North Carolina Centennial of Flight

Wilbur and Orville Wright

On September 11, 1900, an out-of-towner boarded Captain Israel Perry's rickety boat, the Curlicue, bound for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Across the Albemarle Sound there awaited a land where the stranger's dreams would grow out of pointed effort and steadfast will. The visitor was Wilbur Wright, a bicycle mechanic who, along with his brother Orville, would make the most profound contribution to the history of aviation. For the next four years, the brothers would leave their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, for the sands of the Kitty Hawk beaches, the perfect incubator for their dream of flight.

Their passion for flight was stimulated when twelve-year-old Wilbur and eight-year-old Orville received a toy helicopter as a present from their father. Entranced by the toy's ascension into the air, the brothers began pursuing the power of wings. They followed the news of famous aeronauts while practicing other hobbies, such as kite flying, photography, bicycle repair, and printing. Wilbur and Orville created two newspapers and a printing business before opening a bicycle shop, The Wright Cycle Company, in 1892. The question of flight, however, never left their minds.

The death of world-renowned German glider expert Otto Lilienthal during an 1896 test flight devastated both Wilbur and Orville; yet the event acted as a catalyst for their motivation, and for four years the Wrights immersed themselves in the writings of Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute. These aviators offered a wealth of theory and mathematics for the brothers to ponder. By the late 1890s, the Wrights had constructed a large biplane type glider in the back of their bicycle shop in downtown Dayton. Wilbur and Orville Wright were about to begin years of research that would revolutionize aviation, but they first needed a testing ground with wind speeds strong enough to fly a kite with a five-foot wingspan.


An airplane having two pairs of wings fixed at different levels.

In 1899, Wilbur Wright consulted both aviator Octave Chanute and the U.S. Weather Bureau to find such an area. With the sixth-highest average winds in the country, the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina seemed more than adequate. It was a mile wide, with high winds in the fall, and provided a blanket of sand perfect for crash landings. In August 1900, Wilbur Wright sent a letter to Joseph J. Dosher at the weather station of Kitty Hawk to confirm the area's ideal description. Dosher's reply was brief, but another man replied to Wilbur's letter with encouraging words. William J. Tate, a local businessman, fisherman, and county commissioner, penned a glowing testimonial to Kitty Hawk's beaches, persuading Wilbur to conduct his experiments in the remote beach town. His letter was a detailed and favorable account that most certainly drew the Wrights to North Carolina. Tate neglected to mention the ever-present mosquitoes and the sudden gales characteristic of the area.

Wilbur Wright was so convinced of the suitability of the sandy testing-ground that he showed up at the Tate household on September 13 without having replied to Bill Tate's letter. It was the start of a devoted and lasting friendship, one that forever linked the Wrights to Kitty Hawk. When Orville arrived in late September, the brothers set up camp near a tall dune called Lookout Hill, and later moved to the much taller Kill Devil Hill. In October, the brothers conducted their first tethered flights. Despite the help of Bill Tate, who eagerly rushed through his everyday tasks to be free to lend the Wrights a hand, the first season yielded little progress. Still, the brothers left for Dayton on October 23 having earned the respect and admiration of the Outer Bankers.

For three more summers, the Ohioans would return, each time bringing a larger and improved aircraft. The brothers conducted more and more glider flights and realized that Wilbur's wing-warping control system was a success. Locals recalled watching in awe as Wilbur and Orville gazed skyward, flailing their arms in imitation of coastal birds. As they honed their flying skills over the months and labored over design revisions, the Wrights were getting closer to an answer. But before adding a motor to their glider, Wilbur and Orville would make at least a thousand successful glides between 1900 and 1903.


The Wrights' method of turning the wings of a plane toward the wind at different angles.

When they returned to Kitty Hawk in September of 1903, the Wrights came with a new craft, the Wright Flyer, along with its propellers and motor. The new plane had a forty-foot wingspan and weighed 675 pounds. The Wrights immediately began working on the airplane, but storms and freezing weather slowed them down and it took the brothers a month to assemble the famous Flyer.

Wilbur and Orville were finally ready to conduct the first trial flight of the powered craft on December 14. A coin toss on the sandy beach determined that Wilbur would pilot the airplane. With Orville running alongside the flyer for balance, the Wright Flyer hopped a few feet into the air, sputtered, and stalled. The first run was a failure.

The men did not give up. After a few days of repairs and a change of location to the flattest part of the beach, the aeronauts held another trial run. It was now Orville's turn to pilot the craft. Determined to gather as much flight data as possible, the brothers rigged the plane with a stopwatch, an engine counter, and an anemometer . Set up on the beach was the Wrights' camera, poised to capture the action near the end of the makeshift runway. Orville climbed onto the craft and lay prone on the lower wing, testing the controls.

At 10:35 A.M. Orville gave the signal for his brother to release the restraining wire and the Wright Flyer slid down the track, lifting into the air after forty-five feet. Orville was airborne for 120 feet and 12 seconds when the craft gently settled back to the beach. It was the first successful powered, heavier-than-air flight in history. Later that day, the brothers took turns piloting the flyer, and the longest flight lasted 852 feet and 59 seconds with Wilbur acting as pilot.


An instrument for measuring wind force and velocity.

In all of its merit and magnitude, possibly the most overlooked factor in the Wrights' achievement is the selfless contributions of the locals. The Outer Bankers who first kindly welcomed the Ohioans helped the brothers in countless ways. For the newcomers and their peculiar dream of flying, the 'children of the sand' helped by giving them weather updates, protecting them from interfering journalists, and sacrificing their time and energy to manual labor. Because of the warmth and generosity of the Kitty Hawk community, the Wright Brothers will be forever bound to the shores of North Carolina.

Correspondence between Orville Wright and Reginald Fessenden from the Reginald A. Fessenden Papers, 1887-1935 (P.C.1140)