In the early days of aviation, flying was extremely dangerous.
Flight According to Principle
One very cold and windy morning on a North Carolina beach, a lonely group of men huddled on the sand near their pride and joy: a kitelike contraption, built of cloth and wood and outfitted with bicycle parts. On the count of three, with the motor turning and heavy wind gusting, one man started to run alongside and guide the craft; in an instant, the pilot lying on the wing steered the craft to flight a few feet above the ground. The aircraft wobbled forward in the air for no more than 12 seconds and settled triumphantly back to the ground. To an outsider, it would seem like a modest achievement. But it was the first time in history that an aircraft propelled by a motor and controlled by a pilot had left the ground. It was a moment that Wilbur and Orville Wright had labored to achieve for nearly 5 years.
On December 17, 2003, the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first flight of the Wright Flyer. Before 1903, some people had flown gliders without engines; some had piloted lighter-than-aircraft like hot-air balloons. Now a pilot would have the power to fly an aircraft at will, over long distances. No one could know in 1903 how that power would change the world.
Today we are so used to seeing jets in the sky, we forget that people were not always able to fly like birds. Some early aviators thought that building wings like those of birds would be enough to accomplish flight. The Wright Brothers, on the other hand, knew that flying would not be so simple. They were willing to think and work— and scratch their heads in perplexity—and think and work again for years to accomplish that first flight:
“… I would hardly think today of making my first flight on a strange machine in a 27-mile wind . . . I look with amazement upon our audacity in attempting flights with a new and untried machine under such circumstances. Yet faith in our calculations and the design of the first machine, based upon our tables of air pressures, secured by months of careful laboratory work, and confidence in our system of control … had convinced us that the machine was capable of lifting and maintaining itself in the air . . .”Orville Wright, from “How We Made the First Flight”
In the early days of aviation, flying was extremely dangerous. Many daredevils were killed trying out crazy new flying machines. Otto Lilienthal, the German hang glider and foremost authority on aeronautics, had just been killed in one of his gliders in 1896 when the Wrights started to become interested in the idea of a flying machine. When Wilbur heard about Lilienthal’s accident, he quickly read everything he could find about aircraft and wrote to the Smithsonian Institution for information on aeronautical research.
Lilienthal was a great influence on the brothers; he was not just a daredevil. He advocated using piloted gliders to learn about aerodynamics. He is considered to be the first person to design heavier-than-air aircraft carefully and deliberately. He developed many functioning gliders and was famous around the world. The brothers adopted his thoughtful approach to designing aircraft. Like Lilienthal, every time they made an innovation, it was well thought out.
“To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything.”Otto Lilienthal
The brothers were also lucky enough to be able to correspond with Octave Chanute, another very important pioneer and author of “Progress in Flying Machines,” published in 1894. Chanute was a civil engineer in his sixties when he began to study the problems of aviation. He designed and built gliders himself, so he had useful advice to offer the Wright Brothers. In fact, the correspondence between Chanute and the brothers shows many of the problems they had, and how they gradually solved them, one by one. Control of a flying aircraft was the most difficult problem to solve in the early days. Pilots often got hurt when their gliders did uncontrollable things.
When the brothers observed soaring birds, they noticed that birds change the shape of their wings as they glide. Wilbur Wright had an extremely important insight about aircraft: he realized that a flying machine had to be controllable in all three axes of its motion: roll, pitch, and yaw. He came up with a technique he called “wing-warping,” using a wing shaped like a long box that could flex its shape like a bird flexes its wing. Twisting the wings would change the direction of flight. In 1899, he and Orville constructed a 5-foot kite to test this idea. As predicted, when Wilbur used the control cables to twist the kite, it rolled left and right. Wilbur and Orville knew they were onto something.
In 1900, the brothers decided to build a large glider to test their theories about flying. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was chosen as the test site because of its constant strong winds, sand for soft landings, and few trees. The glider was successfully flown as a kite, and on the last day of the “testing season,” there was finally enough wind to fly the aircraft as a piloted glider and demonstrate roll control through wing-warping.
In 1901, the brothers returned to Kitty Hawk with a new glider that they had built at their bicycle shop. Their new aircraft had the same basic design as the 1900 aircraft, but it was larger to provide more lift to carry a pilot in lighter winds. In fact, it was the largest glider ever built and weighed about 100 pounds without the pilot.
Even though the new glider had flown up to 300 feet in a single glide, it did not perform as well as the brothers had expected. It only developed one-third of the lift that was predicted by data from Otto Lilienthal, and the drag was greater than predicted. The brothers modified the curvature of the wing, but this only slightly improved the glider’s flight. Their test flights that year ended with a crash that rewarded Wilbur for his efforts with bruises and a black eye. At the end of 1901, the brothers were frustrated, and Wilbur remarked that humans would never learn to fly within the brothers’ lifetimes.
The brothers began to question the aerodynamic data from Lilienthal on which they were basing their designs. They came up with another extraordinary idea. They built their own wind tunnel, one of the first in the United States, and used it to test their models. They found that the previous data from Lilienthal were in error and that their own data more correctly described the way gliders flew.
