Your Turn

In Uncategorized on December 17, 2009 by hillermuseum

Imagine a cold, gray morning on desolate stretch of sand dunes near the tiny village of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina..106 years ago today, the weather at Kitty Hawk was windy and overcast, with gusts to 27 miles per hour.  Even today, pilots would give careful thought to flight in such conditions.  On December 17th, 1903, no airplane pilot had yet flown.  Wilbur and Orville Wright stood ready to be the first.

As their watches crawled towards 10:35 AM, Wilbur and Orville stood contemplating their 600-plus pound contraption, optimistically named the “Flyer.” They had summoned a curious group of men from the local Life Saving station (predecessors of today’s Coast Guard) to help shuttle their new-fangled contraption onto its short takeoff track.  As they stood warming their hands by a small fire, they may well have heard Wilbur say softly to his brother,  “Still think it’s my turn.”

The brothers had worked as a team for four years and invented the modern science of aerodynamics.  With three different gliders, an improvised wind tunnel, nearly 200 wing models, a modern propeller design and an engine built by their mechanic, Charlie Taylor, the two had laboriously learned more about flight than all the pioneers before them.  Yet their first Flyer could carry but one person, barely, if all went well.

Three days earlier, Wilbur and Orville thought that they were ready for flight.  The Flyer had stood ready on its track, engine running, and a camera was in place.  Although Wilbur was the elder of the brothers, each agreed to toss a coin to select the pilot for the first flight.  Wilbur won, took the controls—and stalled immediately upon liftoff, crashing down and damaging the Flyer’s horizontal stabilizer. 

Now, three days later, after repairing the damage, Orville reckoned that it was his turn to give it a try. Orville won his brother over, and gained a valuable benefit—his brother’s advice.  The original 1903 Flyer’s horizontal stabilizer was close to its center of gravity, and hence was unstable in pitch.  Wilbur had become a skilled pilot flying aerodynamically similar gliders, but on December 14th the new airplane’s instability surprised him and caused the crash.  Wilbur warned his brother of the Flyer’s sensitivity, and with the benefit of this pilot report Orville was ready to make history.

Wilbur and Orville were two bicycle mechanics curious enough, clever enough, and persistent enough to invest the time and effort it took to achieve “sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air powered flight.” There was nothing easy or attractive about it. In their Ohio bicycle shop and on the sands of Kitty Hawk, they wrote their own book on aeronautical design as they went along, carving their own propellers and even building the instruments, gauges and devices needed to test their theories. All the while they taught themselves to fly one the world’s most unstable aircraft lying flat on their stomachs on the lower wing! After each hard landing they went face first into the sage brush, seaweed, and sand. Through it all, the Wrights were persistent. December 17th, 1903 would tell if their years of testing, trial and error, failures and triumph, defeat and discovery would pay off.

As Orville positioned himself face down on the lower wing, hips in the wing-warping saddle and pitch control (elevator) in his left hand, Wilbur approached John Daniels, a member of the Life Saving crew. He politely asked if Mr. Daniels, who had never used a camera before, would squeeze the shutter release as the Flyer reached the end of its track.  Daniels agreed and took his new station.

And with that, the 12-horsepower motor revved, the counter-rotating propellers whirled, the craft moved down the track and… the miracle happened!

The miracle wasn’t the flight; that was the product of four years of scientific research, innovative engineering and hard work on the part of the Wright Brothers. The miracle of Kitty Hawk was that with the howling wind, noise, distraction and excitement of the moment, burly John Daniels kept the calm presence of mind to squeeze the shutter bulb at the right time to take one of the most famous pictures of all time—the Flyer, just clear of its launching track, with Orville aboard and his brother Wilbur alongside.  The Flyer’s shadow is clearly visible, in no place touching the airplane itself.  Flight had become a reality, for 12 breathless seconds and 120 feet.

Wilbur raced to his brother’s side, joined by the men of the Life Saving station.  In short order, the Flyer was returned to its starting point and this time the older brother took his turn for another attempt.  And so it went: Wilbur flew close to 175 feet, and then Orville flew again to a distance of 200 feet. Wilbur made the final flight of the day, staying aloft for 59 seconds and covering 852 feet. That flight ended in a hard landing, damaging the horizontal stabilizer.  Shortly after a gust of wind caught the Flyer and flipped it over, causing more serious damage. After that the brothers called it a day, heading home for Christmas while deciding to construct a new, improved model the following year.

The original Flyer never flew again. The pieces were crated and returned to Dayton where they were stored until 1916, four years after Wilbur’s death.  Orville repaired and reassembled the Flyer for display purposes.  It was exhibited in Boston and London before returning for permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.  Today it resides at the National Air and Space Museum, taking its place among the world’s historic aircraft.

Each year thousands of young people visit the Hiller Aviation Museum and tour its collection.  Every visit begins beneath the wings of the Museum’s full size replica of Wilbur and Orville’s original flying machine.  One day, some of these children will take up the torch and contribute to the future growth and progress of aviation. It’s their turn.

By Ray Hall


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