Wilbur and Orville Wright Fly a Kite: The Crucial Early Experiments of 1899

Tom D. Crouch
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The names of the places where Wilbur and Orville Wright made history are familiar to people everywhere who know and cherish the story of the invention of the airplane. The brothers tested their first kite/glider at Kitty Hawk. North Carolina in 1900, then shifted their seasonal camp four miles south to the Kill Devil Hills, where they flew from 1901 to 1903. They perfected their invention at Huffman Prairie, eight miles east of Dayton, in 1904 and 1905, and opened their flying field there in 1910. Wilbur astonished the world with his first public flights from the race course at Hunaudieres, France, in the high summer of 1908, while Orville demonstrated the airplane to the Army trials at Ft.Myer, Virginia in 1908 and 1909. Wilbur taught the first three U.S. Army airmen to fly in 1909 at College Park, Maryland. And there are other familiar places, from Gardiner's Island in New York harbor, where Wilbur took off for his flight around the Statue of Liberty in 1909, to a field near Montgomery, Alabama, where Orville made the first night flights, and began to instruct the young men who would fly as members of the Wright exhibition team.

Ironically, the precise spot where Wilbur tested their first experimental aircraft is unknown to all but the most knowledgeable students of Wright lore. Many of the circumstances surrounding that first Wright flight test remain hazy. The date of the test, even the month, is uncertain. A century after the Wright brothers began their period of active experimentation with the flights of their wing-warping kite of 1899, the time has come to clarify the record in so far as that is possible. How had it begun?

"My brother and I became interested in the problem of flight in 1899," Wilbur Wright explained in February 1912. When queried about the precise date when they had "conceived the invention...[covered in their patent]," Wilbur replied that: "The general idea, which forms the basis of the patent, was conceived about the latter part of June 1899." His brother Orville differed only slightly, noting that the moment of insight had occurred "in the early part of June 1899." Clearly, the late spring and early summer of 1899, when the Wright brothers took their first active steps toward the invention of the airplane, was a critical moment in their story. The spark of interest had begun to smolder three years before, however, when, as Wilbur noted, "...the death of Lilienthal...brought the subject to our attention and led us to make some inquiry for books relating to flight."

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