The Winds of Kitty Hawk (1978)





Director:     E. W. Swackhamer. 

Starring:     Michael Moriarty (Wilbur Wright),  David Huffman (Orville Wright),  Tom Bower (William Tate),  Robin Gammell (H.A. Toumlin),  Scott Hylands (Glenn Curtiss),  John Randolph (Alexander Graham Bell),  Kathryn Walker (Kate Wright),  Eugene Roche (Bishop Milton Wright),  John Hoyt (Prof. Samuel Langley),  Joseph Bernard (Mayor of New York),  Lew Brown (Harlan Mumford),  Carole Tru Foster (Agnes Osborne),  Dabbs Greer (Ace Hutchin),  Mo Malone (Elizabeth Mayfield).

story of the Wright Brothers who had the first flight in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

1897l  It's the Annual July 4th Picnic of the United Brethren Church of Dayton, Ohio.  Fire works are set off and a band plays a marching tune.  Wilbur Wright is not at the picnic, but still stuck at the bicycle shop.  Sister named Kate Wright volunteers to go get him.  For several years now Wilbur  has been thinking that flight is a possibility for man.  Kate comes into the bicycle shop and scolds Wilbur for not remembering that this is the day of the 4th of July picnic.  Wilbur admits that he did forget.  Kate says that Wilbur also promised Elizabeth Mayfield that he would spend the day with her. 

At night there are more fireworks.  Wilbur apologizes to Elizabeth for keeping her waiting.  She says that she would like to help him with his work until he succeeds.  Wilbur tells her that he does believe that man can fly and some day men will be riding on rockets.

Dayton, Ohio, Summer, 1900.  Wright Cycle Company.  The banker Mr Mumford doesn't understand why Wilbur insists on going 500 miles to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to test his glider.  Wilbur says it's because the winds are steady and there are miles and miles of sand dunes with no trees to ram into.  Mumford is disturbed about the whole project.  He says a man could get killed doing a project like this.  Wilbur says that if he can get this plane a few feet into the air that will put him in the history books.  And isn't that worth a little risk?   Mumford likes the idea of making history, so he agrees to release $500 dollars to Wilbur and Orville Wright. 

The father of the Wright brothers is also skeptical about the flight project.  Wilbur tells his father that he is now 33 years of age and the only thing of significance that he has done is to graduate from high school.  He says with a little bit of help from Orville, he is sure he can be the first into the air, or Orville can.  He says he doesn't give a hoot about the bicycle business.  Kate tells Wilbur to go ahead and do it. 

Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, September 1900.  Wilbur went to Kitty Hawk first.  He decided to build a new airplane rather than bring the one out from Dayton.  Wilbur rents a place at Mr. Tate's home.  He also puts up a long tent where can sleep and prepare food.   Tom Tate is the boy of the house and he wants to help Wilbur. 

Wilbur sets his airplane on the beach.  Orville says:  "She's the most beautiful creature I've ever seen."  In heavy winds the brothers sail the airplane like a kite.  Mr. Tate comes out to help the brothers.  He warns the brothers to be aware that they could be killed trying to fly their contraption.  

Wilbur tries to get on the glider while Mr. Tate and Orville hold down the two sides.  He makes it on his second try.  Orville and Tom say they thought Wilbur was going to be killed.  Wilbur says he did too. 

Professor Stanley Langley is set to try to fly his motorized glider.  This doesn't worry Wilbur, but Orville is concerned.  Then it finally occurs to Wilbur that Langley is about to fly and he expresses some concern. 

Washington, D.C. 1901.  Langley demonstrates a pilotless glider flying around a small building.  He tells Alexander Graham Bell that man will fly within three years.  Bell is thrilled about the idea. 

There are gale force winds at Kitty Hawk that damage the brothers' glider.  Orville estimates it will take them a whole week to get the plane back in shape to fly. 

Prof. Langley is getting more government funds.  Orville says:  "He's the competition."  Wilbur doesn't agree.  He says that Langley is merely the gadfly, not the competition. 

Dayton, Ohio, June 1901.  Wright Cycle Company shop.    Dad comes to the shop and finds the boys working on the plane, not on selling bicycles.  Again he is feeling worried about the boys getting hurt or killed.  He asks the fellows when will they be leaving for Kitty Hawk?  Wilbur says in about a week. 

Dayton, Ohio, August 1901.  The guys are at the railway station to ship their box with the glider in it to Kittyhawk.  This time Orville serves as the pilot.  The glider goes a long ways, until it lands in the sand.  Orville tells his brother:  "It was like shaking hands with the wind."  Now Wilbur is going to be the pilot.  Orville tells him the winds are too strong, but Wilbur says:  "Orv, I never figured to live forever."  So the two men push him into the winds and away the glider goes.  Orville keeps telling Wilbur to bring his nose down or he is going to stall. Wilbur doesn't point the nose down and a gust of wind pushes him upward, but then the wind switches and the glider plunges to the sand. 

Wilbur's head hurts and his back too.  He tells his brother that this is the way the great glider pioneer Lillienthal died.  They need more lifting power, he says.  They need a new design.  Wilbur will pack up everything while Orville will go back to the bike shop. 

