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The Wright Flyers

The Wright Flyers
1903 - 1905
Longest Airplane, Greatest Span, Heaviest Airplane
Undisputed Champion in all categories 

The Wright Brothers \"Flyer\" being the first practical airplane, was not only
the largest ever to fly when it did, but it was the smallest,  the fastest, the slowest etc. Therefore, its inclusion in this list may be by default, but we may as well start at the beginning. By starting here we also have the advantage that we can make comparisons with everything else that ever flew. For instance, there are many planes that are physically longer than the first flight of the Flyer on December 17, 1903!  The Flyer was hand built by the brothers in their bicycle shop in Dayton Ohio. Everything, even the engine was hand built in their machine shop. They were quite a resourceful pair. In order to get data for their ideas, they designed and built one of the world\'s first wind tunnels, as well as a number of other clever gadgets to measure all aspects of aerodynamics as it was understood at that time.  


Wind Tunnel


enabled them to make corrections in the accepted texts and beliefs of the day and, ultimately, to make an airplane that could really fly. This thoroughness and resourcefulness was the major reason for their success. The design of the Flyer was not one of great inspiration alone, but one with considerable perspiration thrown in. Characteristic of the Wrights, they had been methodically working on the problems of flight for many years before the Flyer made its first tentative explorations into three-dimensional travel. Because they experimented first with gliders and kites, they realized the central problem was not to get an airplane in the air, but to keep it there under control. Flight control was essential if mans was to master flight. They realized that not only did man need to learn how to build the flying machine, he had to learn to fly.

\"\"The story of the first airplane, which the brothers named, with characteristic pragmatism, \"The Flyer\", begins about the turn of the century. Although Orville and his younger brother Wilbur had been thinking about powered flight at least since 1896 when they were fascinated by the experiments and saddened by the death of Otto Lilienthal in Germany, it was in the Spring of 1899 that they flew their first home made glider.

They experimented with the craft first as a kite only, but it was during these experiments that they learned about the problems of control. By the next Spring Wilbur had written his first of over 200 letters to the great American aeronautical pioneer, Octave Chanute, who cooperated with them fully and encouraged them whenever he could. Fortunately the brothers were prolific note keepers and letter writers as well as accomplished and serious photographers, so we have a detailed record of their early achievements and the thought processes that went into them. It was also in 1899 that the Wrights patented their means of control, wing warping.

Over the next three years, (1900-1902) The Wrights flew a series of continuously improved gliders at Kitty Hawk, NC, a small fishing village that boasted a lifesaving and a weather station, but little else. More importantly, it also la\"\"id claim to the most consistent and steady winds in the eastern US. Originally, business pressures meant they could only explore the problems of flight during the seasons when the bicycling business was at an ebb, but by 1901, they were spending the greater part of their summers in North Carolina experimenting with and uncovering the all-important secrets of flight control. Each year saw increasingly better and larger gliders until by the end of the 1902 gliding season, they made the longest gliding flights in history. The boys were ready to try it with power. 

\"\"In order to do so, however, they had to re-write the textbooks on aerodynamics and flight control.? Just as importantly, they practiced the art as well as the science of flying. It would do no good to make an airplane if you didn?t know how to fly it. Their letters and lecture notes describe many hours of practice and learning to keep an airplane in the air and not crash into the ground with the slightest puff of wind.

\"\"Their glider of 1902 that set the world\'s record for time and distance aloft had a span of 32\'1\" and weighed just over 105 lbs. without a pilot. With its biplane construction and elevator out in front, ahead of the pilot in what we now call a \"canard\" configuration, the unmistakable characteristics that would later be incorporated into their 1903 Flyer were tested. The big contribution of the 1902 glider was the incorporation of a rudder to offset adverse yaw. With the many successful flights of the 1902 season, and their increasing skill at handling the gliders, they were quite confident that next year\'s efforts would produce an airplane. All they needed was an engine.

Unfortunately, there were no suitable engines available. After trying to get a manufacturer to provide them with a suitable powerplant, the Wrights with the help of their bicycle shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, designed and built an engine that could provide 12 hp for a weight of only 170 lbs. It was not the first engine they had ever built. Earlier, they had built a stationary engine to power the machines in their shop. The fact that this was their only prior experience with internal combustion engines makes their work all the more remarkable. It was quite primitive, had no throttle and just enough cooling for a few minutes operation. At maximum power, it turned at around 1100 rpm. The remarkable fact is we know exactly how the engine performed, since the Wrights actually counted the revolutions the engine made during each flight, such was their attention to detail!

In order to transfer the power of the engine into useful thrust, the brothers had to design and build their own propellers. Once again they found the books written on the subject were all wrong and they had to do all the testing themselves. They were among the first to realize there was little difference between a propeller and a wing. They settled on a design with two large counter-rotating props driven by a reduction gear at 350 rpm. The thrust, measured primitively by tying sandbags to the static aircraft when the engine was turning at maximum power, was estimated at 132 to 136 lbs.

They arrived in Kitty Hawk in September of 1903. Following a few days where they had to rebuild the wind damaged camp, they proceeded to assemble the Flyer from the boatload of parts they had brought with them from Ohio. They took the opportunity, whenever the weather cooperated, to practice flying in the successful glider of the year before. These training flights went so well that soon they had exceeded their best flights of 1902 and had set new world\'s records for time aloft, exceeding by more than threefold the best of the rest of the world and besting their own previous record by half again. By October, they repeatedly were able to keep a glider aloft for as nearly a minute and on one occasion for 60.5 seconds.

