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The airplane’s invention: 10 years later (1918)

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Airplane only ten years old

Just a decade has passed since flying machine was regarded as wonder of world

One night just ten years ago, D Bruce Salley, Norfolk (Va.) newspaper reporter, entered the office of the United States weather bureau at Maneo, NC, and wrote a brief dispatch which he handed to A W Drinkwater, the officer then in charge, with instructions to duplicate it to a dozen metropolitan dallies in the East which he had designated in the upper left hand corner of the sheet. The dispatch tersely stated that Wilbur and Orvllle Wright had flown that afternoon 1,000 odd feet in a heavier-than-air machine propelled by an engine and offered to send the full story on a telegraphic order.

Next morning the world at large was given an accurate account of the Wrights’ epoch-making performance. Their machine — the construction of which was known only to themselves and the few life savers on the North Carolina banks who had aided them lug the big canvas and wooden bird up Kill Devil hill — had soared off into space, had proceeded in a straight line a fifth of a mile and had dropped gently to the sand with neither itself nor its inventors any the worse for the experience. The news, utterly discredited by many scientists and taken with a grain of salt by the public generally, was flashed the length and breadth of the world. The performance was considered incredible.

Contrast in today’s news

Tomorrow’s newspapers will tell of bombing airplanes dropping tons of deadly explosives on the lines of the allies and the central powers in Europe, of myriads of scouting machines circling thousands of feet in the air above these lines and of huge passenger biplanes and monoplanes passing from point to point at speeds of from 100 miles an hour upward. These items will be read casually and with little particular interest because they are common, everyday occurrences.

A day or so before Salley filed in the Manteo office the dispatch which electrified the world, word had been received in several metropolitan newspaper offices that the Wrights of Dayton, Ohio, had gone to Kitty Hawk, NC, where they had appeared in 1903, and were again conducting experiments with a glider, as an airplane without motive power is called.

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Watched flights from treeAs the Wrights’ had obtained some success in glider building, and as rumor credited them with having constructed an airplane engine capable of lifting the glider from the ground and propelling it through the air, several New York newspapers had dispatched staff representatives to the banks. They were at this moment groping their way to this isolated corner of the world, 50 odd miles from the railroad and accessible only by motor boat from Elizabeth City, NC.

Salley, who had “covered” the banks whenever shipwrecks worth while occurred there, had received more accurate advance information concerning the Wrights’ experiments than had the metropolitan newspaper editors, and had dropped down to Manteo, on the Island of Roanoke, some days previous.

Each morning thereafter he had made the ten-mile trip across Pamlico Sound to Kitty Hawk, and from a crotch in a forest tree on the edge of the desert-like banks, had observed activities about the Wright hangar with the aid of a powerful pair of field glasses. His perch also commanded an excellent view of the ocean side of Kill Devil hill, largest of all the giant dunes, up the side of which had been constructed a 300-foot railway.

Twice each day, the Wrights, assisted by the life savers, all of whom had been sworn to secrecy, started the glider down the incline, elevated the plane and shot into the air, to deep gracefully upon the earth after short flights measured in time by seconds. An accurate description of the contrivance in which the Wrights flew was impossible, as no close view of it could be obtained even by an adroit and resourceful reporter. So determined were the inventors to guard their craft with secrecy that they announced they would pack up their machine and return to Dayton the instant they learned they were spied upon. It was no part of Salley’s plan to spoil a good story.

First long flight made

The afternoon of May 6 was cloudy, with a tendency toward rain. The wind was northeast and blowing 14 miles an hour. Ordinarily, the Wrights would not fly in this sort of weather.

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Nevertheless, the machine was brought from the hangar and started. The glasses showed that it was not only equipped with a gas engine, but that it carried seats for two and had a pair of propellers. The group of life savers prevented a clear view of the start, but a moment later, the reporter did see the machine take the air, head directly for the ocean and land a thousand feet distant, apparently under full control of the pilot.

At dusk, no more flights having been attempted, the reporter made his way back to Manteo, well aware that he had a story of worldwide interest, but depressed by the knowledge that the facts would be generally discredited.

Next day, half a dozen newspaper men from New York arrived at Manteo. Every one was a doubting Thomas straight from Missouri. They were all going right over to the flying fields and talk to the Wrights. But they didn’t. For one thing, the Wrights weren’t talking. For another, life savers bobbed up out of nowhere when one had labored through the sand to a point a mile from the hangar. They were acting under special instructions from Washington, which were to the effect that the inventors were not to be disturbed. The Wrights had the legal end of the argument, as they had borrowed the land from the life savers who owned it.

There was but one thing to do, and the reporters did it. They followed the example of Salley and climbed trees. May 11, the Wrights made a flight of two and seven-sixteenth miles and followed this with a flight of two and one-sixteenth miles. The longer flight was made at the rate of 46.774 miles an hour, and the shorter at 32.281. In each instance, as in all the others, it was necessary to wheel the machine to the top of the incline railway, no method at that time being known whereby the airplanes could rise in the air from level ground.

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