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The Wright Flyer: The Spectacular Birth of Modern Flight

17th December 1903. A rickety contraption that shares few similarities with our modern aircraft wobbles down a purpose-built track, its small engine roaring in anticipation, before lifting somewhat unsteadily into the air. There it remains at a height of no more than 6 metres (20 ft) above the beach below for a total of 12 seconds before coming in for an ungainly, bumpy landing. The short flight certainly wouldn’t win many points for style or poise – but what had just taken place forever changed transportation. 

The first-ever aircraft – or “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard” if you want to go with the Smithsonian’s official description, took place just south of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, with the Wright Flyer (or Kitty Hawk as it is sometimes referred to as). 

While it would be some time until aviation for the masses took off, the small plane built by Orville and Wilbur Wright that lifted off that morning was the catalyst that changed everything. Humans still couldn’t fly, but finally, we had built something that could. 

Early Aviation

While our attention today will focus on the Wright Flyer, it’s only fair to discuss various models that very nearly beat the Wright Brothers into the air. This was a time when the scent of aviation history was in the air and several people around the world had either come close or achieved feats that weren’t deemed sufficient to be considered the first real flight. 

Alexander Fyodorovich Mozhayskiy.

Russian Naval officer, Alexander Fyodorovich Mozhayskiy, built a 22 metre (75 ft) monoplane and performed a 18-30 metres (60-100 ft) hop in 1884 using a ramp for an assisted take-off. The fact that the monoplane and the distance covered were roughly the same lengths must have meant it wasn’t exactly a sight to behold and does make me think of one of those cartoons where a character runs off a cliff ledge, then hangs in the air momentarily, before crashing back down to Earth.   

A Frenchman by the name of Clement Ader built a batwing aircraft powered by a steam engine that apparently flew for 50 metres (164 ft) on 9th October 1890 and potentially as far as 182 metres (600ft) two years later – though this claim has been refuted over the years which has in turn muddied Ader’s reputation somewhat. Apparently, he got a little overly-boastful later in life – a boastful Frenchman, I’m as shocked as you are – and yes I am allowed to make that joke as this script was written by somebody with plenty of French family. So why was this not considered the first flight? Simply because his batwing aircraft wasn’t capable of prolonged flight because it used a steam engine – harsh, but fair.  

A German immigrant who settled in the U.S, Gustave Whitehead, built several aircraft before the Wright Brothers, which included a steam-powered plane that flew in 1899, and a petrol-powered aircraft that was said to have taken to the skies on 14th August 1901 – though sadly with little to no reliable evidence.   

In New Zealand, farmer and part-time aviation pioneer, Richard Pearse, performed several test flights before those of the Wright Brothers, and there have been consistent rumours that a full flight and landing took place nine months before the historic day in North Carolina. 

Whether or not the Wright Flyer was really the first aircraft into the skies is something we’ll probably never be entirely sure about, but for the sake of the narrative of our video today, we’re going to say it was. 

The Wright Brothers

The two brothers whose names would forever be associated with pioneering aviation hailed from Dayton, Ohio – and if you ever needed an example of people who succeeded without a formal education, then the Wright Brothers are just that. Neither man completed high school, but with no doubt plenty of influence from their mother, who herself was said to be quite the mechanical wizz, they went on to leave their own enormous mark on history. 

Born just four years apart – Wilbur was the oldest born in 1867 followed by Orville in 1871 – their interest in aviation was piqued by a toy helicopter that their father returned home with one day. Years later, they followed with fascination many of the earliest glider flights, in particular the exploits of Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal, often referred to as ‘the flying man’, the first person to make repeated successful glider flights – and who died when his glider stalled and he fell 15 metres (50ft) back to earth. If ever there was an example of the fine line that early aviators treaded, it was Lilienthal. 

After testing their metal – pun intended – with a successful bicycle business, the brothers’ sights settled upon a challenge of monumental proportions – to build a machine that would finally make human flight possible.    

Development of the Wright Flyer

The events near the end of 1903 were the culmination of several years of work by the Wright Brothers, in which their experimental kites and gliders gradually evolved into the Wright Flyer.

In 1899, they built a biplane kite with a 1.5 metres (5 feet) wingspan, which also incorporated wing warping for the first time – a series of pulleys and cables that twisted the outer edges of the wings, essentially to try and mimic the wings of a bird. 

The following year in 1900, they upped and left Dayton to begin testing their glider designs. Their destination, close to Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, had been chosen for its regular sea breezes and relative isolation. No doubt also the prospect of crashing onto soft sand was far more appealing than say – rocks. 

