The Foundation of Wayne Community College scored another success this past Monday when it invited Darrell Collins, retired from the National Park Service at the Wright Memorial after 38 years in the division of interpretation and education, to speak about “The Miracle at Kitty Hawk.”
Against a background of slides which Collins’ wife Tonya directed, Tommy Jarrett introduced the speaker, relating that Collins was descended from ancestors who lived in the Freedmen’s Colony and had a 150-year history on the Outer Banks. Collins began the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright with a toy propeller, explaining that the brothers’ father, traveling in his role as a bishop in the United Brethren in Christ Church, brought home a toy helicopter for his children. Toy flying machines the boys saw at the State Fair further inspired their interest in flight so that at ages 7 and 11, they were constructing toy airplanes that could fly.
Collins said that the brothers gained their mechanical ability from their mother and her family of wagon builders whom she watched as a child and into womanhood. She died early from tuberculosis, but the Wright brothers’ father was able to fly at age 82 in the 1903 plane that Orville piloted. Collins said that Bishop Wright shouted, “Higher, Orville! Higher!”
Collins pointed out that the aviation principles the Wrights discovered are the same as those that govern flight today, whether a submarine, helicopter, missile, spacecraft, rockets, glider, or drone. Collins said the Wrights, both superior in their math skills, solved the two problems of flight — lift and control. They developed the controlled system of modern aircraft — roll, pitch and yaw. The glider they constructed weighed 250 pounds, requiring the use of local people and men from the local lifesaving station (now the U.S. Coast Guard) who responded to a suspended bedsheet, the brothers’ signal that they needed manpower to launch the gilder.
When the Wrights were trying to decide upon the best location to experiment with a launch, they researched the weather stations to find the place where wind speeds were constant. Kitty Hawk was sixth on the list, and it offered four elements important to the Wrights: isolation, privacy, secrecy and Southern hospitality. The Wrights wrote to the mayor of Kitty Hawk, William Tate, who welcomed them to Kill Devil Hills. Collins said that the name originated from a whiskey maker who made drink so strong that it would kill the devil. Tate’s wife Annie was intrigued with the sateen fabric the Wright brothers used on the glider. She used an 1889 Kenmore sewing machine to make the wing coverings for the glider. When the Wrights eventually departed, they gave the surplus fabric to Annie who made dresses for her children. Collins said the sewing machine will be on display when the Wright Brothers Museum has its grand opening on Oct. 20.
While wind conditions may have approached being ideal, the sand presented another problem because wheels would sink. The brothers built a monorail track from which they hand-launched the 17-foot glider. The monorail consisted of four 16-foot pieces of wood. Over a four-day period, they attempted four flights, the first lasting 12 seconds for 120 feet; the second, also 12 seconds for 175 feet, the third, 15 seconds for 200 feet; and the last, 59 seconds for 825 feet. The engine alone weighed 180 pounds. The brothers flipped a coin to determine who would fly first, the loser winning the coveted position. Wilbur “won” the toss, but the glider stalled, making Orville the first man to fly a powered aircraft. Thankfully, because of the Wright brothers’ interest in photography, they had a camera at the ready. John Daniels from the lifesaving station took the picture of Orville, but he was so startled by the flash exploding that he was unsure of what he captured. By luck, he caught the iconic shot of the glider aloft with Wilbur running alongside.
The inspiration for the biplane glider design came from Octave Chanute (1832-1910), an American civil engineer and aviation pioneer born in France. Chanute, according to Wikipedia, designed both the Chicago and Kansas City Stockyards as well as many bridges. He wrote a definitive book, “Progress in Flying Machines,” which Wilbur Wright read. Chanute visited the brothers at Kitty Hawk and encouraged them in their endeavors.
Collins distributed a brochure which names German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) as the first true glider pilot. A mechanical engineer by training, Lilienthal built a machine shop and flight factory after his service in the Franco-German War. He too wrote a book about his research data, which served the Wrights as they undertook their earliest aircraft designs.
Throughout his presentation, Collins rewarded those who gave correct answers to his questions with key chains, decals, and other trinkets from the Park Service. He used his voice for dramatic pauses and rises as he shared his excitement about these intrepid aviation pioneers whose experiments undergird modern flight. He evoked tears in some of us when he related that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he carried with him a swatch of the sateen fabric from the first glider. Collins made us appreciate anew these bicycle shop owners from Ohio who came to Kill Devil Hills where they achieved what had been thought impossible — the first powered flight.
Collins related an incident during which a visitor inquired why the brothers had never married. A new park ranger, at a loss, replied, “Because they were geniuses.” Indeed, they were, and as Wilbur predicted, their achievement would be magnificent. Sadly, Wilbur died of typhoid fever nine years after the successful first flight. The Wright brothers found greater reception of their ideas and achievement in Europe where they, along with their sister Katherine, were regarded as celebrities. Their innate intelligence and mechanical ability, their ambition to achieve flight, their savvy business sense that made them wealthy — all mark these men as American heroes.
Thanks to the Foundation program planners for another enlightening, entertaining evening.