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November 20, 2003

100th Anniversary of the First Flight: How They Did It!

Al Duke

When my wife and I were in Nags Head, North Carolina, this summer, we planned to stop in at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, but the place was packed every day. Gloria and I then decided to go there again at the beginning of October. But Isabel had something to say about that date. We finally made it there last week.

The memorial will again be packed with people during the week of December 13-17. December 17 is the 100th Anniversary of the First Flight, and 35,000 people are expected to attend the week-long commemoration, according to a member of the volunteer staff.

When you contemplate the single-minded dedication of Orville and Wilbur Wright to attaining the goal of powered flight, it is truly something to behold.

They were not the first to think about flying, of course. Leonardo da Vinci described and drew in his notebooks his visions of human flight. Hot air balloons arrived on the scene in the late 1700ís. In the late 1800ís, several individuals theorized about flying and Clement Ader, a Frenchman, succeeded in getting off the ground, though his accomplishment has been termed more of a powered hop than actual flight.

The Wright Brothers sought a place for their experiments that had steady winds, no obstructions, a hill to launch their glider from, and that provided a soft landing. The Weather Bureau came through with several locations, one of which was near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

In 1900, they first came to Kill Devil Hills with their contraption, a 17-foot glider. The earlier aeronautical theories proved insufficient, and there was not enough lift to get it off the ground, so they flew it as a kite. The purpose was to test Wilburís idea about lateral control by warping the wings (now called ailerons).

The next year they returned with a 22-foot glider. Again, it flew only as a kite. Their changes to the design based on 1900ís experiments still did not provide enough lift. Another problem they faced was controlling the tendency, when trying to turn, to slip in the opposite direction (adverse yaw).

Discouraged but purposeful, they went back to Dayton, OH, the location of their bicycle shop, and built a wind tunnel to test their own wing designs.

The 1902 glider had a 32-foot wingspan, and tails had been added to counteract the adverse yaw. A hip cradle enabled the pilot to warp the wings. After 400 glides they still had control problems. Orvilleís suggestion to make the tails moveable and Wilburís idea to connect the tail movement to the warp control brought the desired stability to their glides. About 600 more glides showed that they had almost achieved their goal. All that was needed was to add the engine and the propellers.

In the intervening year, they designed their own engine. They tested propellers in their wind tunnel, coming up with a truly original design. All the parts were now ready and in place.

December 14, 1903, brought them to a state of readiness at Kill Devil Hills. Wilbur won the toss and the aircraft was launched. Unfortunately, it climbed too steeply, stalled, and crashed, requiring minor repairs.

The wind was stiff on December 17, but they decided to try again. Orville worked the controls and at 10:35 he was launched from the rail. Twelve seconds and 120 feet later the first flight ended. Looking at the famous picture of the launch with Wilbur running beside the aircraft, I can only imagine the feelings they may have had at this moment. Three more flights, the last being 852 feet in 59 seconds, rounded out the day, and in fact the flying, as after the fourth flight the plane was caught by the wind and rolled over, causing a lot of damage.

The memorial has had some sprucing up over the last year or so. The visitorís center has reopened with great exhibits. The U. S. Air Force has provided a temporary exhibit hall where the history of flight is displayed. It is almost unbelievable to imagine that the journey from Kill Devil Hills to the Sea of Tranquility was made in only 66 years.

In this year when we remember the tremendous accomplishment of the Wright Brothers, let us also remember the very significant amount of work and study and steady, dedicated persistence over long years that it took to bring about this success.

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