The first heavier-than-air plane flown under its own power by a human being in controlled flight.
Long treated as tinkerers who were lucky to invent the airplane, Orville and Wilbur Wright are now seen as highly creative scientists who helped found aeronautical engineering by designing, constructing, and test-flying a series of increasingly sophisticated aircraft, from kites and gliders to the Wright Flyer. Modern scholars are amazed by the Wrights’ collaboration, versatility, and ability to master the many fields involved in controlled flight. Without formal scientific or technical training, the Wright brothers were able to design movable wings, rudders, and elevators; a light and powerful motor; and a proper propeller. Because of these accomplishments, they came to embody an ideal as heroic American inventors.
The brothers, Wilbur, elder by four years, and Orville, became interested in flight when their father gave them a gift of a toy helicopter. As young men, they established the Wright Cycle Company in Dayton, Ohio, where they not only repaired and sold bicycles but also manufactured their own models. The death of German aviator Otto Lilienthal in an 1896 glider accident rekindled the brothers’ interest in flight. Based on information they received from the Smithsonian Institution, they built a double-winged kite whose movements could be manipulated by using tethers to alter the angles of its wings. According to Wilbur, he and his brother discovered this wing-twisting mechanism by observing the flights of birds.
The Wrights then moved from kites to human-carrying gliders. To test their gliders, they needed a place with consistently high winds, and the Weather Bureau informed them that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was one of the windiest locations in the country. Furthermore, at Kill Devil Hill, near Kitty Hawk, there were long, wide beaches. Beginning in 1900 and continuing in 1901 and 1902, the Wright brothers tested their gliders from this spot. They discovered that their human-carrying glider could be controlled with their wing-warping apparatus, but that their aircraft had less lift and more drag than they had expected. They realized that they needed scientific data on the lift pressures of various wing structures.
Back in Dayton, they built wind tunnels in which to determine the angles at which differently shaped wings would cause lift. With the data generated by these tests, the Wrights made a double-winged glider with a vertical tail. However, in their 1902 tests at Kill Devil Hill, they found that their glider behaved erratically in high winds. They solved this problem by making the aircraft’s tail movable. They also installed a movable panel, known as an elevator, to the front of the glider to control its ascent and descent. This movable elevator and tail rudder, along with their wing-warping mechanism, gave the Wrights’ glider a three-dimensional system of control.
Having created a controllable glider, the Wright brothers realized that their next step should be to equip it with a motor and propeller to achieve powered flight. Because commercial motors did not suit their needs, they designed a powerful, lightweight engine that was built by Charlie Taylor, a worker in their bicycle shop. This 4-cylinder, 12-horsepower water-cooled, fuel-injected engine was constructed of cast aluminum and steel. Because this motor would add weight and cause vibrations, the brothers lengthened the glider’s wings and added stay wires to strengthen the glider’s structure. This new system of control restricted the warpability of the 40-foot wings to the wingtips, but it worked well nonetheless. To provide thrust for their new machine, which they dubbed “the Flyer,” they used propellers, designed in the shape of a twisted wing, which spun at 350 revolutions per minute.
In the fall of 1903, the Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk, where they reassembled their Flyer, installed its motor, and waited for good weather. On December 17, Orville took off from the beach in the Flyer, rose to a height of about 10 feet, and flew a distance of more than 100 feet in 12 seconds. The age of human flight had begun. For the rest of the day, the brothers alternated runs, the longest of which was flown by Wilbur, who remained in the air for nearly one minute and covered a distance of 852 feet.
Upon returning to Dayton, the Wright brothers decided to abandon their bicycle business and devote all their time to improving the Flyer. Over the next three years, they transformed their experimental aircraft into the world’s first practical airplane. Because they no longer needed the winds of Kitty Hawk, they were able to test their flyers near Dayton. In 1904, the Flyer made its first complete circle, and by 1905, Wilbur stayed aloft for 38 minutes and traveled 24 miles. On May 22, 1906, the brothers were granted U.S. patent 821,393 for their flying machine. They continued to increase the reliability, meaneuverability, and range of their planes by constant technical improvements. Although they formed a company to manufacture aircraft, Wilbur, who died in 1912, did not live to experience the full glory of the airplane’s evolution.
One of Orville’s chief concerns after his brother’s death was securing the Flyer’s place in the history of aeronautics. For many years, the Smithsonian Institution refused to acknowledge the Wright Flyer’s role in initiating the age of aviation, and Orville kept the Flyer on display in England until the Smithsonian finally conceded that the 1903 Flyer was indeed the world’s first genuine airplane. However, the Wright Flyer was installed in the Smithsonian eleven months after Orville had died.
Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: Morton, 1989. The first biography to make full use of the Wright family papers. The Smithsonian’s Crouch shows how the Wrights solved the problems of heavier- than-air flight more effectively than their competitors. Howard, Fred. Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers. New York: Knopf, 1987. A well-researched account of the lives and achievements of the Wright brothers before, during, and after their Flyer’s first success. Jalcab, Peter L. Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1990. A detailed and well-illustrated study of the scientific and technical research that led to the first airplane.
Glenn H. Curtiss
History of human flight
Samuel Pierpont Langley
The Wright Flyer, with Orville Wright at the controls andWilbur Wright looking on, makes its first flight, 120 feet in distance, on December 17, 1903.