In 1902, Wilbur and Orville returned to Kitty Hawk with a new aircraft based on their new data. This aircraft had about the same wing area as the 1901 aircraft, but its wings were long and thin and it had a new movable rudder at the rear. The movable rudder worked with the wing-warping to keep the nose of the aircraft pointed into the curved flight path. With this new aircraft, the brothers completed flights of over 650 feet. This machine was the first aircraft that had active controls for all three axes: roll, pitch, and yaw. At the end of 1902, the brothers knew that all they needed to do was develop a motor and propellers and they would have the first successful airplane.
The Wrights could not find a manufacturer who would meet their requirements for a lightweight engine with sufficient horsepower, so they built their own 12-horsepower engine in just 6 weeks. They also created the first working aircraft propellers. In September 1903, they returned to Kitty Hawk with their new powered aircraft. With the pilot and the motor, the 1903 aircraft weighed a little over 700 pounds. On December 17, 1903, the brothers finally made four successful flights. After more than 5 years of solving problem after problem, Wilbur and Orville Wright had conquered powered flight.
But the brothers’ work didn’t end there. The 1903 airplane was only the first, and crudest, working airplane. It was very difficult to fly, especially since it tended to pitch down nose first into the ground. It took quite a bit more time and effort to develop a fully controllable craft.
By the end of 1904, the Wrights were making flights of several minutes at Huffman Prairie in a new aircraft with a new 18-horsepower engine. The brothers tried to solve the pitch problem by adding 200 pounds of ballast to the airplane, but the craft was still hard to control and difficult for the engine to lift.
In 1905, the brothers decided to keep the same engine, but to redesign the airframe. They increased the size of the elevator and rudder and moved them farther from the center of gravity of the craft, increasing the overall length from 18 to 28 feet. This increased the torque produced by these control surfaces and provided greater control of the aircraft. The airplane’s weight was reduced to nearly that of the 1903 airplane. The brothers continued to use a catapult system, first tried in 1904, to aid with takeoff.
These improvements solved the last lingering problems. After 7 years of effort, the brothers had finally eliminated the pitching effect that had plagued the 1903 craft and built the first practical airplane. Little more than a decade later, in World War I, airmen and flying aces of many nations would embrace the airplane and entrust their lives to it.
About Wilbur and Orville
The Wright Brothers were raised in Dayton, Ohio, a few years after the Civil War. Their parents were Susan Catharine Wright and Bishop Milton Wright, a minister in the United Brethren Church. Both parents were talented, college-educated scholars who loved to learn. The boys’ father was intellectual, and their mother was also mechanically gifted.
These qualities were inherited by the brothers and fostered by their life at home. Orville remarked, “We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity.” The older brother was thoughtful and quiet; the younger brother was playful and adventurous. The two became lifelong best friends, always confiding their thoughts and plans to each other.
His father said of Wilbur, “In memory and intellect, there was none like him. He systemized everything. His wit was quick and keen. He could say or write anything he wanted to. He was not very talkative. His temper could hardly be stirred. He wrote much. He could deliver a fine speech but was modest.”
Wilbur was an excellent student, but circumstances such as his mother’s illness and his own health prevented him from graduating from high school or attending college. But he and Orville found their own way in life anyway, using their imaginations and ingenuity.
Orville, the younger brother, was more mischievous than Wilbur. He was a little like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer; he was always coming up with a new scheme. He was adventurous and became a champion cyclist. While Wilbur would sit and read everything that fell into his hands, Orville was out in the world finding a lot of interesting things to get involved in.
The brothers had always liked mechanical things, especially the flying toys they had as children. When they were very young men, they built their own printing press using a tombstone and buggy parts and printed their own newspaper. At one point, Orville printed a newspaper called the Tattler for a young classmate, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
When the brothers discovered bicycles, they began repairing them and eventually opened the famous Wright Cycle Company repair shop, where they produced their own bicycle models, the Van Cleve and the St. Clair. The bicycle shop became the brothers’ workshop to build airplane parts—the parts that eventually flew on the first airplane.
When the brothers finally achieved their goal of powered flight, some people didn’t understand the meaning of what they had done. Some found it hard to believe that a couple of “bicycle mechanics” could have succeeded where other distinguished would-be flyers had failed. By 1908, Wilbur and Orville had convinced the public that they had attained the goal that so many had tried to reach.
At one point, Wilbur amazed onlookers on the ground by flying around the Statue of Liberty and following the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb. This would be a shocking thing to see for the first time, if you’d only seen seagulls do it before. How brave and confident would you have to be to fly around the Statue of Liberty in your own homemade flying machine? The ambition, the curiosity, the studiousness, and not least, the bravery of the Wright Brothers were all needed to dare to fly.
Not long after the Wrights’ success, in 1912, Wilbur died of typhoid fever at age 45. Orville sold the Wright Company, built an aeronautics laboratory, and returned to inventing. He also stayed active in the public eye, promoting aeronautics. He served for 28 years on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was the forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In 1930, Orville received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal. This award, awarded for “great achievements in aeronautics,” was established in 1928 by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. It is still awarded today to individuals for outstanding contributions. Orville Wright died in 1948 at the age of 76 in Dayton, Ohio.
