“The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It’s easy to say, ‘We have flown.'”
That was the editorial published in the Paris Herald Tribune in 1906. Europeans were openly skeptical of the claims of two bicycle mechanics from the midwest and that was partly due to the brothers themselves. After their initial flights at Kitty Hawk in 1903, they got very secretive about their work, making very few public flights. They were busy teaching themselves more engineering in order to solve a long list of aeronautical problems and filing for patents.
They were also busy trying to get contracts with the US government and a French syndicate.
They made no flights at all between 1906 and ’07, but by the spring of 1908, it was time to fish or cut bait. Wilbur went to Paris to demonstrate their Flyer III and Orville did the same at Fort Meyer, Virginia. On Sept. 9, he made the first hour-long machine propelled flight ever. Actually, it was 62 minutes.
Meanwhile, Wilbur was having a big success in France. The entire European flying community – which was large, active and varied – was buzzing about the smooth handling of the Flyer as Wilbur banked and turned and flew figure eights. Public apologies for doubting the Wrights were quick in coming and public adulation was frenzied. No longer a “bluffeur,” Wilbur was soon joined by Orville and their sister Katherine. The three were instant celebrities, feted everywhere.
One of Europe’s early flying enthusiasts, Otto Lillienthal of Germany, was not there to see them fly, having died in 1896 in the last of his more than 2,000 solo glider flights. But it was Lillienthal’s experiments and calculations that the Wrights had used in their initial designs.
Wilbur and Orville got their patents and contracts and went into business. But Wilbur died of typhoid in 1912 and Orville sold the business not long after. Neither of the Wright brothers ever married. Orville built a mansion in Oakwood, Ohio, where he lived with his father and sister. When Katherine finally married at the age of 52, Orville was so angry he refused to attend the wedding, though they later reconciled.
Orville, who lived to be 76, was a founding member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency which evolved into NASA – a nice symmetry.