The Unsung Hero of Aviation
On 17 December 1903, the first motor-powered, manned airplane was flown by none other than Wilbur and Orville Wright. Technically, Orville was the first to fly 120 feet, but they were able to fly four runs on that December day, the longest distance being 852 feet. The brothers arrived at this achievement after years of flying gliders. They had tested and machined their flying inventions at home in Dayton, Ohio, and then practiced flying them on the reliably windy, yet forgiving stretch of sand of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina near Kill Devil Hills. They built their gliders and prototype airplane in the family bicycle shop, dedicating so much of their time to flying vehicles that the bicycle portion of the business was often run by their other siblings while they were gone. It soon became clear that Wilbur and Orville would rather focus on actual plane construction and testing, and so when they needed help with other aspects of the aeronautical business, they naturally relied on their most trusted and capable friend: their sister, Katharine Wright.
The Unsung Hero of Aviation
Wilbur and Orville Wright are the most famous Wrights, but they were two of seven siblings born to Milton Wright and Susan Koerner. Milton was born in 1828 in Rush County, Indiana. He grew up on a farm, but eventually became ordained as a reverend of the Church of the United Brethren. In 1853, he was assigned to Hartsville College where he met Susan Koerner, who was a student at the college. Susan was born in 1831 in Loudoun County, Virginia. Her family moved to Indiana in 1832, where her father worked as a wagon maker and farmer. Susan was one of the rare few women who attended college during the 1850s, and she was noted as being an excellent scholar who was also very capable with making useful objects with her father’s tools.
The couple married in 1859, and Milton was assigned to being a circuit pastor to much of Indiana. Their family was nearly constantly on the move, and Susan had to develop the skills to be a pastor’s wife when he was home and a single parent when he was away. Their children were Reuchlin (nicknamed Roosh), Lorin, Wilbur, twins Ida and Otis (who died in infancy), Orville, and Katharine. The family moved between Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio as Milton’s pastoral assignments changed. Eventually, the family moved back to Dayton, Ohio, for the final time when Milton became editor of the “Religious Telescope,” a United Brethren publication, and was elected to the role of Bishop within the church. Unfortunately, Sarah developed tuberculosis around 1884 and eventually succumbed to it in 1889. Wilbur had been her primary nurse during his mother’s illness.
With Sarah’s early death and Milton’s commitment to his job, these siblings, especially the three youngest, developed a sense of partnership and camaraderie that is difficult to match. Katharine (most often called Kate by friends) took on the role of mother in the Wright house at the young age of 15. She was responsible for not just cooking or cleaning for four men and herself, but also managing hostess duties for when company came, which was often, given Milton’s status. Regardless of the responsibilities heaped upon her teenage life, Kate must have had a deep well of energy and strong sense of family. She wasn’t just a house manager; she was involved with her brothers’ ideas and pursuits, offering support and suggestions as they delved into the challenge of invention.
Three of the Wright children attended college for at least a year: Roosh, Lorin, and Kate, but only Kate graduated. She attended Oberlin College, where she made good friends, participated in clubs, and met a particular young man named Harry Haskell who was part of her friend group and her math tutor. After graduating from Oberlin, Miss Wright became a teacher of Latin at the local high school.
Although Wilbur and Orville did not attend college, they were so technologically minded, that they could solve an engineering problem with experimentation and trial-and-error quickly and in sync with each other, almost as if they read each other’s minds. After a short-lived stint at running a newspaper, the brothers built their first successful partnership with Wright’s Cycle Exchange, which opened in Dayton, Ohio in 1892. They sold, rented, and repaired bikes of many brands. Eventually, they created a different business model by making their own bicycles which included dust-resistant wheel hubs, coaster brakes, and a pedal that wouldn’t come unscrewed as you rode, as well as taking orders for customized personal bicycles. The name of the shop changed to Wright Cycle Company, and they entered into the world of manufacturing. But as small bike shops sold out to larger conglomerates, bikes became increasingly easier and cheaper to make and fix, meaning the profitability of bicycles was soon to wane.
Around 1898, aviation was in the news as an aspect of technology that the United States was keen to develop. Then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt, had granted a contract to Samuel Langley to develop a manned and powered flying machine. The Wrights may have been piqued by the idea of making more money with a flying machine, but once they took on the challenge, it seems they were smitten by flight.
They began experiments with known glider designs as developed by Octave Chanute, who became something of a mentor to the Wrights. After disappointing results using the standard calculations of the day, the brothers began to conduct experiments with wing shapes in a miniature air tunnel they had built, followed by experiments in a larger wind tunnel. They tested over 200 wing shapes, and 50 of those with an in-depth testing process, collecting the data, and crunching the numbers to calculate force, lift, and drag. They applied their findings to a new glider, focusing on how to balance and steer each design. To really get reliable weather conditions to fly, they needed regular and sustained winds. An inquiry of the national weather bureau pointed them to the outer banks of North Carolina, which is where the brothers headed for at least four seasons between 1900 and 1903. They set up a base camp, made friends with some locals, and flew their experimental gliders until they wrecked them too badly to continue flying. They would send for replacement parts back in Dayton at the bike shop, where Kate and Lorin were holding down the fort. When Wilbur or Orville became depressed about their lack of success, battered and bruised from too many crash landings, Kate was the one who propped them up again with encouragement and inspiration.
1903 was the year the Wrights had successfully gotten their plane to fly, but there was concern that their designs would be leaked, and they’d lose the right to patent their invention. They did want to profit off of their hard work, but the money spent on Langley, who had failed to make his Aerodrome fly before the Wrights flew, seemed to make the military disinclined to pay much attention to the Wrights. The battle to be recognized for their accomplishment spurred the brothers to reach out to other countries, but they would not demonstrate their airplane without a contract, again for fear that they’d lose their invention before the patent was awarded. This was a tough sell, especially, since the brothers had not instantly shot to fame regarding their success. They were working on improving their airplane design and test flying it at a field outside of Dayton. This had people in the industry talking, and eventually, the Wrights were acknowledged, the patent was awarded, and their airplane business was born.
