Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawkby Larry E. Tise
Despite their great achievements following their first powered flights in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright still enjoyed virtual anonymity until 1908. In seven crucial days in May of that year, however, the eyes of the world were suddenly cast upon them as they sought lucrative government contracts for their flying technology and then had to prove the capabilities
Despite their great achievements following their first powered flights in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright still enjoyed virtual anonymity until 1908. In seven crucial days in May of that year, however, the eyes of the world were suddenly cast upon them as they sought lucrative government contracts for their flying technology and then had to prove the capabilities of their machines. In these pivotal moments, the brothers were catapulted into unwanted worldwide fame as the international press discovered and followed their covert flight tests, and reported their every move using rudimentary telegraphs and early forms of photography.
From the brothers' rise to fame on the historic Outer Banks, to the quickly expanding role of the world press and the flights' repercussions in war and military technology, Tise weaves a fascinating tale of a key turning point in the history of flight.
“A must-read book by author and historian Dr. Larry E. Tise. Extraordinarily well-written, Tise has delivered a gift of a unique perspective of the early days of Wilbur and Orville Wright's experiments in flight while expertly weaving in the details of the local culture of that time. This is not just another "beginning of aviation" offering; it is an historical story that manages to educate, entertain and inspire the imagination.” Your Outer Banks Adventure, 2009
“Drawing from a wealth of primary sources, Tise depicts the brothers' distinct personalities, strengths, and foibles fairly, though he's clearly an unabashed partisan. A tightly focused slice of Wright historiography.” Library Journal, starred review
“This pivotal 11-day period is chronicled in a new book by East Carolina University professor Larry E. Tise, who is the school's Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History.” Dayton Daily News
“The first detailed account of those 1908 flights, which brought Orville and Wilbur international fame. . . . . These days, nearly everything written about the Wright brothers is derived from other works, he says. Not this book. It's the result of research from letters and newspapers in the U.S. and Europe. "I'm very, very proud to say this is based on all original stuff," he says. He should be.” The Charlotte Observer
“Tise--dogged researcher, mesmerizing storyteller, human encyclopedia on Wilbur and Orville Wright--has dug out the moment-to-moment, nearly secretive, details of seven days in May 1908 when the Wright Brothers changed the world. Anyone who loves airplanes will love vicariously experiencing the very beginnings of powered controlled flight.” David Hartman, aviation writer, TV documentary producer, and original host of Good Morning America
“Larry Tise takes us back to six weeks in the spring of 1908 when Wilbur and Orville Wright returned to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was a critically important period, when the brothers would fly for the first time in over two and one half years, carry the world's first aircraft passenger aloft, test a new set of controls and prepare to demonstrate their machine to a waiting world. Wilbur and Orville, the local residents of the Outer Banks, and the newsmen who seek to break one of the great new stories of the century come to life in these pages.” Dr. Tom D. Crouch, Senior Curator (Aeronautics), Smithsonian Institution and author of The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright
“Conquering the Sky is the most thorough report on the Wright brothers' 1908 experiments at Kitty Hawk that has been written to my knowledge. It will fill an important gap in the Wright brothers' history.” William Harris, former mayor of Kitty Hawk, retired director of the Wright Brothers Memorial, and President of the First Flight Society
“Larry Tise has captured the drama of a brief but crucial era in aviation history, when the Wright brothers' flying machines first made history worldwide. Extensively researched and far-reaching, this story provides enduring inspiration.” Kathleen C. Winters, author of Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air
“In this sprightly new book, Larry Tise separates facts from the myths and deconstructs the many unreliable newspaper accounts about the events at Kitty Hawk. Full of colorful characters and telling details, Tise's book takes readers aloft during the first turbulent years of powered flight.” Jeffrey J. Crow, Ph.D., State Historian for North Carolina and Deputy Secretary of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
“When the Wright Brothers returned to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, almost four and a half years after their first flight, to test their patented and improved aircraft for public demonstration, a dozen or so correspondents dogged them, hoping for a scoop or a photograph. Larry Tise recounts the stream of misinformation and missed opportunities that issued from Kitty Hawk, leaving the public unprepared for the spectacular performances of Orville Wright in the United States and Wilbur Wright in Europe in the ensuing months. The failure of the fifth estate contrasts comically with the triumph of the Wrights in this lively, fascinating history.” Alex Roland, Professor of History, Duke University
