The mid-1890s saw growing interest and excitement in the world of aviation. In Germany, Otto
Lilienthal, or the “flying man” as he was known around the world, was making repeated successful
flights with his gliders. His flights were well documented by reporters and photographers. Magazines
and newspapers world-wide published accounts and photographs of his feats. The Wright brothers saw
these articles and were encouraged by Lilienthal’s success. According to Wilbur, "Lilienthal was without
question the greatest of the precursors, and the world owes to him a great debt." Unfortunately,
Lilienthal was killed when his glider stalled and plummeted to the ground. The Wright brothers,
nevertheless, saw the potential for manned flight.
In 1896 (the same year as Otto Lilienthal’s death) Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian
Institution, successfully flew a steam-powered, fixed-wing, unmanned model aircraft. Later that same
year several aviation enthusiasts, under the guidance of Chicago engineer Octave Chanute, gathered on
the sand dunes at the shore of Lake Michigan where they tested multiple gliders. In 1899, Wilbur wrote
to the Smithsonian to request information and publications about aeronautics.
After much experimentation, first with airfoils fixed to a bicycle and then with airfoils in their custom-
made wind tunnel, the Wright brothers took the next step towards their goal of manned, powered
flight: building and flying full sized gliders.
Learning from the Birds: Wing Warping and Pilot Control
One of the factors that set the Wright brothers apart from others who were also after the dream of
manned, powered flight was their focus on pilot control. Other aviation enthusiasts were of the mindset
that attaching powerful engines to stable aircraft was the way forward, but the Wright Brothers took a
different approach. Wilbur and Orville believed that the ability of the pilot to control the aircraft and to
make subtle adjustments was paramount to the success of their aircraft. With this mindset, Wilbur and
Orville decided to master the art of flying their gliders before they moved to powered flight.
The Wright brothers believed that pilot control would ultimately lead them to solve the three-pronged
problem that they called “the flying problem.” In their minds, there was sufficient knowledge about the
other two parts of the problem, wings and engines, but the ability to actually fly the aircraft was lacking.
Glider pilots before the Wright brothers had relied on shifting their own body weight to alter the course
of their aircraft. The brothers, however, did not think this provided adequate control. Instead they
developed a system based on their observation of the flight of birds. Birds, they noticed, changed the
angle of the ends of their wings in order to bank into a turn. The problem then became ‘how to
accomplish this with a man-made wing of wood and cloth.’
One day, according to biographer James Tobin, Wilbur was idly twisting an inner-tube at the bicycle
shop while thinking of “the flying problem.” In that moment he came up with the idea of ‘wing warping,’
which the Wright brothers patented and used in their aircraft. The idea was to twist the wings so that
one end created more lift and the other less lift. The aircraft would roll laterally and turn towards the
direction of the dipping wing.
To Kitty Hawk: The Wright Brothers Take Flight
The first experiment with wing warping was conducted using a biplane kite with a five-foot wing span.
Wilbur attached four lines to the kite and was able to control the twist of the wings. His theory proved
right. He was able to cause the kite to turn using his wing warping technique.
Wilbur wrote a letter to Octave Chanute to inquire about optimal locations for glider testing. One of
Chanute’s suggestions (in addition to Florida and California) was the mid-Atlantic coast with its often-
windy conditions and sandy, soft landings. Wilbur and Orville also looked at U.S. Weather Bureau data
and decided to come to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to test their gliders.
We will continue our series on the Wright brothers in the next OBX Airplanes blog. Remember, we offer
air tours that circle the famous site of the Wright brothers’ first flights. Call us today to book a flight
around the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
If you ask us, OBX Airplanes is very lucky. Every day we get to fly over the location where the first
controlled flights of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft took place. Every day that we fly over the
Wright Brothers National Memorial we are reminded of how aviation as we know it began. When we fly
over the monument in one of our Cessna aircraft or our Waco biplane, we can’t help but think about
how far we have come in just over a century.
The previous OBX Airplanes blog touched on the Wright Brothers National Memorial and on the first
flights that Wilbur and Orville made on December 17 th , 1903. The next blogs will take a more detailed
look at how the Wright brothers developed and accomplished their dream of flying.
Early Career: Newspapers and Bicycles
Neither Wilbur nor his younger brother Orville graduated from high school. After he had completed four
years of high school, but before he could receive his diploma, Wilbur’s family moved suddenly from
Richmond, Indiana to Dayton, Ohio. Moves of this nature were not unusual for the Wright Brothers. As a
bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, their father Milton moved his family two dozen
times before settling finally in Dayton in 1884.
In 1889 Orville, having already designed and built a printing press with his brother’s help, dropped out of
school and opened his own printing business. Soon Wilbur would join his brother’s print shop. In March
of that year they began a weekly newspaper called the West Side News. Orville acted as publisher,
Wilbur as editor. In April 1890 they converted the paper into a daily called The Evening Item. It lasted
only four months. They turned their attention to commercial printing after the failure of their daily
newspaper, but this too would prove short lived.
