Kill Devil Hill

Harry Combs

Here is one of the all-time great American success stories.

A childhood fascination with a toy helicopter powered by rubber bands ultimately led Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright to what can only be described as one of mankind’s most spectacular achievements.

In 1900, the Wright Brothers began taking their gliders to Kitty Hawk, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, because the ocean breezes and lofty dunes made it an ideal environment for testing their odd-looking flying contraptions.

On December 17, 1903, numerous experiments and several ”failures”later, Orville made the very first powered flight of 120 feet. Wilbur, in the fourth and longest flight of the day, described below, made 852 feet in fifty-nine seconds. If ever we need inspiration as we toil towards some distant , elusive goal, surely we find it here Here is great work begun by genius, but finished by labor.

The people of Kitty Hawk had always been generous and kind to Wilbur and Orville----friendly and warm, sharing their food and worldly goods , sparing no effort to assist in any way they could to provide physical comfort, and open in their respect for the brothers. Most of them, however, felt less than convinced about the Wrights’.being able to fly; Kitty Hawk was a area where the reaction to flight was often expressed in such familiar bits of folk wisdom as “If God had wanted man to fly, He would have given him wings.”

Bill Tate, who from the beginning had been a close friend to the Wrights, was not present at the camp on December 17, 1903. This was not a sign of lack of faith; he had assumes that “no one but a crazy man would attempt to fly in such a wind.”

The brothers had different ideas. Shortly before twelve o’clock, for the fourth attempt of the day, Wilbur took his position on the flying machine, the engine sputtered and clattered in its strange thunder. His peaked hat was pulled snug across his head, and the wind blowing across the flats reached him with sandpapery touch. As he had felt it do before, the machine trembled in the gusts, rocking from side to side on the sixty-foot launching track. He settled himself in the hip cradle, feet snug behind him, hands on the controls, studying the three instruments gauges.

He looked to each side to one certain no one was near the wings. There were no assistants to hold the wings as they had done with the gliders, for Wilbur believed that unless a man was skilled in what he was doing he ought no to touch anything, and he had insisted on a free launch, for he knew the craft would require only forty feet in the stiff wind to lift itself into the air.

Wilbur shifted his head to study the beach area. Today was different. The wintry gale had greatly reduced the bird population, as far as he could see. It had been that way since they awoke. Very few of the familiar seagulls were about beneath the leaden sky.

Wilbur turned to each side again, looked at his brother and nodded. Everything was set, and Wilbur reached to the restraining control and pulled the wire free. Instantly, the machine rushed forward and, as he expected, was forty feet down the track when he eased into the air. He had prepared himself for almost every act of the wind, but the gusts were too strong, and he was constantly correcting or overcorrecting The hundred-foot mark fell behind as the aircraft lunged up and down like a winged bull. Then he was two hundred feet from the start of his run, and the pitch motions were even more violent. The aircraft seemed to stagger as it struck a sudden down draft and darted towards the sands. Only a foot above the ground Wilbur gained control, and eased it back up.

Three hundred feet----and the bucking motions were easing off.

And then, the five witnesses and Orville were shouting and gesturing wildly.

It was clear that Wilbur had passed some invisible wall in the sky and had gained control. Four hundred feet out, he was still holding the safety altitude of about fifteen feet above the ground, , and the airplane was flying smoother now, bo longer darting and lunging about, just easing with the gusts between an estimated eight and fifteen feet.

The seconds ticked away and it was a quarter of a minute since Wilbur had started .

There was no question, now: the machine was defiantly under control and was sustaining itself by its own power.

It was flying!

The moment had come. It was here now!

Five hundred feet

Six hundred

Seven hundred!

My God, he’s trying to reach Kitty Hawk itself, nearly four miles away.

And Indeed-----this is just what Wilbur is trying to do, for he kept heading towards the houses and the trees still well before him,

Eight hundred feet....

Still going; still flying.

Ahead of him, a rise in the ground, a sprawling hump, a hummock of sand. Wilbur brought the elevator into position to raise the nose, to gain altitude to clear the hummock; for beyond this point lay clear sailing, good flying, and he was lifting, the machine raising slowly But, hummocks do strange things to winds blowing at such high speeds. The wind soared up from the sands, rolling and tumbling, and reaching out invisibly to push the flying machine downward. The nose dropped too sharply; Wilbur brought it up; and instantly the oscillations began again, a rapid jerking up and down of the nose. The winds were simply too much, the ground- induced roll too severe, and the Flyer “suddenly darted into the ground,” as Orville later described it.

They knew as they ran that the impact was greater than that of an intentional landing. The skids dug in, and all the weight of the aircraft struck hard, and above the wind they heard the wood splinter and crack .The aircraft bounced once, borne as much by the wind as by its own momentum, and settled back to the sands, the forward elevator braces askew, broken so that the surface hung at an angle.

Unhurt, aware that he had been flying a marvelously long time, mildly disappointed at not having continued his flight, stuck in the sand with the wind blowing into his face and the engine grinding out its familiar clattering, banging roar, Wilbur reached out to shut off the power. The propellers whistled and whirred as they slowed, the sound of the chains came to him more clearly, and then only the wind could be heard. The wind, the sand hissing against fabric and his own clothes and across the ground, and perhaps a gull or two, and certainly the beating of his own heart.

It had happened.

He had flown for fifty-nine seconds.

The distance across the surface–start to finish----852 feet.

The air distance, computing air sped and wind, etc.—more than half a mile.

He----they----had done it

The air age was now!

Just fifty-six days before, Simon Newcomb, the only American scientist since Benjamin Franklin to be an associate of the Institute of France, in an article in The Independent had shown by “unassailable logic” that human flight was impossible.

They ran up to the machine, where Wilbur stood waiting for them.

No one ever recorded what Wilbur’s words were at that moment, and no amount of research has ben able to unearth them. It is most unfortunate, but they are lost forever.......

Orville and Wilbur, stiff with cold, went to their living quarters, where they prepared and ate lunch. They rested for several minutes, washed their dishes, and, ready ast last to send word of their achievement, at about two o’clock in the afternoon began the walk to the weather station four miles distant in Kitty Hawk. From the station, still run by Joseph J. Dosher, they could dispatch a wire via government facilities to Norfolk, where the message would be continued by telephone to a commercial telegraph office near Dayton. The message, as it was received in Dayton,


While this slightly garbled message was being transmitted, including the error of flight time of fifty-seven seconds rather than fifty-nine, the brothers went to the life-saving station nearby, to talk with the crew on duty. Captain S. J. Payne, who skippered the facility, told the Wrights he had watched through binoculars as they soared over the ground.

Orville and Wilbur went on to the post office, where they visited Captain and Mrs. Hobbs, who had hauled materials and done other work for them, spent some time with a Dr. Cogswell, and then started their trek back to their camp. It would take them several days to dismantle and pack their Flyer into a barrel and two boxes, along with personal gear ,and they went to work with their usual thoroughness. It was a strange and a quiet aftermath, and several times they went back outside to stand and look at the ground over which they had flown.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, That uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

For more inspiring poetry, click here.

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