Retracing the Path to Kitty Hawk

Getting to know a modern Wright Flyer reveals the trials and triumphs of the first powered flight
- by Lane Wallace

The machine itself hardly seems capable of flight. Its 40-foot wingspan droops slightly despite the light weight of its muslin-covered spruce spars and ribs. The bracing wires are thin and attached only by small metal hooks to the upper and lower wing surfaces. The wing-warping control mechanism creaks as it tweaks the wings one way or the other, and the bicycle chains that drive the slender, wooden propellers seem woefully primitive for the task they have to perform. The fuel tank is a tiny metal bottle positioned over the homemade engine like an IV bottle over a hospital patient, and the only way to change the power setting on the aircraft's 12-horsepower engine is to advance the spark. The craft's performance is so marginal that a headwind is required to allow it to fly at all, and it cannot carry a pilot who weighs more than 150 pounds.

The men who designed, built and then set out to fly this fragile contraption were equally improbable candidates for the job. In the years leading up to 1903, the problem of powered flight had been studied by numerous engineers and scientists with formidable backgrounds and large research grants. Orville and Wilbur Wright, by contrast, were self-taught bicycle builders and mechanics with only high school educations. They lived at home with their sister and funded their low-cost flight experiments (Orville once estimated the total cost to be about $1,000) with profits from their Dayton, Ohio bicycle shop

The site the Wright brothers chose to flight-test their machine was also a far cry from a place one would imagine for such a significant historical event. Kitty Hawk is a barren, windy, and desolate spot among the sandy eastern dunes of North Carolina's Outer Banks. In 1903, it was miles away from any other civilization and consisted of little more than a post office and a Coast Guard station, so the Wright brothers had to bring in all their own equipment and supplies and pitch tents or build makeshift shacks for work and living space. It was a miserable, isolated place that offered no comforts or sanitation and could dish up both humid, stifling heat and damp, bitter cold; hurricane-force winds and rain; swarms of mosquitoes so thick they ate through the men's socks and underwear; and a constant barrage of unrelenting winds and blowing sand.

And yet, on a cold, windy December day in 1903, this fragile little machine, these two bicycle mechanics, and the windswept dunes of Kitty Hawk came together in perfect, delicate harmony. And in the space of a brief but breathtaking 12-second flight, they changed both history and the world.

Accomplishing that feat, however, was an unbelievably difficult task. Looking back across a century of powered flight, it's easy for us to focus only on the Wright Flyer's success. But that success was a product of almost four years of work and experimentation that were exhausting, frustrating, and extraordinarily uncomfortable.

The Wrights began building vehicles to test their theories about flight in 1900. They progressed from a hand-controlled kite to gliders, and they built and flight-tested three different full-size gliders before attempting to build a powered aircraft. To conduct their glider tests, the brothers spent several weeks in the late summer and fall of 1900, 1901 and 1902 living on the windswept dunes of North Carolina while they assembled, fixed, modified and flight-tested each year's design. And while the enduring image of the Wrights' 1903 experiments is their successful flight on December 17th, the brothers actually had been living at Kitty Hawk since September of that year, struggling to get their powered craft built and in the air.

"Frail and primitive as it is, the Wright Flyer is an engineering marvel..."

To really get a feel of the Wright brothers' experience at Kitty Hawk, imagine suffering through weeks of hot, humid, and mosquito-infested nights in a swamp somewhere—without insect repellant. Then imagine working with a hammer and nails on a ladder in a driving rainstorm to repair and brace your flimsy shelter as a hurricane approaches. Picture enduring weeks of living with dirty, unwashed clothing and sand in all your food. Think about running out of most of that food except for a few cans of beans. Imagine living with no sanitation or physical comforts until the thought of a hot bath becomes more dream-like than real. And then imagine enduring all of that while struggling with disappointing test results, hard landings, crashes, repairs, and all the other frustrations of reaching beyond the edge of knowledge, searching for elusive keys, solutions and answers that must surely exist somewhere just beyond your reach.

