On a breezy Thursday in 1908, five big-city reporters hid in a patch of woods, scratched at chiggers biting their sweaty bodies and bore secret witness to the marvel of a new century: the Wright Brothers circling Kill Devil Hill in a gasoline-powered airplane.
The famous pair had been flying for several years, notching the world's first powered, manned, controlled flight on the Outer Banks in December 1903. But they were secretive, distrustful and obsessed with protecting their own patent from competition, so few had seen them fly. For all the world knew, the Wrights were fakers.
East Carolina University history professor Larry Tise argues in a new book that this 1908 moment of clandestine journalism was the most pivotal for the Wrights and for the history of flight. Once these reporters filed their stories -- shot through though they were with errors and exaggerations -- the world knew for the first time that it was possible to launch a manned machine into the air, keep it going, and steer it.
"In all the swoop of a single day, the world stopped speculating about the possibilities of flight and watched in awe as it was demonstrated to anyone who could read," Tise writes in "Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk."
The Wrights have ranked as North Carolina heroes for a century, and the state still claims them on its license plate and quarter despite howls of protest from Ohio, the state where the Wrights lived as they developed their flying machine. But Tise's book paints them in uncommon and not always flattering detail, showing their suspicious natures and contempt for both publicity and business. After 1908, when they were immediate celebrities around the world, flight technology passed them quickly by, and they spent the ensuing years mired in lawsuits, trying to keep rivals out of the sky.
They were tinkerers, Tise says. Though the Wrights craved fame and riches from their invention, they wanted it on their own terms and at their own chosen moment. They were happiest as solitary inventors in Dayton. And they chose the Outer Banks partly because it was so isolated, reachable only by small boats and inhabited by a few hundred people. For this reason, nobody yet knew of the Wrights' experiments and breakthroughs on the barrier islands, including the historic 1903 first flight. There were rumors, but no proof. The recognized airmen of 1908, when the Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk for a new round of tests, were often French.
"This really became the impetus to carry their invention and technology to other parts of the world," said Jeffrey Crow, deputy secretary of the N.C. Office of Archives and History. "You could look at these 1908 experimental flights as, not to be too trite, but as a launching pad."
Tall tales from the locals
Tise has long dug into the lives of North Carolina's historic players, and he recently formed a group to reconsider Sir Walter Raleigh -- namesake of the state capital who never set foot in the state. He chose to dig into the Wrights' character at the moment they moved out of obscurity, and his book shows new detail of the characters that surrounded them.
He spends many pages describing the Kitty Hawk locals, coarse seamen who rarely spoke of anything beyond storms, boats and fish. Tise describes them as both hospitable and curious, and prone to tall tales, and the book's photographs show their broad shoulders and thick moustaches. They manned lifesaving stations on the Outer Banks, helping the Wrights lug planes and gear.
"They probably didn't fully understand what they were doing," said William Harris, former Kitty Hawk mayor. "Somebody setting up a tent on a sand hill with a barrel of gasoline inside a tent -- that's kind of a little bit weird. I don't know that the local people had seen a tent before."
These same lifesavers, Tise suggests, were the first to tip off reporters to the Wrights' feats on the Outer Banks. Before they even started flying, an account appeared in the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk describing their trip 10 miles out over the ocean. The newspaper's report was fraught with nautical terms, Tise writes, making the locals a likely source for leaks.
But even when reporters arrived from New York and London, the Wrights refused to demonstrate their flights and threatened to shut off experiments altogether. So each day, the correspondents would bring a picnic basket from the Tranquil House in Manteo and conceal themselves among trees a half-mile away. From this vantage point emerged the first photograph of a Wright plane in flight not taken by the Wrights themselves.
"There were exactly five persons there as witnesses of these magical performances," wrote Byron R. Newton of the New York Herald, "five newspaper correspondents, each of whom regarded the Wright Brothers as little more than theorists, dreamers or fakirs, until they saw the big aeroplane mount into the air, and, clacking like a great sea bird, come circling over their heads."
Nearly all the details they reported were wrong. But the mistakes, Tise notes, melted into history. Before long, both Wilbur and Orville Wright were flying in public, almost daily, shocking American and European crowds.
And almost as soon as the Wrights' secret was out, it was obsolete. In 1911, Tise said, a stunt pilot was turning loops to delighted audiences at the N.C. State Fairgrounds while Orville Wright was back in Kitty Hawk testing gliders. All they had left was their original 1905 flying-machine patent, which they defended so vigorously that in 1912, a weakened Wilbur Wright died of typhoid. Orville Wright, devastated, contributed little or nothing more to the world of flight.
"Instead of getting recognition at that time as people who really taught the world how to fly," Tise said, "they became these ogres who were trying to stop everybody else from flying."
But in Tise's pages, you can catch the Wright Brothers in their last days as wild-eyed inventors, young men full of ideas, catching the Kitty Hawk wind.
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