Some Question of Success

Most people know that the Wright Brothers had the first successful flights of an airplane on December 17, 1903. Few will know that they actually flew on December 14th, days earlier, in less than preferable weather. The brothers did a coin flip to see who would go first, and Wilbur won. It's often thought that Orville, who flew the first flight on the 17th, won, but no, it was Wilbur, days earlier. With this the first time ever testing the much heavier craft, Wilbur ended up underestimating the controls, and had a hard landing right after take-off due to poor winds coming in at an angle. However, he knew the plane would fly, and wrote to his father, "There is now no question of final success."


Others before, and after, were not as fortunate.


Some people still delight in talking about Samuel Langley's attempts over the Potomac River as being "successful", in that somehow the "Plane" "Flew". In reality, his craft broke and plummeted immediately into the water, and was never air worthy. None of the developments on the plane were used on later aircraft. Even when Glenn Curtiss rebuilt the plane with more modern advancements, it barely was able to lift off of the water and go forward. Curtiss went on to try to steal many of the Wrights' designs, and later became a land baron selling swampland in Florida, by the way. But North Carolina had its share of close calls with flight in other ways.

Henry Gatling was born in Hertford County. He was mostly famous for being the brother of the guy who invented the Gatling Gun. He built a plane based on the observations of buzzards in the 1870s. It was hand powered with blowers sending air under wings to keep it aloft. Some people claimed to have seen it fly, but the description of the plane rolling down a ramped hill, then rapidly descending to the ground where it crashed badly enough that it was damaged beyond repair seems to indicate more of a controlled fall. You'll notice that the plane looks nothing like modern planes and no parts were utilized in future aircraft.

William Luther Paul claimed to have built the first helicopter, testing it inside a hangar, or barn, somewhere around Beaufort, NC. He may have had more success, and his craft might actually have worked. He even sent his plans to the US govt for future use. Unfortunately for him, Orville Wright had a terrible crash which killed a passenger, and Paul's mother made him promise never to fly again.

The first gyrocopter flew over the Wright Brothers Monument. The strange little ultralight helicopter looking thing was powered by a spinning propeller on the back and a large free spinning blade above a simple chair, and was invented in NC by Igor Bensen.


North Carolina was the home to the second lighter than air naval base, which used blimps to patrol the Atlantic coast for U-boats.


At the time, the base had an incredibly large storage hangar which was the largest wooden structure ever built. It burned to ashes after a welder accidentally caught the building on fire.


Francis Rogallo was a North Carolinian who probably knew that there was a good chance of success from his invention. He didn't have to write home to his wife about it, though. Rogallo wanted to fly, but without an airplane, he decided to invent a flexible wing, which he and his family ultimately used in recreation by flying off the sand dunes of the Outer Banks. Rogallo was the inventor and father of hang gliding, which is still practiced today at Jockey's Ridge. His first craft was made out of his wife's curtains.

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