Wilbur and Orville were brilliant scientists and engineers, but neither of them were what you’d call “extroverted.” When it came time to rub elbows and make deals, they found themselves at a loss. This is where Kate excelled. Orville had a terrible crash in 1908 as he was demonstrating a two-seater plane with passenger Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge at Fort Myer, Virginia. Selfridge did not survive the crash, and Orville suffered a long hospitalization with several broken ribs, a broken femur, and damage to his spine. Kate took a leave of absence from teaching and went to him in the hospital and stayed until he was discharged six weeks later, managing the business interests in the meantime. Wilbur had gone on to conduct demonstrations in Europe, and he sent for them both to meet him in France.
In January 1909, Kate and Orville boarded a ship for France to join Wilbur. To prepare herself for the task, Kate began to study French. With her language background, she picked it up quickly, and she naturally became the spokesperson for the Wright brothers and their planes. She even rode in the plane at Pau, France, making her the third woman to ever fly in a plane. What really stuck with most people she met, however, was her charm. The wealthy elite and royalty of Europe truly enjoyed her company and found her to be the perfect balance for the more serious brothers. But Kate was not just a pretty face with a fun personality. She was a businesswoman, making deals for the Wright team, and promoting their abilities for future endeavors. All three Wrights were awarded the Legion d'honneur (French Legion of Honor award), for their discovery, advancement, and promotion of aviation technology.
Fame and honor followed them home. The family was celebrated by Dayton on 17 June 1909. The Aero Club of America awarded the brothers with gold medals; in attendance was President Taft. Various other awards and invitations were extended to the family, but the brothers could only focus on contracts that needed to be met and furthering their business and technology.
Wilbur had taken on the duties of fighting patent infringement cases in the court and had been doing so when he came down with a case of typhoid fever and never recovered. He’d made it home to Dayton but passed away on 30 May 1912. Losing Wilbur was a crushing blow to Orville. Katharine became Orville’s official business partner to assist where the loss of Wilbur left a vacuum until Orville sold the company in 1915. He took on the battle of defending his accomplishment of “first in flight” with the Smithsonian, of all institutions. Langley’s Aerodrome was refitted and reworked in 1914 to make it fly so that the Smithsonian could claim retroactively that Langley had been the first in flight. The modifications were required for flight in 1914, however, so the whole exercise was one of deceit. Katherine encouraged Orville to fight this battle for the sake of truth and fairness. Another emotional blow to the family occurred when Milton passed away in 1917.
Katherine pursued her own interests in women’s suffrage and sat on Oberlin’s board as she continued to be Orville’s primary family member, house manager, and cheerleader until 1926, when Harry Haskell from Kate’s college days proposed to Katharine, and she accepted at the age of 52. This devastated Orville and he took it as a betrayal, abandonment, and a slap in the face. He refused to speak to her thereafter until she took deathly ill herself in 1929. Lorin implored Orville to come make peace with their sister on her deathbed, and he came to her side just in time. He was with her when she passed away of pneumonia at the age of 54.
Perhaps Wilbur said it the best, when asked about his sister’s contribution to their success: "If ever the world thinks of us in connection with aviation, it must remember our sister."
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Ancestors in Flight: Researching Passenger Manifests for Air Travel
After the Wrights’ successful 1903 flight, aviation advanced rapidly. The first commercial flight took place in 1914 when a two-passenger airboat successfully transported a single paying customer the 18 miles from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida over the waters of Tampa Bay; this flight, in 23 minutes, replaced a two hour boat trip, a 20 hour car trip or a four to twelve hour train trip. During the 1920s, the United States government began flying the mail in order to create a network for air transportation and in 1927 commercial airlines were born. Commercial air travel surged after World War II as new technology and more affordable fares made flying more accessible to the masses.
Many family historians may not be aware that there are flight manifests available to add to your family history, just as there are ship passenger manifests. Although commercial air travel only dates back about 100 years, there is still valuable information which can be gleaned, whether family members and ancestors traveled domestically or internationally.
Flight records are arranged by airport, so if you are undertaking a targeted search, or are not relying on indexing, you will need to know the airport from which a family member arrived or departed. Arrival records are protected under privacy laws for 75 years and can only be requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) if within that time restriction. This means that records from prior to 1947 are unrestricted, but records from 1947 until the present day are restricted. Additionally, any requests for arrival records post-1957 must include the full name of the passenger, the exact date of arrival, the arrival airport, the airline name and flight number. Documentation for arrivals beginning in December 1982 are held by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and arrival information for immigrants admitted to the United States since 1951 should be included in the USCIS Alien File (A-File).
Departure manifests are seemingly less restricted and research websites such as Ancestry, FamilySearch and FindMyPast each have some digitized records from the National Archives collection which extend well into the 1950s and 1960s. Air passenger lists may be included in a database with ship passenger lists or as separate collections. Digital images are also directly available in the National Archives catalog. Records which have not yet been digitized are available on microfilm at the National Archives; however, access to the microfilm is limited because the film copy is all that remains (the paper originals no longer exist) and the film is fragile.
It is estimated that nearly three million people fly between the twenty thousand public and private airports in the United States every day, making air travel commonplace in the lives of many people. Most of our ancestors never fathomed traveling in this way and these records show a glimpse into the brief window in time when air travel was new, terrifying and exciting!
The majority of genealogically-pertinent records are not found online. Learn more about conducting research offline with our archive article “Have You Included Offline Records in Your Research?”
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