Although neither had more than a high school education, the Wright Brothers were able to use the math and science they had learned to accomplish what is considered to be the most influential achievement of the 20th century. Some people even said that more education would have “ruined” the Wrights. However, Orville never agreed with that view. On the contrary, he said, a better scientific education would have helped them to do their work more easily.
The Cincinnati Scientific Society
The year is 1900, and you are employed by the Cincinnati Scientific Society, a group of about 100 progressminded people who are interested in learning about the latest advances in science and technology. Some of the members are very wealthy and regularly sponsor lectures, studies, and expeditions. At the Society meeting last month, Mr. Pierpont reported that his cousin from Dayton had written him about her neighbors, two bicycle salesmen named Wilbur and Orville Wright. People were saying that they were making a large glider in the back of their bicycle shop. In talking with the Wrights, Mr. Pierpont’s cousin had learned that they were attempting to invent a flying machine.
This is just the kind of thing the Society is interested in. Society members had avidly read reports about the gliding experiments of the German Otto Lilienthal, who was killed when his glider went out of control and crashed in Germany in 1896; about the Englishman Percy Pilcher, who died the same way in 1899; and about the Americans Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley. Mr. Sidney Krause makes a motion that the Society send an investigator to report on the efforts of the Wright Brothers. The motion passes unanimously; you are selected to be the investigator. The Society gives you strict instructions to report only the facts and not to mention the name of the Society in your investigations. (Society members want to avoid the appearance of being out to steal anyone’s ideas. They are just interested in science.) Mr. Pierpont gives you the address of the Wrights and their shop, and you set off for Dayton the next morning.
Having been appointed by the Society to learn about the flying experiments of Wilbur and Orville Wright, you travel by train to Dayton. The trip takes about 2 hours, and when you arrive in Dayton, you ask for directions to the Wright Cycle Shop located on West Third Street. You catch the streetcar as directed.
Instead of going directly to the cycle shop, you decide to talk first with the neighbors. You run into a bunch of kids playing in the street and ask them what they know of the Wright Brothers. “They can fix anything,” says one youngster. “They’re good with bicycles,” says another. “I like their kites!” pipes in another.
This is what you came to hear. “Last year, Wilbur made the biggest, best kite!” a boy declares. “It had two wings, was 5 feet across, and had four strings to it, one to each corner. When he pulled on the strings, the kite twisted and dove through the air. He could make it go any direction and he just about dove it into us kids. It really scared us!”
You thank the kids. Near the bicycle shop, you introduce yourself to a lady sitting on her porch. Does she know the Wrights? “Indeed, I do, ever since they was little,” she says. “Oh, they was always up to somethin’, they was. They used to publish their own newspaper. Now they fix and sell bicycles. They really don’t talk too much,” she continued. “I hear tell they’re buildin’ some big flyin’ contraption in their shop, but I ain’t seen nothin’. I’d ask, but they pretty much like to keep to theirselves.” You thank her and go over to the cycle shop.
As you enter the shop, a tall man with sharp features comes out of the back room and introduces himself as Wilbur Wright. He asks you if he can help you, and you pretend to be interested in a bicycle. He shows you several makes, including some that he and his brother Orville designed themselves.
As you look at bicycles, you talk about a number of things. A shorter man in a derby hat comes in and Wilbur introduces him as his brother, Orville. As you talk about bicycles and transportation in general, you mention something about Octave Chanute and glider flights on the Indiana dunes. The eyes of both brothers light up at this, and they mention that they too have done a bit of research on the subject of flight. Wilbur says the key to success is being able to control a craft in the air. “The lack of control,” says Orville, “cost Lilienthal and others their lives.” The brothers say that they plan to carry out some experiments in North Carolina in the fall, but don’t offer any more details. You shake hands and leave the shop.
Before you return to Cincinnati, you decide you are just too curious; you can’t resist trying to get a look at whatever’s in the back of the cycle shop. You wait until evening and slip around to the back of the shop. Looking in through a dirty window, you see the biggest kite or glider you ever saw. Although it’s difficult to make out in the dim light, you see that it has two wings, one above the other. The wings must be 15 or 20 feet in length! At last, afraid of being discovered, you head for the train station and manage to catch the last train of the night back to Cincinnati.
1900: Kitty Hawk
Having visited the Wrights in Dayton, you make your report to the members of the Society. Everyone is extremely interested in the craft being built in the back of the shop; the members excitedly discuss the possibilities of human flight. Mr. Pierpont’s cousin says that the Wrights’ sister Katharine told her that they are going to a place called “Kitty Hawk” in September. This sparsely populated North Carolina spot has high sandy hills, few trees, and almost continuous winds from the ocean: ideal conditions to test a glider.
The Society is anxious to send you there to learn of the experiments, but not in an obvious way. It is decided that you will apply for a temporary position with the U.S. Lifesaving Service, which has a station near Kitty Hawk. Several Society members help you to secure a job as a lookout while you also maintain your position and salary with the Society. The adventure and the money are too good to pass up.
