Not Within a Thousand Years

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December 17 1903 


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few weeks after returning to Dayton, Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute and gave him a short but informative report on what he and his brothers had accomplished in Kitty Hawk. Chanute was impressed, not only with Wilbur’s short flights but also the construction of his glider, the number and design of his scientific experiments, and most especially that this young man had done it. He had designed and built an aircraft, took it to a suitable environment to test it safely, made a number of glides and recorded the results. The scientific expedition itself was quite an accomplishment; Chanute knew this to be true having done it himself at the Indiana Dunes in 1896. The two chewed over the results of the expedition for the remainder of 1900, Wilbur explaining his findings and conclusions to Chanute and Chanute commenting, occasionally offering an opinion.

Meanwhile, Wilbur and Orville discussed among themselves the disappointing fact that the 1900 glider hadn’t produced the expected amount of lift and this had kept Wilbur from making flights of any satisfying length or duration. He certainly hadn’t accomplished his goal of flying for hours, testing and refining his control system, and developing the skills necessary to pilot an aircraft.

The brothers concluded that either their glider hadn’t enough wing area to provide the necessary lift or their use of a shallow camber – 1/23 compared to the 1/12 that Lilienthal recommended – had somehow kept it from developing proper lift. To insure success, they decided to build a second glider with more wing area and a deeper camber.

Wilbur informed Chanute in March 1901 of their plan to return to Kitty Hawk in to test a new machine. That apparently started wheels turning in Chanute’s head. It was time to meets these guys and take their measure. He told Wilbur he was coming east and wanted to stop in Dayton.

In early summer the Wrights had a bit of unexpected luck. Saturday evening June 8, Charlie Taylor stopped by the bicycle shop. Charlie was a good friend and a fellow bicycle mechanic. He had married Henrietta Webbert, whose father was a long-time friend of the Bishop. Her uncle, Charles Webbert, owned the building that housed the Wright Cycle Company. Charlie had been part owner of a machine tool business that made coaster brake parts for the Wright’s line of bicycles. Charlie also repaired bicycles and bought parts from the Wrights. He had sold that business and used the money to buy a house. Presently he was working for the Dayton Electric Company.

The Wrights’ bicycle business was seasonal. In 1900, they had waited until autumn for it to slow down before they left for Kitty Hawk. Then they had been able to leave it in the hands of their brother Lorin and sister Katharine. But Charlie knew the bicycle business. With him to mind the store, they could leave anytime they wanted. They offered Charlie $16.50 per week, considerably better than what he was getting from his present employer. Charlie came to work for the Wrights that next Monday. On June 19, Wilbur wrote Chanute, “ Owing to changes in our business arrangements, we shall start our trip much earlier than we expected…”

Chanute showed up on the Wright’s doorstep a week later. He stayed for dinner and came back the next day, spending the time deep in conversation with Wilbur and Orville until he had to leave in the afternoon. It’s not known what they discussed, but it’s more than probable the Wilbur told him he was about to publish two articles on aeronautics – “The Angle of Incidence” in the Aeronautical Journal and “The Horizontal Position During Gliding Flight” in Illustriete Aeronautische Mitteilungen, a German publication. Chanute probably mentioned the “gliding machine” that Edward Huffaker was building for him and broached the subject of testing it in Kitty Hawk.

Just a few days after he returned to Chicago, Chanute wrote to Wilbur proposing that he send Huffaker and another budding aeronautical engineer, George Spratt to Kitty Hawk to help the Wright brothers. Wilbur replied politely that he did not need the help, but that he and Orville would be thankful for the company. They would provide a place for Huffaker and Spratt to bunk should they want to visit. In a quick exchange of letters, it was agreed that Huffaker, Spratt, and Chanute would visit the Wrights at the Outerbanks. Chanute also loaned the Wrights his Richard anemometer (at that time, one of the best hand-held wind-speed measuring instruments available) and gave them a small inclinometer, sending both instruments to Dayton just before the Wrights left for North Carolina on 7 July 1901.

Wilbur and Orville had just arrived and were building a wooden shed at the base of Kill Devil Hills when a summer hurricane blew up. The Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station recorded the wind at 93 mph before their instruments broke. The storm deluged the Outerbanks, creating stagnant ponds that baked in the summer sun. Just about the time Edward Huffaker arrived on July 18, the ponds began to produce “a swarm of mosquitoes (that) came in a mighty cloud, almost darkening the sun,” Orville wrote to Katharine. "It was the beginning of the most miserable existence I have ever passed through. They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks. Lumps began swelling up all over my body like hen’s eggs…Misery! Misery!” The campers tried rolling up in blankets, hiding under netting, even building fires to fill the camp with smoke. Nothing worked. Thankfully, the mosquitoes left when the ponds dried up.

