One hundred years ago, human transportation changed forever, the change borne on wings crafted by two brothers from Dayton, Ohio.
Neither had ever been to college. Neither had any formal training in aeronautics. Self-taught bicycle mechanics, they shared a grand passion: flight.
That passion led Wilbur and Orville Wright into the wind at Kitty Hawk, N.C., at 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, 1903. Within 12 seconds, mankind had flown in the air under power for the first time. The bicycle boys had triumphed where others with greater resources, education, and time had failed. Why?
The reasons include determination, persistence and skill, all enhanced by freedom.
"I am diseased," Wilbur Wright once wrote. "My disease has increased in severity, and I fear that it will cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life."
The "disease" afflicting him and his brother was a belief that human beings could fly aboard a powered, heavier-than-air machine. The fear of death was justified, because flying had been attempted many times before by others, all unsuccessfully and often with fatal results.
The Europeans Alberto Santos-Dumont and Otto Lilenthal had failed. So had another American, Samuel Pierpoint Langley. Many had crafted elegant winged gliders that flew, for short distances, just fine. But when wedded to engines, the craft either were underpowered or unbalanced. None had been able to fly with applied power.
The Wrights took note of all of these efforts.
While studying what their peers were trying, Wilbur and Orville elected to go back to the basics.
"They started with the experts in flight -- the birds," said Tom Crouch, curator for aeronautics at Washington's National Air and Space Museum. "The Bishop's Boys," Crouch's biography of the Wrights, noted their detailed research. About five years before they made history's first powered flight, the brothers spent hours not only bird flight, but also carefully dissecting their motions and movements.
Eventually, the Wrights applied what they had seen to shapes of wings. Then they tested those shapes to see whether they could lift anything. Together, Wilbur and Orville built the first wind tunnel, a device where speeding air could flow over winged shapes, allowing observers to see which shapes held the most promise as a lifting surface.
Building on these early tests, the Wrights added technical ideas shaped by correspondence with others with expertise in the nascent field of flight. Their voluminous correspondence with Octave Chanute yielded valuable knowledge about how birds flew, moved while in the air, and controlled their descent to land safely.
Next they built gliders, taking careful notes about their performance.
By the fall of 1903, the brothers, working in their Dayton home and bicycle shop, had developed a design for an airplane, plus a small engine they thought could produce enough trust to push the craft into the air.
The Wrights already had chosen the site to test their flying machine. Three years earlier, the brothers had requested information from the U.S. Weather Bureau about sites with reliable winds. One such site was Kitty Hawk, located on North Carolina's Outer Banks. In late August 1900, they received a reply from Joseph Dosher, chief of the Kitty Hawk weather station.
"The beach here is about one mile wide, clear of trees or high hills and extends for nearly sixty miles same condition," Dosher wrote. "The wind blows mostly from the north and northeast September and October... I am sorry to say you could not rent a house here, so you will have to bring tents."
William Tate, also of Kitty Hawk, wrote the brothers shortly therafter.
"If you decide to try your machine here & come I will take pleasure in doing all I can for your convenience & success & pleasure, & I assure you you will find a hospitable people when you come among us."
By September 1900, the Wrights had traveled to Kitty Hawk. They stayed with Tate and began what would become a three-year test period involving three gliders and the first powered aircraft.
On Dec. 15, 1903, they made their first attempt with the new craft at Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, where they had constructed a testing base. But the wind was so violent that the craft, just big enough to carry its pilot, was turned upside down and damaged, nearly beyond repair.
With winter fast approaching, Wilbur nearly urged his brother to abandon the effort and wait until the following year. But they studied mariner's charts and decided to make one more try.
At dawn on Dec. 17, conditions were favorable. By mid-morning, the aircraft had been towed out onto the beach. With Orville at the controls, the craft skated down a rail and shuddered into the air. For 12 seconds the engine's thrust kept the craft airborne, crossing 120 feet of the beach before touching down.
The Wrights then took turns, with Wilbur flying next, and then Orville again. On the fourth flight, with Wilbur again at the controls, the plane stayed in the air for 59 seconds, crossing 852 feet of ground before landing.
Triumphant, they walked four miles to a nearby village, where they sent a telegram to their father, Bishop Milton Wright. It said:
"Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty-one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform press home for Christmas."
Later they caught their two-second error, and they did go home for Christmas. The Wright flyer would be damaged on its next try at flight, never to fly again.
The Wright brothers' history-making first flight would fit inside the passenger compartment of one of today's commercial airliners. Yet it was enough to begin the age of flight.
Within a single human lifetime, human flight would progress from Kill Devil Hills to the moon.
Wilbur had cured his disease, and history would not be the same.
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