CLAREMONT, CALIF. — Ninety-nine years ago, Orville Wright and his brother Wilbur catapulted a biplane of their own making into the air over Kitty Hawk, N.C., and landed in the pages of history.
It marked the first time anyone had ever flown in an engine-powered machine. The catapult was needed because, while the Wright brothers' l2-horsepower engine was big enough to sustain flight, it lacked the drive to make the plane itself airborne.
Even after all these years, though, questions about the Wright brothers still perch on history's clothesline like a row of sparrows.
For example, what were these bicyclemakers from Dayton, Ohio, really like? How much did the gift of a 50-cent toy helicopter from their father, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren, trigger their interest in flight? How could two farm boys, with little formal education, succeed at a venture that had baffled some of the world's greatest minds? How did they happen to build a wind tunnel? How much help, if any, did Wilbur and Orville's two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, and a younger sister, Katharine, provide?
No one, of course, has the answers to all these questions.
However, one source able to provide great insight into the Wright brothers is Margaret Edwards Brown of Claremont, Calif., their grandniece, whose safe-deposit box holds two pieces of damaged wood and one piece of torn fabric from the original plane.
When she was between the ages of 8 and 13, Margaret and her family visited the Wright brothers' home in Dayton about half a dozen times, and took two trips to the family's summer home in Canada. Years later, Orville would pay Margaret's tuition at what is now the University of Kansas after previously putting her mother through Oberlin College.
"Even though Wilbur had died before I was born, the impression I got when I visited their home as a young girl was that Wilbur and Orville [who lived 26 years longer] were first and foremost family men," Mrs. Brown says. "I was always told that they were a lot alike - men who cared deeply about their parents, their brothers and sister, and anyone else who was close to the family. Even as adults, they continued to live with their parents.
"Uncle Orv was very serious. He did not have an expressive face, and after reading most things that have been written about him, you would never guess that he was a prankster," she says. "Yet, he enjoyed jokes and he liked to play tricks, but always with a twinkle in his eye.
"Looking back, I seem to remember that he always had time for family members and that he was easy to be around," she adds. "If I had to put a label on each one from what I know now, I would call Uncle Orv 'the tinkerer' and Wilbur 'the thinker.' "
It wasn't until years later, though, that Brown fully realized the brilliance of the self-taught brothers, who at one point in their research challenged - and disproved - views on wind speed and wing lift that had been accepted for years.
They solved most problems by talking them over, working them out on paper, and, finally, building models that they trusted to the air only after constant testing.
Unconfirmed, but probably true, say historians, is the fact that Wilbur and Orville's glider experiments, prior to moving into manned flight, cost them less than $1,000.
One of their biggest challenges was the need to build an inflexible wing that would allow the plane to bank and turn - an effort at which others had constantly failed. They spent hours bird-watching, with special emphasis on the gull and the hawk.
Brown still vividly remembers the day when her mother (Ellwyn Wright) told her about her first airplane flight in 1911. It was in the much-improved Model B Wright flier, with Orville at the controls.
Improvements over the original model included a 50-horsepower engine, more stability overall, and upright seats that carried a passenger as well as the pilot.
"That morning [of her mother's flight], when Uncle Orv and my mother arrived at the field, the flight had to be postponed because of high winds," Brown says.
"It wasn't until late afternoon that my mother struggled through a maze of wing wires to get to her seat. Mother was excited, she said, but not afraid because of the trust everyone had in Uncle Orv.
"Before they took off, two things happened. A young Army student pilot loaned my mother his leather jacket and goggles and a member of the ground crew tied a string around the bottom of my mother's ankle-length skirt. I've always said jokingly that my mother should get credit for inventing the hobble skirt.
"It wasn't a long flight," Brown continues, "because promises had also been made to take up other members of the family, but I think my mother would have gone up again if she'd had the chance."
The brothers' biplane that flew for the first time on Dec. l7, 1903 in Kitty Hawk ,was built in Dayton. Then it was dismantled, packed in a crate, and shipped by train and barge to its ultimate destination.
Wilbur and Orville considered its two laminated wooden propellers to be its third wing. Photographs, however, don't reveal much of the plane's design.
For example, the plane's engine was placed to the right of center on the bottom wing, so if there were a crash it would not fall on the pilot. The pilot lay prone on the bottom wing to the left of center to help balance the weight of the engine. And the right wing was four inches longer than the left in order to compensate for the placement of the engine.
Kitty Hawk was chosen as the launching pad for the Wright brothers' first flight because of its strong and constant winds; its soft beach sand would cushion landings; and its freedom from gawkers and hangers-on.
It's hard to believe, but working clothes for Wilbur and Orville were always the same two business suits.
Orville's history-making first flight, launched on bicycle hubs along a sloping 60-foot monorail, lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. By the end of the afternoon, in which the brothers each handled the controls twice, Wilbur had the air time up to 59 seconds and the distance to a more encouraging 852 feet.
But even then success had its price. A gust of wind, which flipped the plane over, did considerable damage. The only benefactors were family members (such as Brown), who years later were given pieces of the machine's torn fabric and broken fuselage.
The Wright brothers, knowing the multiple dangers that came with piloting an airplane in those early days, promised their mother they would never fly together and broke that promise only once.
Three years after Wilbur died in 1912 (reportedly a millionaire), Orville sold the Wright Brothers Co. and focused his attention on putting together a small aviation research lab and on organizing Wilbur's papers and drawings.
Orville, who lived in a mansion near Dayton, until his death in 1938, was never far from his family and friends. But visits from outsiders were discouraged, a ban that included some of the country's best-known aviation experts.