The First Airplane Passenger
Wind, Sand, and Wings

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n early April, the Wrights were ready to test the Flyer 3 as a two-man airplane, but had decided not to test it at Huffman Prairie. Since the Board of Ordnance had issued a standing order for an airplane, the newspapers were taking notice of the Wrights experiments. Additionally, there was some competition. Over 40 people had responded to Signal Corps Specification No. 486. Most of these were cranks, but a few had the wherewithal to build an airplane — if they could figure out what the Wright brothers already knew. Engineers and military personnel from France and England had also shown a suspicious interest in technical details. Huffman Prairie, the Wrights figured, was too accessible for would-be spies. Kitty Hawk was more remote; there would be fewer prying eyes. Also, the steady winds would help them to launch the airplane, providing an added measure of safety with two people aboard.

Wilbur Wright left for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on April 8, 1908. Orville was to tie up loose ends in Dayton, then join him later in the month with the Flyer 3. Arriving on April 10, Wilbur found the old camp a wreck. The weather had almost destroyed their hangar, and visitors had looted the open, unguarded buildings. It wasn't even a fit place to spend the night. Wilbur had no choice but to rebuild. He hired a two-man crew — Oliver O'Neal and Jesse Baum — to help him do it, but the first day on the job, the boat delivered only a portion of the materials he needed to begin repairs. To top it off, he came down with the flu. Things looked bleak.

Then, on April 15, they began to look better. Completely unexpected and unasked for, Charley Furnas arrived from Dayton, Ohio. A grateful Wilbur put Charley in charge of his construction crew while he took the time to rest and recuperate. While the camp was being rebuilt, Will and Charley lodged at the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station. Into the wee hours of the morning, they listened to Lifesaver Bob Westcott's plans for a perpetual motion machine that "would practically eliminate the necessity of fuel." Westcott's plans seemed vague, and Will and Charley finally decided that Westcott was re-inventing the steam engine.

Orville arrived in Kitty Hawk with the Flyer 3 on April 25, as Charley finished up repairs on the camp. The three of them — Will, Orv, and Charley — put the airplane together and laid out a launching rail over the next two weeks. (The Flyer 3 took off from a wooden rail, about 120 feet long.) Orville took the first hop on May 6, the first time he had flown in over two years. He flew just 1008 feet in 22 seconds, and broke a piece on the undercarriage when he landed. The flights continued in this way for the next week — short hops, never longer than a few minutes in the air, often landing with minor damage to the Flyer. Occasionally, they would carry a bag of sand in the right seat (the passenger's seat) to simulate the weight of a second person. Both Wilbur and Orville were obviously rusty from having not flown for so long, and they were completely unfamiliar with the new control system. Orville was beginning to get the hang of it after a few days, but Will often confused one control level with another, rolling the wings when he meant to climb, or nosing it into the sand when he wanted to turn.

By May 14, 1908, they had made 20 modestly successful flights and decided it was time to take a real passenger. They offered Charley Furnas the right seat.

1908_camp_small.jpg (1370 bytes)
The Kitty Hawk camp had suffered from weather and vandals since the Wrights left it in 1903. The roof of the hangar had collapsed completely.

1908_twoman_flyer_small.jpg (1341 bytes)
Uncharacteristic of other Wright expeditions, there were very few photos taken at Kitty Hawk in 1908. This was probably because Wilbur and Orville felt so rushed. This was the only photo they took of the Wright Flyer 3 in its two-man configuration.

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