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How the successful Orville and Wilbur Wright aeroplane of 1903 was developed from glider designs



THE WRIGHT AEROPLANE IN FRANCE. Wilbur Wright made a number of flights in France in 1908, and convinced the sceptics in Europe of the achievements he and his brother had claimed. His first flight in France was on August 8, 1908, on the Hunaudieres racecourse near Le mans. The general design of this machine was the same as that of its predecessors, but the pilot and passenger were in a sitting instead of a prone position and a more powerful engine was used.

ONE of the most astonishing events of our time, and an event which was to affect civilization in a manner far beyond anything that its sponsors could have imagined, was the world’s first controlled flight in a power-driven, heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, U.S.A., by Orville and Wilbur Wright, on December 17, 1903.

Four flights were made on that momentous day and, although the first was made by Orville Wright, credit for the complete achievement must be given equally to the brothers, so closely were they associated.

This association began in their boyhood and continued until the death of Wilbur Wright in 1912. These brothers were the sons of Milton Wright, whose ancestors had emigrated from England in the seventeenth century. Wilbur Wright was born in 1867 and Orville in 1871.

From their early youth the brothers showed that spirit of enterprise which was to culminate in their great achievement. Although they were always enthusiastic about mechanical things, they showed enterprise in other directions. While still a youth, Orville Wright had his own printing press and produced a boys’ paper. This interest in journalism developed, and a weekly paper followed. When he was seventeen Wilbur obtained a more elaborate printing press and the brothers wrote for and published a number of weekly papers.

Newspaper production was not enough to satisfy their restless, inquiring minds. The two brothers formed the Wright Cycle Company in 1896 and manufactured cycles during the cycling boom in America.

Otto Lilienthal, the famous gliding pioneer, died in that year. His work had already roused the interest of the Wrights; after his death that interest developed. They studied the theory of gliding, and from theory they passed to practice. Although gliding experiments had been carried out for many years there had been little real progress.

After having made a comprehensive study of all the aspects of gliding, the Wright brothers believed that this lack of progress had been due to lack of practical experience. Lilienthal, for example, had experimented for five years, but his gliding time had not exceeded five hours. If any further progress were to be made it was essential to find some means whereby man could stay in the air for a longer period.

The brothers’ ambition was not only to improve the existing glider but also to control it. Death had taken a heavy toll of the gliding pioneers, and the Wrights realized that inability to control gliders had been largely responsible for those deaths.

In the summer of 1900 the brothers went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to build their first glider. This remote settlement was chosen because the Wrights wanted to find a place where the wind blew at an average speed of about twenty miles an hour; this speed, they had calculated, would be the best in which to practise sustained glides.

Their first glider had 165 square feet of supporting surface, based on Lilienthal’s statement that such a surface would lift a man in a wind that blew at twenty-one miles an hour. But when the Wrights tried their first glider, in a wind that blew between twenty-five and thirty miles an hour, it did not achieve the lift that it should have done according to Lilienthal’s experience.

Their experiments having been made on the assumption that so great an authority as Lilienthal could not be wrong, the Wrights had to begin again. Although their glider had been a disappointment to them, they made further experiments with it before another was built. They flew it as a kite and measured the pull on the ropes that were fixed to it in a high wind.

The two brothers tested a new idea with the wings, the main surfaces of which were twisted, or warped, to give lateral balance. The test showed the new system to be much more effective than the old method of the pilot moving his body. It was decided, too, that the pilot should adopt a horizontal position instead of the customary upright position. Further experiments led them to adopt a balancing plane in front of the machine, and to use a rudder.

They built their second glider in 1901. This had a surface area of 308 square feet and was the largest glider made up to that time.

Thousands of Tests

Many of their experiments had been based on the work of Octave Chanute, or were improvements on it. Chanute, when over sixty years of age, had made important contributions to the science of aeronautics. When the Wright brothers returned to Kitty Hawk in 1901 to test their second glider, Chanute went with them.