For with both their glider experiments and in building their 1903 Flyer, the Wright brothers truly were exploring a strange and uncharted land. At that time, nobody knew what a successful plane should even look like, let alone what kind of controls it needed to have. There was no such thing as a propeller, and no understanding of the principles that govern how a propeller works. The internal combustion engine was a relatively new invention, and none existed with a sufficient horsepower-to-weight ratio to work in a flying machine. Several people had built successful gliders, but nobody had mastered a system for three-axis control of an aircraft, or even an understanding that such a system was necessary for controlled flight. And that lack of understanding had already cost numerous other inventors and experimenters, including the well-known glider builder Otto Lillienthal, their lives.

Frail and primitive as it is, the Wright Flyer is an engineering marvel because it represents a successful—and integrated—solution to all of those fundamental problems. It is also, by no mere coincidence, a beautifully crafted machine.

Autumn on the Outer Banks: The 1903 Wright Flyer at
the Kitty Hawk dune camp.

The original Wright Flyer—or at least a restoration including as many of the original pieces as possible—now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It is no longer flyable. But a small shop of craftsmen in rural Virginia are building an exact reproduction of the Wright brothers' original machine, which they plan to fly at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 2003—100 years to the day and time that Orville made the first powered, controlled flight. The world will see their finished product. But I wanted to see it before it was all dressed and covered up; when I could still see and study its structure, systems and inner design. So on a hot summer day, I journeyed down to Virginia to get a little better acquainted with the plane that made all the other ones possible.

The shop that's building the reproduction is owned and run by Ken Hyde, a retired airline pilot who is now devoting all of his time to recreating the Wright brothers' airplanes as authentically as possible and retracing the steps they took in figuring out each piece of the puzzle along the way. Hyde's operation, in fact, is called The Wright Experience, as if to underscore that the process is as important to these folks as the finished product itself.

The plane sits to one side of a simple, large workroom, waiting patiently for its fabric covering to be applied. I walk around it, admiring its delicate craftsmanship. I touch its smoothly shaped woodwork, watch the synchronous movement of its unique wing-warping mechanism, inspect the ingenious design of its forward horizontal stabilizer, and marvel at the painstaking design of its propellers and the primitive workings of its engine. And as I see how well-integrated and essential each piece of innovation and design is to the operation of the whole, I begin to fully appreciate what a masterpiece this aircraft really is.

Learn more about The Wright Experience at
The Wright Experience web site.

The curve and shape of the wing seems simple enough. But it represents one of the most significant breakthroughs the Wright brothers made. Their curve in the wing of their first two gliders was based on tables developed by Otto Lillienthal that predicted how much lift a given curve would generate. Those tables were accepted as truth by all the people investigating flight at the time. But after two years of discouraging results, the Wright brothers began to question whether Lillienthal's tables were really correct. So they built their own crude wind tunnels—first on the front of a bicycle, and later in a simple, rectangular box in their bike shop—and scientifically tested a wide variety of airfoil shapes until they really understood how to design an effective wing. Their wind tunnel work also helped them figure out that lift was essential in propeller blades, as well, and even allowed them to predict the efficiency of different blade shapes. That knowledge of propeller and wing design, in turn, let them build a machine efficient enough to be carried into the air by an engine producing only 12 horsepower.

"The engine itself is impressive, capable of lifting 62 pounds for each horsepower it produced."

The replica's engine itself is impressive, capable of lifting 62 pounds for each horsepower it produced. Samuel Langley, a prominent scientist with a $50,000 grant from the Smithsonian and a large crew of workmen, spent four years around that same time trying to design a workable aircraft engine. The Wrights, with the help of a master machinist they hired named Charles Taylor, designed and built this one in only six weeks.

But it's the aircraft's control system that really set the Wrights apart. The wing-warping method the Flyer uses to provide control in flight seems primitive today, but it was an inspired innovation at the time. The Wright brothers were the first to figure out that in order to achieve controlled flight, a pilot had to be able to control the pitch of an airplane (moving the nose up or down), the yaw of the airplane (moving the nose/tail left or right) and the roll of the plane, by banking the wings up or down. It is said that the brothers' experience with bicycle riding let them see the importance of being able to bank into a turn, which may be true. But in any event, the brothers came up with wing warping as a way to achieve that banking effect. And watching the coordinated movement of wires, pulleys, wing ribs and hinges, I am astounded at the closely choreographed dance of elements that allows it all to function.

