Upon their arrival at the windy dunes along the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan, Octave Chanute and his assistants started to unload strange-looking contraptions from the crates they had brought from Chicago.
Chanute, who was 64 and had made a fortune building railroads, was about to begin a series of critical glider experiments that would culminate seven years later in the first flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright.Augustus Herring, a member of Chanute's team, first tried a bat-winged device invented by German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal. "A panic struck when they (the spectators) saw Mr. Herring mount the odd-shaped affair and sail through the air," according to a Tribune reporter who was on hand. "He succeeded in floating quite a distance."
Chanute had been collecting information about flying machines since the 1850s. He had organized a conference on aviation in 1893 in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition and the following year had published "Progress in Flying Machines," a compilation of aviation information and arguably the most influential book in aviation history. By 1895, Chanute had decided to experiment with hang gliders to find a suitable airframe for a flying machine.
Miller Beach, on the site of what became Gary, had the advantages of 50-foot dunes from which pilots could leap, the right winds and a sandy beach for soft landings. After trying the Lilienthal glider and a 12-winged device of his own design--neither of which worked very well--Chanute's glider team returned a few months later with more designs.
A biplane that Chanute and Herring produced with a truss arrangement similar to the railroad bridges Chanute had built proved most successful. It flew almost 360 feet in one glide. Further tests followed in 1897.
Wilbur Wright wrote to Chanute in 1900 to ask for advice, saying he had read Chanute's book and was experimenting with gliders. That started a correspondence between the elder expert and the young inventor. Chanute later persuaded a dejected Wright not to abandon his quest.
The Wrights invited him to Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903 to watch their first attempt at powered flight, but cold weather forced Chanute to leave. He was back in Chicago on Dec. 17, 1903, when he received word of the Wrights' success in a telegram from their sister, Katharine: "The boys have done it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun