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Those Magnificent Wright Brothers and their Flying Machines

n Text by Martin Waligorski
n Photos: Library of Congress through USAF

As the world celebrates the Wright brothers’ significant contribution to mankind, it is only fitting that we each think of the benefits we enjoy due to these two gentlemen’s accomplishments. Not only did their invention dramatically change the world, but what a great hobby it gave to so may of us! In helping in the celebration of the Wright Brothers accomplishment, we intend to go back to those pioneering  years when the Wrights developed their first flying machines.  

As we all know, their first powered airplane made its first successful flight on December 17,1903, but it is important to note that the four flights of that day were only one small step in the development of the airplane. Their ultimate success did not come readily, as their few years experimentation was as much devoted to develop a new theoretical ground in aerodynamics as to building a practical flying machine. During a short span of three years between 1900 and 1903, they have solved the problems of basic structure, lift, control of flight, engine and propulsion — most of them major achievements that have never been solved before.

Luckily for us, the Wright brothers were keen on photographing their exploits using a contemporary box camera with glass plates. However, these invaluable images were very nearly lost for the posterity. The brothers had their glass negatives stored in a shed outside their house in Dayton. Dayton was hit by a flood in 1913, which reached the Wright property, inundating their shed. Many of the negatives were nearly destroyed in the flood: edges were broken off, the water stained various areas, and the delicate emulsion peeled off the glass plate. The remarkable thing is that they at all survived. The restored pictures presented here are a remarkable testimony to the Wright brothers' pioneering effort. 

Wright brothers flying machines, 1900-1903 

Click on the image to enlarge 

It was not before the year 1900 that the Wilbur and Orville Wright, the proprietors of a small bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, at all decided to try their hand at building an airplane. 

At that time Wilbur was already familiar with the available literature on flying that he could obtain through the Smithsonian Institution. They patterned their first glider after the sturdy Chanute/Herring craft, including the Pratt trussing, a lightweight means to build a strong biplane wing. 

The first Wright glider had a wingspan of 20 feet and was completed in October 1900. For safety reasons, it was initially flown as an unmanned kite as shown here, with movable surfaces manipulated from the ground by  control lines.

Later on, the brothers achieved manned flights of 300-400 feet, around 10 seconds in duration, assisted by the man on the ground who would run alongside the glider and hold down a wing if the machine turned upwards. One of these flights lead to an accident in which the glider was destroyed.


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For flight tests, the brothers sought for a place with lots of sand for soft landings and strong prevailing winds, to minimize the effort in moving the glider from the point of landing back to the point of takeoff.  Wilbur found the perfect spot along the beaches of Kitty Hawk on the outer banks of North Carolina. Initially the brothers would live there in a tent, treating their trips to Kitty Hawk as vacation and the entire flying experience as a hobby project. 

In 1901 they found a better spot nearby called the Kill Devil Hills, as they found the large hills there more appropriate to flight tests than the beaches of Kitty Hawk. Here, Wilbur lifts off in the 1901 glider.


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The 1901 glider was the enlarged version of the 1900 glider with 22' wingspan, the larger wing being supposed to improve lift qualities of the design. Contrary to the expectations, it still did not have adequate lift and proved no better than its predecessor. The longest free flight on August 8, 1901 covered a distance of only 389 feet. 

This is a genuine in-flight photo of the 1901 glider with Wilbur at the controls.


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Another photo of the 1901 glider after landing. To the brothers, its performance was disappointing. Orville later remembered that Wilbur had remarked "Not within a thousand years would man ever fly!". Through tedious testing and lift measurements they realized that some design error crept into their lift calculations. 

Notable in this photograph is the wing's flexibility is clearly visible. The Wright's craft relied on wing-warping for lateral control, a solution patterned on soaring birds.


Click on the image to enlarge 

To resolve the lift problem, the Wright brothers turned to nothing less than wind tunnel tests. It was a brilliant move as no-one before them used wind tunnel for precise and accurate measurements of lift and drag. The actual tunnel was a wooden box equipped with a fan providing a steady airflow of 27 miles per hour, and it fitted the bill perfectly.

As a result of the tests, the brothers discovered that the coefficient of lift that was previously accepted by Lilienthal an the others was too high. They have also found out that a long and narrow wing that was far more efficient than the short stubby wing employed in their 1901 glider. 

The following year the brothers returned to Kill Devil Hills with an entirely new glider. Not only did it employ the resulting improvements, but also featured a rudder for improved directional control.


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This, the Wrights 1902 glider was the first heavier-than air machine that solved the fundamental problems of flight: lift and three-axis control. Here it is in sustained free flight, carrying the man onboard for the first time in human history.  


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The in-flight photo shows details of the 1902 glider to advantage. All of the aerodynamic components of the future Wright Flyer are already present in its design. 


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Approaching the landing in the 1902 glider in the afternoon sun over the dunes of Kill Devil Hills.


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Photos like this demonstrate clearly that the 1902 glider was fully capable of controlled flight at altitude. The record flight that season measured 622 feet.


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The Wrights made further experiments to increase the degree of control. In this photograph the glider carries and additional fixed vertical vane in the rear.


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The Wrights filed for a patent for their flying machine on March 23, 1903 of this year. The application was clearly based on the 1902 glider, and described the way to control the aircraft in the air using the flexible wing for roll control, horizontal elevator for pitch control, and rudder for directional control. Here is the brothers' own drawing from the patent application.

The patent was awarded May 22, 1906. 


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The challenge that the Wrights undertook for the following year  was to turn their highly successful 1902 glider  into a powered machine. It required employing a propeller. In the absence of theoretical models, the brothers reasoned out the basic mental model of the propeller as a moveable wing, and tested various designs in their wind tunnel, discovering an efficient shape. They also initially attempted to purchase an engine, only to find out that no one was willing to build one to their specifications. With the able assistance of Charles Taylor, they resorted to building their own state-of-the-art four-cylinder engine with sufficient power-to-weight ratio. 

Everything was mounted into the airframe very similar to that of the 1902 glider, but substantially larger. As it turned out, t
he engine had barely the horsepower required to drag the aircraft into the air, but in the next year it was improved, producing more horsepower and longer flights.


Click on the image to enlarge 

By the time the new machine arrived at Kill Devil Hills, they vacation tent from three years before was long replaced by a permanent camp with two sheds - a visible sign that a hobby project from few years before turned into a deadly serious (and secret) enterprise.


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On December 14, 1903, when both the Wright flyer and the wind were ready, the brothers decided that Wilbur would take the first turn as pilot. It was decided by flipping the coin. They and the ground crew, consisting from five lifeguards from the beach, lugged the plane weighing six hundred pounds 1/4 mile to the big hill, laid out the 60-foot starting rail, and were ready to go. At the first attempt the machine nosed up and halted before leaving the rail, suffering a slight damage. 

Three days later the weather was cold and cloudy, but the wind was right again. The starting rail was moved to the flat ground to slow the takeoff down. It was Orville's turn that day.

It is at this attempt that this most famous photograph was taken, showing Orville at the controls during the sustained first flight of 12 seconds, 120 feet. The wind was so strong that  Wilbur didn't have any problems keeping up alongside the airplane, ready to grab its wing should the things start to go wrong.

  Three more successful flights were done that day. The second and third flight each covered approximately 175 feet, and the fourth covered 859 feet in 59 seconds. The rough landing damaged the front elevator frame and while parked at the hangar for repair, a sudden gust of wind caught the aircraft, turned it over, and demolished it. The brothers were left with nothing to do but go home. But the world would never be the same again.



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