(Exclusive Online Article)
By James Charlet
The story of the Wright brothers is one of the least-known, of the best-known, stories in American history. That sentence doesn’t seem to make sense, but it will in a moment. The “traditional story” we all have heard many, many times, usually goes like this:
Two brothers from Dayton Ohio (and they always put Orville first and then Wilbur, when actually it should ALWAYS be the other way around) were interested in trying to fly. Although they were only bicycle mechanics with a high school education, they worked very hard. They came to Kitty Hawk on the North Carolina Outer Banks in 1903 to test their experiments, and on December 17 became the first people on the world to fly!
The “least-known” part is contained in a few scenarios like this:
Was it Kitty Hawk or Kill Devil Hills?
Why have we heard all our life that the First Flight took place at Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina but now they say it was Kill Devil Hills where the National Memorial is located? There is a very good answer. All of the brother’s experiments were part-time efforts away from their full-time business, The Wright Cycle Company, Dayton, Ohio. They only had two to three months in the bicycle off-season of September through January. To start his first serious experiments in flight, Wilbur first went to the tiny Outer Banks village of Kitty Hawk in 1900. There he tested a small glider of his design by flying it as a tethered kite. Orville had joined him two weeks later and had helped assemble the “machine.”
Returning in 1901, the brothers had discovered some important advantages. Wilbur’s interest in moving their camp to the base of the Kill Devil sand dunes, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, was for several good reasons. The four hills provided different heights for launching the glider; soft sand for landings; and the lack of prying eyes – it was extremely isolated. By then, however, Wilbur had discovered a different and monumental reason for relocating there: a station of the United States Life-Saving Service (predecessor of today’s Coast Guard) was there on the beach – the Kill Devil Hills Station. A crew of young, hardy men called “Surfmen” were stationed there, along with the “Keeper,” or Officer in Charge. This would be an important and ready source of labor and other help. Due to that extreme isolation, there were no other people for miles around. The closest village was Kitty Hawk with only a population of 300.
Wilbur and Orville would return to their Kill Devil Hills camp for 1902 and finally in 1903. On December 17 of that year, they made history. It was at Kill Devil Hills. Adding to the confusion, however, was this: the Life-Saving Stations were strung out all along the NC coast, averaging six miles apart, some more, some less. All of the stations were connected to each other by telegraph. Every now and then, one was connected to the outside world. The Station at Kill Devil Hills was not one connected to the outside world; the one at Kitty Hawk was. So, after completing their monumental success, Wilbur and Orville walked the four miles north to that station so they could send a telegraph to their father announcing success. It was signed “Orvelle” Wright. He had always been the journalist, letter-writer and the communicator. The telegraph, of course, was date-stamped “Kitty Hawk, NC.” That, plus Orville was the pilot in the famous photo of the “First Flight,” forever cemented in America’s collective conscious that Orville invented the airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
The Wright Brothers Were the First to Fly.
What about all those who were claiming that they flew before the Wright brothers on December 17, 1903? Perhaps they did. So what? A lot of people and things had “flown” before December 17, 1903. Kites, balloons, gliders and all manner of odd contraptions. They flew, just like a rock can fly through the air, but, like the rock, they all crashed. None of them were CONTROLLED. That is what the Wright brothers invented – a machine that could fly under its own power, stay in the air and be controlled by the pilot. The Wright invention could carry passengers. It could take off wherever it wanted and land wherever the pilot directed. It could stay in the air as long as it had fuel. It could carry freight. NONE of the machines of competing claimers could do ANY of that. The Wrights were First in (the kind of) Flight (that mattered).
North Carolina or Ohio?
What a silly argument! North Carolina license plates’ logo is “First in Flight,” and Ohio’s is “Birthplace of Aviation.” What they should say is, for Ohio, “The First Heavier Than Air Machine Flying Under its Own Power with Controlled Flight Operated by a Pilot was Conceived Here,” and the NC one, of course, should read “The First Heavier Than Air Machine Flying Under its Own Power with Controlled Flight Operated by a Pilot First Actually Flew Here.”
Of course, we are being facetious. Technically, they are both wrong. Ohio was certainly not where controlled flight was born; that was KDH, NC. And, as we have seen, who knows where the “first flight” took place. (Even more technical, Wilbur was the primary genius here, and he was born in Millville, Indiana!) So who gets bragging rights? Ohio and North Carolina, that’s who! Conceived in one place, born in another.
The Wright Brothers’ U.S. Patent on Controlled Flight.
Did the Wright brothers get a patent on controlled flight itself? Actually, yes, that is, for heavier-than-air, fixed wing aircraft. But not for the famous 1903 machine (which they NEVER called “The Flyer!”). The patent was granted on the 1902 glider. It had made 1,000 glides off the Kill Devil sand dunes, allowing the Wright brothers to learn the principles and mechanics of controlling the craft in the air via roll, pitch and yaw. TODAY, every fixed wing aircraft still uses those exact principles, patented to Wilbur and Orville Wright. Unfortunately for them, Wilbur died in 1912 from the exhaustion of fighting lawsuits for infringement (which they won every one), and then the U.S. government claimed public domain when the United States entered WWI in 1917.
Why is Orville the Most Famous?
Because he lived until 1948. He made many public appearances, was in magazines and newspapers, and had a biography written on himself. He was in the public eye much longer than Wilbur. Besides, Wilbur got most of the initial attention.
The Wright Memorial Was the Reason the Outer Banks Got Bridges and Paved Roads.
North Carolina Congressman Lindsay Warren first proposed a Memorial and Museum at Kitty Hawk in 1926. Basically, the state and federal governments objected due to the isolation and the lack of bridges and roads to get to it. So the deal became: build the bridges and roads and the Memorial will follow. t did.
If You Are Going…
The Town of Kitty Hawk
Wilbur’s first “aeronautical experiments” began in Dayton with a kite in 1899. His first Outer Banks experiments, with a much larger kite, started near the village of Kitty Hawk. Although tethered, they actually accomplished manned flight! A small monument was erected there, long before the larger memorial in KDH.
The National Park Service, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills
For a lot more of these magical moments and amazing facts and stories, visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, NC. http://www.nps.gov/wrbr/index.htm
Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Nags Head
When you visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial, you can see and/or climb Big Kill Devil Hill from which they made many glider launches in 1901 and 1902. However, to put the Monument there, the hill had to be stabilized; winds kept moving the whole dune. So un-natural grass was planted. HOWEVER, if you go six miles south to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, you will find the largest natural sand dune on the east coast. It remains very much like the KDH hill the brothers used! Climbing that dune without toting the 117-pound glider will give you some idea of the experience. Visit http://jockeysridgestatepark.com/
For the ULTIMATE Wright Brothers Glider Experience
Go directly across the highway from Jockey’s Ridge to the Kitty Hawk Kites store. There you can actually rent and FLY a replica of the 1902 glider!!!