How The Airplane Learned To Fly
KITTY HAWK, NORTH CAROLINA, IS A place justly famed, for there on December 17,1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright demonstrated that heavier-than-air flight was possible. Huffman Prairie, Ohio, is a place unjustly ignored, for in that 85-acre pasture in 1904 and 1905 the Wrights converted flight from the barely possible to the truly practical. At Kitty Hawk the Wrights made four flights, their best being WiIbur’s wavering voyage of 852 feet in a machine he struggled to keep airborne. At Huffman, several miles outside Dayton, the Wrights made 154 flights, ending with journeys of 24 miles in an aircraft they could launch, control, and land at will.
The 1903 aircraft was something of a rough draft; possibly it was the worst airplane ever to fly. The 1905 machine was a completed work; it was the first finished airplane. And it was a work finished in a little-known Ohio pasture.
Returning from Kitty Hawk as 1903 ended, the Wrights faced the question of what to do next. Up to then they had been pretty much gentleman amateurs, pursuing flight in time borrowed from their bicycle business. Wilbur later wrote: “We found ourselves standing at a fork in the road. On the one hand we could continue playing with the problem of flying so long as youth and leisure would permit, but carefully avoiding those features which would require continuous effort and expenditure of considerable sums of money. On the other hand we believed that if we would take the risk of devoting our entire time and financial resources we could conquer the difficulties in the path to success before increasing years impaired our physical activity.”
The choice may not have been that difficult. The Wrights had considerable savings since their father had recently bestowed on each a portion of the proceeds of the sale of an Indiana farm. They were well settled, living in West Dayton in a modest wood-frame structure that the family had owned since 1870. They shared the house with their widowed father, Milton, a bishop of the United Brethren Church, and their unmarried sister, Katharine, an Oberlin graduate who taught English and Latin at Dayton’s high school. They were lifelong bachelors, unencumbered by the demands of family. For where and when they lived, their time was quite unusually their own.
The Wrights chose to phase out their bicycle-shop work and focus on flight. Their first task back in Dayton was to secure a patent for their machine. In January 1904 Wilbur Wright called on Harry A. Toulmin, a patent lawyer in nearby Springfield, Ohio. Toulmin proved a fortunate choice. First, he decided to take Wilbur Wright seriously when he came to announce he wanted to patent a flying machine. Next, he urged that the Wrights not seek a patent on their aircraft but only on its system for in-air control. This meant they would not have to present a working model to a highly doubting Patent Office. The patent Toulmin drew up gave the Wrights sole claim to the only system ever for the in-air control of a flying machine. Dated May 22, 1906, patent No. 821,393 would later prove indestructible.
The brothers spent the winter building their aircraft for 1904. A January entry from Orville’s diary reads, “Day was spent in sawing and planing lumber for [wing] ribs.” Their favored wood, spruce, was not readily available, so they substituted pine. They did much of the work by hand. In March, Orville noted: “Tool steel crank was finished this afternoon. Drilling occupied 7 days and turning 6 days, actual working time, besides times of making rest.”
The new Flyer was a close cousin to the first. As before, the pilot lay prone in a cradle. By sliding it side to side, he could raise or lower the aircraft’s wings and simultaneously turn the craft’s rudder. The craft’s pitch was controlled by a front elevator the pilot activated with a handle. The 1904 airplane did have a more powerful engine, 16 rather than 13 horsepower, and, with altered gearing between engine and propellers, produced half again as much power as the 1903 one.
By April the Wrights’ patent had been filed not only in the United States but in Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, and, Wilbur wrote, “probably Russia.” They turned to other matters, among them figuring out how to make money from their invention. They had embarked on aviation with no idea that flight might prove greatly remunerative. In 1904, however, the St. Louis World’s Fair offered a $100,000 prize and other inducements in aeronautics. The brothers ventured to St. Louis to get the details. Unsurprisingly the contest organizers were assuming that all the competitors would navigate hot-air blimps and balloons. In St. Louis the Wrights learned that the competition was so entirely framed on that assumption that the entrants would be expected to take off and land within the fair’s amphitheater itself. The Wrights argued over the rules and postponed a decision.