“A perceptive examination of a brief but significant episode in the truly amazing story of the two brothers who pioneered practical powered flight. With unique insight, Larry Tise shows how those seeking news of the Wright brothers were misled with fanciful tales and fishermen's yarns, and how easily the truth was distorted and presented as published fact.” Philip Jarrett, specialist historian and author on pioneer aviation
“Larry E. Tise has been able to punctually disclose a very important and so far completely unknown period in the life's work of the Wright Brothers. The well-detailed and entertaining book, the result of very intensive spadework and empathy, had me on the edge of my seat.” Gerard J. van Heusden, Historian, The Netherlands
“[Tise] chose to dig into the Wrights' character at the moment they moved out of obscurity, and his book shows new detail of the characters that surrounded them.” Josh Shaffer, The Durham News & Observer
“Soars like their revolutionary aircraft. . . Accomplishes that rare goal of being a nonfiction book that reads like a good novel, but not at the expense of factual information or accuracy.” Larry Higgs, New Jersey Ashbury Park Press
“Tise's smooth, clear writing and his storytelling talents amde Conquering the Sky a special pleasure.” The Chapel Hill News, NC
“Tise tells all, engagingly...He knows his subject.” Virginian Pilot Review
“For anyone fanatical about [the Wright Brothers], the book is a must.” Phil Scott, Air and Space Magazine
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Conquering the Sky
The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk
By Larry E. Tise
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2009 Larry E. Tise
All rights reserved.
RETURN TO THE SOARING PLACE
Alpheus Drinkwater Telling the Wright Brothers' Story at the Wright Memorial in the 1950s Drinkwater (1875–1962), the sole telegraph operator in the area, transmitted from the weather office in Manteo all of the stories—fact or fiction—on the activities and secret flights of the Wright brothers in 1908.
Wilbur and Orville Wright were without a doubt from the same specific pool of genes. And yet, in many ways, they were distinctively different. Standing side by side, Wilbur, because of his exceedingly thin frame and elongated arms and hands, seemed much taller and more athletic. Orville could have passed as a short and scrambling baseball player, being ideally formed for the position of shortstop. Wilbur's was a more limber and shifty frame, suited perfectly for a shooting guard in basketball. Both had receding hairlines: Wilbur was practically bald by the time he was a young man, while Orville's hair was sandier than brown in color and receded more slowly. Neither of them could be in the sun for any length of time without getting severe burns on their heads. The brothers were thus seen almost constantly under caps of many and varied descriptions. After being out of doors for weeks on end, Wilbur's skin would turn into a deep olive tan. Orville's became redder and ruddier as days passed.
Both men went through the public world with tightly closed lips and a look of somber seriousness. Wilbur was never seen with any semblance of a whisker on his face; Orville, from young adulthood to death, was never seen without a mustachio—bushy, but well-groomed. Wilbur was almost never seen with a smile; Orville often sported a warm, even glowing, smile. Both of them had keen senses of humor, but Wilbur's jokes were of a sharp and cutting nature—expressed mainly in one-line comments or in deft flourishes in his letters. Orville's humor was expressed much more in teasing, joking, and pranks played on family and friends.
Wilbur was sternly respectful of authority—especially that of their father, Bishop Milton Wright. Very little warmth could be detected in their relationship. To Wilbur, the patriarch of their family was always to be addressed as "Father." Orville, however, was able to treat their father almost as a chum. Calling Bishop Wright "Pops," he launched into his letters home as if he were sharing gleeful and playful stories. Both brothers loved to tease their sister, Katharine. Neither ever addressed her, at least in their letters, in any form of her Christian name, nor as "Sister" or "Sis." She was always addressed playfully as "Sterchens," "Swes," or even "Swesterchens," sometimes as "Tochter"—all of which were playful renditions of German words "sister," "little sister," or "daughter." As their father's branch of Methodism originated among German residents in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, German labels and terms abounded in their household. Both of them loved to spin yarns to their sister about the great dangers and challenges they faced in encountering mosquitoes, storms, mice, and strange men on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They loved to describe how they heroically confronted such trials— initially as virtual Quixotes, but ultimately as savvy operators who were able to solve the most complex of problems and to unravel the most fearsome of riddles.
