In 1903, the Wright brothers became the first to successfully fly a heavier-than-air powered winged aircraft. The two were not aeronautical engineers by trade, or had degrees in the field, but they had a passion for the concepts and turned theory into reality.
Wilbur was born on April 16th, 1867, and Orville on August 19th, 1871. The two ran a bicycle company in Dayton, Ohio. In their spare time, they dabbled in flying machines and all the possibilities the technology could bring in the future. They were big fans of German inventor Otto Lilienthal and were affected by his untimely death in August 1896. Lilienthal had crashed his self-designed and built glider and suffered severe injuries. He died in hospital 36 hours later. Wilbur and Orville went about turning an interest into a full-blown hobby.
The two designed kites, applying their knowledge of bicycle construction to the task. In 1899, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institute asking for copies of their research into human flight saying:
‘I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success’.
Over time the brothers refined their designs and moved onto piloted gliders. Between 1900 and 1902, they conducted over 700 glider tests at a beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The beach was a good choice because of its strong winds.
Keeping the weight of a human occupant and an engine in mind, the brothers calculated the weight and speed their craft had to be in order to leave the ground. They contacted various companies about building the engine and only heard back from a small few. Some were either too expensive or couldn’t meet the challenge because to make an engine so light and yet so powerful, they felt, was near impossible. The brothers gave up and decided to design and build it themselves. The end result was basic—crude even by 1900s standards—but it got the job done.
In September 1903, Wilbur, Orville and the Flyer made their way to Kitty Hawk. The tests were delayed for nearly three months because of bad weather and technical difficulties. They made their first attempt on December 14th. The two tossed a coin and Wilbur would be the pilot. An 18 metre (60 foot) metal track with a platform was built. The Flyer, attached to the platform, would travel down the track building up enough speed to achieve take off. On this test, however, the Flyer flipped onto its roof and was slightly damaged. Wilbur was unhurt but was convinced they would succeed.
The Wright Flyer 1 had a 12 metre (39 foot) wingspan and was made of a very light wood. It was powered by an engine that was connected, via a chain and sprocket system (similar to a bike chain) to two 2.5 metre (8 foot) propellers. It weighed 283 kilos (625 pounds), allowing 90 kilos (200 pounds) for the engine and occupant. It had to make a minimum airspeed of 37 kilometres per hour (23 miles per hour) to take flight.
One thing that contributed to Lilienthal’s death was the lack of control he had of his glider. The brothers made it mandatory that a pilot must have full control in their designs. Wilbur solved this by watching and studying birds. He realised in order for an aircraft to fly it would not only need to roll from side to side and pitch up and down into oncoming wind, but it would also need to use a combination of the two as well. This combination is known as yaw rotation. He solved the issue by adding a rudder to the Wright Flyer 1 design, a staple still used in modern aircraft design.
The brothers made repairs and tried again on December 17th. Orville was the pilot this time and at 10:35 succeeded. The Flyer was completely airborne for 12 seconds and travelled 36 metres (120 foot). Wilbur and a group of men helped Orville carry the Flyer back to the starting line. Improvements were made and three further attempts were made on the day, with the fourth, and most successful, lasting 59 seconds and covering 260 metres (852 foot).
The Wright brothers became overnight celebrities and over the next few years continued to perfect their designs. Aeroplanes have changed the world in a big way. They have been used in wars to drop bombs on enemy targets and get paratroopers to the action. In the 1930s, commercial airlines dominated travel, taking millions of passengers to countries all over the Atlantic Ocean. By the 1940s, people could get to destinations throughout the rest of the world. The jet engine was invented in the 1950s and revolutionised aircraft again. Wilbur passed away in 1912 and Orville in 1948. Their original Flyer is on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
This article was originally posted on the now defunct Science Niche website on December 15th, 2018.
First Flight with the Wright Brothers (https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/08/first-flight-with-the-wright-brothers/100796/)
Inventing a Flying Machine (https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/wright-brothers/online/fly/1903/)
Wright Brothers & First Flight: The Greatest Moments in Flight (https://www.space.com/16634-wright-brothers-first-flight.html)
Wright Brothers and the First Plane, The (https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/the-wright-brothers-and-the-first-plane/)
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