You arrive in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in August and catch a ride on the mail boat out to the Lifesaving Station near Kitty Hawk. If a shipwreck occurs, your crew’s job is to brave the surf and rescue stranded sailors.
On September 13, Wilbur Wright arrives in Kitty Hawk and stays with William Tate, the local postmaster. Soon, Orville arrives and they set up a tent camp about a one-half mile from the Tates. You receive word that the brothers’ kite has arrived, so you decide to visit their camp.
You introduce yourself to the Wrights as a lookout from the Lifesaving Station. Wilbur recognizes you from your visit to their shop in Dayton, and you tell him you are a college student from Cincinnati and were in Dayton visiting friends.
The brothers remember your interest in flight and proudly show you their creation. This is the same large craft that you saw in their shop. It has two wings about 17 feet long and 5 feet deep, one set about 4 feet above the other. Both wings are made of a tightly woven white material stretched over a light wooden frame. Wire bracing keeps the structure tight. A square structure that looks like a small wing made of the same white material is sticking out a few feet in the front. You note that the wings are arched. When you ask about the open space you see in the lower wing, Orville informs you that the pilot rides there, lying on his stomach, so it is indeed a glider. Due to light winds, they are testing the glider with chains to simulate the weight of a pilot. You ask permission to stay and watch, and they ask whether you’d be willing to help!
As strong breezes blow, the glider, which must weigh nearly 100 pounds with the chains, just floats in the air. You and Orville struggle to hold onto cables that act as kite strings; Wilbur is behind the glider pulling on another set of wires. As he pulls on one wire, the wings twist and the glider tilts and drifts to the side. When he pulls the other wire, the glider turns in the opposite direction. This is just like the kite the kids in Dayton had described to you. The control was truly wonderful! You want to stay all day, but your shift as a lookout is coming up. The brothers thank you for your help and invite you back.
You visit the camp a few more times, and you notice that the curvature of the small front wing is sometimes different, and this seems to cause the glider to fly at a different angle. You always see the brothers flying the glider as a kite, but the other men at the station tell you that one day they had seen Wilbur actually piloting the glider. On that particularly windy day, they say, he had glided for 10 to 20 seconds and covered 300 to 400 feet before suffering a minor crash landing.
Soon after, the Wrights pack up and return to Dayton, leaving their crashed glider in the sand; Postmaster Tate’s wife washes the fine sateen fabric of the wings and makes dresses for her daughters. You take leave of the Lifesaving Station and return to Cincinnati to report to the Scientific Society.
1901: The First Improvement
You are involved with various activities as secretary for the Cincinnati Scientific Society when a letter arrives in March from the cousin of Mr. Pierpont, the neighbor of the Wright Brothers. She has spoken with Katharine Wright, who told her that her brothers have constructed a new glider and intend to go to Kitty Hawk for testing much earlier than last year, leaving sometime in July. With anticipation, you arrange to return to the Lifesaving Station at Kill Devil Hills in late June to resume duties as a temporary lookout so you can observe the new trials.
The Wright Brothers arrive on July 10, 1901. This year, in order to be closer to their launch site at Kill Devil Hills, they move their camp about 4 miles south to the base of Big Hill. This puts them much closer to your station, and it’s easier to observe their experiments.
The new glider is much bigger than the first. It still has two wings, but they are larger, each 7 by 22 feet. The total wing area is now 290 square feet, and the aircraft weight has doubled to 100 pounds. This would be the biggest glider ever flown! You have the opportunity to visit the brothers’ camp a number of times to observe and assist with flights. Wilbur is the pilot on each trial. There are other visitors to the camp, and you are introduced to Mr. Octave Chanute and two assistants, who are there to observe as well as test a glider of their own.
The flights of the 1901 Glider are disappointing. Orville tells you that they had used the data from tables published by Otto Lilienthal to design the new wings, but the glider only produces about one-third of the expected lift. Could Lilienthal’s data be wrong? Although there are frequent glides of around 300 feet, you notice other problems as well. The front rudder doesn’t seem to do much to control the up-and-down pitch of the glider, and when the wings are warped to turn, the craft sometimes settles backward and spins out of control. In one of these crashes, Wilbur suffers minor injuries. After that, they only fly the aircraft as a kite.
At the end of August, the brothers return to Dayton in disappointment. You stay on an additional week to compile your notes and then return to Cincinnati to report to the Scientific Society. You report that Wilbur has said that he believes that people will fly, but not in their lifetimes. After two summers of trials, the Wright Brothers are very discouraged.
After your second season at Kitty Hawk, you resume your duties at the Scientific Society. Several members attend the meeting of the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, where Wilbur Wright is a featured speaker. Upon their return they’re eager to talk to you about his speech and your observations at Kitty Hawk. The members are impressed with the Wrights’ scientific knowledge and their logical problemsolving approach. The positive reaction from the audience encouraged Wilbur in spite of the past year’s disappointments. You will make another visit to Dayton soon to see how the investigations are going.
