MEN CLAMBERED UP TREES FOR A BETTER VIEW WHILE THE LADIES RAISED their long skirts and ran down the grassy runway to keep up with the crowd. People came by the thousands to see the most remarkable sight of their era: Wilbur Wright flying an airplane over the fields of France in 1908. His performance and Orville’s later equally dramatic time trials at Fort Myer, Virginia, were the brothers’ first official public flights and the first time the masses had witnessed the Wright aircraft in action.
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It’s impossible today in our technology-saturated society to grasp the awe people felt as the thresher-like sound of the engine filled their ears and the 32-foot-long white wings rose over their heads. They might have imagined that man could fly, but as Orville himself later observed, “Flight was generally looked upon as an impossibility and scarcely anyone believed in it until he had actually seen it with his own eyes.”
The two men from Dayton, Ohio, seemed an unlikely pair to be the first to build a workable airplane. Quiet, reserved, extremely devoted to family and a select group of friends, Wilbur and Orville Wright did not relish the limelight. Orv, the dapper younger brother, felt most at home tinkering in the bicycle shop or horsing around with his nieces and nephews. Will read extensively and kept to himself. Captivated on an intellectual level by the mysteries of flight, they aggressively picked away at each intricate piece of the problem. They did not, however, want the world to gawk at them while they worked toward a solution.
But after Wilbur completed his first controlled turn over the field at Le Mans, France, the brothers could no longer hide from the public eye. To their chagrin, they had become the century’s first international celebrities. For years their secrecy had made many doubt their claims of success at Kitty Hawk, but after Wilbur’s flights in France, the world “instead of doubting that we could do anything [was]...ready to believe that we can do everything,” the pilot wrote his brother.
The two men never adjusted to fame. When they returned from their flying exhibitions in Europe in 1909, their hometown, Dayton, Ohio, wanted to throw an elaborate parade and party in their honor. Mortified, and intent on getting back to work so Orville could complete his tests for the U.S. military at Fort Myer, the two brothers pleaded, to no avail, with city officials to cancel the event. Ever proper, the Wrights attended, but when asked to speak, Wilbur stepped to the microphone, said, “Thank you, gentlemen,” and sat down.
FIRST WITNESSES From 1901 to 1903 the skittish brothers allowed only a few people to their campsite, most of them local men who could help them move their gliders and, later, the 600-plus pound Flyer around in the sand. The end result: a post office worker, rescue station volunteers, and a curious beekeeper, not scientific colleagues, provided the first detailed public accounts of the Wrights’ progress.
“We couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, sort o’ like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d ever see one another again.”
—A volunteer from the nearby U.S. Life Saving Station, who witnessed the brothers talking as Orville prepared for his first flight in the Flyer on December 17, 1903
At the time, few lay people understood the difference between flying for miles in an airship and piloting an airplane. The fact that Orville stayed aloft for 12 seconds in front of a handful of men didn’t make very good copy. A Virginian-Pilot reporter decided to embellish his story.
“Flying Machine Soars 3 Miles in Teeth of High Wind Over Sand Hills and Waves at Kitty Hawk on Carolina Coast