose the sprockets.
The heavy vibrations finally cracked and tore loose one of the steel tube propeller shafts, forcing the brothers to send both shafts back to Charlie Taylor in Dayton for strengthening. Chanute arrived at the camp the following day and expressed his own uncertainties.
After assessing their machine, Chanute asserted that the brothers had not allowed for a margin of power loss in the transmission. There were no greater experts in the field of aerodynamics than the Wrights in 1903, but the brothers were neophytes when it came to the mechanical principles of transferring power from the motor to the propeller. If Chanute was correct in his belief that the Flyer would have insufficient power, it would bring the year’s trials to an abrupt end. Chanute soon departed camp, and by mid-November, temperatures dropped below freezing.
"We are now alone again, the first time for about a month... And we are now quite in doubt as to whether the engine will be able to pull it at all with the present gears... Mr. Chanute says that no one before has ever tried to build a machine on such close margins as we have done to our calculations."
—Orville Wright
The repaired propeller shafts arrived, and the brothers set about testing for the suspected loss in power. To their relief, Chanute had been wrong. Their calculations were correct. The machine did generate enough thrust.
The brothers were vindicated and relieved. But their elation would not last for long. After a week of testing the engine and transmission, they noticed yet another hairline crack in one of the shafts. In that moment, their hopes of launching the Flyer that year had all but disappeared.
They determined that the only solution to the problem was to replace the hollow propeller shafts with rods of solid spring steel. Obtaining the new shafts would mean another long round-trip to Dayton, delaying any trials for many days. In the meantime, Langley would make his second attempt, which he had confidently predicted in the press would succeed.
And there was the weather to consider. Every week that passed put the Wrights deeper into the harsh winter season. The sensible thing, they realized, would be to pack up their camp and return in the spring.
Yet, after coming so far, their ultimate goal was within grasp. They would continue on. On November 30th, Orville left for Dayton to have the new shafts made while Wilbur stayed to hold down the fort.
While the Wrights struggled through setbacks, Langley was in a struggle to save his reputation. The Aerodrome’s second attempt would be their last chance to save face.
Charles Manly would again be the pilot. He stripped down to his long winter underwear to avoid being hampered by excess clothing in the water and put on a cork-lined jacket. Whether success or failure awaited him, Manly knew that he would be taking a plunge in the icy river below.
It was almost dark when Manly ran up the engine and gave the signal for release. The Great Aerodrome shot down the track, assumed a nose-up position for a fraction of a second, and then slipped tail-first into the icy Potomac.
Trapped beneath the water’s surface with his jacket hooked in the wreckage, Manly ripped off the garment and struggled through the tangled wire and debris. Finally clear of the wreck, he lunged toward the surface, only to find himself trapped beneath a section of ice. Manly managed to break through the ice, gasping for air a short distance from the houseboat. Langley’s Aerodrome debacle became the subject of newspaper editorials and jokes on the vaudeville stage. Samuel Langley’s days as an aerial experimenter were over.
A Proper Wind
Orville arrived back in camp and the new shafts were installed by the next afternoon, but light winds prevented any attempts at taking off from level ground. After two more days of light winds, the brothers lost all patience and decided to attempt a launch off the slope of Big Kill Devil Hill. They would use gravity as well as wind to assist in their takeoff.
They tacked a large red flag (or a white sheet) on the side of the hanger, signaling the men of the Kill Devil lifesaving station to come lend a hand. It would be no easy task hauling the 600-pound machine a quarter of a mile away and up the side of the big dune. Even with the help of five men from the station, it took the Wrights over 40 minutes of hard slogging to get the machine into position on the launch rail halfway up the slope.
Orville and Wilbur tossed a coin to see who would make the first attempt. Wilbur won.
Orville took hold of the right wing while Wilbur climbed into the pilot’s position, lying prone on the lower wing. When everything was ready, Wilbur pulled the release, but nothing happened. The weight of the machine on the slope and the thrust created by the propellers jammed the restraining rope in place. Orville wrote in his diary that evening:
"We had to get a couple of the men to help push the machine back till the rope was slipped loose. While I was signaling the man at other end to leave go, but before I myself was ready, Will started the machine. I grabbed the upright the best I could and off we went."
—Orville Wright
Orville held on until he could no longer keep up, and the Flyer left the rail. The machine climbed a few feet and started to stall. Wilbur immediately turned the elevator down too far, not realizing how sensitive it was. The left wing struck the ground first, swinging the machine around and slamming the front skids into the sand.
The resulting trial was too short to be considered a true flight. The only damage, however, was a splintered elevator support that would require a day or two of repairs.
They would not attempt another start from a slope. Launching down an incline would not be considered by others to be a true unassisted first flight. It was obvious to the brothers now that with the right amount of breeze, the Flyer would take off from level ground. All they needed was a proper wind.
The brothers arose early on Thursday, December 17th to cold northerly winds gusting up to 25 miles per hour.
They were apprehensive about starting their trials in such strong wind with an unfamiliar machine. Hoping that the frigid gusts would diminish, they waited by their stove and tried to keep warm. The high winds continued throughout the morning with no sign of relief. By ten o’clock, the brothers could wait no longer. They decided to risk it all—the machine they had toiled over for so long and their very own lives.
By 10:30 the machine was ready to go. It was now Orville’s turn to attempt a flight. Life saver Daniels was assigned to Orville’s box camera positioned on a tripod and pointed at the end of the track. His only duty would be to squeeze the camera’s shutter ball if the machine left the launch rail.
