Reproduction of "Flyer". Test plane used at Kitty Hawk by the Wright Brothers

When you visit Kitty Hawk, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, don’t miss the story of how a traumatic hockey game put Wilbur on the path to his careful study of flight and invention of the airplane.

For details of our Road Trip to Kitty Hawk and the Outer Banks, see below.

It was a cold day in December of 1884, in Dayton, Ohio. The three boys, young men really, were playing ice hockey in the winter frost. The brothers, Wilbur, age 18 and Orville, 3 years younger, were well-spoken, well-dressed sons of a Brethren Bishop. The third player, Oliver Haugh, was a rough, aggressive young man that would be electrocuted for murder 33 years later.

The game went on. Suddenly, Haugh drove straight at Wilbur, hockey stick lifted high in the air. Did Wilbur even have the puck? Who knows? But with all the force Haugh could gather, the stick drove into Wilbur’s jaw, shattering it and dropping Wilbur to the ground.

Pain and Depression Set In

That violent game was the beginning of three years of darkness for Wilbur Wright. Opioid painkillers and morphine were the only way to reduce the agony. Wilbur would not take the pills, knowing the consequences. Heart palpitations and stomach issues grew out of the never-ending pain.

Wright Brothers Visitor Center at Kitty Hawk North Carolina
Wright Brothers Visitor Center at Kitty Hawk North Carolina

Depression set in, and with it a lack of interest in outside activities. The young man spent the end of his last year of high school recovering at home. Dreams of attending Yale College and becoming a teacher were set aside. How is it that one event can change everything?

For the next three years, Wilbur stayed close to home, his dreams, and his life shattered with the shattering of his jaw. Susan Wright, the boys’ mother, was fading away with tuberculosis. So Wilbur stayed near, caring for her and exploring the extensive library his father had gathered in their home.

But not all trauma ends in failure. 

Falling Out of the Sky

Mankind had been trying to fly for centuries. Now, with easier access to newspapers than ever before, the amused public read stories of the crazy men and their stranger flying machines. They tried so many things. Almost all failed miserably, and often fatally.

Wilbur and Orville also read the stories. The boys became men and Wilbur slowly grew out of his dark spirits. Orville loved mechanical things and built a printing press cobbled together from scraps. The Wright Brothers started their first business, and made a solid income printing advertisements, invitations, and anything else the clients wanted.

Workshop and living quarters used at Kitty Hawk (reproduction)
Workshop and living quarters used at Kitty Hawk (reproduction)

But when the bicycle became the rage, Orville found a new mechanical fascination. So the young men set up shop selling and repairing bicycles.

Meanwhile, the efforts to fly continued. Rich men put money into building engines that could flap wings and then watch them fall to the ground. Wilbur watched the public spectacle with amusement and sadness. He read the story of Otto Lilienthal, the flying man, who successfully glided off the cliffs of Germany many times, until the day the wind kicked up and he fell out of the sky, breaking his neck.

Closer to home, Samual Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian, was funded by the US Government to continue his studies into flying machines, several of which crashed into the Chicago River.

A More Disciplined Approach

But it was Lilienthal’s death that focused Wilbur on the fundamental problem of flight, and got his full attention. Lilienthal had proven that heavy objects, such as birds and people, could rise in the air. But what he also proved with his fatal flight, was that the problem was CONTROL.

Reproduction of "Flyer". Test plane used at Kitty Hawk by the Wright Brothers
Reproduction of “Flyer”. Test plane used at Kitty Hawk by the Wright Brothers

So it was now that the three years caring for his mother, in the quietness of his own home, came to fruition. Why did Wilbur discover what was needed for steady, controlled flight? He had no funding, could build no test contraptions, and he really did not want to die as a test pilot. But all that reading, the long years of curiosity and study convinced him of one thing: it was a math problem.

Wilbur states: “My own active interest in aeronautical problems dates back to the death of Lilienthal in 1896… and led me to take down from the shelves of our home library a book on Animal Mechanism by Prof. Marey, which I had already read several times.”

His next step was to write to the Smithsonian requesting all documents related to existing research, which Langley’s assistant generously supplied. Then Wilbur struck out on his own. With the help of his mechanically minded brother, Wilbur designed wind tunnels and carefully studied the effect of air, lift, balance, power. Some of Langley’s numbers were proven wrong, and Wilbur corrected them.

By the time Wilbur and Orville got to Kitty Hawk, that isolated, wind-driven beach in North Carolina, there was little question that they would fly. So many models, so many hours of research had been focused on the construction of a controllable flying machine, that the results were certain.
The photographer caught the picture of Orville strapped into the plane, with balance and control created by handlebars that looked a lot like a bicycle. And the plane flew.

Distance Markers for the 3 flights on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk
Distance Markers for the 3 flights on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk

The traumatic day on the frozen lake in Ohio began with horror. But the man who emerged from the darkness was passionate and focussed in a way that a teacher from Yale college would never have been.

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