The next question was how to publicize their invention. Their first flights at Kitty Hawk had prompted a scattering of wildly inaccurate reports, soon followed by a magazine article to which the writer casually affixed Wilbur’s name as author. These infuriated Wilbur, who concluded that reporters in general were neither terribly serious nor terribly scrupulous. The real problem, though, was the circumstance itself. No one knew what flight was. The Wrights’ difficulties are suggested by a sentence in a statement the brothers released following the Kitty Hawk flights: “Only those who are acquainted with practical aeronautics can appreciate the difficulties of attempting the first trial of a flying machine in a twenty-five mile gale.” But persons “acquainted with practical aeronautics” did not exist.
The brothers opted for a live demonstration. On May 23 they presented their aircraft to a small but doubting crowd, perhaps 40 in all and containing a dozen reporters. The day confirmed all doubts. The wind died just as the Wrights were attempting to launch. The Flyer slid along its 100-foot starting rail and stopped. Several days later the exercise was repeated before a smaller crowd. The engine misfired, and Orville managed only a short hop. The Wrights’ machine, one reporter wrote, “was to have made a circle of the field, and, like a bird, alight with the wind.” Unfortunately, he added, “The failure of the machine to go more than 25 feet prevented this.” With that, the press abandoned Wilbur and Orville to their fantasies. In fact, the Wrights were somewhat ahead of themselves. Scheming to win a fortune in St. Louis and putting on demonstrations for the press assumed the Wrights had a nearly completed aircraft. They didn’t. And to that central task they now turned.
The demonstration for the press had been made at Huffman Prairie, 10 miles northeast of the Wrights’ home. The four annual visits to Kitty Hawk had produced flight; now the Wrights believed the work needed to perfect it could more readily be done close to home. Huffman was easily reachable from the brothers’ home on the interurban trolley line. It had the further advantage of being free. The field’s owner, Torrance Huffman, the president of Dayton’s Fourth National Bank, gave the Wrights its use on the condition that they shoo out of the way the cattle he grazed there before they did any flying. He didn’t expect any flying. The Wrights, he told a neighboring farmer, were “fools.”
Beyond price and proximity, however, Huffman Prairie had little to recommend it. The name sounds gentle; the reality wasn’t. The field was a pasture because periodic flooding made it too wet to till. Hummocks of Indian grass rose above their surroundings so that the field resembled what Wilbur called “a prairie dog town,” lumpy and uneven. And it was small, less than a half-mile in any direction. Thus the Wrights could make flights of any distance only by going in circles, something they didn’t know how to do.
A more fundamental problem was that aeronautical conditions at Huffman were far less favorable than at Kitty Hawk. In North Carolina the cold sea-level December air had given their aircraft something to bite on. Huffman Prairie sat 815 feet higher; its summer air was thinner, giving a plane less of the resistance it needed to get and to remain airborne. Worse, that air was unreliable. The Outer Banks offered sustained breezes of 20 miles per hour; at Huffman Prairie, the winds faded and died. Faded, died, and shifted. The Flyer took off from a launch rail. Sliding downhill into the strong winds at Kitty Hawk, 60 feet of rail had been enough to let the aircraft build the speed, relative to the air, it needed to launch. Huffman required up to four times that length. Wilbur wrote, “While we are getting ready the favorable opportunities slip away, and we are usually up against a rainstorm, a dead calm, or a wind blowing at right angles to the track.” The Flyer needed to be moving 28 miles an hour relative to the air to take off. The maximum it achieved sliding down the launch rail was 24. Unless it was going into a headwind, it could not leave the ground.
THE CONDITIONS AT HUFFMAN MADE FOR FITFUL WORK . The Wrights would wait among the grasses for a wind to rise, then hurriedly scramble to get the aircraft aloft, often for a flight that lasted only a few seconds. A sudden drop in the wind or an error in navigation would quickly drop the pilot and craft back to earth. On June 14 Wilbur wrote in a letter, “We certainly have been ‘Jonahed’ this year.” Among the other problems, the pine they had substituted for spruce in the craft’s wings was given to snapping in a rough landing. The Wrights went back to spruce.
Not until August 13, on their twenty-eighth attempt of the season, did Wilbur produce a flight, 1,304 feet in length, longer than their best at Kitty Hawk the previous December. The challenge was complicated by the fact that they were, in effect, faced with two interesting unknowns. As pilots they were absolute novices; at Kitty Hawk they had managed less than two minutes of flight, and they were gaining experience at Huffman only in 10- and 20second bursts. And as inventors they knew that aviation itself was still an unexplored frontier. In consequence, it was often difficult to determine whether a given setback was due to their craft or their handling of it.