Orville climbed into the hip cradle and grasped the controls. With Wilbur in position at the right wing tip, Orville flipped the starting lever. The action released the restraining rope and simultaneously set in motion the Flyer’s stopwatch, anemometer, and revolution counter. Slowly, the machine began to move down the rail.
Wilbur easily jogged alongside for the first forty feet until it began to rise. Then the Flyer leapt ten feet in the air, and just as quickly darted to the ground and slid to a stop. Orville immediately killed the engine, which also stopped all the instruments. Orville had left the earth for only 12 seconds. He had covered a mere 120 feet in the air, but man had flown. The hard landing cracked one of the skids and would require a quick repair.
John Daniels was still milling around the camera. When asked if he had gotten the picture, Daniels seemed disoriented and confused. He wasn’t sure if he had even tripped the shutter.
Little did John Daniels know that the image he captured on film that day would be reproduced millions of times and become one of the most famous photographs of all time.
At 11:40, it was Wilbur’s turn to make a second attempt. The result was a quick hop similar to Orville’s, but covering close to 175 feet.
An hour later, Orville piloted the third trial but did no better.
As high noon approached, the brothers decided to make one more attempt before lunch. Wilbur took his place at the controls, pushed the launch lever, and started down the rail. As the Flyer left the track, it behaved no better than in the previous trials—lunging up and down as Wilbur tried desperately to control the oversensitive elevator.
As the Flyer passed its longest previous distance mark, the pitching became even more violent. Like before, the aircraft staggered and dove toward the ground. Wilbur managed to pull the machine up and by the time he reached a distance of 300 feet from the takeoff point, he had the Flyer on a straight and level course. There was no doubt now that Wilbur had finally achieved the personal goal that had brought him to this place. He had attained sustained flight, while maintaining balance and control of his machine. Seconds continued to tick by and the machine kept going. 800 feet from his starting point, Wilbur tried to gain altitude to clear a sandbank, but the nose dropped too fast. He overcompensated the control and the wild bucking up and down began again. A moment later, the skids smacked into the ground with the sound of splintering wood.
Orville detailed the events in his diary that evening:
"While standing about discussing the last flight; a sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it. Will, who was near one end, ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us."
—Orville Wright
"Orville knows enough to let go. Daniels doesn’t, and he stays with the aircraft. And the aircraft begins to tumble over and over and over wrapping Daniels up inside this wire and wood and cloth. They’re convinced that he’s just going to be mangled, but when they finally get to the aircraft when it stops rolling over, Daniels is in the middle of all this mess completely unscathed. And for the rest of his life, he tells people that he made the fifth flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17th."
—Nick Engler, Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company
Having done what they set out to do, the brothers looked forward to being home for Christmas. “We at once packed our goods and returned home,” they wrote in a statement to the press, “knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.”
The Price of Success
During the two years following the first four flights, the brothers would continue to make improvements to their airplane design by testing new machines in a cow pasture near Dayton called Huffman Prairie.
They were able to practice flying in relative secrecy—until October of 1905, when their increasingly dramatic circling flights over Huffman Prairie became noticed by the press, and they finally stopped flying altogether. By that time, they had developed the first truly practical airplane.
For the next three years, the Wrights attempted to convince the world that they had built and successfully flown a flying machine without ever demonstrating the fact.
It was not until 1908 that the US Army and a syndicate of French businessmen each agreed to purchase Wright airplanes contingent upon their making demonstration flights. Wilbur first provided proof of their achievement at a racecourse near Le Mans, France. The sparse crowd was skeptical and growing impatient after waiting all day under the hot August sun. At six in the evening, Wilbur finally climbed aboard his machine. To the shock and amazement of everyone present, Wilbur not only flew, but also circled the field twice.
For two years, Wilbur and Orville conducted demonstration flights before enthusiastic crowds of thousands on both continents, with U.S. President Taft and many of the crowned heads of Europe in attendance. The Wright brothers became the first internationally-known celebrities of the twentieth century
The United States and other countries granted patents on the Wrights’ system of controlling an airplane about all three axes—the same system used by all airplanes today.
The patents entitled the brothers to broad proprietary rights and enabled them to impose infringement suits on competitive airplane manufacturers.
It was during one of his countless out-of-town consultations with lawyers that Wilbur became ill from eating contaminated seafood. When he returned home, his illness was diagnosed as typhoid fever. Wilbur’s condition deteriorated over the next three weeks until it took his life in 1912. He died at the age of 45.
Protector of the Claim
Orville would carry on for thirty-six more years as the senior statesman of aviation and as the protector of the Wright brothers’ claim as the inventors of the airplane and the first to fly. His future contributions to aviation would be few and would quickly become outmoded. Like Wilbur, he would never marry. Disliking crowds and speech-making, he made as few public appearances as possible, preferring life at home in the mansion he called Hawthorn Hill, in the company of friends, relatives, and his dog Scipio.
The Legacy
The Wrights’ testing ground near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is now a park facility and National Monument.
The inscription on the monument 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.”
Within one lifetime, the human species progressed from being earthbound pedestrians to moon walkers. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 lunar lander touched down on the moon.
On board was a small square of fabric cut from one of the original wing coverings of the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer and a small wooden sliver from one of its propellers. This symbolic final fight of the world’s first airplane was a fitting tribute to the two pioneers who created it—and who taught mankind how to fly.
Back to Top