Arts & Culture
2:29 pm
Thu December 3, 2009

Conquering The Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk - Larry Tise

Conquering The Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk - Larry Tise

New Bern, NC – INTRO - The telegram sent by Orville and Wilbur Wright from Kitty Hawk to their father and sister in Dayton, Ohio on December 17, 1903 was brief with mention of "success four flights Thursday morning" and "home Christmas." However, widespread recognition of the brother's accomplishments didn't come until five years later when they paid another less-known visit to North Carolina's Outer Banks. Author and ECU professor Larry Tise refers to that 1908 visit as the Wright Brothers' "secret flights" and discusses them in his new book "Conquering the Sky." George Olsen spoke with the author and has this.

Our license plates are inscribed First in Flight and that settles it, right? The Wright Brothers were the first to send a powered heavier than air craft into the skies. But despite all we know and that iconic photo of the Wright's Kitty Hawk Flyer skimming above the Outer Banks dunes Larry Tise will tell you there's still debate about who got to the skies first.

"In fact I spoke in Washington recently and I said if you go stand beside the Wright Brothers first flyer, the Kitty Hawk flyer, at the Air and Space Museum today, just listen to what people are saying. Somebody will come in with a French accent and say "no no no no no." Somebody will arrive from Brazil and say "no, they don't tell the story straight."

You can blame the fact there's still some type of debate going on with the Wright Brothers themselves.

"They were absolutely certain and they were living in a time when people stole ideas from other people and went out and filed patents, basically taking away the rights from inventors they were very much afraid that if somebody saw them fly, if somebody even saw their machine or saw a picture of their machine, their secrets of how to fly would be stolen immediately."

Which is why that 1903 photo we're so familiar with today was never published until 1908. Another reason some question still remains in some people's minds again falls back on the actions of the Wright Brothers. They discovered the secrets of flight in 1902 during glider experiments on the Outer Banks. At that point they made a switch from inventors to entrepreneurs.

"After their flights in 1903 and they realized they had a real flying machine, the first thing they wanted to do was sell it. And so if you want to sell something, this being America, the first thing you do is get a patent, and so in early 1903 before they had the powered flight they went for a patent from the U-S Patent Office. It took them three years to get the patent so they could protect what they had discovered. As soon as they had the patent which was in 1906 they tried to sell the plane. They tried to sell the plane in 1907 unsuccessfully. It wasn't until January 1908 they had two contracts to build airplanes one was with the U-S Government and another contract was with a business syndicate in France. The condition of the contract was they had to fly for an hour, they had to fly with a passenger and they had to fly at a speed of 125 mph."

And that was the reason for their return to the Outer Banks in 1908. The Wrights had flown successfully in their native Ohio but to achieve the parameters they had to accomplish in order to sell their invention they wanted to experiment in the favorable winds and soft place to fall provided in North Carolina. Talk of flight was all the rage at the time, and with the Wright Brothers prior claims of flight their arrival on the Outer Banks also prompted the arrival of the press, eager to prove or disprove the Wrights' claims.

"But after the reporters arrived desperately trying to get the story and get the story right, they were constantly being deceived by the Wright Brothers who basically would say to the reporters if the reporters arrived at Kill Devil Hills we won't fly as long as you're here, so the reporters would retreat from the flying field in fear the Wrights wouldn't fly."

And that produced some spectacularly inaccurate reporting. There were eyewitness accounts of Wright Brothers flights in 1908 at a time when the plane hadn't even been constructed yet. And even when they did position themselves to see something, such as on May 14th, 1908, they often missed crucial and obvious details.

"So Wilbur took off and was flying in circles very beautifully and the reporters didn't see him anymore so they thought he must have landed so they went back to Manteo to write their stories. They wrote all their stories and said this morning the Wright Brothers had a passenger flight and that Charles Furness was on the flight and in the afternoon Wilbur did his long awaited distance flight but it was only 8 minutes, it wasn't an hour long. That's what they knew. They wrote those stories and sent that out. But in the evening the lifesavers again showed up and said Mr. Wright crashed. He tore his machine to smithereens and he was hurt."

Wilbur Wright's injuries that day were minor "bruises" according to the brother's written reports. Despite the inaccuracies, the reporters did come up with one indisputable proof of the Wright Brothers' claims a single photograph taken at some distance of the Wright Brothers' aircraft in flight a photograph that was seen by the public before the now iconic 1903 photo made its way to print. The Wright Brothers left the Outer Banks convinced they could meet the demands of their sales contract and they did, with public demonstrations by Wilbur in France in August and Orville in Virginia in September of that year, making them the preeminent aeronauts of their time. But to some degree their fears about others stealing their ideas came to fruition and within a short amount of time others were making airplanes of similar or superior capabilities than the Wrights. And with that what they had left was their claim of first in flight with a heavier-than-air craft and that was a topic of debate in the U-S until the 1940s. Larry Tise says their secretive ways anchored in their entrepreneurial hopes clashed with their engineering achievement and delayed the acclaim that was deserved.

"But in my analysis they decided in 1902 after they figured out how to fly they really wanted to follow in the footsteps of Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and other inventors who were able to transform their inventions into making money, and I think that's what animated the Wright Brothers. So if their goal was to make money and to sell their invention, they did exactly what they should have done. But if their goal was to get credit for making the first powered flying machine that was a controlled machine, then they didn't play it well."

Larry Tise is the Wilbur & Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History at East Carolina University and the author of "Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk" published by Palgrave MacMillam. I'm George Olsen.