Heroes in Flight: the Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers – the first flight

You’ve no doubt heard of the Wright Brothers, widely recognized as the first men to take flight (despite some contest for the title!).  But how much do you know about that first flight, or the build-up to that historic day?

Growing up

Two of seven children, Wilbur was the oldest of the pair (born in 1867 near Millville, Indiana) and Orville followed in 1871 (born in Dayton, Ohio).  Their interest in aviation started when their father bought them a toy helicopter.  They were so fascinated, they played with it till it broke, so they decided to make another themselves – a sign of things to come!

As adults, the brothers always kept on top of the latest trends, and as cycling became more popular, they were determined to be part of the action and capitalize on it.  After setting up a cycle repair and sales business, they began building their own models under the Wright Cycling Company.

With the profits, they could fund their biggest interest – aviation.  They approached the Smithsonian Institution for information about aeronautics and could now learn and experiment themselves.

Early experiments

They began with gliders.  At this point, aviators knew that wings and gliders were essential components for flight, but some fatal crashes showed that another component was missing.  According to the Wright Brothers, this component was pilot control.

Drawing on their experience of bicycles, as well as observing birds in flight, the brothers realized that they needed to design something that would allow a pilot to lean the glider into a turn as a bird or cyclist does.  They finally discovered wing warping – a way of twisting the edges of a glider’s wings through a system of pulleys and cables.  This was revolutionary and went against all other beliefs held by aviators at the time.

After testing wing warping successfully with a kite, the next step was to try with a man-carrying glider.  They built the Wright Glider in 1900, a feat of aeronautical engineering that pulled together everything they knew about lift and drag, and tested it at Kitty Hawk.  Despite their careful calculations, it only produced half the lift expected.  They returned in 1901 with a bigger version, but still experienced problems, including a lack of lift and challenges with control.

Testing the data

The problem was not the design – but the data they’d used.  So rather than using the accepted lift and drag equations, the brothers decided to create their own.  Using a wind tunnel and a range of instruments, they calculated a new coefficient for the density of air – 0.0033 rather than the 0.005 determined by Smeaton centuries before.

In 1902, they constructed a new Wright Glider according to their new data.  It was a success!  On a number of practice flights, the brothers began to break all records held for altitude and distance, and the path was set for their first airplane.

The world’s first flight

Named the Flyer, this airplane was adapted to accommodate an engine and propellers.  As there were no engines light enough on the market, the Wright Brothers designed their own using lightweight aluminum, still important in aircraft design today.

On December 14, 1903, the brothers were finally ready to fly the first airplane.  They tossed a coin to see who would pilot, and Wilbur won.  However, after getting air briefly, the Flyer stalled and crashed – but the 3.5-second flight stirred the brothers’ confidence!  On December 17, Orville took the pilot’s position.  The Flyer lifted from the launching rail and landed 120 feet away.  Those 12 seconds were the most important in aviation history to date – man had taken flight!

Today, every airplane we fly is influenced by the calculations, ingenuity and determination of the Wright Brothers.  If you’ve not yet learned how to fly, it’s never too late! Contact us to get started today.

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