In December you correspond with Mr. Pierpont’s cousin to find out what the brothers are up to. She responds that they have constructed some sort of device to measure the effectiveness of different wing shapes. She says that she even saw Orville riding on a bicycle with a wheel attached to the handlebars, with what looked like little wings on the wheel. She guessed he was testing the wings somehow.
You arrange to travel to Dayton in January. When you enter the shop, Orville greets you with pleasure. You tell him you are visiting friends on break from school and thought you would stop in and say hello. Orville invites you into the back room, where you see a bicycle with a wheel mounted flat on the handlebars. Upstairs, the brothers have set up a 6-foot-long box with a fan on one end, and a table with a number of small wing models.
Orville explains that Wilbur’s talk in Chicago had recharged their enthusiasm. They suspected that the second glider’s poor performance might be due to errors in Lilienthal’s data tables. To test this, Orville placed the wing shapes on a bike wheel mounted on a bike’s handlebars and rode off to provide wind. The angles of attack predicted by Lilienthal did prove to be in error. In fact, the Wrights discovered that the shape of the wing, viewed from above, is very important in the generation of lift. Lilienthal’s data only applied to small, oval-shaped wings, while the brothers’ wings were rectangular shaped. Orville and Wilbur decided that they needed to collect their own data.
Orville shows you the box they built for testing. A belt turns a large fan, which pushes air through the box, and a grid straightens out the flow of air as it enters the box. The brothers observe the testing through a glass window above the test area, where the wing shapes are mounted on a balance made of hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes (this box has come to be known as a “wind tunnel”). Orville says that they’ve tested a large number of shapes in several combinations, and with their new data they are designing a glider to try in late summer. You wish him luck, tell him that you hope to see him in the summer, and leave to catch your train back to Cincinnati.
1902: Success At Last
When the Society hears of the Wright Brothers’ logical approach to overcoming the 1901 disappointments and their successful wind tunnel trials, excitement builds about human flight. Arrangements are again made for you to resume your position as a lookout with the Kill Devil Lifesaving Station. Your friends at the station are glad to see you again.
At the end of August, the Wrights arrive and rebuild their camp. When they uncrate and assemble their glider, it is indeed a changed machine. The wingspan has grown to 32 feet and the width has been decreased to 5 feet. A control device called a “hip cradle,” which the pilot operates by moving his hips, controls the wing-warping. The front rudder has been modified to look more like a wing. In addition, a tail with two 6-foot-high vertical tails has been added. On your first visit, Orville explains that they are hoping the tails will give the pilot more control in turning. You help to carry the craft up the hill—it weighs a good 120 pounds.
The glider flies wonderfully, much better than the one last summer. A new problem, however, soon arises. In about one flight in fifty, the glider spins out of control and crashes after making a turn. The brothers make several adjustments, but nothing seems to help.
When you return in a few days, the brothers have removed the two vertical tails and replaced them with just a single tail. Wilbur has also rigged the tail to the hip cradle control that warps the wings. Now when the pilot shifts his hips to bank, the tail also turns. “Orville reasoned that in low-speed turns, the tail was acting like a vertical wing, providing a sideways force that caused the glider to spin,” said Wilbur. “I thought up how to rig the wing-warping to the tail-turning.” That’s just one example of how the two brothers thought and worked so well together.
When Wilbur takes off, your jaw drops. The glider banks left and then right, rises up and down on command, and then glides to a smooth landing. They’ve done it! The brothers have achieved complete control in the air. You’re watching the first machine in history that can be controlled in three dimensions: pitch, yaw, and roll.
Over the next few weeks, the brothers make several hundred glides, becoming better and better at controlling their craft. You are sending glowing letters back to the Society and helping Orville develop some of the pictures he has taken. The brothers feel that they only need to add an engine and propellers and they will become the first in the world to fly a powered aircraft.
1903: Powered Flight
The Society thanks you for the report on the success of the 1902 Glider. They are also following the progress of Samuel Langley’s flying research. Langley had successfully flown a steam-powered aircraft three-quarters of a mile and won a $50,000 government grant to develop a passenger-carrying powered aircraft. Society members wondered whether the Wrights could beat him on their small budget, having spent less than $1,000 so far.
You have been on this project for almost 3 years, and the Society president asks you if you want to continue. You say yes. By now you have come to admire the Wrights and their genius and want to see them succeed. You know that powered flight is moving closer to becoming reality.
The reports from Dayton are that the brothers had been trying to find an engine with at least 8 horsepower and weighing less than 200 pounds. They couldn’t find an engine like that, or a company willing to make one, so with the aid of their bicycle mechanic Charlie Taylor, they have been building their own engine. You travel to Dayton to check on progress, and when you arrive, they are already testing it. In just 6 weeks, having never made an engine before, they have produced one weighing 179 pounds that develops 12 horsepower! They never cease to amaze you.
Orville tells you that they are having difficulty with the design of the propellers. There are no reliable data on air propellers, only on water propellers, which would not apply to an aircraft. “Our only solution,” he says, “is to design our own!” You wish them luck and they say they hope to see you at Kitty Hawk in the fall. You return to Cincinnati wondering whether they will get it right.
