Hawk Moments: Gloom and Confidence
October 20, 2003
- In a letter to George Spratt in June, 1903, Orville Wright gave
their friend a progress report on propeller design for the
"Flyer"…and closed with a prophetic postscript.
"Please do not mention the fact of our building a powered
machine to anybody," he warned. "The newspapers would
take great delight in following us to record our troubles."
Construction of the "Flyer" Took Place At Kitty
Looking back nearly a century
later, it is easy to assume that the Wrights' historic first
powered flight on December 17, 1903, was inevitable. After all,
they had done their homework and it was bound to happen. In fact,
all that fall the brothers were besieged by problems that almost
overpowered them, but to their credit they never ceased to
persevere…and so won the final prize.
Their first day at Kitty Hawk was
marvelous - 75 glides in the '02 glider, the best of which, 30 and
2/5 seconds in length, broke their old record. Quickly, they set
about repairing their old building, which had been blown off its
foundation during the winter, and constructing a new 44x16 foot
shed in which to store the glider and their "Flyer."
Then their luck turned sour.
On Oct. 15, the first of a
succession of storms hit the Outer Banks, repeatedly damaging
their buildings and causing a lake to circle their camp. The
mosquitoes returned so thick that, as Orville wrote, "They
turned day into night." When it was not raining, there was
punishing heat. Through it all, the Wrights continued to work on
their "Flyer" - first completing construction of the
frame, then placing the engine and propellers into the craft. On
Nov. 5, the "Flyer" was ready for ground testing, but
disaster struck. The engine sprockets could not be tightened; the
magneto failed to provide a sufficient spark; vibrations from the
engine damaged the propeller shafts. Disheartened, they sent the
shafts back to Dayton, so Charlie Taylor could repair them.
Worse yet, when they had first
weighed their "Flyer," its weight had exceeded their
estimate by 70 pounds. To achieve flying speed, the Wrights
calculated that the propellers would have to deliver another 10
pounds of thrust. It scarcely seemed possible. On Nov. 20, the new
shafts finally arrived, but in the first test, the magneto again
failed to spark, and they could not get the sprockets to stay
tight on the propeller shafts. Noted Orville in his diary,
"Day closes in deep gloom."
Completed "Flyer" Beside the Camp Sheds.
The next day, however, things began
to go their way. A liberal dose of tire cement solved the sprocket
problem, the magneto problem was solved by an adjustment to the
gasoline feed valve, which allowed the engine and propellers to
produce an additional 16 to 18 pounds of thrust, more than they
had thought possible. "Our confidence in the success of the
machine," Orville recorded in his diary, "is now greater
than ever before."
A week later, however, disaster
struck again. While testing the engine, one of the propeller
shafts cracked. Orville left immediately for Dayton, to make new
shafts of solid tool steel. Until he returned on Dec. 11, there
was nothing for Wilbur to do but wait…and anguish.
This "Kitty Hawk Moment"
is brought to you by EAA, whose Countdown to Kitty Hawk program,
presented by Ford Motor Company, includes an exact flying
reproduction of the Wright Flyer. It is the centerpiece of EAA's
national tour during 2003, which will conclude with a five-day
celebration at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright flyer
will fly again at exactly 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2003,
commemorating 100 years of powered flight.
“Kitty Hawk Moment” is brought to you by EAA, whose Countdown
to Kitty Hawk program, presented by Ford Motor Company, includes
an exact flying reproduction of the Wright Flyer. It is the
centerpiece of EAA’s national tour during 2003, which will
conclude with a five-day celebration at Kitty Hawk, North
Carolina, where the Wright flyer will fly again at exactly 10:35
a.m. on Dec. 17, 2003, commemorating 100 years of powered flight.