Partly because their mother had long since passed from the scene (at age 58 in 1889 when Wilbur was 22 and Orville was 17) and because their older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, had moved on to marriages, families, and careers, Wilbur and Orville faced their early years of manhood in close combination with their father and only sister. Although their father was kept on a respectful periphery of some things, the foursome operated pretty smoothly as a family and team. Wilbur and Orville never compromised the family quartet by bringing female companions into the mix. They were frequently ribbed by their friends for the absence of either girlfriends or wives. But either their shyness in relating to women or their constant focus on the problem of flight kept them from making the kind of investment that was required to form relationships with women. Both of them seemed to get from each other and from their close-knit family a sufficiency of emotional fulfillment. This intense devotion to family would cause anguish for Orville in the long, lonely years of his life after the death of their father and Katharine's eventual marriage and death. But Wilbur died before he finished his only serious courtship— a lifelong affair with the mistress of flight.
In 1900 when Wilbur and Orville Wright decided to move from a virtual family business of designing and making bicycles to the fabrication of airplanes, they concluded together that they needed a suitable place to test their flying machines. It was Wilbur who reached out from the family's Dayton circle and did the research to find the proper place for tests. It was he who first wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau and consulted with the Smithsonian Institution in search of a proving ground. It was Wilbur who contacted the French-American engineer Octave Chanute—one of the grand old men of the science and craft of flying—to register a somewhat audacious boast that he, Wilbur Wright, thought he knew more than anyone else who had ever tried to fly and that he would therefore very soon start flying.
It was Wilbur who collected the data and then, in partnership with Orville, decided that the most suitable testing place would be Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and determined roughly how the initial craft would be designed. It was left to Orville to convert those dreams, hopes, and imaginings into a real flying machine and into shipping crates that could transport the parts of the craft from Dayton to Kitty Hawk and to make sure that the right tools were taken along to assemble and repair the machine on site.
Wilbur—"Jullam" to his brothers and sister—was, after all, four years older than Orville and had from their shared childhood been the natural-born leader, the voice, and the commandant of the pair. Wilbur, born in 1867, was thirty-three when they first went to Kitty Hawk in 1900; Orville, born in 1871, was twentynine at the time. Also on that first venture in 1900, Wilbur had forged ahead from Dayton to Kitty Hawk eighteen days early, making sure the pathway had been safely opened for baby brother "Bubbo," as Orville was known within the family, to join him. Wilbur discovered the train routes, got himself from Dayton to Norfolk, Virginia, and from there to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The last leg of his pilgrim trip was via water—a harrowing boat ride across Albemarle Sound to Kitty Hawk. In superb big-brother fashion, he described the dangerous ordeal he had undergone to the family in Dayton and gave his little brother essential information and advice on how to accomplish the treacherous passage. Once Orville joined him at Kitty Hawk—weeks later—the two brothers were reunited as a pair and ready to conduct their first experiments in flight.
In the subsequent years of testing at Kitty Hawk in 1901, 1902, and 1903, there was no more real scouting or trailblazing—on land, that is—to be done. So the brothers traveled together from Dayton to Kitty Hawk and back again, conspiring, consulting, and frequently arguing with animation and loud voices all along the way. On these trips they worked together on logistics, buying materials, building sheds at their campsites next to Big Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, and lugging food, tools, and machine parts across sandy expanses to their sheds. And most important, they worked like horses draying their ever-larger flying machines up the steep inclines to the top of the 100-foot-high Big Kill Devil to launch the twelve hundred or so glider flights they would attempt over that three-year period. And when they went from relatively light gliders to a 750-pound gasoline-driven powered flyer in 1903, they shared the responsibility of getting the behemoth in place for flying and alternately serving as its test pilot.
