This week I covered our local hero, John J. Montgomery, who manned the first controlled flight in 1883. Montgomery, however, didn’t get much credit. Instead, the first flight is usually attributed to the Wright Brothers who flew their engine propelled craft 19 years later in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
The finest details about the South Bay’s commemorations are that they stretch and touch other national and international locations. The Wright Brothers National Memorial not only commemorates the work of Wilbur and Orville Wright, but also has a wall that tributes many others who have helped our understanding of flight, including to many women such as Amelia Earhart, Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick (the first woman to parachute jump from an airplane) and Harriet Quimby (first licensed woman pilot in America and first woman to solo the English Channel).
Interestingly (and what a shame!), the Kitty Hawk experience does not include John J. Montgomery.
Where is Kitty Hawk?
Kitty Hawk lies on the Outerbanks of North Carolina, a place that used to be remote, but today is filled with vacation homes along the beach. Along the one paved road going down through the outer banks, you’ll come to the memorial, with its mostly flat grassy field and a little bump of a hill that was enough to propel man into the air.
The Wright brothers made four successful sustained powered flights the morning of December 17, 1903. On the top of the hill, a commemorative granite boulder marks the lift-off point of those four flights. At the bottom, four markers show the terminating points.
The Wright aircraft was placed on a 60-foot monorail with its landing skids resting on a wheeled truck. Once the engine started, the aircraft was released and slid down the rail until it gained enough speed to lift into the air. Impressively, in 59 seconds they flew 852 feet.
The National Park
The park is free to the public and includes a talk inside the building where they have put a replica of the Wright brother’s airplane. The property also includes two replica buildings at the location where the Wright brothers had a hangar and living quarters. They established the camp in 1901. The camp has been turned into a museum where you can see photographs of how they lived, some diary excerpts and a recreation of their living conditions. Their experiments went on for two years and they chose the outer banks because it was away from the media, the sand made landings soft and the winds were generally good.
The Wright brothers, however, faced constant failure. In 1901 Orville told Wilbur on their trip back home to Dayton after many frustrating attempts at flight, “Not within a thousand years will man ever fly!”
The Bicycle Business
Inside the museum, interpretive plaques explained that the Wright Brothers’ bicycle business provided the modest funds for the Wrights’ work in aviation.
The whole series of experiments from 1899 through 1903 and the power flights cost only about $1,000. The manufacture and repair of bicycles sharpened their mechanical ingenuity. The enterprise also developed the Wrights’ business sense, helpful later when they took the lead in founding the aviation industry.
“The flight lasted only 12 seconds, but nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it had started.”
In order to fly a powered machine, the Wrights had to solve three major problems: lift, power and control.
Lift: A wing surface would have to be designed which would take the greatest advantage of the fact that air particles streaming across the upper and lower surfaces of a wing will keep it aloft.
Power: Design a light-weight, high-powered engine, along with efficient propellers and a transmission mechanism which would provide enough propulsive force to provide forward motion, lift the heavy machine and sustain that motion while in the air.
Control: Because the aircraft would operate in free air, it had to be controlled in three axes:
The challenge was to devise methods and mechanisms which would enable the pilot to steer the “flyer” while simultaneously counteracting disturbing gusts of wind and other atmospheric conditions. But, eventually they succeeded. The first flight, December 17, 1903, 10:35 a.m., 120 feet in 12 seconds. Orville Wright was at the controls, lying prone on the lower wing. Running alongside to balance the machine on the monorail, Wilbur Wright released his hold of the right wing and…. LIFT OFF!
Books about the history of aviation, competing claims of who actually conducted the “first flight” and biographies about the Wright Brothers abound. For novice aviation enthusiasts, my suggestion is to start by looking at Wikipedia’s bibliography and go from there.