Wright Brothers: 100th Anniversary of Longest Glider Flight

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"For some years," wrote Wilbur Wright in 1900, "I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life."

Three years later, on Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright's infection led to the first powered airplane flight, at Kill Devil Hills, N.C. But they were not cured. Their "Flyer" bounced around unsteadily in the gusts on the Outer Banks, and on the fourth flight of the day, it crashed, breaking several struts.

So, being more engineers than romantics, they packed up and went home to Ohio, and concentrated on making their flights more stable.

On Oct. 24, 1911 -- 100 years ago today -- Orville Wright was back at Kitty Hawk with a glider. Forget the engine for now; soaring was attracting a following of its own. The winds were howling at up to 50 mph. Orville lifted off from a sand dune and stayed in the air for 9 minutes and 45 seconds. It was not a powered flight, it was an experiment. It was a soaring record that would stand for a decade.

"The exhilaration of flying is too keen, the pleasure too great, for it to be neglected as a sport," Orville wrote.

There was a ceremony today at Kill Devil Hills, crowded with aviation enthusiasts.

Tom Crouch, a long-time curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington and biographer of the Wrights, says the brothers approached flying, not as a quest, but as a technical problem to be solved. Flying, which they had already done, was one thing; flying at length and keeping under control was a greater challenge to them.

"When you look at them, these aren't two guys who were dying to go out and burn holes in the sky," said Crouch when we spoke to him on the centennial of their first powered flight.

Wilbur Wright would die of typhoid fever in 1912, and Peter Jakab, a colleage of Crouch's at the museum, said Orville took it hard. He would never fly again from Kill Devil Hills, and never piloted a plane after 1918. Celebrated as a pioneer but frustrated as a businessman, he sold the Wright's aeroplane company in 1916. He lived until 1948, and said those experiments at Kitty Hawk were the best times of his life.

"Orville sent a letter to a friend of his," Crouch told us, "in which he said, 'You know, isn't it wonderful that all of these secrets have been preserved, all of these years, just so that we could uncover them?'"