Wilbur's avid pioneering and Orville's adept engineering and mechanical skills had taken them from the ranks of dozens, probably hundreds, of would-be flyers in 1900 to the status of accomplished glider engineers and pilots in 1902. From there they became the first men on earth to control a powered flying machine across an expanse of level ground at least a few feet above the sandy surface. That was on December 17, 1903, and it would become the most celebrated day in the history of flight—at least in the United States. Trying to build upon that historic triumph in 1904 and 1905 at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, they again united their engineering skills to make additional small hops in a powered flyer, leading up to the astonishing feat of a controlled flight of 39 ½ minutes over a course of 24 miles on October 5, 1905. At that moment they were the only human beings on earth who could fly an airplane at will and virtually to the limits of human endurance and fuel supply. Not in France, not in England, not in Germany, nor anywhere else in the United States could another human being reproduce such an incredible feat.
The only problem was that—despite all of the savvy, experience, and ability the brothers possessed—hardly anyone on earth believed they had actually accomplished such a deed. While there had been a handful of local witnesses, all of them were Dayton neighbors and friends. The Wrights had deliberately decided to conduct their experiments in private, to keep what they were learning to themselves, and to keep other aspiring flyers from absconding with their methods.
They also had a couple of other entrepreneurial ideas in mind. From the time they were able to exercise full control of their gliders in the fall of 1902—well before their first powered flights—they decided to seek a patent on their discoveries. They wanted to have exclusive control over their inventions. They only hadto observe the financial successes of the Bells, the Edisons, and the Fords as a result of their own patents to realize the importance of controlling one's intellectual knowledge. Thus, from the moment of their first successes with that glider, they began envisioning the piles of money they could derive from selling exclusively protected flying machines to eager investors in all corners of the globe. By October 1902 they were convinced that they had not only learned to fly; they were also sure they could produce a flying machine for sport, exploration, or warfare that could be sold potentially for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.
It was specifically to protect their investment and their proprietary knowledge—as they conceived it—that they stopped flying entirely on October 16, 1905. From that day—when Wilbur took a last grand triumphal circuit around their flying field at Huffman Prairie—until the day he left Dayton for Kitty Hawk two and a half years later, neither he nor Orville flew or attempted to fly a single time. For a pair of adventurous male human beings in their mid-thirties who got their principal endorphin and testosterone thrills in life from flying, this selfimposed abstinence would have been painful if it had not held out the promise that they would one day come to be compared with the likes of Christopher Columbus, Robert Fulton, and Thomas Edison in the pages of human history. It was the possibility of transforming their powers of invention into a successful financial empire that drove them forward from 1905 to 1908. In this pursuit they had plenty of famous contemporary models in the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and, yes, Alexander Graham Bell—all of whom had amassed both fame and fortune by that time.
They had begun protecting their proprietary knowledge as soon as they thought they had something to protect. Amid the euphoria of being able to produce and replicate controlled glides in September and October 1902 at Kitty Hawk, their honored mentor and friend Octave Chanute advised that they should immediately seek a patent on their flying machine. As soon as they returned to Dayton from Kitty Hawk at the end of that October, they began the process of drafting an application for a U.S. patent. They formally submitted the document five months later on March 23, 1903. The revealing aspects of the nature and timing of their application were twofold: first, they filed the application a full eight months prior to their first attempt to put a powered flyer in the air; and, second, their application was not for a wing, a rudder, a tail, a stabilizer, or the configuration of a flying apparatus—it was rather for the whole ball of wax—nothing less than the entire "flying machine." Wilbur and Orville Wright were nothing if not audacious, and they were vitally animated by ambition.
They did many other things as well to protect their proprietary knowledge and information. They swore their colleagues and friends in Dayton to total secrecy. They also got a gentlemanly pledge of privilege from another group of aspiring flyers who had been with them to Kitty Hawk. No one in whom they confided was to reveal that they had begun to transform themselves in December 1902 from glider engineers and pilots into the creators of a full-fledged powered flying machine. Outside of Dayton, only Octave Chanute and George Spratt, both of whom had been with them at Kitty Hawk during tests in 1901 and 1902, were entrusted with the secret. While it was not easy for Chanute to keep such a special piece of knowledge—he parlayed almost daily with people throughout America and Europe interested in flight—he knew that he must keep this particular professional confidence. For Spratt, himself an aspiring aeronaut, it was much easier. While he was bent on flying with every fiber of his being, he lived largely in isolation as a farmer and part-time family doctor in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. A melancholy loner, Spratt had mostly limited his discussions of flying to just three human beings: Chanute, Wilbur, and Orville. And also, judging from his letters to them, he only shared the volatile ups and downs of his constantly shifting emotions with these same three trusted friends.