To get the plane to bank as it turned, the Wrights subtly twisted the rear, outer section of each wing up or down to increase the positive curve of the wing on one side while creating a more pronounced negative curve on the other side. The system is much like that used to control some aerobatic kites today. But making it work on a powered aircraft was a tougher problem.

Wingtip to wingtip, the 1903 Wright Flyer spanned 40 feet and could
carry a pilot weighing no more than 150 pounds.

The control for the wing warping system is provided by a moveable hip cradle in the center section of the wing. Being bicycle enthusiasts, the Wright brothers understood how important it was to reduce drag, so they designed their plane to be flown by a pilot lying prone across the wing. They even built their four-cylinder engine in a horizontal configuration to minimize the drag it would create.

The pilot lies across the hip cradle, bracing his feet on a bar further back on the wing to help him get traction to move the cradle. By shifting his hips, the pilot moves the cradle left or right, which moves wires that pull the outer sections of the wing up or down. After some early disasters, the Wright brothers also figured out the need for a moveable vertical rudder, so moving the hip cradle also moves the rear rudder in the same direction. The brothers initially thought about moving the rudder with a separate control, but the pilot needed one hand to control the forward horizontal rudder (or what we would call the elevator), and one hand to hang on so he didn't fall off the plane. His feet had to be braced against a solid bar to give him enough leverage to move the hip cradle. So the brothers decided to link the rear rudder to the wing warping control.

"The Wrights, you see, also had to learn how to fly as they tried to test their new invention."

The Wright Flyer's wing warping system takes a fair amount of force to operate, and it was clearly not designed for tight turns or aerobatics. But if the left wing drops, for example, the pilot can shift his hips to the right and restore the plane to level flight.

At least, that's the theory.

The reality is that the Wright Flyer was an incredibly unstable and difficult machine to control, likened by Orville Wright to a cross between a roller coaster and a bucking bronco. The first powered flight was only 12 seconds long not because the airplane couldn't fly any further, but because it porpoised so much in pitch that Orville got behind its oscillations, allowing it to pitch down into the sand. Wilbur, in fact, had won the coin toss for the chance to make the first flight, and had made an attempt three days earlier, but he'd pulled too much up-elevator immediately after take off and stalled the airplane, ending the flight and slightly damaging the machine.

The Wrights, you see, also had to learn how to fly as they tried to test their new invention. And they didn't have a simulator in which to practice or a forgiving Cessna in which to learn. They had only the seconds after take off to figure out how to control this squirrelly, fragile little machine.

The pilot who will attempt to recreate that flight in Ken Hyde's reproduction will be a little more fortunate. Hyde's mechanics are developing a simulator for the Wright Flyer so the pilot can at least get a feel for how to control the machine before attempting to fly the actual aircraft. Hyde warns me that flying the simulator can be a humbling experience, but I want to give it a try, anyway. I climb onto the makeshift wing center section, stretch out across the hip cradle, brace my feet, take hold of the lever controlling the forward elevator (or "horizontal rudder," as the Wright brothers called it) with my right hand, and brace my upper body on my left arm. The trick will be staying ahead of the plane, making tiny little corrections in the elevator and prompt movements in the hip cradle position to keep the plane from getting too fast, sliding or careening crazily off to one side, stalling or diving into the ground. Piece of cake.

The first moments of powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North
Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

I arch my neck so I can look forward at the projection screen as Bill Hadden, the craftsman who's supervising this operation, starts the machine.

"It stalls at about 17 miles per hour," Bill says, "so you want to keep it faster than that. Twenty-four miles an hour is about right."

Unlike the Wright brothers, I have the advantage of a read-out of my airspeed and altitude on the projection screen. They had only the feel of the plane and the ground rushing up to meet them with which to judge their speed and height.

