- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

One hundred years ago, Wilbur Wright and his kid brother, Orville, embarked on one of the most enthralling adventures of all time: uncovering the mysteries of powered human flight.

Starting with a series of letters in May 1900, working part time and using their own meager funds, the Ohio brothers took less than four years to enter the history books with four successive flights, each longer than the last, on a bitter cold December day at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

The rest is history, as aviation quickly shrank the globe, tying together nations and states in a matter of hours, instead of days and weeks. Today, flying has become an unquestioned fact of life.

That the brothers were able to solve assorted aeronautical problems in such a short period of time was one of the wonders of the early 20th century. Other more illustrious men were also at work, in America as well as Europe, and many had far more help in funding.

In fact, the Wrights' successful flights came only nine days after Samuel Langley's much ballyhooed Aerodrome, launched from a barge in the Potomac River, broke up and fell unceremoniously into the water to the amusement of watching newspapermen. Mr. Langley's machine was paid for, in part, with $50,000 in federal funds. The Wrights had spent only about $1,000 on their own flimsy craft.

The sober truth is that no one was even close to discovering the secrets of powered, heavier-than-air flight at the time of the Wrights' success.

"Had it not been for Orville and Wilbur Wright, the world might have waited another 20 years to fly because the brothers were so far ahead of everyone else," said Frederick Poe Graham, the late aviation editor for the New York Times.

Their success can be attributed to a number of factors, but old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity has to rate high among them. First, the two realized early on that controlling the airplane was probably more important than anything else, and they sought to learn to do this with hundreds of glider flights.

"What is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery," Wilbur said in a May 13, 1900, letter to Octave Chanute, a civil engineer who became one of the Wrights' early cheerleaders.

Although Wilbur and Orville were largely self-taught, they were inventive geniuses with first-rate scientific minds.

Their experience in piloting gliders prepared them to fly the world's first airplane and then perfect it over a period of years.

That came on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, a remote place of sea, wind and sand where they had been patiently improving their gliders in preparation for the flight.

Wilbur Wright was 32 years old and Orville, 28, when they made their historic flights. The first flight, with Orville at the controls, lasted a mere 12 seconds as the aircraft traveled some 120 feet. The fourth was 59 seconds long and covered nearly 800 feet with Wilbur as the pilot.

Through the dim fog of history, the Wright brothers are still viewed as a couple of bicycle mechanics who stumbled onto the secrets of flight. They were much more, of course. They were in fact engineers and scientists of uncommon ability. Their work is filled with sophisticated mathematical calculations used to determine lift ratios, gliding angles and rectangular pressures on wing surfaces.

When they found that their 1901 glider had much less lift than they expected, they designed a homemade wind tunnel and, after hundreds of experiments, were able to prove that much of the scientific literature of the day contained glaring errors. They started over, using their own formulas and calculations.

They saw early that the engine was not the key to successful air travel. In fact, their clanky four-cylinder engine produced only 12 horsepower, about one-fourth that of Langley's unsuccessful airplane.

Instead, the Wrights concentrated on acquiring the practical knowledge of gliding as a way to learn how to control an aircraft in three-dimensional space. But in addition to their scientific know-how, the Wrights brought with them an immensely practical side as well. When the first airplane's two propellers kept loosening the nut bolts on the sprockets, the brothers found a ready remedy: Arstein's hard cement, which Orville Wright said "will fix anything from a stopwatch to a threshing machine." The heated cement was poured into the threads and the sprockets were screwed onto the shafts again. The bolts held.

Beyond their engineering marvels, the brothers themselves were as interesting as their airplane. Their standard uniform was the dark business suit of the day, with starched white collars and black bowler hats. Taciturn and modest about their accomplishments, they were model young Victorians.

Wilbur and Orville Wright were the youngest of four Wright brothers. The lone Wright sister, Katherine, was the baby of the family, and remained close to the two youngest brothers all her life. Their father, Milton Wright, was an Ohio flatlands bishop in the United Brethren Church. Their mother, Susan Koerner Wright, was a native of the tiny stone village of Hillsdale, Va., in Loudoun County, and was the "handywoman" around the house in which they were reared. Bishop Wright was all thumbs about mechanical things.

When the brothers decided to build a flyable airplane, they began looking for a suitable place to test fly their gliders. They found it on North Carolina's Outer Banks near Kitty Hawk, a desolate place complete with man-eating mosquitoes. They eventually built their own small cabin at the site, and photographs of the kitchen show a quiet fixation for order. Every canned good is neatly stacked with its label turned toward the front, and every kitchen tool had its place on the rustic board walls.

For four years in succession, Wilbur and Orville traveled to Kitty Hawk in the fall to conduct their glider experiments. That was the slow season for their work at their Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop. They flew hundreds of times, learning to maneuver their craft and constantly making improvements until they were ready to add their own engine and propellers, fitted to bicycle sprockets, in 1903.

Despite their penchant for secrecy, though, they were smart enough to have a local man, John T. Daniels, photograph their first flight for posterity. There, the lean-muscled Wilbur can be seen running alongside the aircraft as it slowly lifts itself off the ground. The Wright flyer did not have wheels. It used sledlike skids to take off and land.

After the flights, the young Mr. Daniels was helping haul the flyer back to its shed when a gust of wind caught it. He got entangled with one of the struts as wind lifted the plane off the ground and dumped it and Mr. Daniels unceremoniously back to earth.

"I wasn't hurt much, just a few bruises, but I did spit sand for about three days afterward," Mr. Daniels said later.

• Assistant national editor Robert G. Robinson Jr. is writing "Wings to Lift a World," a book on early aviation.

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