They fully recognized this. Speaking to an engineering society the previous year, Wilbur had said that the object of their work “was to obtain practice in the management of a mancarrying machine, but an object of scarcely less importance was to obtain data for the study of the scientific problems involved in flight. ” Because there was no one with any expertise on the matter to consult, they had to fall back on their own resources. They sat out in the evening on the porch of their family home and talked through each problem in conversations that, a niece of theirs later reported, mixed long, thoughtful pauses with stubborn argument.
Still, their 10- and 20-second flights helped them piece together missing parts of their puzzle. The aircraft undulated in flight. Nothing stopped this except turning the front rudder down slightly. This in turn created additional drag that pushed the engine to its limits. In the end, they placed 70 pounds of iron bars under the front rudder, eliminating the undulation while reducing stress on the engine.
Wilbur and Orville never flew together. The reason, wholly practical, was that if they did so, a single accident might end their work. Nothing was more likely to cut short their labors than death or injury. Their invaluable mechanic, Charlie Taylor, told a neighboring farm wife that every time he watched one of them take off, he imagined the flight ending in death. And they were well aware of the hazard. As pilots know, the most dangerous place to fly is near the ground, where there are things to crash into. The Wrights flew very low, rarely at more than 40 feet. They did so because they were uncertain of their craft and their skills and believed that a sudden descent from 40 feet would be preferable to one from 400. Low flying, however, meant precious little time to correct for error.
On August 24 that time ran out. Shortly after takeoff, a gust threw the Flyer off course. Orville, at the controls, made a mistake. Instead of trying to lift the craft, he pushed the control handle hard forward. The Flyer dove for the ground, coming to rest on its front rudder with its tail pointed into the air. Orville was thrown to the ground, with a wing spar falling across his back. He was, Wilbur recorded in his diary, “scratched & bruised, and sore all over.” And lucky.
The Wrights’ 1904 flying took place largely in a vacuum. After the fiasco in May, no reporters turned up. Only a few stray onlookers put in an appearance. The sole visitor to arrive with any real purpose was Amos I. Root. Root was a slight, silver-bearded man who since 1873 had published in Medina, Ohio, a periodical called Gleanings in Bee Culture . Ostensibly the magazine reported matters of interest to those who kept bees. In fact, it reported anything of interest to its publisher, which was plenty. Root wrote, “For 32 years, I have been ransacking the world… and leaving no stone unturned to furnish information of interest and value.” In a typical issue he wrote about raising poultry, reported on Root’s Automatic Reversible Honey-Extractor, rebuked Ohio’s governor for coziness with the Saloon League, and chided farmers for their hostility to the automobile.
Root was an enthusiast for most things new. He had acquired one of Ohio’s early motorcars. In September, following up on a rumor, he took it for a 200-mile ride over barely existing roads to a pasture outside Dayton, Ohio. There on September 20 he presented himself to Wilbur and Orville Wright. Fortune favored the curious. In this obscure Ohio field, the dazzled editor witnessed controlled heavier-than-air flight.
His timing was perfect. Two weeks earlier the Wrights had mastered the problem of launching on low winds. They did this by improvising a catapult somewhat like those later used on aircraft carriers. They built a 20-foot derrick and used ropes and pulleys to haul a weight—eventually they used 1,600 pounds—to the top. When the weight was released, ropes secured to the aircraft flung it forward into the air.
With the launch problem solved, the Wrights became more adventurous as pilots. Wilbur later wrote,“When we had familiarized ourselves with the operation of the machine in more or less straight flights, we decided to try a complete circle.” The problem was how much to bank the aircraft to fly in a circle that would remain within Huffman Prairie. The first three attempts failed; when the plane appeared to be going outside the field, they were aborted.
Wilbur’s fourth attempt came on the day of Root’s visit. On September 20 the editor watched Wilbur Wright launch himself into a northeast wind and mild rain and complete the first full circle ever flown by an aircraft. Under pressure from the Wrights, Root agreed to hold his story until January 1,1905. On that date his obscure journal on the keeping of bees published the first eyewitness account anywhere of a flight. It began: “Dear friends, I have a wonderful story to tell you—a story that, in some respects, outrivals the Arabian Nights.” It was a marvelously digressive piece of writing. Before getting Wilbur airborne, Root lectured his readers on why they should avoid summer crowds and why before undertaking anything, they should read what the best authorities had written. Finally, he reported his reactions to Wilbur’s first circle: “When it turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it… the grandest sight of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you—a locomotive without any wheels…. Well, now, imagine that locomotive with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with the tremendous flap of its propellers, and you have something like what I saw … I tell you friends, the sensation that one feels in such a crisis is something hard to describe.”
