PHOTO LINK: "Centennial of Flight"
The Wings of Kitty Hawk
The Centennial of Flight celebrates the genius of Wilbur and Orville Wright
by Michelle Evans
December 17, 1903, dawned fair and cold on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. These are a series of long, thin barrier islands on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, that stretch approximately 120 miles from the Currituck Beach lighthouse at Corolla in the North, past Cape Hatteras, and down to the Ocracoke lighthouse in the South. The only way to reach the towns and villages of the Outer Banks a hundred years ago was by boat from Elizabeth City. It might take a day, or even two, to reach the more accessible points such as Kitty Hawk. Transportation was not reliable, nor assured.
It was from these wind-swept islands that Orville and Wilbur Wright decided to try their hand at the problems of human flight. For several years they used the steady winds and remote location to try out their ideas, strapping themselves into contraptions of wood and cloth that most would find to be death traps, as indeed flying machines had been for many men in the waning years of the 19th Century and the first years of the 20th.
In the fourth year of their experiments, 1903, the Wrights made their first attempts to master powered, heavier-than-air flight. At 10:35 am on that blustery winter morning the temperature was 37°F and the winds blew at 27 mph. Weather and mechanical problems had delayed them for weeks, and today might be their last hope to achieve success before being forced to strike camp and return home to Dayton, Ohio, in time for Christmas.
Fate and their genius was with them that morning as the engine ran up to full power, spinning the twin pusher propellers in opposite directions, a simple rope lever holding the machine to its launch rail. A coin toss three days earlier had decided that Orville would be at the controls this morning. With the hold-down released, the Flyer slid down the rail. About two-thirds of the way to the end, the combination of their scientifically designed wings and controls, engine power, and the winds of Kitty Hawk, lifted the Flyer into the air. The event was captured by John Daniels on a photographic plate that is now one of the most reproduced prints in history. Never before had the actual moment of invention been captured on film.
Now it is one hundred years later and time to celebrate the accomplishments of the Wright Brothers with a week of events at Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, culminating with an attempted flight of a reproduction 1903 Flyer at the precise moment when the first flight was made a century before.
However, things have changed in the ten decades since the Wrights came to the Outer Banks for its predictable winds. Housing developments and forests of trees surround the area, resulting in wind patterns that have been altered forever. Big Kill Devil Hill, which used to be a giant sand dune just south of the Wright camp, is now covered in grass and prickly miniature cactus to stabilize this most priceless piece of American real estate.
The days are filled with exciting flybys of famous aircraft, a 100-person parachute jump, and aerial demonstrations by teams such as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. The two days prior to the scheduled reenactment provided fantastic flying weather, with blue skies and fluffy clouds.
Several members of the Orange County Space Society were on hand during these days to record the events and partake in history as it was being made. Jeff and Andrea Howe joined Cherie and I walking amongst the many tents and temporary exhibit areas set up by the National Park Service. We were later joined by Scott Hollister and Marty Waldman.
NASA, the FAA, USPS, EAA, and many others in the alphabet soup of organizations, showed off their participation in the celebration. The EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) and Ford Motor Company had the largest stake as primary sponsors of the actual reproduction of the 1903 airplane (or “aeroplane” as Wilbur insisted on calling a flying machine). On several occasions prior to the 17th, the Flyer was brought out of the display/hangar area and the engines run up for testing. Crowds would gather around and cheer the sound. On the 16th, a thousand people jostled for a spot alongside as the Flyer was rolled out to the actual spot where the attempt would be made the following day.
Unlike the Wright brothers, we did not have the luxury of staying indoors when inclement weather came. The anniversary was the anniversary and on the morning of the 17th, nature had its way with a torrential downpour that quickly turned the grounds into a mud bog. Undeterred, dignitaries arrived and braved the cold and wet. Master of Ceremonies was John Travolta, who introduced President George W. Bush, who flew into Elizabeth City in Air Force One, and on to Kill Devil Hills by Marine One helicopter.
Many people expected Bush to make a statement about a new direction for America’s Space program that day that might include a return to the Moon. Travolta made the comment as he introduced Bush that if he decided to send crews back to the Moon, that he would be more than happy to volunteer for the first mission. Unfortunately, Bush did not use that day to explore new initiatives. As he stated, “This day is one for recalling an heroic event in the history of our nation, and in the story of mankind. Here at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, we remember one small machine, and we honor the giants who flew it.”
President Bush told us, “Powered flight has advanced in ways that could not have been imagined on December 17, 1903. And in the future, flight will advance in ways that none of us can imagine as we stand here today. Yet always, for as long as there is human flight, we will honor the achievement of a cold morning on the Outer Banks of North Carolina by two young brothers named Orville and Wilbur Wright.