Further reports from Mr. Pierpont’s cousin in Dayton indicate that the brothers intend to return to Kitty Hawk at the end of September, so once again, you head back to the Lifesaving Station. The Wrights arrive on September 25, 1903, and are glad to enlist your help in rebuilding their camp buildings and unpacking the crates holding the new craft. “This is the very first time we’ve seen it all together,” comments Wilbur. “There just wasn’t room in our shop.” The aircraft looks like the 1902 model but measures 40 feet from wing tip to wing tip and has twin rear rudders. On the lower wing opposite the pilot position is the motor, connected by chains to two long, thin propellers at the rear of the wing.
“We spent 5 months working on those propellers,” said Wilbur. “Orville finally figured out that they needed to be shaped like rotating wings.” Once the aircraft is together and testing begins, there are problems with the propeller shafts. Quick fixes don’t work, so Orville travels back to Dayton to get new, stronger shafts.
He returns on December 11 and everything is ready to test on December 14. The brothers hoist their red flag, a signal for you and the Lifesaving crew to come help. The wind is not strong enough to launch from level ground, so the 60-foot launching track is set up on the side of Big Hill (the launching track consists of 15-foot sections of wooden rail, on which runs a launch cradle with bicycle hubs for wheels). The aircraft is pushed to the top of the track on its launch cradle. With the restraining rope in place, the motor is started and the propellers start to turn. Orville and Wilbur toss a coin to see who will be the first pilot. Wilbur wins and takes his position. He pulls the release rope, and the aircraft rolls on the cradle about 40 feet down the track and starts to become airborne. Wilbur pulls up the nose a bit too sharply, and it stalls and settles back in the sand, breaking a few parts. It had been airborne just 3 seconds.
It takes some time to repair the damage, and on December 17, the red flag is hoisted again. It is very cold today, and the puddles on the way to the brother’s camp are frozen over. The wind is blowing much harder than before. When the aircraft is set on the cradle, it is now Orville’s turn to pilot. Orville has set up his box camera facing the end of the track and hands the squeeze camera bulb to John Daniels of your Lifesaving crew. Orville then gets into the craft and the rope is released. The wind is so strong that Wilbur runs alongside the craft to steady the wing as it takes off. Just as he lets go and the craft becomes airborne, Big John squeezes the camera bulb and snaps one of the most famous pictures ever taken. Orville flies for 12 seconds and lands a little over 120 feet from the end of the track. All of the people watching are cheering as you run to retrieve the airplane. You all shake hands and then go warm up by the stove before you carry the plane back up the track.
Three more flights are made, the longest being Wilbur’s, which lasts 59 seconds and covers 852 feet. At long last, a man had flown a powered flying machine. As the brothers are getting ready for a fifth flight, a powerful gust of wind picks up the airplane and rolls it over and over. It is so badly damaged that more flights are out of the question. The Wrights thank everyone for their help, walk 4 miles up the beach to telegraph their father of their success, and pack up and return to Dayton to perfect their airplane.
1904: Improvements in Dayton
The Society now has you working on other projects, but you are still interested in the progress the Wright Brothers are making, so on your own, you travel up to Dayton in the fall of 1904. When you inquire at the shop, you are told that Wilbur and Orville are experimenting at a farm just outside Dayton owned by a man named Torrence Huffman. Before you go, you call on a friend who is a reporter for a Dayton newspaper. He tells you that the Wrights had twice invited the press out to see their invention, and both times, it didn’t even fly! Nobody he knew was bothering to go back.
Puzzled by this, you catch the electric trolley and head for the Huffman farm. What you see amazes you. There, in a 100-acre cow pasture called “Huffman Prairie,” you see Orville flying in a circle around the field! Wilbur is standing by a small building in the corner of the field, and you hurry over to greet him. He tells you that they had some bad luck with the engine both times they invited the press out, and now they don’t come at all.
Astonished, you mumble something about how far the brothers have come since Kitty Hawk. Wilbur says that they’ve made a stronger frame with a larger engine, and moved the center of gravity to the rear, but have still not perfected the up-and-down control. It’s hard to keep the craft from bobbing up and down. You ask how they get up into the air without the wind and hills at Kitty Hawk, and he shows you a launching derrick they built. A 1600-pound weight is hoisted to the top. When the weight drops, the plane is catapulted down 60 feet of track and becomes airborne. Their longest flight has been about 5 minutes.
You stay and watch a few more flights, help the brothers put the flyer away, and ride back to Dayton with them on the trolley.
1905: Complete Flight At Last
You hear from your Dayton friends that Orville and Wilbur have still not given up on perfecting flight. It is now 7 years since their kite experiments of 1899. After all the crashes, how easy it would have been for the brothers to quit long ago. You see a few items in the Cincinnati papers about their flights, but none of the New York or Chicago papers pick up these stories. The world still doesn’t know much about their great achievements. You decide to visit again, and when you reach Huffman Prairie in October, you see that some major changes have occurred.