Washington, D.C.  The army men tell Langley that they are worried about the progress of the Wright brothers.  Langley tells them that those boys are just two bicycle salesmen.  The men in uniform tell Langley that aviation authority Octave Chanute made a good case for the Wright brothers.  The army wants the testing of Langley's latest design to be done in private. 

Dayton, Ohio.  October, 1901.  In Wilbur's absence, Orville has been experimenting with wing lift with the use of a large fan. When Wilbur gets home he is amazed at the amount of progress Orville has made.  Orville says:

October 6.  "We will test the effects of wind velocity on ... wing curvature using 150 sheet metal wings cut to scale."

Oct 13.    "Langley's value on wind velocity are based on still air.  . . .  Discussions of logic often now end in bad tempered argument between us.  A good scrap takes the tension away between us.  We discover arguing to be the one pleasure we have. . . . "

November 10.  "We have lost all notion of time. Wil pays little attention to eating and he is becoming increasing fatigued and irritated with me and his work."

Dec. 11.  "Clearly, Lillienthal was in great error than we thought."

"Now all we have to do is design and build the airplane."

Kitty Hawk, Summer, 1902.  The brothers add a non-movable tail to the craft for greater stability.  Now Wilbur wants to try turning the plane.  That proves a bit difficult. 

Orville writes:  "Three years and we feel we're right back where we started.  The wires from the hip cradle control the wing warping perfectly.  We have a stabilizing tail.  The front elevator is maintaining our angle of incidence.  We don't stall anymore, but the wind is still controlling us.  The wind turns us when it wants to."

The brothers put in a movable tail.  And now Wil is able to turn the glider.

Springfield, Ohio, Summer, 1903.  Wilbur says that they are ready to apply for their patent now.  The lawyer looks at the paper work.  He says it will take a year for the patent.  The lawyer says they have more of a new idea, rather than an proven invention.  And ideas are very hard to protect.  He says the world will very likely steal the brothers blind.  The lawyer also says this doesn't mean much unless the brothers can fly before Langley does.  The brothers say they are working on a four cylinder motor and a design for a propeller. 

Building the plane is getting more stressful and their bicycle business is getting worse.  "The strain of this is affecting Wil more than he'll admit.  I find our arguments are no longer a pleasure."    The arguments are becoming so loud that father worries about his boys.  He asks them what's happening between the two of them?  He says about the motor:  "I will not allow this machine to tear apart the bonds of this family. . . . Is that clear?"  "Yes, father."

Kitty Hawk, October, 1903.  The brothers have improved their airplane and have now named it the Wright Flyer after one of their bicycles.  They add a motor and three propellers, but the propeller shafts don't hold. 

Kate Wright has come to seen her boys.  She says that Langley failed.  He rode his airplane right into the Potomac River.  The boys are so happy.  Langley says he will try again in three weeks.  Kate fixes the brothers a good dinner for a change.  She scolds the men for ignoring their personal lives.  She says the girls they were interested in are moving on with their lives.  One is thinking of becoming a nun and the other is thinking of marrying someone else other than Orville Wright.  Kate gets so frustrated with her brothers that she throws up her hands. 

December 17, 1903.  The brother learns that Langley's second attempt also was a complete failure.  Orville says the man should be building boats.

The brothers think they are ready to fly.  The sailors with them are not so sure.  Wilbur and Mr. Tate run with the plane until it actually takes off and flies.

The telegram home says:  "Bishop Milton Wright, 7 Hawthorn Street, Dayton, Ohio, success four flights.  Thursday all from level with engine power alone, average speed through air 31miles per hour; inform press; home Christmas; Orville."

Dayton, Ohio, December 27, 1903.  Back in Dayton the press are besieging the Wright house and Kate does what she can to deal with them.  She tells them all that they can't speak to the brothers because they have a guest.  The guest is the lawyer and he is telling the brothers that are to be no photographs of the airplane taken, because everybody will be building an imitation and applying for a patent.  He wants the brothers to do what he says.  He also doesn't want the men going back to Kitty Hawk.

Dayton, Ohio, 1904.  The guys have to find a new flying place.  They have chosen Mr. Huffman's pasture.  They make improvements in their airplane and get ready for a flight demonstration. 

Wilbur talks with Elizabeth.  She says she has been thinking of going away.  She might go to Cleveland and be a secretary or a book keeper.  Wilbur says his life is his invention and he best be getting back to it. Elizabeth is upset and drives on in her buggy after Wilbur gets off. 

Glenn Curtiss out of Hammondsport, New York comes out to Dayton to check on what's going on.  He is an engine builder and a championship motorcycle speed race driver using his own engines.  He says gives him one month and he will supply them with a vertical eight that will supply them with all the horse power that they need.  The brothers turn him down and Curtiss leaves. 

After a wait of three years, the Wright brothers get their patent. 