Bill "releases" the airplane's restraining wire, and I'm off down the single-rail track the Wright brothers used to keep the plane from getting bogged down in the sand on take off. As I approach 20 miles an hour, I pull back a little on the elevator control lever. The plane's nose shoots up into the air. I push forward to keep from stalling. Now I'm diving toward the ground. Back up. Back down. I'm at 15 feet, then five feet, then 20, then seven. Good grief. My airspeed follows my pitch changes, hovering precariously around 17 miles an hour as I pitch up, then accelerating quickly as I dive.

"I've never seen anyone recover if they get faster than 27 miles an hour," Bill warns as I struggle to pull out of the dive without precipitating another dangerous climb. Orville was right about the bucking bronco thing. But amazingly enough, I don't crash. The oscillations even out a little bit, or maybe I just get better at controlling them. I decide to experiment a little more with the hip cradle movement; maybe try a turn. I move my hips to the right, and the airplane banks.

"Uh..." I hear warning in Bill's voice, but it's too late. The plane is already sliding downward to the right. I throw my hips left, but there's no stopping the downward slice of the plane's right wing toward the ground.

"I return to the launch rail scene over and over, determined to conquer this feather-sensitive machine."

In reality, the plane would probably be a mess of splinters. In the simulator, of course, it just means we start over again.

"The plane's not so good at turning," Bill explains belatedly. "Anything more than a slight bank angle, and it falls out of the sky."

Now he tells me.

I return to the launch rail scene over and over, determined to conquer this feather-sensitive machine. And as wait for Bill to release me, I try to imagine how Orville himself must have felt in my place, not only positioned awkwardly across an uncomfortable wing, but also shivering in a bitter, 27-mile-an-hour wind blowing across frozen rain puddles and squinting against the stinging feel of sand pelting against his face.

The brothers knew it was possible. And they had confidence that their design would fly. But they were racing against the clock, low on supplies and good weather but clinging to their flimsy, sandswept beachhead in an attempt to get at least one flight accomplished before fierce winter storms put an end to their experiments for the year. Time was important because the Wright brothers weren't the only ones attempting to solve the problem of flight. Others, including Samuel Langley, were rumored to be close to flight in their own machines. So the brothers stayed on at Kitty Hawk far longer than they'd planned, struggling with complication after complication until they finally had a flight-ready machine. But as Wilbur had demonstrated only a few days earlier, it was a challenging airplane to fly, and if Orville damaged it too badly due to lack of skill, it would be almost an entire year before they could try again.

All of that knowledge had to have been going through Orville's mind as he lay on the uncomfortable center section, with the noise of the clattering engine and bicycle chain-driven, whirling propellers in his ears. All of that, and the knowledge that he was about to experience something no human had ever experienced before: the feel of sustained, powered, and controlled flight above the ground.

He was leaping off a cliff into a new frontier, just as Marco Polo, Columbus, and Lewis and Clark had before him, and Chuck Yeager, Alan Shepard, and Neil Armstrong would in the years to come. His ship was fragile and disconcertingly difficult to control. In the four flights the brothers made that December day, the longest either one of them managed to keep the plane in the air was 59 seconds. And Orville's initial flight lasted only 12.

Twelve seconds. Hardly more than the blink of an eye. And yet, when Orville landed at the end of that flight, the world was a different place than the one he'd left a mere 12 seconds before. The brothers could never have anticipated exactly how much of a difference airplanes would make in the world. But they knew they had altered the course history would take from that day forward.

As I picture their wondrous joy at seeing their invention finally take wing above the isolated, windy landscape of Kitty Hawk, I realize why the Wright Flyer seems so beautiful. It's not really because of all the craftsmanship, although her crafting is, indeed, beautiful. It's because she was the first, the one that made all the other beautiful planes and machines that followed her possible. She may be primitive and uncomfortable to control. But she is also special, beautiful, and perfect, because she allowed the world to see and understand, for the very first time, the magical freedom and beauty of a handcrafted airplane in flight.