Flyer III sits on the rail ready to launch. The wings look the same, but the craft is a full 10 feet longer than the earlier model. The front elevator has been moved forward, and the rear rudders have been moved further to the rear. You watch as the weight drops in the launch derrick, the launch cradle carrying the flyer shoots down the track, and the flyer climbs into the air. Then, stunned, you watch as Orville circles the field again and again, does figure eights, and finally lands after 20 full minutes in the air! In addition, the flight looks smooth and totally controlled—no more jerky up-and-down motions as in 1903 and 1904.
“Wait until the Society hears about this!” you think excitedly. “It’s just incredible. How can it be that the world still doesn’t know about this? Is it that people don’t understand it, or don’t believe it?”
Wilbur explains calmly that they have achieved more precise control in flight by separating the controls for the rudder and wing-warping. Moving the front elevator and rear rudders away from the center of the plane also improves up-and-down control.
This 1905 airplane can be flown until the fuel tank is empty, staying in the air for more than half an hour at a time. It can fly for nearly 25 miles around Huffman’s farm, executing turns and figure eights 50 feet above the ground. After 7 years of work, the brothers finally have a practical working airplane.
As you leave, you thank Orville and Wilbur for letting you be a small part of their experiments, and you congratulate them, they’ve made the dream of powered flight come true. You feel privileged. After all that you’ve seen, you know that the world is on the verge of a big change.
Wright Brothers 1900 Glider
The Wright Brothers’ 1900 aircraft was flown repeatedly at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, during the fall of 1900, mostly as a kite but also as a piloted glider.
The brothers’ main concern at this time was to learn how to control the forces on an aircraft. Others who had thought it was more important to fly first and figure out control later had died in crashes. The Wright Brothers used this aircraft to learn the fundamentals of aerodynamics.
The brothers had observed soaring birds twist their wings to change direction and had successfully done the same thing, which they called “wing-warping,” in 1899 by twisting the wings of a small kite. In 1900, the brothers decided to test wing-warping on an aircraft that was large enough to carry a person. The pilot could control the roll of the aircraft by using a foot pedal. The pedal was connected to wires that pulled on the wing tips and warped (or twisted) the wing, producing unequal forces on the wings, which would roll the aircraft.
The 1900 aircraft was relatively large: it had a 17-foot wingspan, a 5-foot chord, and 4 feet between the wings. Without the pilot, the 1900 craft weighed about 50 pounds. In 1900, glider pilots usually flew in a vertical position. The Wright Brothers correctly understood that this produced a lot of aerodynamic drag that would slow the glider down. They chose instead to streamline their aircraft by having the pilot lie horizontally on the lower wing. The aircraft had two wings covered by tightly woven sateen fabric, a stabilizer mounted on the front of the aircraft, and no tail.
All aircraft wings have a natural tendency to flip tail over nose because of the pressure distribution around the wing. To prevent their aircraft from flipping, the Wright Brothers attached a horizontal stabilizer (called a “canard,” after the French word for “duck”) to the front of the aircraft. On later models the shape of the stabilizer was varied by the pilot to provide pitch (up and down) control. But on the 1900 aircraft, they fixed the stabilizer in place and just tested the wing-warping. They found it too confusing at this time to prove both pitch and roll control.
For 3 weeks, the winds were so light that they flew their craft only as a kite, using chain to simulate the weight of a pilot and operating the controls by cable from the ground. On their final day the winds grew strong, so they decided to test the craft as a glider, with Wilbur as pilot. Launching from a dune hill, he made about a dozen glides, some lasting as much as 20 seconds and covering up to 400 feet, longer than a football field! Even though this was the only day of the season with winds strong enough to carry a pilot, the flights showed that wing-warping was a success. Lessons learned on the 1900 aircraft were incorporated into all of the later Wright aircraft.
Wright Brothers 1901 Glider
The 1901 Glider was the second unpowered aircraft built by the brothers. The aircraft was flown repeatedly at Kitty Hawk during 1901 as a piloted glider and as a kite. The Wright Brothers learned more about the fundamentals of aerodynamics using this aircraft, which they began building in 1900.
The 1901 aircraft was larger than the 1900 aircraft, but of the same basic design: it had two wings, no tail, and an elevator-stabilizer mounted in the front of the aircraft. The wingspan was increased from 17.5 to 22 feet, and the chord (front edge of the wing to the back edge) was changed from 5 to 7 feet, increasing the overall wing area from 165 to 290 square feet. The brothers wanted to provide more lift so they could pilot their glider in winds of less velocity. Without the pilot, the 1901 craft weighed about 100 pounds. The pilot would lie on the bottom wing and control the roll of the aircraft with a foot pedal. The pedal was connected to wires that pulled on the wing tips and warped (or twisted) the wing, producing unequal forces on the wings, which would roll the aircraft. On the 1901 aircraft, the pilot could also change the shape of the elevator to control the up or down position of the nose, or pitch, of the aircraft.
The aircraft was flown frequently up to 300 feet in a single glide but did not perform as well as the brothers had expected. To improve the flying characteristics, they installed additional struts (structural pieces added to provide support and designed to resist pressure in the direction of their lengths) on the lower wing to alter the camber (or curve) of the aircraft wing. The photo to the right shows the aircraft immediately after landing, and you can see the additional struts between the wings at the center.