Of course, there were problems. There was one serious setback that threatened the success of the entire operation. When they first mounted the engine to the drive train, they snapped the propeller shafts, which had to be sent back to Ohio for strengthening. This slowed the pair for a frustrating 6 weeks in an especially cold late autumn. Their letters home eloquently describe the hardships the two hardy pioneers endured. Finally, on the 20th of November, the new propeller shafts arrived and the two went to work straight away installing them in the airplane.

The first attempt at powered flight in the new contraption was on December 14th when Wilbur tried to take off downhill. There was uncharacteristically little wind that day, only 4 to 8 mph, and a \"flight\" of 3.5 seconds and 105 feet long was made at a maximum altitude of 15 feet, before the plane apparently stalled. The hard enough landing that followed damaged the skids and the rudder. Since the take-off was downhill, the plane landed at a height lower than from which it took off, and since the \"flight\" was never really under the pilot\'s control, the brothers justifiably did not claim success with this attempt.  

Repairs took up the next two days, then on December 17th the brothers were ready to try again. They woke to a 20 to 25 mph gusty wind, not the best conditions to try to fly for the first time. Unlike most other experimenters of the time, the Wrights appreciated the difficulty of control and it is somewhat surprising that they decided to fly in these conditions, which were far from perfect. They called their erstwhile assistants from the weather station and the post office and at 10:35 in the morning, with a 21 mph breeze blowing, Orville started the engine and continued down the launching rail, now placed on even ground. After about a 40\' takeoff \"roll\", in quotes because the early Wright machines were not equipped with wheels, the Flyer rose from the ground and made a wobbly 12 second flight. The moment the plane left the ground was recorded by John T. Daniels, a Kitty Hawk native with a camera set up by Orville before the attempt. The brothers were elated. Some idea of the excitement of the day can be seen in Orville\'s diary entry for the event. Not in character, they neglected to stop the watch for the first flight and the 12 second duration is only an estimate.

The 1903 Flyer was substantially larger and considerably heavier then the 1902 glider. It\'s span was increased to 40\'4\" (12.29m), and its length to 21\'1\' (6.43m). Carrying a pilot and a fueled engine, the flying weight was about 750 lbs. (340kg). These are the first records, by default, for the largest airplane in the world.

Apart from the engine, drive train, bracing wires and fittings, the flying machine was entirely made of spruce and ash wood, covered with linen. It could not be said that this was an easy airplane to fly. It certainly was not. For one the pronounced anhedral of the wings implies a certain level of instability that must have plagued the Wrights in their learning to handle the machine. In addition, it\'s wide chord and light wing loading made the plane skittish in the gusty North Caroline wind. If they hadn\'t spent so much time learning to fly, they would not have been as successful as they were.

A similar airplane with a modified wing and a more powerful engine was built a few months later and tested on a farm just outside their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. If the first day\'s flights in 1903 can be argued to be mere \"hops\" and not true flights, the 1904 machine did, indeed, fly but only barely. Hardly a cross-country traveler, this craft was little better in control than the original. It was, however, capable of a 360 degree turn as long as the bank wasn\'t very steep, and it once stayed aloft for more than 5 minutes. Over 100 flights were made with this craft, usually with the aid of a catapult since the winds weren\'t as favorable in Ohio as they were at Kitty Hawk. There can be no doubt that the Wrights had the formula for flight, and had demonstrated the possibility. The 1904 Flyer was very similar to the 1903 machine. It appears that it was only slightly longer since the elevators seem to be situated a bit more ahead and the rudder more behind the main wings, which must have improved handling. Orville was aware of this problem of close coupling of the center of lift and the elevators with the original Kitty Hawk Flyer and commented on its solution in his diary immediately after the first flights. Therefore, it seems reasonable that the new machine would be a bit longer as well as a little heavier. In all other respects, it was very similar to the 1903 machine. So, this second Wright machine must be assumed to be the largest aircraft ever to have flown when it was built, although I have not been able to find any definitive record of its dimensions.

The control problems were, for the most part, fixed in the third Flyer of 1905. Here the elevators were mounted on a considerably extended boom resulting in a length of 28\' (8.53m), our next world record for length. The wings reverted basically to the design of the first machine, but without the characteristic anhedral of the first two craft. The span was similar, at 40\'6\" (12.34m). The extra two inches also classifies this as the greatest span. With an even more powerful 20 hp Wright motor, the new machine weighed 855 lbs. (388kg) therefore, also the heaviest. Like the other Flyers, the plane was primarily constructed of Spruce and Ash, but this time covered with Cotton rather than Linen.

As a result of these changes, handling improved markedly. This flying machine could be seen flying daily around the field at Huffman Prairie. On one occasion, Wilbur stayed aloft for more than 38 minutes, circling the field 30 times for a distance of over 24 miles. This was truly a practical airplane, and the brothers knew it. It was time to announce this to the world and market their creation.

We will not see the Wright brothers or any product of the Wright\'s stable for the rest of this narrative. Their initial triumph was soon lost to the world. Their clear superiority was demonstrated in Europe in 1908 where some commercial success was found, but then the brothers failed to contribute much to the world of aviation. Where they might have been contributing and improving their designs, they fell into legal battles and squabbling, primarily with Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport NY to protect their patents. Wilbur died in 1912 of Typhoid Fever and Orville was never the same after the loss of his brother. He lived until 1948, by which time he saw his invention put to terrible use in two world wars, including the delivery of a nuclear weapon to an unsuspecting population. He did little if anything to further the science or art of aviation after this time. It is ironic that after all the bitter court fights over whether the aileron, developed by Curtiss, was an infringement on their wing warping concept, the name of Wright lived on in the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

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