The Wright Brothers Take Flight in New Biography


David McCullough is an author, narrator, historian, and lecturer. He’s received two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, and nation's highest civilian award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his new book, The Wright Brothers, McCullough takes us back to 1903 when two unknown brothers from Ohio changed the course of history.

Read an excerpt.

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The Wright Brothers 

By David McCullough

III.

Orville reached Kitty Hawk at midday, December 11, a Friday, and spent that afternoon with Wilbur unpacking “the goods.” Saturday the wind was too light to make a start on level ground. Sunday, as always a day off, they passed the time much as they might have at home, reading and visiting with neighbors, in this case, Adam Etheridge from the Life-Saving Station, who with his wife and children came by to say hello and see the new machine so many were talking about.

On the afternoon of Monday the 14th, all final repairs attended to, the brothers were ready. With the help of John T. Daniels, a robust man who looked as though he could lift a house, and two other men from the station, they hauled the 605-pound Flyer the quarter mile over to the Big Hill to the face of the slope where they had positioned the 60-foot launching track.

When the engine was started up with a roar, several small boys who had been tagging along were so startled they took off over the hill as fast as they could go.

Everything was set. There was no debate or extended discussion over which of them should go first. They simply flipped a coin. Wilbur won and worked his way between the propellers and in among the truss wires to stretch flat on his stomach beside the engine, his hips in the padded wing-warping cradle, whereby he could control the wing-warping wires by shifting his body, and head up, looking forward out through the horizontal rudder or elevator that controlled the up or down pitch of the craft.

Orville took hold of an upright bar at the end of the right wings, ready to help balance the whole affair when it started forward on the track.

Then off they went, Orville running as fast as he could, holding on until no longer able to keep up.

But at the end of the track, Wilbur made a mistake. Pulling too hard on the rudder, he sent the Flyer surging upward at too steep an angle. To compensate, he nosed it downward, but again too abruptly and the ma- chine hit the sand a hundred feet from the end of the track.

The brothers were elated. Motor, launching device, everything had proven reliable. Damage was minor. Wilbur’s error in judgment, from lack of experience with this kind of apparatus, had been the only cause of trouble, as he told the others and explained in a letter to Katharine and the Bishop.

The repairs took two days. Not until late the afternoon of the 16th was the machine ready. While they were setting it up on the track in front of the building, seeing to final adjustments, a stranger wandered by and after looking the machine over, asked what it was.

When we told him it was a flying machine, he asked whether we intended to fly it [Orville would write later]. We said we did, as soon as we had a suitable wind. He looked at it several minutes longer and then, wishing to be courteous, remarked that it looked as if it would fly, if it had a “suitable wind.”

The brothers were much amused, certain that by “suitable wind,” the man had in mind something on the order of the recent 75-mile-an-hour gale.

Only five men showed up the morning of Thursday the 17th, after the brothers hung a white bedsheet on the side of the shed, the signal to the men at the Life-Saving Station that their help was needed. Many, as Orville later explained, were apparently unwilling to face the “rigors of a cold December wind in order to see, as they no doubt thought, another flying machine not fly.”

Those who did turn out felt differently. “We had seen the glider fly without an engine,” remembered John T. Daniels, “and when these boys put an engine in it, we knew that they knew exactly what they were doing.” 

Adam Etheridge and Will Dough had come with Daniels from the Life-Saving Station. W. C. Brinkley was a dairy farmer from Manteo, and the fifth, Johnny Moore, was a boy of about eighteen who had happened by and was curious to know about the strange-looking machine.

Daniels, known to be “a joker,” told him it was a “duck-snarer” and explained how any minute Orville would be going up and out over the bay, where there were ducks by the hundreds, and how he would drop a giant net and catch every one. The boy decided to stay and watch.

Bill Tate, to his subsequent regret, was away at the time in Elizabeth City.

The day was freezing cold. Skims of ice covered several nearby ponds. A gusty wind was blowing hard out of the north. “The wind usually blows,” Wilbur had reminded his Chicago audience in June. It was blowing at nearly a gale force of 20 to 27 miles per hour, far from ideal. The difficulty in a high wind was not in making headway in it but maintaining balance. 

Reflecting on the moment long afterward, Orville would express utter amazement over “our audacity in attempting flights in a new and untried machine under such circumstances.”

Read an extended excerpt.

Excerpted from The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.  Copyright © 2015 by David McCullough.  Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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