Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

12-17 Wright Brothers 104th Anniversary Flight


Syndicated Columnist


      SANTA FE -- It was on December 17, 1903, that Orville and Wilber Wright finally were ready to get their plane into the air long enough to constitute a recognized flight.

   The day was windy and freezing there on the isolated Outer Banks of North Carolina. Frustrating delays had kept the brothers on this cold, windswept island much longer than they had intended.

   Their family back in Akron, Ohio had been hassling them for days reminding them they were running out of time to get everything packed up and home in time for Christmas.

   North Carolina's Outer Banks had been chosen instead of the fields outside Akron because of their steady high winds, a soft, flat landing area and the lack of prying eyes of competitors and the press.

   Overall, it was a good choice, but its isolation meant great difficulties getting there. It also meant not having a place to fix or replace a broken part. All the backup had to be brought with them.

    They also were far from their bicycle repair shop that was financing this madness about flying. But conditions were good and no one would consider making the trip out to spy on them. It was just too much of a hardship.

   The young Wright Brothers were true American entrepreneurs. Neither had quite finished high school. They loved to tinker and figure out how to make things work. So they shunned school in order to devote their talents to starting businesses and making money.

   Bicycles were the new craze at the time. They got those figured out and wanted to move on to flying machines. Some people already were experimenting in the United States and in Europe. The problem of lift had been solved and motors had been put on gliders to provide speed.

   But control was a mystery. Various theories developed. One was that that if bigger engines added enough speed, stability would be the result. Many died trying to prove that one.

   The Wright Brothers' learned from watching birds fly. Their wings bent. So airplane wings should bend too. Thus a warped wing was developed. After numerous tries, it worked. First they used it with kites, then with gliders, taking a long run down Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk.

   Then power was added and they made unmanned flights. Finally in mid-December, it was time for Wilbur to climb aboard, lying in the middle of the bottom wing. The first flight was 120 feet, lasting 12 seconds. By the fourth flight, the plane covered 852 feet in just under a minute. They had done it.

   It was the first sustained and controlled, heavier-than-air powered flight. The aerodynamic principles used by the Wright Brothers have applied to all airplanes ever since.

   The Wrights never accepted funding from the government or private individuals. They were businessmen and wanted all the fruits of their research and development.

   Continued testing was conducted in Dayton, but when the press would come around the planes developed problems. Once the Wrights felt they had a plane that was salable, they took it to some air shows and then began advertising.

   But they wouldn't demonstrate a plane to a prospective buyer until they had a signed contract to purchase the plane. For two years, they made no sales, while other builders improved their products.

   Finally, they signed contracts with the U.S. Army and with a French company. The demonstrations went beautifully and convinced all doubters that the Wrights truly knew what they were doing. Their dream of making it big had come true.

   Both Akron, Ohio and Kittyhawk, N.C. have museums dedicated to the Wright Brothers and claim to be the birthplace of flight. We've been to both. They both have legitimate claims.

   Our choice, however, is the Kittyhawk site. You can view the imposing Kill Devil Hill from which they conducted their glider tests and the long stretch of sand (now covered with grass) over which they made their flights, with each of their four first flights marked.

   And the Outer Banks no longer are difficult to get to or isolated.

MON, 12-17-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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