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The Wright stuff 

How the impossible happened

Page 4 of 4

Within a week, they were back in the air, but Orville concluded that the fixed rudder had to be movable. They redesigned the rudder and the controls. Eureka! On Oct. 23, Wilbur set a record of 622.5 feet in 26 seconds.

They left Kitty Hawk on Oct. 28, 1902, ready to design and build a powered flying machine.

Triumph of Innovation
They had a lot to do. They had to design a propeller. They had to find an engine. And they had to design wings to lift more weight. They designed a 60-foot takeoff rail. The flyer would ride on two bicycle-wheel hubs, one attached to the front and one under a cart that would hold up the rear and fall away as the plane took off. The wing-warping and rudder were controlled with the pilot's hips, the elevator with a hand control.

When they left Dayton on Sept. 23, 1903, the brothers were determined not to return until the craft had flown.

At one point during testing, the propeller shafts broke. Charlie Taylor back at the bike shop made new ones. They kept tinkering with the engine to produce more power. Then the propeller broke again, and Orville himself went to Dayton to redesign and rebuild it.

While Orville was gone, rival Samuel Langley was set to try once again to fly, from a wharf in the Potomac River. It was Dec. 8, a cold, gusty day. Langley had run through a lot of money, and this was a big moment. Langley had focused on power, not control. The Langley plane sped down the track, the nose lifted ... and flipped over backward. The aerodrome splashed into the Potomac.

Three days later, Orville was back at Kitty Hawk. On Dec. 14, the brothers decided to try a flight. Wilbur won the coin toss to see who would be the first to fly. But the plane rose at too sharp an angle, stalled and fell.

Repairs took till noon on the 16th, but the weather wasn't good that afternoon. The 17th was cold and clear, and a flag went up atop Kill Devil Hill to signal the lifesavers to come help out with another flight. They hauled the craft up the track on the hillside. The Wrights had hoped to take off on level ground, but the plane turned out to be a bit heavier than expected, and they decided to give the engine a little help from gravity to get the craft to takeoff speed.

Wilbur and Orville pulled the propeller to make the engine start. It was Orville's turn to fly. One of the lifesavers observed: "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."

Orville stretched across the wing and checked the controls. Wilbur sent lifesaver John Daniels to the far end of the rail to man the camera set up there. Then Wilbur walked to the right wingtip. About 10:35 a.m., Orville released the line holding the machine in place and simultaneously started a stopwatch, the anemometer and a gadget to measure propeller RPM. The craft started moving, with Wilbur running alongside.

The plane rose. The lifesavers cheered. Then the plane sank back down and landed, 12 seconds and 120 feet after lifting off. "You could have thrown a ball farther," writes Crouch, "but for the Wrights it was enough. For the first time in history, an airplane had taken off, moved forward under its own power, and landed at a point at least as high as that from which it had started -- all under the complete control of the pilot. On this isolated, windswept beach, a man had flown."

After warming up inside the Wrights' shed, they did it again. Wilbur flew 195 feet. Then Orville flew again, for 200 feet in 15 seconds. About noon, Wilbur piloted the most remarkable flight of the day: 852 feet, nearly the length of three football fields, in 59 seconds.

The bishop and the boys' sister Katharine got the telegram at home that evening. The Western Union operator had also sent word to the operator in Norfolk, who in turn passed the word to Ed Dean at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. The exaggerated headline read: FLYING MACHINE SOARS 3 MILES IN TEETH OF HIGH WIND OVER SAND HILLS AND WAVES AT KITTY HAWK ON CAROLINA COAST.

In Dayton, Orville and Wilbur's brother Lorin went down to the Journal office and reported the news to city editor Frank Tunison. "Fifty-seven seconds, hey?" he said. "If it had been fifty-seven minutes, then it might have been a news item."

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