These tests were successful, especially those with the horizontal rudder or elevating plane. At the end of 1901 the two brothers made thousands of laboratory tests, many of which would have discouraged men with less belief in their ideal. They built a wind tunnel, which was 16 inches square and 6 feet long. The experiments from this small tunnel were so successful that they compensated for all previous disappointments. The brothers were convinced that a much improved machine could be designed, and in August 1902 they began to build their third glider.

This glider was a biplane. It had a wing span of 32 feet, a depth of 5 feet, and a total area of 305 square feet. The front elevator had an area of 15 square feet. An innovation was a vertical tail, which had an area of 6 square feet. The weight of the glider was 116½ lb, but with a pilot it weighed 250-260 lb.

During September and October 1902 the Wrights made nearly a thousand glides from the Kill Devil Hills at Kitty Hawk. They flew in winds of ten miles an hour and in winds as high as thirty-six miles an hour. No damage was caused to the glider from the immense strain of landing at full speed. Several glides covered distances of over 600 feet. The brothers had satisfied themselves that a man-carrying glider which could be controlled in the air had been invented. There remained the problem of power with which to drive the machine. It was imperative for them to design and manufacture an engine which would develop enough power for a restricted weight. There was also the problem of propellers and the general mechanism necessary for a power-driven flight.


WILBUR WRIGHT PILOTING HIS AEROPLANE in France in 1908. On September 21 he flew a distance of 55 miles in a little over an hour and a half. This was a longer flight than that of his brother in America on September 9, when Orville Wright made the first flight to exceed an hour in duration. On December 31, 1908, Wilbur Wright made a flight of over two hours twenty minutes’ duration.

No one realized that 1903 was to be one of the most significant years in the story of mankind; not even, perhaps, the two brothers who had worked so patiently and who had overcome so many difficulties. In that year the Wrights designed and built an engine which they believed would suit their purpose. They used an internal combustion engine, with petrol as fuel; this gave the maximum power for the minimum weight.

The engine was water-cooled and developed approximately 12 horse-power. It weighed about 240 lb. It had four cylinders in line, of approximately 4-in bore and 4-in stroke, attached to an aluminium crankcase provided with four feet on one side so that when the cylinders were mounted in the machine they were in a horizontal position. Power was transmitted by chain drive to two propellers behind the main planes.

The aeroplane had a double vertical rudder, which was coupled with the wing-warping control, so that when the wings were warped for lateral stability, or when the pilot wished to turn the machine, the correct amount of rudder movement was made simultaneously. The pilot (who adopted a prone position so that head resistance should be reduced) worked the wing-warping control, linked with the rudder controls, by moving his body from side to side in a yoke with which these controls were connected. The front elevator, which governed the ascent and descent, was worked by a small lever fixed to a rotating bar before the pilot. So that the aeroplane could start, it was placed on a trolley and run along a wooden rail; this provided the speed necessary for the flight. The total wing area was approximately 500 square feet and it supported about 1,000 lb in flight. The speed of the machine was about 31 miles an hour.

After certain minor adjustments had been made, the aeroplane was ready for test in December 1903. During the previous seven years the Wrights had added many chapters to the story of man’s attempt to conquer the air; but the final chapter was not yet written.

No matter what discouragements, what disappointments they had endured, the Wright brothers were so confident in the success of the flight that they sent a general invitation to people in the neighbourhood to see the world’s first flight. Only five people arrived.

First Flight of 12 Seconds

On December 17, 1903, the rest of the world went about its affairs ignorant that history was to be made that day. There had been rain on the previous day, but on the morning of December 17 the weather was cold and the puddles of water were covered with ice. A bitterly cold wind blew at from twenty-two to twenty-seven miles an hour. The cold weather was given as the reason why only five people arrived to see the flight; but, in view of the indifference and even disbelief with which news of the successful flights was to be received, it is more probable that lack of interest kept people at home on that December day. Not even a newspaperman thought it worth his while to see what was to be one of the biggest news stories of the century.

At ten o’clock the aeroplane was taken out and put on a monorail track, the object of which was to keep the aircraft 8 inches from the ground. Shortly before half past ten Orville Wright climbed into the machine, which, facing a wind that blew at twenty-seven miles an hour, started slowly. After a run (or what is now called a take-off) the aeroplane rose into the air and climbed to a height of 8 to 10 feet above the ground. It made a short flight at a ground speed of 10 miles an hour, and at an air speed of 30-35 miles an hour.