George Spratt arrived on July 25, just in time to do battle with the last of the mosquitoes. The Wrights had finished the shed and were putting the finishing touches on their 1901 glider. It was a huge affair, with a wingspan of 22 feet (6.7 meters) and a chord of 7 feet (2.1 meters) – the largest glider anyone had yet attempted to fly. They first flew it on July 27 and were immediately disappointed. “Found the machine less manageable than expected,” Wilbur wrote. It was cantankerous in the air and prone to stalling. Wilbur, who continued to do all the flying, weathered one harrowing accident after another. Fortunately, the glider could be made to "pancake" into the ground when it lost flying speed instead of nosing over in the deadly dive that had killed Lillienthal. This saved Wilbur from serious injury, although he suffered a multitude of cuts and bruises.

Will and Orv also found that their new glider produced only about one third of the lift they had calculated. And it generated more drag than they had thought it would. They began to think that the fault lay with Otto Lilienthal’s research. In his diary, Wilbur confessed he “…had doubts of the correctness of (the) Lilienthal tables of lift and drag.”

After a week of both manned and unmanned test flights, Will and Orv decided to make some drastic changes to the aircraft. They removed the front spars from where they had been attached to the top surfaces of the ribs and reattached them to the bottom surfaces, altering the shape of the leading edges. They also added a spar in the middle of the bottom wing the purpose of which was to pull down on the ribs of the bottom  and top wings. With a complicated system of wires, strings and turnbuckles, they rigged the glider so the curvature of the ribs was reduced from a camber of 1/12 to 1/19.

Octave Chanute arrived in the midst of this transformation and was on hand for the test flights of the reworked glider on 8 and 9 August 1901. There was definitely some improvement. The drag was reduced somewhat and the glider was more responsive to the controls. Wilbur made some long glides, one stretching 386 feet (118 meters) – an American record and possibly a world record. Chanute, Huffaker and Spratt were thoroughly impressed. Wilbur and Orville were less enthusiastic. They still could not explain the lack of lift. And anything they could not explain gnawed at them.

Octave Chanute left on August 11. Four days later, Wilbur tried to make a few intentional turns in the glider, warping the wings during a flight. This produced another unpleasant surprise. In his diary, Wilbur recorded, “Upturned wing (the portion of the wing with the highest angle of attack) seems to fall behind, but at first rises.” It was the Wrights’ first experience with adverse yaw, the tendency of the aircraft’s nose to swing in the opposite direction of a turn. Wilbur would try to turn right and the glider would yaw left. Here was something else the Wrights could not explain. Their experiments were producing more questions than answers.

Huffaker left soon after Chanute and the Wrights were glad to see him go. He had proved himself a lazy know-it-all with little regard for other people’s feelings or property. Wilbur was certain that Huffaker had walked off still wearing the same shirt he had on when he arrived; he hadn't changed it in weeks. Later, Orville declared that he couldn’t decide which was the most annoying, Huffaker or the  mosquitoes. George Spratt left in more esteem. He and Wilbur had formed a warm friendship. The Wrights found him knowledgeable, witty, and genuinely helpful – they would remain in touch for many years.

The Wrights stayed on at Kitty Hawk for another week, but the flying didn’t improve. In fact, it grew more dangerous. When using the wing warping controls, they found the glider exhibited "a peculiar feeling of instability," according to Wilbur. Sometimes when the glider was flying slowly, the craft would turn sharply in the opposite direction of the intended turn and smack into the sand. On one flight when Wilbur warped the wings, the craft nosed down in a harrowing sideways dive. The resulting crash pitched Wilbur through the elevator and split his forehead.

The brothers were somber when they left Kitty Hawk on 22 August 1901. Despite Chanute and company’s admiration, they considered their experiments a failure and doubted they would continue. The problems they had encountered seemed too complex to overcome. Greater minds with greater resources had tried and failed; who were they to think they could have succeeded? Wilbur told Orville on the train ride back to Dayton, "Not within a thousand years would man ever fly."

“The boys walked in unexpectedly on Thursday morning,” Katharine wrote to her father when Will and Orv arrived. “…(they) haven’t had much to say about flying. They can only talk about how disagreeable Mr. Huffaker was.” But there was a fresh wind about to blow. One week after dragging themselves home in confusion and disgust, Wilbur received an invitation.

In Their Own Words

Most likely, the lift and drag data that the Wright brothers used to design their 1900 and 1901 gliders was this chart from Octave Chanute' s Progress in Flying Machines, published in 1894. Note that the numbers were for a single wing shape, the 1/12 camber that Lilienthal had used.

Charlie Taylor in 1901, about the same time he went to work for the Wright brothers.

Charlie (left) working in the bicycle shop with Orville (right).

Upon their return to Kitty Hawk in 1901, the Wrights built a hangar to house their new glider. They also sank a well by driving a pipe into the sand – note the pump on the left.

Kiting the 1901 glider.

A bottom view of the 1901 glider. Note how large the wings are in comparison to Orville.

Adjusting the complex rigging that holds the wing shape of our 1901 Wright glider replica during our test flights at the North Carolina Outerbanks.

Launching the 1901 glider. Wilbur is in the cockpit, Dan Tate is on the left and Edward Huffaker on the right.

The 1901 glider in flight after the wings had been re-rigged.

A close-up of Wilbur piloting the 1901 glider.

The 1901 Glider after a hard landing.

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The Wright Story/Inventing the Airplane/1901 Wright Glider Experiments

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers
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