THE WRIGHT BROTHERS NEVER TRUDGED UP THIS DUNE BAREFOOT. That’s what I’m thinking last spring as I try to negotiate the wings of a 1902 Wright glider up a sandy winding trail carved out of Jockey’s Ridge with Kitty Hawk Kites’ clean-cut manager Bruce Weber and assistant recreation manager Andy Torrington. This exact replica was hand-built in 2002 by renown Wrightist Ken Hyde and The Discovery of Flight Foundation–sort of an artisanal business for the aviation set. This glider’s heavy—about 150 pounds—and bulky—302 square foot of flexible, yellowing canvas wing built just like the original—the same ash and spruce and weatherbeaten, cross-stitched canvas.
The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were tinkerers; they came along before mass-production. They were the kind of guys who today would be found at the Makers Faire and the 3rd Ward or taking their kids over to the Robot Foundry in Gowanus. While the closest they ever got to flying in Brooklyn was Governor’s Island, they did own a small bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, a city that produced more than its share of earth-shattering inventions. (The cash register? Yup, that was born in Dayton.) Everything the brothers did was hand-crafted, from their bicycles to their first powered airplane. If there’s anything to learn about growing an artisanal business, just read a biography of the Wrights.
So far as the ’02 replica goes, fewer than 30 people had ever flown it, but last year Hyde loaned it to Kitty Hawk Kites. It looks fragile, it flexes, creaks, but it always bounces back into shape. It’s tougher than it looks.
On top of Jockey’s Ridge, a couple of miles from Kill Devil Hills , now a national monument, the wheat-color biplane gets curious looks out of the kite fliers and vacationers having the adventure of their lives hanging their butts over the edge of the envelope on a tethered student hang glider. “A lot of people don’t know what it is,” Bruce says, “but they know they like it. When flying it try to make small movements. The Canard [which controls pitch–pilots call it the Elevator] may flutter—the springs dampen it. Don’t over-control it.”
Don’t over-control it. Especially if it’s rattling to pieces. “Keep your eyes up,” he continues. “Hop until your foot doesn’t touch the ground, then get it across the bar. On landing just belly in and keep your feet up.”
Sand rolls up the dune from the southeast, and at Bruce’s signal we lift the glider off the dune. The glider tries to alight and I hold the elevator in neutral and pull the other leg up and hook my toes over the bar. Then I’m flying…on my stomach behind that famous football-shape elevator…
Without altitude or warning it noses down and I roll the elevator back which doesn’t help the airspeed at all. The glider sort of slams into the dune.
We launch again.
I’m flying…I’m flying .… The left wing dips and reflexively I shove my hip left, and the tip stabs the sand and the glider spirals. The Wrights called it “Well-digging.”
From the south the wind picks up to a steady 20 mph. The glider instantly grips the wind, I hold it level, and the ground drops away. I’m flying…I’m flying…I’m really flying this #*%&ing glider… I hold the elevator steady and level and glance down…we’re still flying straight, they’re running down the white dune backward, maybe 20 feet below. While the glider soars I allow it to do what it wants to do. Don’t over-control.
It plunges and sprays sand and jars my teeth a little.
“Are you okay?” He’s worse than my mother.
That afternoon we, the Wright glider and I, make a total of 10 flights altogether. After each landing I’m torn between asking for a quick swig of water or running back through wire bracing and strapping in to prepare for the quickest takeoff humanly possible.
My tongue sticks to the top of my mouth, but there will always be time for water later.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: Why is the pitch control called the Canard? Isn’t that a French expression for “a big, fat lie”?
A: It means “duck,” because to the French the whole airplane resembled a fleeing duck.
Q: Why didn’t you just put in some high-tech robot guidance stuff and stand by in relative safety to test fly it?
A: People tried that before the Wright brothers and couldn’t make it work. (See my book Then & Now for a more complete answer. If you’re asking why didn’t “I” do it, that’s because I’m a manly man who enjoys pain.)
Q: Is it true you used to keep the wing of an airplane in your New York apartment?
A: Yes, the rumors are true. When I moved to Florida I donated it to an aeronautical school in Tampa.
Q: Would you ever fly that replica again?
A: In a heartbeat. I’ve flown more than 30 types of aircraft and loved them all, which is why I’ve been called the Phlying Philanderer.
Phil Scott is an executive editor of Brooklyn Artisan.