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Up in the Air: When the Wright Brothers Learned to Fly

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Orville Wright

Orville Wright

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is taken from “Thus Man Learned to Fly,” a 1928 interview with Orville Wright, published in The Saturday Evening Post on the 25th anniversary of the brothers’ historic first flight. The full article traces the brothers’ lives from their early days when the inquisitive youths built their own printing press to their young adulthood as bicycle manufacturers. Then they caught the flying bug. “We were aware, of course, that people generally knew that it could not be done,” Orville recalled. “When one said, ‘A man might as well try to fly,’ he expressed the popular notion of impossibility. And yet so many strange creatures could fly — birds, fish, insects, reptiles, and even some mammals. Why not man?”

They began in 1901 to make pilgrimages to Kitty Hawk where they had determined the consistently strong winds would be beneficial to their effort. Finally, after three years of trial and error and numerous setbacks, the momentous day arrived. [Read an interview with best-selling author of “The Wright Brothers,” David McCullough.]

Thus Man Learned to Fly

By Howard Mingos
This excerpt from “Thus Man Learned to Fly” was originally published July 7–14, 1928

We placed the track 150 feet up the side of the slope and put the machine on it, facing the wind. We had no doubt about being able to get up flying speed. Our chief concern was whether we could balance the machine while it was on the track, but moving. It could not start out until the pilot himself released a wire which held it to the rail; so he would have time to have the engine running properly. Wilbur and I tossed a coin to determine who should make the first test. Wilbur won.”

But Wilbur was not destined to make the first flight. Orville held one end of the wings to help balance the machine as it ran down the track. Wilbur had taken his place in the machine, lying flat, face down, just as they had done while gliding. The engine was purring as smoothly as could be expected with that type of motor. The propellers were churning the air. Waving his hand as a signal that he was ready, he released the wire that restrained the plane.

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It started down the track so quickly that Orville could not keep up with it; so it ran on the track free, and about 40 feet from the start, left the rail, climbed a few feet, stalled, and then settled to the ground at the bottom of the hill, about 100 feet distant. It had been up just three and a half seconds. As it landed, the plane swung around; the skids tore into the sand; one was broken. Other minor parts were damaged, but on the whole the accident was not serious. The plane could be repaired easily. The flight had failed because the machine had been permitted to turn up too much on the take-off. It had pleased the brothers, however, for they knew then that their system of launching was practical.

They spent two days repairing the airplane, and on the afternoon of December 16 it was again ready. That night the north wind howled about the camp and thumped the roof under which the brothers, buried in blankets, were speculating on their chances for the morrow.

Next morning, on the 17th, they found the wind blowing at about 27 miles an hour. They remained inside until about 10 o’clock, hoping that it would die out, but when it continued, they decided to fly despite it. The men from the life-saving station [there to serve as witnesses] were to be summoned by a flag flown as a signal. This was put up. Orville and Wilbur talked things over. If they could face the machine into that wind there would be no trouble launching it from the level ground in front of their camp. They decided to try it.

Orville and Wilbur fly the Wright Flyer

We have liftoff! Orville mans the controls in this photo of the first powered flight in history. Seconds earlier, Wilbur (right) had released his steadying grip on the wing.
Photo by John T. Daniels/Library of Congress

The wind was so cold that they had to interrupt operations at short intervals to warm their hands over the stove, which was nothing more than a large carbide can. Their friends arrived as they were ready. They found the brothers discussing the wind. Obviously it was dangerous to set out in a machine of that size against a 27-mile wind. But then, thought the brothers, the force of the wind should make a slow landing, which would compensate for the danger in flight.

There was no question as to the pilot. Wilbur had tried on the 14th. It was now Orville’s turn. He took his place in the machine. “After running the motor for a few minutes until it had heated,” said Orville, “I released the wire and we started forth into the wind. Wilbur ran alongside holding one of the wings to balance it on the track. The start was different from that other day when the air was calm. The wind held back the plane so that it started slowly. Wilbur could remain with it until it lifted free of the track 40 feet from the start. One of the men from the station snapped the camera for us just as the machine had risen about 2 feet.

More in the Post archive on the innovators of aviation:

“Thus Man Learned to Fly”
by Howard Mingos

“I Flew Around the World Alone”
by Joan Merriam

“And Then I Jumped”
by Charles A. Lindbergh

“Lindbergh Four Years After”
by Donald E. Keyhoe

“The First Birdman”
by J.W. Mitchell

“Earnings of Aviators”
by John Mitchell

“The Making of an Aviator”
by Harry N. Atwood

“From there on the flight was erratic, because of the bumpy air and, too, because of inexperience in handling the machine. The front rudder was balanced too near the center and I found it difficult to control. It turned itself when once started, so that it turned too far to one side and then too far to the other. This made the machine rise up about 10 feet and then lunge toward the ground. During a sudden lunge it touched the surface, thus ending the flight.”

But it was a flight, and it had lasted 12 seconds. The machine was in the air for a distance of a little more than 120 feet. It had attained a speed of about 35 miles an hour. It had lifted about 63 pounds for each horsepower of its engine.

Three more flights were made that day, though the wind was so cold that now and then all hands had to visit the stove to warm up. Shortly after 11 o’clock that morning Wilbur went up. Like the first, his course was up and down, but the wind had slackened and he flew faster. Though in the air less than a second longer than the first flight, he flew about 75 feet farther.

Orville went up again 20 minutes later; his flight was steadier, until a gust of wind carried the machine up about 15 feet and turned it sidewise. As it slid off to the left, Orville warped the wings to retrieve the lateral balance and at the same time pointed the plane down so as to reach the earth quickly. His time was 15 seconds and the distance covered more than 200 feet. Wilbur then went up again at 12 o’clock. For 300 feet he flew an erratic course, then, apparently having the machine under better control, he flew straight without much undulation, until several hundred feet farther on, when it commenced darting up and down again, and Wilbur landed. He had flown a total distance of 852 feet. On examination they found that this had been a rather hard landing, for the front rudder frame was broken.

Back in camp and while they were standing about the airplane discussing the last flight, the wind hurled itself upon the little group, as if bent on wreaking vengeance for man’s conquest. Then and there an angry gust struck the machine, caught under the wings and turned it over. Wilbur tried to seize it in front. Orville and Mr. Daniels [one of the onlookers] tried to hold the rear supports. The plane rolled over. Daniels, who had held on, was thrown in between the wings and carried along. When they got him out he was badly bruised, for he had been shaken up and down. His body, tumbling about, had smashed the ribs of the wings, hurt the engine, and bent the chain guides. That ended the flights of 1903.

Soon after the first day’s flying the Wrights packed up their belongings and returned to Dayton. There they made arrangements to retire from the bicycle business and devote themselves to developing their flying machine.

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  • Bob McGowan, jr.

    Very fascinating feature. I’d long known about about the successful (and famous) 12 second flight, but didn’t know about the subsequent flights made that same day going 200 then 300 feet, with all those severe obstacles.

    They made history that day, and the match was lit for the 20th century to take off the way it did with flight playing a huge role in World War I in the next decade, Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927, commercial flights in the ’30s-present, World War II then the Space Age-present!