The Wright Story
Discovering the Secrets of the Wright Brothers to Inspire a New Generation
Join us in documenting the discovery of aviation and the process of innovation!
The flying machines built and tested by Orville and Wilbur Wright during a period of little more than a decade are singular examples of the process of innovation. Now, a century later, the Wright Experience™ goes through the same research and development processes, uses the same materials, and flies exact reproductions of the Wright Flyers. Thus the Wright Experience™ is documenting one of the most profound breakthroughs of civilization.
Here is what we know so far about the Wright Brothers’ story. Here you can learn about science, technology, engineering, math, problem solving, history and more. It’s all the legacy of the Wright Brothers and the Wright Experience™. Join us!
An Evolution of an Idea
1899: The 1899 kite was designed and built by Wilbur to test whether wing warping would be a sufficient method for achieving lateral control. A few short flights proved its value, and plans were made for a machine large enough to carry a man.
1900: The 1900 glider was modified from its original plan when Wilbur arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on his way to Kitty Hawk and was unable to find lumber long enough for his planned wingspan. The machine was barely strong enough to lift him and was mainly tested as a kite. Its performance was promising enough to lead to a much larger machine the next year.
1901: The 1901 glider was the largest glider ever built. Its puzzling performance (based on their expectations from the previous year) led to many kite tests, the results of which led the Wrights to question the theoretical basis for their work to that point. Throughout the tests of 1899-1901, the practice of “kiting” the machine allowed the Wrights to make controlled, carefully monitored experiments, which produced reliable, accurate data. These tests are the direct predecessors of the groundbreaking wind tunnel tests of 1901-1902.
n 1878, when Wilbur was eleven and Orville was seven years old, their father, Bishop Milton Wright, brought home a toy helicopter for the boys. Based on a Pénaud model, the “bat”, as the Wrights called it, was powered by a rubber band driving a propeller which lifted the toy to the ceiling.
Fascinated by the model, the boys built their own versions of the “bat”, making them successively larger, but with disappointing results. The models simply did not fly very well. The boys turned their interest to other things – especially machines, including sewing machines and printing presses.
The “bat” did not lead directly to the Wrights’ later interest in flight, but was rather an early demonstration of their curiosity and facility with mechanical things. They never pursued helicopters or ornithopters or any other ideas other than those originating with the kite. They later learned more about Pénaud and credited him as being an important precursor to their work. They never forgot the “bat” either–Wilbur’s first letter to the Smithsonian mentioned the toy. Orville wrote about it in a letter complete with a drawing in 1929–51 years after their first encounter with a flying machine.
Flying the Kite, Then and Now...
The Wright brothers kept no diary notes or records of the original kite’s flights, and their accounts of its construction and flights come from depositions given in patent lawsuits in 1912. The descriptions of the kite’s performance are brief. Although clear, the account is far from detailed.
Orville recalled Wilbur’s report that the kite “…responded promptly to the warping of the surfaces, always lifting the wing that had the larger angle [of incidence]. Several times, according to Wilbur’s account to me, when he shifted the upper surface backward by the manipulation of the sticks attached to flying cords, the nose of the machine turned downward as was intended; but in diving downward it created a slack in the flying cords, so that he was not able to control it further. The model made such a rapid dive to the ground that the small boys present fell on their faces to avoid being hit, not having time to run…We felt that the model had demonstrated the efficiency of our system of control. After a little time we decided to experiment with a man-carrying machine embodying the principle of lateral control used in the kite model already flown”(McFarland, p. 11).
Dr. Tom Crouch, senior curator of the National Air and Space Museum has written a definitive account of the Wrights’ activities of this time. He is also the owner of a reproduction 1899 kite, made for him by the Wright Experience. An experienced and respected kite flyer, his record in keeping the kite aloft is about a minute—a testament to Wilbur’s description. Like all Wright machines, it worked as it was intended—but that doesn’t mean it was easy to fly.
The Kite's Last Mission
Almost all that is known about the kite itself comes from the court depositions of Orville and Wilbur Wright, and some of the witnesses to the kite’s test flights. For each of them, their recollections of the kite were 13 years old. Orville had never seen it fly. The witnesses who had seen it were just boys when the kite flew.
The Wrights were in litigation against Glenn Curtiss and others, as they had patented their system of control as realized in their 1902 glider, and sued those who they felt had violated the patent. In the course of the lawsuits, they had to explain the origin of their control system, which naturally led them to describe and even draw the kite—the precursor to all their machines.
Although the Wrights eventually won their suits, the wing warping system was abandoned by the aviation industry in favor of ailerons for lateral control. The kite remains an outstanding example of the Wrights’ genius for simple, elegant, and revolutionary solutions to previously insurmountable problems.
What Happened in 1900?
