The Wright Brothers’ first aircraft blueprint was born in 1899. This followed a formal request for flight experiment data submitted to the Smithsonian Institution.
This blueprint was based on the Wright Brothers’ theory of wing warping, where the adjustment of the wingtips could manipulate the rolling motion and balance of an aircraft. This resulted from the Wright Brothers’ careful study of the flight of birds, where they could achieve their flight patterns through constant warping of their wings. The end result was a biplane glider slight in build, and tested while flying it like a kite.
Wilbur and Orville Wright’s ideas continued to evolve over the next three years. These came in the form of different gliders, both manned and unmanned. They also constantly studied different flight researchers such as Cayley, Langley and Otto Lilienthal. Extensive discussions were conducted with Octave Chanute, as the Wright Brothers continued to search for the solution to the critical issue of flight control.
Choosing Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as their test site for a physically comparative biplane glider that weighed 50 pounds, the Wright Brothers achieved their first breakthrough result from a piloted flight of any kind in 1900. The glider was the first piloted glider in history and featured a 17-foot wingspan with the brothers’ trademark wing-warping controls. Thereafter, they proceeded to work on the development of an even larger glider, but with more sophisticated controls and landing gear.
The result was a 100 pound glider with a 22-foot wingspan and landing skids, in 1901. Unfortunately, in flight tests conducted at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the glider encountered numerous problems such as pitch control issues, flights that spun out of control and weak lifting capability.
Demoralized, but not disheartened, by the test results, the Wright Brothers continued to analyze their work. The root of the problem was traced to inaccurate design calculations. Using a wind tunnel to experiment with various wing designs, a brand new glider was created which had a strong foundation built on accurate workings of airfoil mechanisms. It included a tail for flight stabilization and measured 32 feet in its wingspan.
Another breakthrough followed the testing of this glider in 1902. The tests gave the brothers’ fresh insights on how an adjustable tail could add turning ability and balance to a flying object. These were confirmed through further wind tunnel experiments, which eventually morphed into the Wright Brothers’ first ever aircraft that was motor-powered, aptly named – the Flyer.
Using a movable track for the Flyer to build airspeed, Orville Wright made the first ever piloted flight in history in a powered aircraft, on December 17, 1903. This flight lasted all of 12 seconds, and came on only its second attempt. The Flyer II quickly followed into the record books on November 9, 1904, when Wilbur Wright flew it for more than five minutes.
Tragedy struck in 1908 as the first recorded flight fatality resulted in the death of a passenger – Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. The plane was manned by Orville Wright who miraculously survived the crash on September 17.
This, however, did not discourage the U.S. Government from their first purchase of a Wright Brothers biplane on July 30, 1909. Attaining speeds greater than 40 mph, the brothers received a $5,000 bonus on top of the $25,000 sale.
This preceded the first machine gun propped airplane that took off from a College Park, Maryland airport in 1912. And the brothers’ association with the government continued, when on July 18, 1914, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was created and filled with airplanes bearing the Wright Brothers’ inventive hands and main rival, Glenn Curtiss.
Glenn Curtiss was the unfortunate loser in a heated patent suit brought against him by the Wright Brothers in the same year. His creations were borne from his idea of ailerons, which meant “little wing” in French. While decidedly different compared to the Wright Brothers’ wing-warping controls, the U.S. Court ruled that they violated the Wright Brothers’ ownership over lateral controls in flight.
Over the next four years from 1909, the Wright Brothers’ creations continued to make their mark. The plane that acquired its name from a grape soda, Vin Fiz became the first aircraft to complete a fight across the United States over 84 days, but spent more time on the ground due to numerous crash landings. This 1911 incident perhaps encapsulated in a nutshell, the fascinating brilliance and sometimes oddity, of the Wright Brothers’ in the history of the airplane.
Read also: The History of Great Airships