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A replica is now available for flying just a few miles from where the Wrights experimented. Above: Our writer enjoys a few moments of stable flight. (Andy Torrington)

Orville, Wilbur and Me

You too can fly a Wright aircraft.

They ran forward and played out a few feet of line while the glider instantly gripped the wind. I held the glider level, and the ground dropped away. I’m flying…I’m flying…I’m really flying this #*%& glider...

I held the elevator steady, kept the wings level, and glanced down. We were still flying straight and they were running down the white dune backward, maybe 20 feet below. While the Wrights had no altimeter on board, that was likely their average altitude as well—though their pal George Spratt estimated that on one glide, they reached 60 feet. While the glider soared, I tried to spot the yellow house. Mostly I allowed the glider to do what it wanted to do. Don’t over-control.

It plunged, spraying sand and jarring my teeth a little.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine.”

The next flight started out as a repeat of the first, but this time, once I was airborne, the glider dipped left and I got busy sliding the cradle right, but over-corrected; now the right wing dipped, and I slid just a little to the left, all while concentrating on holding the elevator level. We were in no danger of well-digging—then, well, the remaining few seconds played out same as before, though the landing went smoother. We didn’t measure the distance, but I may have flown as far as 200 feet. The Wrights made it farther—between September and October 1902, they made between 700 and 1,000 glides, flying from 200 and 400 feet, though their longest flight was 622.5 feet.

On October 23, 1902, Orville Wright wrote to his sister Katharine: “Day before yesterday we had a wind of 16 meters per second or about 30 miles per hour, and glided in it without any trouble. That was the highest wind a gliding machine was ever in, so that we now hold all the records! The largest machine we handled in any kind [of weather, made the longest dis]tance glide (American), the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind!!!”

One hundred and ten years later, strapped to an identical aircraft on the same breezy dunes, I started feeling the excitement Orville had. “The sense of connection with the Wright brothers is the overriding sensation I get while flying the glider,” Andy said. “Knowing that the Wright brothers at one point felt exactly what I felt while flying the glider is pretty amazing.” I knew what he meant. After each landing I was torn between wanting to run to my backpack for a quick swig of water, and run back to prepare for the quickest takeoff possible. Each time I realized that my tongue was sticking to the top of my mouth, I thought: There will always be time for water later, when the wind dies down.

Frequent contributor Phil Scott has flown more than 30 types of aircraft, yet he refuses to drive in Manhattan.

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