In 1900, the Wrights were already deeply involved their work with flight, following their encouraging kite tests and initial research in 1899. In May, Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute, starting a correspondence that would last for ten years. In September, the brothers were in Kitty Hawk, beginning the first season of experiments that would ultimately result in the triumph of 1903.
The 1900 season established the fundamental practices the Wrights would develop over the coming years: discrete periods of focused experimentation, the meticulous recording of test results and conditions, the use of photography for record keeping and for further flight analysis, and the adoption of the dunes of the Outer Banks as their field laboratory.
The 1900 flight tests themselves were only partially successful. The brothers had hoped to have “hours” of time in the air in order to gain experience in controlling their machine in the air. Due to inadequate lumber available locally, the glider’s wingspan was shorter than planned and proved insufficient to carry the weight of the pilot. Although their total flying time amounted to a only couple of minutes and the machine suffered a major crash, the Wrights were greatly encouraged by the effectiveness of their control system and the soundness of their design. A return trip was planned for the following year with a new machine and even greater expectations. (McFarland, pp.105-107)
Lilienthal and the Wrights
In 1896, Wilbur and Orville Wright learned of Otto Lilienthal’s death. Each stated that this event spurred on their longtime interest in flight and inspired them to start experiments. Lilienthal’s influence on the Wrights was far more than an initial inspiration. They studied his work in detail, and considered him their greatest predecessor.
In Wilbur’s words: “Herr Otto Lilienthal seems to have been the first man who really comprehended that balancing was the first instead of the last of the great problems in connection with human flight. He began where others left off, and thus saved the many thousands of dollars that it had heretofore been customary to spend in building and fitting expensive engine to machines that were uncontrollable when tried. He built wings of a size suitable to sustain his weight and made use of gravity as his motor… Lilienthal not only thought, but also acted; and in so (sic) doing probably made the greatest contribution to the solution of the flying problem that has ever been made by one man. He demonstrated the feasibility of actual practice in the air, without which success is impossible.”
At first glance, there are many similarities: both are launching unpowered gliders from hills. Both display the machines in controlled flight. However, the fact that Lilienthal’s legs are visible underneath his machines is, in terms of control, a major difference and represents a significant advance made by the Wrights. Lilienthal controlled his machine by throwing his weight fore and aft and left and right, changing the center of gravity of the glider as it descended. In the images of the Wright glider, Wilbur’s position on the machine is virtually unchanged. Using the forward elevator and wing warping controls, the pilot controlled his descent by changing the aerodynamic shape of the machine itself.
Otto Lilienthal was the pioneer most admired by the Wrights. He stood apart for the courage of his convictions and the thorough, rigorous quality of his scientific approach to flight. However, the Wrights only began to study his work when they learned of his death. The Wrights ultimately called many of Lilienthal’s assumptions and data into question, particularly his ideas about control propulsion, and his tables of lift data. Eventually, aviation would be based on their work, not his. Ever critical of pretenders and false claimants, they nevertheless always acknowledged the achievements Lilienthal had made and the quality and courage of his work.
Why did Lilienthal die? What caused his crash? How had his machine failed? What was wrong with his system of control? Lilienthal’s death posed many questions to the Wrights, and helped clearly define their focus on what they saw as the most important single factor of flight, control.
Lilienthal was their most significant source of inspiration and technical data for their first years of experiments. They based their 1901 glider on Lilienthal’s lift tables, and used their ground breaking wind tunnel experiments to test Lilienthal’s lift table data. Eventually, the Wrights questioned almost every aspect of Lilienthal’s work, as it formed the basis of their own early disappointing experiments. Like the other predecessors they admired, they never lost their respect for Lilienthal, despite having advanced far beyond his achievements.
Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) was a highly trained civil engineer. He ran a small factory, and, with his brother Gustav, pursued the study of flight which had been an interest since his boyhood. Although best known for his gliders and pioneering flights, Lilienthal was perhaps most important to the Wrights for his theoretical approach to flight and the scientific data he developed and compiled.
Lilienthal approached flight as an engineer. His work was based on the notion of birdflight as an acceptable model for human flight (Jakab, p.33). He had spent hours studying the storks in flight near his home, and, beginning in 1867, performed experiments to determine the characteristics of efficient wings.
Lilienthal’s controlled experiments included whirling arm tests, measuring the amount of lift generated by a wing against a flat plate of known resistance. As the wing lifted, he measured the amount of deflection in a tension spring and calculated the lift coefficients over a series of angles of attack. the results of these tests were compiled into tables of lift data for wings – the first such tables ever produced. With his first public lecture in 1873, Lilienthal’s theories and tests became widely available throughout the world, published in a variety of books and journals.
