When I received word that I had been chosen to write the cover story for “Great Inventors Magazine,” I was forced to decide on a worthy topic. I knew that this subject must be both captivating and inspiring. There have been many notable inventions over the course of history, but among the most impressive is that of the airplane. Humankind first realized the great accomplishment of flight on December 17th, 1903. This feat was achieved by two brothers named Wilbur, and Orville Wright. Obtaining the story of this monumental event in the words of the innovators themselves became my sole preoccupation. However, there was a great obstacle to address here: The Wright brothers had both passed many years ago. Determined to get the interview, I contacted a local medium and explained my situation. She organized a séance where I was successfully able to contact one of the famed inventors. My conversation with Orville Wright took place on November 1st, 2018, as follows below.
Orville (OW): Hello, what brings you to call on me this fine autumn night?
Matt Maier (MM): Good evening Mr. Wright, I would like to interview you about your great accomplishments if you have the time.
(OW): Yes, now would be fine. I’ve all the time in the world.
(MM): Firstly, if you don’t mind me asking, where am I speaking to you from, and is your brother there as well?
(OW): Well, I am not supposed to talk about that. However, I can tell you I never had to give up my love of flight. I noted a dry humor in his tone. In fact, that is where Wilbur is now. As for our invention, I’d be happy to tell you all that you need to know. Shall we proceed?
(MM): Yes, let’s begin. What do you remember about the morning of December 17, 1903—the day you successfully flew the first powered craft?
(OW): We awoke in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina: A beach area we had determined several years earlier to be suitable for our trial flights (Jakab 85). It was frighteningly cold, with a twenty-four mile per hour wind chill blowing from the north (Crouch 265). We had spent some time at this location however, so we had already grown accustomed to the freezing temperatures.
(MM): How did you manage to cope with such an extreme climate?
(OW): Wilbur and I arranged a simple routine. While one of us attended to daily hygiene, the other “fed chunks of driftwood into a makeshift stove that doubled for heating and cooking” (Crouch 266). The morning of December 17th was much the same.
(MM): What time of day did you begin the trial?
(OW): We postponed the flight attempt until ten a.m. in the hopes that the piercing cold winds would become less severe (Crouch 266). Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. Yet we felt an urgent need to proceed with the experiment (Jakab 209). We hung a white bedsheet to signal a nearby lifesavers camp to request assistance. (McCullough 103).
(MM): Did you have any support present during the experiment?
(OW): Many were reluctant to venture out in the cold for what they believed would be another failed attempt at flight (McCullough 103). However, there were five other men present: Adam Etheridge, John Daniels, and Will Dough, were all members of the lifesavers camp (Crouch 266). Daniels had seen several of our prior tests and was a strong believer in our work (McCullough 103). “They were accompanied by W.C. Brinkley, a lumber buyer from Manteo, who had hiked over to the station to survey the timbers of a wrecked vessel” (Crouch 266). The fifth spectator was Johnny Moore, a young man who lived nearby and wanted to inquire about the peculiar machine (McCullough 103). Daniels enjoyed teasing Moore, saying it was “a ‘duck-snare’,” designed to capture a mass quantity of birds (McCullough 103). They all helped us carry the machine to the testing site, nearly 100 feet west of our camp (McCullough 104). It took us approximately a half hour to position the craft on the launch pad (Crouch 267). We then filled the fuel tank, placed the battery in its working position, and connected it the engine (Crouch 267). Once everything was in place, Wilbur and I pulled the propellers in unison, activating the engine (Crouch 267).
(MM): It was your turn to pilot for this test as Wilbur had taken the helm during the most recent attempt (McCullough 104). How did you mentally prepare?
(OW): As the engine was warming up, my brother and I took a moment to do precisely this. We exchanged a handshake. Embracing for what felt a much longer moment than it surely was, we silently addressed the fear that existed in the back of our heads; something may go wrong, and we may never see each other again (Jakab 210).
(MM): Wright pauses, clearly reliving the tension of the moment. He releases a deep sigh before continuing.
(OW): Then it was time. At ten thirty-five I climbed aboard (Wright 114). “I positioned myself on my stomach at the controls” (McCullough 105). My place was on the left wing, while Wilbur stood at the right to help maintain balance (McCullough 105). The glider faced a wind of twenty-seven miles per hour causing some resistance to the lift; still we proceeded with the launch, slowly but surely gaining speed (Wright 114). It took forty feet of runway for the plane to begin its ascent. (Wright 46). At this time, Wilbur let go of the right wing and I was on my own
(MM): There is a famous photo of this moment. Who was behind the lens?