They also decided by December of 1902 that their Kitty Hawk experiment station would no longer be an open salon on flight for other would-be flyers. In prior years Chanute had routinely recruited and sent one or more of his numerous aspiring flyers either to be test pilots for his own machines or to serve as intern assistants to the Wrights. In 1901 Chanute had sent Edward Huffaker, previously a model airplane designer at the Smithsonian Institution and resident of Chuckey City, Tennessee, to be with the Wrights during their glider experiments. Huffaker was there to test Chanute's latest idea for a glider. But he was also there to assist the Wrights and to take detailed notes on all of their experiments for the use of Chanute. Huffaker turned out to be a thorn in the brothers' sides and ever after a butt of many of their jokes.
In 1902 Chanute had sent along to Kitty Hawk Augustus M. Herring, another designer and pilot with Smithsonian experience, to test two more of his designs. Herring, Chanute, and Spratt were present in October 1902 when the Wrights' new glider proved to be the most airworthy craft ever designed by human beings. Chanute's machines sat crumpled in wind, dust, and rain as the Wrights' glider literally soared from every side of Kill Devil Hills. Through the lenses of the Wrights' camera, Herring could be observed in stances of fury and disgust that the Wrights were off flying while he was still firmly glued to the earth.
Despite Chanute's solemn vow of secrecy to the Wrights, he could hardly keep himself from revealing all while on his annual European tour during the winter and spring of 1903. Across Italy and France he met numerous aspiring flyers and gave lectures to aeronautic and engineering clubs wherever he traveled. As he spoke in his native tongue to French colleagues and friends at the Aero-Club de France in Paris on April 2, 1903, barely a week after the Wrights had filed their patent application, he spoke adoringly of the great flying successes of the Wrights—flights that he had personally witnessed at Kitty Hawk. He showed photographs of the Wright flyers hovering above Kill Devil Hills. And he hinted quietly and revealingly about some of the secrets of the Wright brothers' recent accomplishments. His contacts and audiences were filled with men of all ages who had talked wistfully about flying for dozens of years. By and large, however, none of them had ever been one meter off the ground except perhaps in a hot air balloon. Chanute's witness to the successes of the Wrights instantly tantalized and fired these same men with new ambitions to get on with their own dreams of conquering the air.
Chanute also—forever wishing to present himself as the world's greatest living guru on flight—could not restrain himself from leaving the impression wherever he spoke that all of these young Americans—Huffaker, Herring, Spratt, and, the Wrights—were among his many students and protégés scattered across the United States. Nor could he restrain himself from hinting that he could arrange for the opportunity to witness the next rounds of flight tests being conducted byhis many contacts—including the forthcoming Wright flights scheduled for the fall of 1903. He virtually promised Captain Ferdinand Ferber, of the French army, that he could go to Kitty Hawk in 1903. He also confidently informed British flying enthusiast Patrick Y. Alexander that he could be at Kitty Hawk at the same time. The secretive Wrights, aghast at Chanute's genial invitations, gently slammed the door on a visit by Ferber—and any other French agent or flyer for that matter—while they eventually relented in favor of Alexander's visit to Kitty Hawk. They had met the British financier, liked him, and thought they could trust him. But, in the end, Alexander became occupied in the fall of 1903 with other business in America and literally missed the opportunity of a lifetime, to observe history being made.
Excerpted from Conquering the Sky by Larry E. Tise. Copyright © 2009 Larry E. Tise. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author
Dr. Larry E. Tise is an author and historian. Due to his unique research on the lives of the Wright brothers, he was appointed Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University in 2000, a post he continues to hold. He is the author of more than 50 articles and books and the founder of World Aloft, an extensive website dedicated to the Wright Brothers. He lives in Philadelphia.
Dr. Larry E. Tise is an author and historian. Due to his unique research on the lives of the Wright brothers, he was appointed Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University in 2000, a post he continues to hold. He is the author of more than 50 articles and books, including Conquering the Sky, and the founder of World Aloft, an extensive website dedicated to the Wright Brothers. He lives in Philadelphia.
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