“The Wright brothers’ invention belongs to the world, but the Wright brothers belong to America. We take special pride in their qualities of discipline and persistence, optimism and imagination of people like them, and a lot of other people throughout our history. So many great inventions arose in this country, and so many of the great inventors came from unlikely backgrounds. The Wright brothers had their storefront bicycle shop. Thomas Edison was a newsboy. Eli Whitney and Henry Ford worked as farm hands. George Washington Carver was born a slave. There is something in the American character that always looks for a better way, and is unimpressed when others say it cannot be done. Those traits still define our nation. We still rely on men and women who overcome the odds and take the big chance — with no advantage but their own ingenuity and the opportunities of a free country.”
Following President Bush’s departure, the entire crowd had an unexpected surprise, as out of the low, dark clouds, the giant white and blue Air Force One 747 made a low pass over the Wright Memorial at the top of Big Kill Devil Hill. Not long before, we had also experienced the ghostly appearance of a B-2 stealth bomber flying an identical path. Both are sights that will never be forgotten.
Then the time came for the Wright Flyer itself. The weather remained uncooperative. Even though the rain had dissipated, the wind just would not come up to the necessary speeds. Undeterred, the people from The Wright Experience, headed by EAA President Tom Poberezny, with pilot Kevin Kochersberger (an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology), walked with the Flyer as it was taken to the track in front of the crowd of nearly 35,000 people who braved the rain to be witnesses to this reenactment. Also present were alternate pilot Terry Queijo, Wright Experience cofounder Ken Hyde, and famous test pilot Scott Crossfield, along with a contingent of descendants of the crew of the Kitty Hawk Life Saving Station who helped the Wrights take to the air in 1903. They were joined by Wright family members, Stephen Wright and Amanda Wright Lane.
At approximately 12:30, about two hours after the anniversary, we watched in awe as the engines clanked to life and spun to a blur. I truly believe that none of those present ever thought that, under the circumstances, we would witness even an attempt at a flight this day. But there it was, ready to go. When the signal was given, the Flyer rolled down the single rail, straining for lift off.
As Cherie Rabideau exclaimed, “If positive enthusiasm and loud shouting could have gotten the Flyer off the ground, that thing would have flown for miles! I was pushing so hard for it to get up off the rail, that, for that moment at least, I didn’t notice the cold that kept my hands clenched so tightly in my mittens.”
The Flyer was made to take off with at least 15-20 mph winds, but it was not to be that day. There was a slight liftoff from the rail, but the power was not there to sustain it in the air. Kevin fought the controls, but it skidded to the right and landed inelegantly in the mud. The crowd cheered louder than I have ever heard. For all of us present, the flight attempt was definitely a success.
In the context of that moment in time, we had been witness to the sounds and sight of the Wright Flyer at Kill Devil Hills, something only witnessed previously by the two people who made it happen, and a small band of onlookers, now all long dust to history. Johnny Moore, a small boy who witnessed the First Flight in 1903, summed it all up for us in the present as his words echoed down the years: “They done it, they done it, damned if they ain't flew.”
Another OCSS member, Marty Waldman, told me afterward that, “although I would have been drier had I jumped in a lake with all my clothes on, at the moment the Wright Flyer propellers started up, it was a magic moment that was more than worth all the discomfort. I now have felt that original invention come alive, and it is no longer a static museum piece to me. As a matter of fact, I consider the reenactment a total success. I felt like I was privileged to witness the 5th flight of December 17th, only 100 years later. With this effort, our Wright brothers’ representatives got confirmation that the Flyer indeed needs a strong headwind to get airborne.”
Contrary to media reports, the EAA reproduction Flyer was certainly not a failure. Yes, that day it did not become airborne as hoped, but it had successfully flown during tests during the previous month at Jockey Ridge, just a couple miles down the road from Kill Devil Hills. Their efforts to make an exact reproduction was a pure success that has given us new insight into the minds of Orville and Wilbur.
Kevin Kochersberger told us after seeing the huge public reaction to the reenactment, “I guess I didn’t realize how people felt about the Wright brothers. I’m going to take what we have learned here back to the classroom. It has taught me how to solve problems.”
Ken Hyde summed up the Wright Experience when he said, “I would have liked to see the airplane fly, but I couldn’t control the weather. I have nothing but pride about the people involved in this project.”
It should be noted that one truly amazing thing did happen that rainy morning. The mayor of Kill Devil Hills announced that, just before arriving, she had been informed that her granddaughter had been born that day. A more appropriate birthday could never be found. Who can imagine what that new baby will be witness to over her lifetime as we enter the second hundred years of flight.