(OW): The credit belongs to Mr. Daniels. In 1902, my brother and I had purchased a high-end American camera: “a large Gundlach Korona V, which used 5×7-inch glass plates and had a pneumatic shutter” (McCullough 105). Moments before the flight Wilbur had entrusted Daniels with documenting what we hoped to be a historic moment. Although he had no experience in photography, he displayed impeccable timing, forever documenting the moment our machine took to the air (Jakab 210). You can see Wilbur in the photo, watching as our success took form.
(MM): Now for the famous flight. What do you remember about your time at the controls?
(OW): For a variety of reasons I had difficulty stabilizing the plane. The lever meant to balance the rudders was in a less than ideal location, causing the plane to shoot up, then abruptly down (Wright 114). This combined with the force of the winds, creating quite the challenge. One such jolt, about 100 feet from the track, signaled the end of the flight (Wright 114). By the end of the trial I had traveled 120 feet in approximately twelve seconds (Crouch 268). It may not seem like much, nevertheless, it was a success.
(MM): That sounds like a rough landing. Were there any damages to the craft?
(OW): There were minor damages to the lever used to activate the engine, as well as a crack on the underside of the rudders (Wright 115). We abruptly began repairs, and at 11:20 a.m. we were ready for a second trial (Wright 115). This time it was Wilbur’s turn to helm the machine (Wright 115). His attempt was comparable to mine, if not slightly longer. There was a total of four trials that day, each increasingly in distance. Taking place at noon, the final flight belonged to Wilbur (McCullough 106). It began erratically, much like the other attempts; however, after several hundred feet, Wilbur finally seemed to master the controls (Wright 48). After traveling an impressive 800 feet, control of the ship was reclaimed by the winds, bringing Wilbur back to the earth (Wright 115). This was the longest flight of the day, lasting fifty-nine seconds, traveling 852 feet (Crouch 269).
(MM): Were any damages sustained during the day?
(OW): Only minor damage to the frame of the front rudder (Wright 115). The plane survived the trials in one piece.
(MM): Yet one could say the first plane crash happened that day (Crouch 269).
(OW): A strong breeze lifted the plane from the ground. Daniels nobly tried to catch the machine but was instead blown away with it (Crouch 269). The engine became detached from its position, as the craft was torn apart, piece by piece. You could hear Daniels bellow apprehensively beneath the machine as the wires became torn and frayed, rendering the machine unusable (Crouch 269). Luckily, he was not seriously hurt. We did momentarily suffer quite a scare as he lay paralyzed with fear after the accident (McCullough 106). We were relieved to find he had no serious injury, and he lived to create his legend. (McCullough 106).
(MM): This left the flier incapable of flight?
(OW): There was no hope for another flight anytime soon: parts of the wings had broken off, and the guides responsible for directing the chains became deformed (McCullough 106). The seven of us together carried the remains of the machine back to our camp (Crouch 269). We had disposed of the prior models, but this one was far too significant. “We would ship the remains home to Dayton” (Crouch 269).
(MM) I think its important to mention that you and your brother were mostly self-educated in the art of engineering (Anderson).
(OW): We began our building career as bicycle designers, yet we were captivated, perhaps even possessed by the idea of aviation (Anderson). In fact, neither of us ever obtained a high school diploma, although we studied voraciously and were lucky enough to be born into a family that fervently supported intellectual growth (Anderson).
(MM): We should begin wrapping up Orville. I’d like to thank you for your time. But first, have you any words of advice for our readers?
(OW): “‘ If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance'” (Anderson).
There you have it folks. A story of great achievement. Two self-styled inventors who refused to let any obstacle halt their dreams. Together, the Wright brothers lived every possible meaning of the phrase “reach for the sky.” We may often take for granted just how far our society has come with developing technology. It’s important to remember those who strived for this progress many years ago. Next time you see a plane in the sky remember two brothers dedicated their lives to making that flight possible. And if you have a goal of your own in mind, use this thought as motivation moving forward. Most importantly, remember every small achievement is a step toward the future.
Anderson, Amy. “Taking flight: to the Wright brothers, the word ‘impossible’ was just a challenge.” Success, Jan. 2010, p. 88+. Biography in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A214939944/BIC?u=ocea63505;sid=BIC;x id=e3594642.
Crouch, Tom. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. W.W. Norton &
Jakab, Peter L. Visions of a Flying Machine. Smithsonian, 1990.
McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Wright, Orville and Wright Wilbur. The Published Writings of Wilbur & Orville Wright. Ed. Peter L. Jakab and Rick Young. Smithsonian, 2000.
Wright, Orville and Wright Wilbur. Miracle at Kitty Hawk. Ed. Fred C. Kelly. Da Capo Press, 2002.