The Wright Brothers were unquestionably brilliant, but like any savvy minds, they certainly took stock of what was going on around them in the early days of aviation. The death of Lilienthal in 1896 had been a shock, but sadly common among the daredevils that took to the skies during the formative years. One point that the Wright Brothers agreed on was the need to perfect glider control before making the transition to powered flight. They regarded many of the early accidents as being down to poor quality – or even complete lack of – pilot experience. Things were still very rudimentary in those early days, but missteps frequently led to tragedy.       

Between 1900 and 1902, the brothers tinkered with a series of manned gliders, the last of which was the 1902 Wright Glider This was loosely based on the Chanute-Herring biplane hang glider, which made several successful flights in 1896, reaching a furthest distance of 109 metres (350 ft). 

The three Wright Gliders (1900, 1901 and 1902) gradually increased in size to a final 9.8 metre by 1.5 metres (32 ft by 5 ft), with an area of 28.3 m2 (305 square feet). Much of the early testing was done so unmanned, with sandbags often used for ballast and the glider tethered to a rope attached to the ground. There is even a story of a young boy being used at one point and if that’s true, how insanely dangerous but what a story that would be to tell your friends back in school. 

The final glider that emerged had a much thinner camber, the distance between the two aerofoils – or thickness of the wing in Layman’s Terms – and perhaps most importantly, a movable vertical rudder, which was a complete game-changer. It revealed that rudders on an aircraft don’t work exactly the same as they do in boats, in that they don’t control the turning of the aircraft, but rather align the aircraft correctly during banking turns and when levelling off from turns. 

The final glider now utilized the three-axis control, with wing-warping for roll (lateral motion), forward elevator for pitch (up and down) and rear rudder for yaw (side to side). This led to the first controlled turn on 9th October 1902 and I don’t think I’m overstepping the mark by saying that aviation history was well and truly made.          

It was a historic month and during October 1902, the Wright Brothers made more than a thousand glide flights, several of which exceeded 182 metres (600 ft) and one which lasted a mammoth 26 seconds. The following year, while working on the Wright Flyer, the brothers set the world record of 43 seconds for a glide flight, then beat their own record the following month in November as the 1902 Wright Glider 1902 soared for a total of 1 minute and 12 seconds.

But while the Wright Brothers no doubt got a great kick out of their continued glider success, they had bigger fish to fry. 

The Wright Flyer

In many ways, the Wright Flyer was incredibly similar to the 1902 Wright Glider. Indeed, some aviation historians claim that the 1902 Glider was a greater step forward than the 1903 Wright Flyer because of the development of the three-axis control – a system still used by aircraft today.   

The frame of the first powered aircraft was built using spruce and ash wood, with Pride of the West muslin for surface coverings. These surfaces were then painted with what was described as canvas paint – probably paraffin dissolved in kerosene, a substance also used on the sails of ships. 

It used a purpose-built 12-horsepower gasoline engine, which is just over a quarter as powerful as the adorable toy car, the Reliant Robin, which powered the aircraft’s twin 2.4 metres ( 8 ft) propellers. The engine itself weighed just 81 kilograms (180 lbs) and was cast from a hard aluminium alloy made of 92% aluminium and 8% copper. It turned over 1,025 revolutions per minute and used a sprocket chain drive, something more commonly seen on bicycles than engines. It also came with what might just be the smallest petrol tank of all time, capable of carrying only 1.5 litres (0.4 gallons).     

The Wright Flyer was essentially a wooden airframe with two large wing sections, one above the other, and connected via a series of spruce poles. The airframe was held firmly in place with a 15-gauge bicycle spoke wire which crisscrossed between the upper and lower wings. The pilot would lie slightly to the left of the centre line because the engine was slightly to the right, and no the pilot and the engine didn’t weigh the same which was why the right wing was 10 cm (4 inches) longer than the left. It had a total wingspan of 12.29 metres ( 40 ft 4 in ) and a length of 6.43 metres (21 ft 1 in).

In front of the pilot was the 4.6 sq metres (48 sq ft ) double front elevator, which if you remember controlled pitch (up and down) via a series of levers and cables and behind the pilot was the 1.9 sq meters (21 sq ft) twin movable vertical rear rudders, controlling yaw (side to side). The final part of the axis was the wing warping, which again was controlled by the pilot through a series of cables that could curl the ends of the wings separately or both together. So essentially, a single brave soul lying in the middle of a wooden airframe with levers to control the three-axis control. It’s an image that seems implausible compared to modern flight, but many of the basics haven’t changed one bit.      