During their test flights the brothers encountered an effect known as “adverse yaw.” Sometimes when the wings were warped to produce roll, which should have resulted in a curving flight toward the lower wing, the increased drag on the upper wing twisting in the opposite direction caused the air speed to decrease, and the aircraft would turn into the ground.
While trying to solve these new problems, the Wrights gathered the first real usable and accurate aerodynamic data obtained by experimenting with a wind tunnel. These results would be applied to the 1902 aircraft, which would answer many questions raised by the 1901 aircraft (shown in the photos below) as the brothers progressed toward the successful 1903 Flyer.
Wright Brothers 1902 Glider
The Wright Brothers’ 1902 Glider was their third unpowered aircraft. It was flown repeatedly at Kitty Hawk during 1902 as a kite and as a piloted glider. The brothers used this aircraft to solve some of the problems encountered with the 1901 Glider. They also used it to develop their piloting skills, because this was the first aircraft in the world that had active controls for all three axes: roll, pitch, and yaw.
The 1902 aircraft had two wings and an elevator-stabilizer mounted in the front, like the 1901 aircraft. It had a 32-foot wingspan, a 5-foot chord, and 5 feet between the wings. Without the pilot, it weighed about 120 pounds. As before, the pilot lies on the bottom wing and controls the roll of the aircraft by warping the wing shape. On the 1902 aircraft, however, and on all flyers through 1905, the warping was controlled by a control device called a “hip cradle,” instead of the pedals that were used on the 1900 and 1901 aircraft.
There were other major differences between this aircraft and its predecessors as well. Data from the 1901 wind tunnel experiments showed that a longer, thinner wing gave less drag and a better lift-to-drag (L/D) ratio, so the aspect ratio (ratio of wingspan to wing chord or width) was changed from 3:1 on the 1901 aircraft to 6:1 on the 1902 aircraft. To try to solve the problem of adverse yaw from the 1901 Glider, two 6-foot rudders were added to the rear of the craft.
Test flights went better than in 1901, but occasionally, the glider would spin out of control on recovering from a turn at low speed. Lying awake one night, Orville concluded that the rudder was acting like a vertical wing, in which turning generated an angle of attack, and thus, an unwanted force in the wrong direction. To correct this, a single, movable rudder was attached at the rear and connected to the wing-warping.
Now perfected, the glider worked beautifully, keeping the nose of the aircraft pointed into the curved flight path. On the 1902 aircraft, the pilot could also change the angle of the elevator to control the up and down position, or pitch, of the nose of the aircraft. For the first time in history, a craft could be controlled in three dimensions. With this new aircraft, the brothers completed gliding flights of over 650 feet.
At the end of 1902, all that remained for the first successful airplane was the development of the propulsion system. During the following winter and spring, the brothers built their own small engine from scratch and perfected their own propeller design for the 1903 flyer.
Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer
The Wright Brothers’ 1903 aircraft was the first heavier-than-air, self-propelled, maneuverable, piloted aircraft. It was, in short, the first airplane.
The forces acting on this aircraft were identical to the forces that act on any modern aircraft. The various parts of the aircraft were designed and perfected by 3 years of flight testing of unpowered kites and gliders and from wind tunnel testing. The Wrights used a moving elevator at the front of the aircraft to control pitch (an up or down movement of the nose). From the glider flights of 1901, the brothers identified the need for a rudder at the rear of the aircraft to control yaw (a side-to-side movement of the nose) and to allow coordinated turns. Control of roll (an up-and-down movement of the wing tips) was provided by wing-warping, which meant twisting the wing tips to increase or decrease lift on the outer sections of the wing.
The brothers began large-scale testing of their ideas with a combination kite and glider in 1900. The ideas tested on this aircraft were further refined on the glider of 1901, verified by the Wrights’ wind tunnel data, and finally confirmed on the very successful 1902 Glider.
The 1903 aircraft (shown below) was similar to the 1902 craft, but now with a longer 40-foot wingspan, a 6-foot chord, 5 feet between the wings, and twin rudders and elevators. The biggest difference between the 1902 and 1903 aircraft was the addition of the propulsion system. The 1903 aircraft used twin pusher propellers located behind the wings. They were made to rotate in opposite directions, so that the rotational forces would cancel each other out. The Wright Brothers used gasoline to turn the propellers. Since no one could provide them with a lightweight motor of adequate horsepower, they built their own 4-cylinder, 12-horsepower motor. To put this into perspective, the motor of a modern lawn mower can easily achieve 6 horsepower.
The motor was placed on the lower wing next to the pilot and connected to the propellers with bicycle chains. A small gasoline tank was mounted on one of the wing struts. With the pilot and motor, the 1903 craft weighed a little over 700 pounds. This aircraft was first successfully flown on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, NC, on four flights from about 100 to over 800 feet.
Each of the four flights was marked by an instability in pitch; the nose, and consequently the entire aircraft, would slowly bounce up and down. On the last flight, hard contact with the ground broke the front elevator support, damaged the engine, and ended the season’s flying. The brothers were encouraged but realized that there was still more work to do before a truly operational aircraft could be developed. They continued to perfect their design through 1904 and 1905.