In December 1892 the Wright brothers opened a bicycle repair, rental and retail shop called the Wright
Cycle Exchange (later the Wright Cycle Company). The company would grow and transition to six
different locations in Dayton. By 1896 Wilbur and Orville were manufacturing and selling bicycles of
their own design. The success of their bicycle business allowed them to focus energy and money on their
true passion: aviation
Experimenting with Airfoils
The Wright brothers’ interest aviation began in 1878 when their father brought them home a toy
helicopter. The toy was made of paper, bamboo and cork. It used a rubber band to twirl the rotor. The
boys played with the toy helicopter until it broke, and then they built their own.
Even as they grew older, the Wright brothers held on to their childhood curiosity and enthusiasm. At the
bicycle shop, the brothers were becoming more and more absorbed with aviation. Wilbur wrote to the
Smithsonian to request information and publications about aeronautics. Then the brothers began
playing with airfoils. They attached a third wheel horizontally above the front wheel of one of their St.
Claire bicycles (which they had designed and manufactured). This third wheel acted as a platform on
which to mount airfoils. They could then ride the bike with the airfoil situated just in front of the handle
bars. This allowed them to literally feel how the air flowed over and around the foil and to see how the
foil would respond.
The next step was to build a six-foot wind tunnel on the second floor of their bicycle shop. Between
October and December of 1901, they tested over 200 different shapes of scale-model wings. These
tests, according to Wright brothers’ biographer Fred Howard, "were the most crucial and fruitful
aeronautical experiments ever conducted in so short a time with so few materials and at so little expense." The experiments would certainly pay off down the road…
Check out the next OBX Airplanes blog to learn how the Wright brothers went from experimenting with
a wind tunnel in a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio to flying gliders off sand dunes in Kitty Hawk, North
A Wright Cycle Company Bicycle at the National Air and Space Museum
The Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills is a 60-foot tall granite monument to the first
controlled flights of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft and to Wilbur and Orville Wright, the two
brothers who accomplished these history-altering achievements. The monument sits atop 90-foot hill,
and so rises 150 feet above the Ocean. A marine beacon shines from the top of the monument to guide
mariners along the coast of the Outer Banks. Inscribed at the base of the monument is the following
phrase: "In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright
conceived by genius achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith."
Captain William H. Kindervater of the Quartermaster Corps was selected to prepare the site for
construction. He planted and fertilized Bermuda grass to secure the sandy foundation on which the
monument was to be built. Construction began in October of 1931 and was completed in November of
the following year. Orville Wright was in attendance for the dedication on November 13th , 1932 as were
approximately 1,000 others who braved the stormy, windy fall day on the Outer Banks. Sadly, Wilbur
had died twenty years earlier in 1912.
The First Flights on the Outer Banks
On December 14th , 1903 Wilbur (who had won the coin toss determining which brother would control
their Wright Flyer I) took off for the first time from a sandy dune on the Outer Banks. This first flight
ended abruptly when the aircraft stalled shortly after takeoff. This first flight lasted only three seconds
and resulted in minor damage to the Flyer. Wilbur would write that this first attempt saw “only partial
success,” but that "the power is ample, and but for a trifling error due to lack of experience with this
machine and this method of starting, the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully."
The brothers repaired the damage to their aircraft and waited for another weather window, which
presented itself on December 17th . That day, each brother took off twice into a cold and gusty headwind
and changed the world forever. Orville was the first to fly. He took off at 10:35 am and flew 120 feet in
twelve seconds. The next two flights, by Wilbur and Orville respectively, covered 175 feet and 200 feet.
They each flew about ten feet off the ground.
The brothers must have seen the real potential for the future of manned, powered flight with their final
attempt of the day. Wilbur took off and, after faltering at the beginning with the difficult controls,
managed to fly over 850 feet in about one minute. According to Orville’s account:
“Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o'clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred ft had been covered, the machine was under much
better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However,
when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts
downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of
the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of
the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight
again in about a day or two.” Despite the rough landing, the final flight that day opened the door to the future of aviation.
Fly Over the Wright Brothers National Memorial
OBX Airplanes offers air tours that fly over the monument that commemorates the Wright Brothers and
the location where they made history on that cold, breezy day in 1903. We take off from Dare County
Regional Airport and circle over the Wright Brothers National Memorial before heading north or south
along the beautiful coastline of the Outer Banks. Call us today to book an air tour in one of our Cessna
airplanes or our Waco Biplane and experience the beauty of the OBX from the air.
The waters off the Outer Banks are known by many as the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic.’ The shifting shoals and angry seas along the coast of North Carolina have claimed thousands of ships and uncounted lives. Since record keeping of shipwrecks began in 1526, over five thousand ships have been claimed by the ocean off North Carolina.
As a Certified Flight Instructor on the Outer Banks of North Carolina I am pleased to say that when you fly with me you will be sure to have fun, be safe and learn to fly!