Describe it Root did. With a nice sense of both simile and metaphor, he wrote that Huffman Prairie was the place where the Wrights’ airplane had “‘learned to fly’… very much like a young bird just out of its nest learns to practice to use its wings.” That sentence stands as the best short description of the Wrights at Huffman.
MUCH HARD, ACCIDENT-BESET WORK REMAINED. ON October 15 the Wrights were unable to get the aircraft’s engine to stop. Wilbur recorded, “Broke engine & [landing] skids & both screws [propellers].” The repairs took 10 days. Thirty seconds into their next flight, the aircraft darted into the ground and broke both skids and a propeller. On November 1, after further repairs, the plane pulled its anchoring stake from the ground and began launching itself, with Orville clinging to its side. The following day all five flights miscarried, the final one ending with a broken tail.
The season ended on a high note, however. In the presidential election on November 8, Theodore Roosevelt, to the Wrights’ entire satisfaction, rolled up a record popular-vote margin. Wilbur wrote, “On the 9th we went out to celebrate Roosevelt’s election.” They did so with the season’s longest flight. Wilbur, completing nearly four laps of their airfield, remained aloft for more than five minutes.
What Root called a young bird had learned a great deal in 1904. The Wrights had made 105 flights, adding 45 minutes to their total flying time. They had gained considerable control; the first circles flown were followed by figure eights. One big problem remained. When flying in a circle, the Wrights could generally restore level flight by using their wing-warping apparatus to raise the resistance on the upper wing. On occasion, however, the aircraft refused to return to the level; instead, it came to the ground, sometimes after turning additional unintended circles. The Wrights puzzled over this in vain. Wilbur wrote, “The cause of the difficulty proved to be very obscure and the season of 1904 closed without any solution to the puzzle.”
Still, the Wrights’ 1904 aircraft had flown aviation’s first full circle. It had remained aloft for five minutes at a time. The brothers, however, were not sentimental. They scrapped the entire airplane, except for its engine and propellers and the chain-and-sprocket drives, which they incorporated into their machine for 1905. Their new craft was slightly beefed up. It weighed 850 pounds, including pilot, up from around 750 pounds, with 580 square feet of wing.
Wilbur was not altogether happy with Huffman Prairie. It was too small and insufficiently private. While the Wrights regarded flight as exceedingly difficult to invent, they feared it might prove easy to steal. In part, their suspicions were rooted in their upbringing. Their family was extremely insular and leery of outsiders.
The 1905 season began on June 23. Again, the first experiments went badly. The Wrights had not flown in close to seven months, and their limited piloting skills had atrophied. Nearly two months passed before either brother managed a flight of 30 seconds.
On June 30 Wilbur reported of one attempt, “Machine acted very queerly in side steering.” This they traced to their having hinged the rear rudder too far back. In August the elements put a stop to trials. Rain fell almost every day and the pasture became a marsh. The labor of moving the 850-pound airplane back to the launch site—the aircraft was raised up on wheels—greatly increased. The exertion, Wilbur wrote, “produces quick exhaustion, so that only a few flights can be made at a time.”
BUT THE WRIGHTS PUT THEIR ENFORCED IDLENESS TO good use. On the basis of their experiments and calculations, they decided to enlarge the front elevator and move the rear rudder. The former, which controlled pitch, was increased from 53 to 84 square feet and then placed 12 rather than 7 feet ahead of the wings. Also, they introduced an innovation in propeller design. They had started the year with thinner propellers, but these bent under the strain of use. Now they substituted “bent end” blades—that is, propellers curved at the tips to resist bending.
They had set themselves a central task for 1905, mastering leveling out after a turn. In September Wilbur defined the problem in a letter: “When turning a very small circle with the outside wing much elevated it is hard to bring the inside wing up again…. As we have heretofore been flying at heights of not over thirty feet, and usually only ten to twenty feet, we frequently touch the lower wing to the ground.”
