Aviation pioneers who made the first piloted flight in a powered heavier-than-air plane on December 17, 1903.
Bishop Milton Wright and Susan Catherine Wright had four sons, Reuchlin, Lorin, Wilbur, and Orville, and one daughter, Katherine. Wilbur, the third son, was born on a small farm near Millville, Indiana, on April 16, 1867. Orville, the fourth child, was born in Dayton, Ohio, at 7 Hawthorn Street. Bishop Wright, a Methodist minister, moved frequently from one small congregation to another in Indiana and Ohio. Neither Wilbur nor Orville graduated from high school. In 1892, the two brothers opened a bicycle repair shop in Dayton, and three years later, they began making their own bicycles. In the early 1890’s, they became interested in Otto Lilienthal’s experiments with gliders, but they did not begin flying until after Lilienthal died in a glider accident in 1896.
In 1900, the Wright brothers built their first airplane, a two-person glider, and began experimenting in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They chose this site because it was remote and they could conduct their experiments out of public view. There also was plenty of sand for soft landings and strong winds to make takeoffs easy. Wilbur and Orville first visited Kitty Hawk in September, 1900, and pitched a tent close to the landing field. They began gliding in October, and their longest glides were between 300 and 400 feet in length.
The Wright brothers returned to Kitty Hawk in July, 1901, with a bigger glider, the wings of which were 22 feet wide and 7 feet deep. However, they still could not produce adequate lift, and their longest flight covered only 389 feet. The discouraging results depressed the brothers, and Wilbur predicted in a letter “men would sometime fly, but that it would not be within our lifetime.”
In October, 1902, the Wright brothers began to build a powered aircraft. During their experiments, they developed a system of aileron control, the basic stabilizing mechanism in modern planes, which maintained the plane’s equilibrium, or balance, by shifting the angles of the wings and other parts to balance outside air pressure. In 1903, the Wrights built a larger version of their 1902 glider, added a power plant, and made the first self-powered flight.
Building a power plant required an understanding of how propellers work. The Wright brothers tried to buy an engine to drive the propeller, but could not find one that met their specifications. With the assistance of their colleague, Charles Taylor, they built their own four-cylinder model and then returned to their wind tunnel in Dayton to test propeller shapes. By the time they headed to Kitty Hawk, they had tested the engine, which had just enough horsepower to provide thrust for the propeller. They knew the wings they had constructed would provide adequate lift. Thus, before they returned to North Carolina, they knew they had built an effective airplane.
On December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, Orville made the first piloted flight in a powered heavier-than-air plane, remaining aloft for twelve seconds and covering a distance of about 120 feet. They made three more flights that day, the longest of which was Wilbur’s flight of fifty-nine seconds over a distance of 852 feet. In 1905, they flew a plane for thirty-eight minutes covering 24 miles at Huffinan Field in Dayton, Ohio.
On September 9, 1908, the Wrights demonstrated their plane for the United States Army at Fort Meyer, Virginia. The War Department awarded the brothers a contract to build airplanes capable of flying at 40 miles per hour, a speed achieved in 1909. That year the Wright Company was incorporated in Dayton, with Wilbur as president. However, trouble was soon to follow.
During the next several years, ugly lawsuits erupted in Europe and the United States over aircraft patents, as the Wrights managed to build improved flying machines. The Wrights sued aircraft designer Glenn H. Curtiss for selling airplanes with the European-invented aileron control, protesting that any wing-warping device owed credit to themselves. Curtiss received help from Albert Zahn, the director of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Zahn argued that Samuel Pierpont Langley, a former director of the Smithsonian who had spent much of the Institution’s money on developing heavier-than-air craft, had actually invented the airplane. Although Langley’s craft had never been airworthy, the Smithsonian refused to give any credit to the Wright brothers. Only after a long fight did its view change.
Wilbur, exhausted and worn out from the legal battles, died from a mild case of food poisoning in 1912. The courts finally sided with the Wright brothers’ claim, and Orville received some money for their patent. He received nothing from the Europeans. In 1915, Orville sold his patent rights and retired from the airplane business to devote the rest of his life to experimentation and research. He died in 1948 in Dayton.
Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. A highly recommended biography that tells the story of the Wright family and provides, at the same time, a detailed history of early aviation. Crouch, Tom D. A Dream of Wings: Americans and Airplanes, 1875-1905. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. A fully illustrated history of early attempts to build flying machines, giving the Wright brothers their due place in the development of aircraft. Howard, F. Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. An excellent biography with photographs and illustrations. McFarland, M. W. The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953. Some interesting discussions by the brothers concerning their interest in flight.
Glenn H. Curtiss
History of human flight
Samuel Pierpont Langley