First Flight

In the weeks leading up to the historic first flight, the team was plagued with issues and a broken propeller shaft meant the entire aircraft had to be shipped back to Dayton for repairs. However by early December, with preparations seemingly in their final stages, the Brothers felt confident that they could achieve the historic – but there was one last minor issue. 

The question of which brother would pilot the Wright Flyer on its maiden voyage was settled by a good old fashioned coin toss, won by Wilbur. On 14th December, Wilbur Wright took his place inside the Wright Flyer as it was positioned on its 18 metres (60ft) track built using 2×4 planks of wood. Aboard the aircraft were three instruments that would record the momentous occasion, a Veedor engine revolution recorder, a stopwatch and a Richard hand anemometer to record the distance. The propellers whirled into action and the Wright Flyer began moving before slowly inching off the ground. 

But it was not to be – at least not yet. Just three seconds after take-off, the engine stalled and the Wright Flyer hit the ground with a mighty thud, causing minor damage, which thankfully was repaired over the following days. And remember that coin toss that Orville Wright lost, well, as you would have it, fate was with him as he took his turn in the Wright Flyer three days later at 10.35 am on 17th December 1903. 

Once again, the engine sputtered into life and the propellers began spinning. The Wright Flyer lurched forward, gaining speed before lifting unsteadily off the ground. The distance of 37 metres (120 feet) that it flew on its second attempt is shorter than the wingspan of a Boeing 747 – but it may well have been 37 miles. For the first time in recorded history, a powered, heavier-than-air machine had achieved a controlled flight, lasting 12 seconds and travelling at roughly 10.9 km/h (6.8 miles per hour). 

For the rest of the day, the brothers took it, in turn, to pilot the aircraft, with distances gradually increasing. The final flight, with Wilbur at the helm, flew for 259 metres (852 ft) and lasted 59 seconds – already a huge increase on what had been achieved earlier in the day. Unfortunately, the final landing had broken the front elevator supports, a fairly minor bit of damage that they hoped could be fixed quickly. But the story of the Wright Flyer has a strange ending. 

With a gloriously successful day under their belt and no hope of any further flights that day, the small group of five witnesses and the Wright Brothers began dragging the aircraft back towards its hangar. Now, if I was one of those heads in the clouds, always looking for signs within everything kind of a person, I would dare to say that this was the point when God took exception to humans taking flight for the first time. An enormous gust of wind suddenly whipped the Wright Flyer away from its handlers and sent it cartwheeling down the beach, gradually disintegrating as it went. When it finally stopped, the historic aircraft lay in a tattered heap. The Wright Flyer, the first aircraft into the air, would never fly again. 

Legacy   

It’s difficult to imagine what kind of thoughts must have been going through the Wright Brothers’ minds at this point. Elation, triumph – horror at watching their aircraft be smashed to pieces by a freak gust of wind. To rub salt in the wound, large sections of the press simply shrugged as if the achievement was no great feat. The day that we now commemorate as the start of modern aviation, for many passed like any other. 

The following year, the Wright Brothers built the Wright Flyer II, and after a bumpy start, by the end of the year, they had accumulated 50 minutes in the air across 105 flights, including the first-ever circled flight on 20th September 1904. Yet still, their exploits were often disregarded and at times labelled utterly fraudulent. Long before video and with only a sparse number of grainy photos, it was difficult for many to believe. 

And this was across the world. The French, in particular, poured scorn on the brothers, with many newspapers referring to them as bluffeur – bluffers. So in response, Willbur took an aircraft to France in 1908 and made the French eat mounds of humble pie – of the American variety of course. Suddenly, it was all confirmed, doubters apologised and the Wright Brother name became known across the world. 

The U.S Army soon came a calling with a request for an aircraft capable of carrying two men, which could stay aloft for an hour. This, plus the incorporation of the Wright Company in 1909, made a huge amount of money for the Wright Brothers. But things were still a long way from a viable commercial use. Wright planes were often used at airshows, but few were actually interested in buying and flying one themselves. This was made worse by a series of fatal accidents involving army Wright planes between 1912 and 1913 when 11 pilots were killed. 

The Wright Flyer was one of the most important pieces of engineering the world has ever seen, but using it was still a harrowing prospect and the importance of pilot training very quickly became apparent. Humans had now mastered the skies, but it wasn’t necessarily a place everybody should go. As I mentioned earlier, the original Wright Flyer never flew again and today resides in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. A flimsy, wooden, canvas contraption that’s difficult for our modern minds to even see as an aircraft, but which made history on its one and only day in the skies. 

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