Hammondsport, New York, 1906.  Alexander Graham Bell asks Glenn Curtiss to design an engine for Langley.  Curtiss turns him down, saying he is going to build a Wright brothers airplane, because he got a look at the airplane when he was with them in Dayton, Ohio.  But his airplane will make use of his specially designed airplane engine.  He does say, however, that he works for money.  Langley will be happy to provide him with some money if he can build such a machine, as he says he can.  And Bell has a contract all made up for Curtiss to sign. 

The Wright brothers test their airplane and it really goes a long ways this time.  Wilbur sails over cattle and trees with ease.

Hammondsport, New York.  Bell says that Curtiss has failed to build the airplane he promised in the time promised.  So he is going to move in with Curtiss so he can help make sure the plane gets built.  They will improve on the Wright model. 

Wilbur writes a letter to the Secretary of Defense William Howard Taft about the flying machine. Taft is definitely interested and he tells the military guys that they must remember that Langley is their ghost, not his. 

Kate brings Orville the letter from the War Department.  He reads that the Department of Defense won't give them any funding and they say it has not been proven that their invention is of any practical use. 

Hammondsport, New York, July 4, 1908.  Glenn Curtiss demonstrates his airplane and it is successful.  Curtiss gets a trophy for being the first man to fly the distance of a mile.  But Curtiss tells Bell to give the trophy to the Wright brothers, because in trying to make turns, he almost lost the airplane and his life. 

Paris, France.  Being rejected by the American government, the Wright brothers take their plane abroad.  They offer to sell their invention to all of Europe. 

The lawyer for the Wright brothers tells Orville that the new president, Theodore Roosevelt,  has called Taft and his cronies on the carpet.  His question was why did Wilbur Wright have to go to Europe to sell his invention?  The lawyer tells Orville to cable Wilbur and get him back to the United States, because they are going to present their flying machine to the American army.  The army wants the Wright brothers to demonstrate they can fly for an hour at 40 miles per hour and build a machine that can carry two men.  Orville says they've already done it. 

Fort Meyer, Virginia, September 1908.  Wilbur takes the machine up with an army lieutenant as a passenger.  The plane crashes and the people run out to save the two men.  Wilbur is badly hurt and the doctor tells him he is a very lucky man not to have been killed.  Wilbur says:  "Lt. Selfridge is dead.  That does not make me lucky."

Bell and Curtiss go in to take a look at the crashed airplane.  Curtiss starts drawing the key parts of the plane that he did not know about.  Bell says he will be stealing from the Wrights.  Curtiss says he only wants to be rich and famous.  Bell is a bit upset at this and walks away from Curtiss.  Curtiss becomes famous and rich flying his version of the Wright brothers' invention around. 

The Wright brothers got funding from the army.  The navy gave their contract to Curtiss.  Wilbur wrote that Curtiss used their patents to make profits for himself.  They file a patent suit against Curtis.  Wil felt that Curtiss had stolen his dream. 

Le mans, France.  In the paper the headline is:  "Wright, in 73-mile flight, breaks all world records."  He then went on to win many other trophies.  He wins the Michelin Cup setting a new world record for distance.  In the paper is the headline:  "Wilbur Wright finds himself a social lion."

Curtiss also smashes world records:  for speed.  A headline says:  "Curtiss gets more prizes." 

The Wright brothers prepare to sell planes to individuals.  They also establish a Wright Flying School. 

Curtiss wants to race Wilbur one on one.  He sees the Hudson-Fulton celebration in New York as the place for the competition.  Wilbur agrees to race Curtiss.  Kate doesn't want the 42 year old Wilbur to compete in the competition, but Orville supports his brother.  And Wilbur says:  "If I've made a mistake, it was keeping our invention from the public for too long."  Wilbur says he is racing for recognition of their first flight. 

New York City, September 1909.  Governors Island, New York.  The competition is delayed because the winds are too strong.  Curtiss says:  "If a man's not first, he's nothing.  I've worked to be a winner all my life." 

The competition is going forward even if the winds are still strong.   Wilbur says to Curtiss that his plane is not fit for this type of weather.  He says Curtiss is just a summer time flyer.  He also calls the man a thief.  Curtiss rolls down the runway, but he can't get his airplane up off the ground.  He runs out of airfield. 

Now it's Wilbur's time to go.  He gets up into the air.  He goes out the required ten miles and returns. 

Three years later Wilbur became sick with typhoid fever during a bitter patent fight with Glen Curtiss.  Wilbur died May 30, 1912, just two years before their patent was confirmed.  "The Invention was his life."


Good movie.  I had no idea how much work it took to design the first airplane.  They had to use trial and error and experimentation to put a workable airplane together.  They started out with just a very simple glider that was little more than a fancy kite.  But they kept experimenting and coming up with answers and making more and more improvements until they got a plane that could really fly (and not just a short flight a couple of feet off the ground).  I had gone to an elementary school in California named for Glenn Curtiss and had always wondered who was this guy.  And now this film says he was a patent thief without much of a conscience.  He wanted to be rich and famous and was willing to do whatever it took, including theft.  The guy did popularize the airplane and won a lot of speed races, but he still stole much of the spotlight to which the Wright brothers were entitled.  Michael Moriarty (as Wilbur Wright) and David Huffman (as Orville Wright) were both good in their roles. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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