To learn more, they courted danger, deliberately flying tight circles. On September 8 Wilbur attempted a figure eight only to have the machine duck into the ground. Four days later it happened again. And several days after that, Orville was unable to bring the wings back to level flight.
They theorized that when the aircraft was turning, it was not moving in the exact direction in which it was pointed. Up to this point the wire that controlled the rudder was attached to wire that controlled the warping of the wingtips. Now they disconnected the wires, to see if separate handling of the wingtips and rudder would solve their problem. It did not.
The solution came in an entirely uncharacteristic way. The Wrights were the most methodical of workers, filling notebook after notebook with the substance of their experiments and the fruit of their evening debates. But they owed their solution to this final problem of flight to something akin to dumb luck.
It came in a close encounter with the only tree inside the boundaries of Huffman Prairie. It was a 40-foot honey locust, a species known for its daggerlike thorns. The Wrights used the tree as a marker but otherwise kept well clear of it. On September 28 Orville was turning left when the Flyer began to slide toward the honey locust. His response was standard: He shifted his weight to raise the left wing back to level. The wing did not respond. He kept drifting closer to the tree, which if struck would shred the aircraft, if not Orville himself. Deciding to get to the ground as quickly as possible, he turned the front rudder down hard. Surprisingly, the airplane immediately moved toward balance. The aircraft brushed past the honey locust, coming close enough so that a thorn was driven into a wooden upright with enough force to rip a branch from the tree. Orville and the impaling branch completed the flight, skimming the last 300 yards at less than two feet in the air.
Orville’s close call established that control of the aircraft could be regained by accelerating, as had happened when Orville nosed it down. Explaining the phenomenon, Wilbur wrote that circling added centrifugal resistance to the lower wing. The tighter the circle, the greater the additional load. This added load slowed the lower wing, eventually dropping its progress to below stall speed.
With the final problem solved, the Wrights set off on longer flights. On September 29 Wilbur flew 12 miles. Four days later Orville increased that distance to 15 miles. Lying prone, he made lap after lap of the Huffman flying field. Later Orville told their biographer Fred Kelly, “I used to think my back would break if I endured one more turn around the field.” On October 4 Orville flew nearly 21 miles in 35 minutes, the flight coming to a close only when a front bearing overheated. On October 5 Wilbur managed the season’s best, a run of more than 24 miles.
The longer flights had drawn a few onlookers. On October 5 they included a reporter from a Dayton newspaper, who wrote up a lengthy account of what he had seen. The following day the visitors returned in larger numbers, many of them bringing cameras. In response, the Wrights chose to discontinue their operations.
Thus ended the two seasons that made the airplane into a true flying machine. The Wrights’ success as aviators was not matched by success as salesmen. Wilbur had been engaged in a running correspondence with the War Department trying to get it to buy airplanes, but the negotiations got nowhere, as the Wrights were trying to sell sight unseen a technology that reasonable people believed impossible. Meanwhile, European heavier-than-air experiments had been under way since the unauthorized 1903 publication of the Wrights’ airborne control system, and those experiments continued while the brothers passed the next 30 months letting their newly made miracle languish on the ground rather than risk exposure. Finally, in 1908, they decided to go public.
On August 8 of that year Wilbur took a two-minute flight in France. René Gasnier, a French aviator, said, “Who can now doubt that the Wrights have done all they claimed? We are as children compared with the Wrights.” And Orville flew near Washington, D.C., where people wept and where he remembered one well-dressed older man saying to no one in particular, “My god. My god.” Fame now cascaded on the previously obscure brothers, but they spread themselves too thin. By 1911 they were operating the world’s first aircraft factory and the world’s first flight-training school while fighting an armful of patent-infringement suits. Their research languished, and it was set aside permanently when Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, at 45. Orville, intensely shy, then sold out the Wright interests in aviation and retired to a quiet life in Dayton.
The aviation historian Charles Gibbs-Smith has written that while the Wrights’ 1903 aircraft has all the fame, the 1905 plane “should stand equally with it; for the 1905 machine was the first practical powered aeroplane of history.” The 1903 plane hangs in a place of honor at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Millions see it each year. The 1905 aircraft was donated by Orville Wright to the Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio, where it remains the star attraction today. When he gave it to the museum, he called it the single most important plane that he and his brother had built.