The apparently impossible had been achieved. Man had flown. It is true that the flight had taken only twelve seconds, but the results of those twelve seconds were to influence the history of the world, were to break down the barriers of human insularity and were to create a vast industry.

A MISHAP DURING THE LANDING of one of the Wright gliders

A MISHAP DURING THE LANDING of one of the Wright gliders. During the months of September and October 1902, the brothers Wright made nearly a thousand glides on their third glider. These were made in winds of speeds varying from ten to thirty-six miles an hour. Several of the glides covered distances of more than 600 feet.

Four flights were made that day, two by Orville and two by Wilbur Wright. The fourth flight was made by Wilbur, shortly after midday. He flew 852 feet in fifty-nine seconds; and that was the end of the work for one of the most historic days of the twentieth century. While the aeroplane was left unattended a gust of wind blew it over. It was badly damaged and could not be flown again. It was later lent by Orville Wright to the Aeronautical Section of the Science Museum, South Kensington, London, where it is to day, a memorial to another of man’s conquests of Nature.

No one in the world paid any serious attention to this great feat. There were rumours that two men had flown, but these rumours were regarded as tall stories from America. The Wright brothers were unperturbed by this lack of recognition. Perhaps they welcomed it, for they were able to make further experiments unhampered.

They carried out more flights in 1904 in a larger aeroplane. On September 20 of that year they achieved the first circular flight ever made in an aeroplane. During the years 1904-5 over a hundred flights were made.

The brothers were in no hurry to convince the world that the age of the flying machine had arrived; and it was not until 1906 that they took out patents in the USA, which embodied all the essential features of their designs. Even then, some three years

after the first flight, the Wrights were still discredited, particularly in Europe.

It was not until 1908 that the brothers made any attempt to break down this indifference, but for two years previously they had devoted most of their time to the building of new machines. One of the machines they built, which was to go to Europe, had certain modifications, but its general design was unchanged from that of its predecessors. The pilot and passenger were in a sitting instead of a prone position, and the aeroplane was driven by a higher-powered engine.

Critics Silenced for Ever

In 1908 Wilbur Wright went to France to convince the sceptics in Europe. At this time flying had made considerable progress in Europe but these had been flights at low speeds and of short duration. When Wilbur Wright arrived it was not to convince people that man had flown, but that he had flown so far.

His first European flight was made on August 8, 1908, on the Hunaudieres racecourse, near Le Mans, in France. On that occasion he flew only for one minute forty-seven seconds and covered only a mile and a quarter. His critics could not have been unduly impressed, but by progressive yet spectacular stages he proved the truth of those sensational stories from America. On August 11 he flew for four minutes, but critics were silenced for ever when they saw the extraordinary movements performed by his machine while he maintained perfect control.

Meanwhile, Orville, at Fort Meyer, in America, made the first flight to exceed one hour in duration; on September 9, 1908, he remained in the air for 1 hour 2 minutes 30 seconds.

Slightly less than a fortnight later this achievement was beaten by Wilbur in France. On September 21 he flew for 1 hour 31 minutes 25 seconds, and covered a distance of 55 miles, although at the time he was officially credited with only 42 miles. On December 31 he made a flight of 2 hours 20 minutes 23 seconds, during which he covered about 93 miles.

Shortly after their triumphant European tour the brothers gave up active flying. Licences were issued to certain companies to manufacture Wright biplanes, but the brothers were soon absorbed in business troubles. They were forced to take legal action to protect their patents.


ONE OF THE WRIGHT BROTHERS MAKING A GLIDE at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This remote settlement was chosen by the brothers because they wanted a place where the wind blew at an average speed of about twenty miles an hour. They had calculated that this would be the best wind speed in which to practise sustained glides. After somewhat disappointing experiments they overcame all the obstacles to sustained flight.

[From Part 14, published 7 June 1938]

You can read more on “American and Canadian Pioneers”, “Filling the World With Amazement” and “The First Air Meeting at Rheims” on this website.

Romance of the Wright Brothers