A 1911 image from a Wright brothers' flight at Kill Devil Hills shows a crowd of observers and reporters viewing the event. (Photo courtesy of ECU Joyner Library Digital Images Collection)

Soaring Flight: ECU students study Wright Brothers’ flights in 1911

ECU News Services

East Carolina University students have focused on Wright Brothers’ discovery of  “Soaring Flight” in an exhibit that documents their last expedition to Kitty Hawk in 1911.

In the years following their first flight powered on the Outer Banks in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright continued to push the boundaries of flying. They returned to Kitty Hawk to conduct experiments in unpowered “soaring flight.” The ECU exhibit in Joyner Library commemorates the centennial of Orville Wright’s record-setting soaring flight of almost 10 minutes on Oct. 24, 1911 at Kill Devil Hills.

“Soaring flight is sustained flight, not simply gliding, without the benefit of an engine,” said Dr. Larry E. Tise, Orville and Wilbur Wright Distinguished Professor of History at ECU.  Soaring pilots keep their aircraft aloft with the use of wind and wave currents rising from hills and mountains, by heated moisture currents rising from bodies of water, and by thermal currents rising from heated ground surfaces such as plowed fields and highways, Tise explained. 

Soaring flight, as shown in the exhibit, is distinctly different from the type of “gliding flight” undertaken by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk from 1900 to 1903 and from the gasoline powered flying they did on the same Outer Banks sandy plains in 1903 and 1908, Tise said.

Until the recent research by Tise and his students at East Carolina, very little was known—except by soaring historians—about the Wright brothers’ achievements in this third form of flight. Students looked at three distinctive phases of the history of soaring flight, especially as it related to North Carolina: The Wright brothers’ 1911 soaring flights at Kitty Hawk; the expansion of soaring flight in Germany between World War I and WWII; and the conversion of soaring flight into a powerful glider flight capability by the US Army at Fort Bragg during World War II. 

Most of the exhibit contains the memorabilia and photographs of a New York World reporter, Van Ness Harwood, who was assigned the task of getting the story and making photographs of the Wright Brothers’ 1911 experiments at Kitty Hawk.  Harwood was one of a legion of reporters who descended upon Kill Devil Hills, camera in hand, in 1911.  Through his articles and distinctive photographs that appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s famous newspaper and in Collier’s Outdoor Magazine, Harwood gave Americans perhaps the clearest and most dramatic depiction of Wrights’ newest innovations in flight, Tise said. These portions of the exhibit are drawn from the Special Collections Division at Joyner Library. 

The exhibit, “The Wright Brothers Discover Soaring Flight,” is on display in Joyner Library, first floor, during regular operating hours through December. Sponsored by the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, the exhibit continues the university’s participation in the commemoration of the Wright brothers’ flight experiments in North Carolina from 1900 to 1911 and the eventual establishment of the Wright Brothers’ National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills in 1932. For more information, contact Tise at ECU, 252-328-1026 or at tisel@ecu.edu

For more information about “Soaring 100” commemorative events on the Outer Banks, visit http://tinyurl.com/3dbppnb.

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