The Wrights’ faith in Lilienthal’s work was absolute as they started their work. Almost every aspect of their scientific approach to flight can find a precedent in Lilienthal’s work: theories based on observation, design based on reliable data, experiments carried out in controlled environments and recorded in detail. When they began to question his experimental data following the disappointing flights of 1901, they began their wind tunnel experiments to confirm his work, not disprove it. At the conclusion of their experiments, Wilbur even wrote, “I am led to think that Lilienthal himself had noticed that there was a discrepancy between his glides and his tables, at small angles especially.”(McFarland, p.173)
Making Changes in the Field
The design of the 1901 machine sought to be an improvement of the 1900 glider, and was similarly based on the lift data compiled by Otto Lilienthal. In Wilbur’s words:
“Accordingly, the curvature of the surface was increased to 1 in 12, to conform to the shape on which Lilienthal’s table was based, and to be on the safe side, we also decided to increase the area of the machine from 165 square feet to 308 square feet, although so large a machine had never been deemed controllable.”
In describing the machine’s first trials, Wilbur relates their surprise:
“The machine sailed off and made an undulating flight of a little more than 300 feet. To the onlookers this flight seemed very successful, but to the operator it was known that the full power of the rudder had been required to keep the machine from either running into the ground or rising so high as to lose all headway. In the 1900 machine one fourth as much rudder action had been sufficient to give much better control. It was apparent that something was radically wrong, though we were for some time unable to locate the trouble.”
When the brothers deduced that the movement of the center of pressure across the surface of the wings resulted in this imbalance and difficulty of control, a modification to the wing shape was required:
“This point having been definitely settled, we proceeded to truss down the ribs of the whole machine, so as to reduce the depth of curvature… On resuming gliding, we found that the old conditions of the preceeding year had returned; and after a few trials, made a glide of 366 feet and soon after one of 389 feet.” (McFarland, pp. 107-111)
The Wright’s clarity of purpose is well illustrated in the above passages. When faced with a puzzling and unforeseen problem with their design, they were able to isolate the source of difficulty and correct the problem.
The Measure of Things in Kitty Hawk
The Wrights’ interest in Kitty Hawk evolved with the sophistication of their experiments. The records of their first visit in 1900 very much leave the impression of a working vacation. By 1901, Kitty Hawk itself was measured and recorded with the same attention to detail as the flights themselves. Key to the Wrights’ analysis of their flights was the angle at which the glider descended the dunes and the slope of the dunes themselves. The dunes’ heights were recorded, particularly after storms. Wind speeds and directions were monitored on a daily, even hourly basis for suitable flying conditions. The Wrights clearly understood the scientific value of accurately recording their testing conditions.
What Happened Next
The Wrights’ analysis of their flights left them convinced that the Lilienthal lift tables they had trusted were in error. They proceeded to devise a series of instruments to test the accuracy of the data, each of which was designed to measure the lifting ability of a curved surface against a flat plate placed in a stream of moving air.
The evolution of these devices resulted in the first use of a wind tunnel for aerodynamic research and design. The hundreds of tests carried out by the Wrights not only led them to their revolutionary glider of 1902, but established the fundamental practices of wind tunnel testing which has been in aerodynamic engineering ever since.
What Happened in 1901?
In 1901, the Wright brothers had built and tested a glider whose flights were a source of great disappointment and frustration. They based their design on the lift tables of Otto Lilienthal, but the performance of the glider was far below what they had predicted.
In order to fly, the glider required a greater wind speed and a higher angle of attack than they had anticipated, and required a significant modification to the airfoil in order to get even marginally satisfactory results. Although the glider’s performance impressed their colleague Octave Chanute, these unexpected results led them to question the accuracy of Lilienthal’s data.
The Impact of the Tunnel
The wind tunnel experiments of 1901-1902 were a critical part of the Wrights’ scientific work. By running systematic, repeatable tests on over 200 lifting surfaces, and analyzing the results in great detail, the Wrights not only discovered inaccuracies in Lilienthal’s data, but they established for themselves the empirical foundation for all their future work.
With the wind tunnel tests, they found themselves in front of all the others, alone. Their achievement established the fundamental method by which all aircraft are designed today.
Where Was the Error?
The reason for the wind tunnel was easy: while designing their gliders, the Wrights had carefully followed the accepted formula for determining lift, using constant values determined by Lilienthal and Smeaton. The gliders did not fly as well as the formula had predicted. Something was wrong. The Wrights suspected two parts of the lift formula.
The formula stated the following:
L = CL x K x S x V2
Lift (weight to be lifted) = Lift coefficient (from Lilienthal) x coefficient for air pressure (Smeaton’s) x Surface area x velocity (squared).
In 1900 and 1901, the Wrights designed their gliders by plugging in the information they knew into the formula, estimating the weight and speed of the machine and including Lilienthal’s lift coefficient and Smeaton’s pressure coefficient. When the gliders flew so poorly, the Wrights quickly surmised that the error must lie in that data supplied by others – Lilienthal and Smeaton.
The Wrights’ wind tunnel experiments were started to determine the accuracy of Otto Lilienthal’s lift coefficients. Using the flight test data from the 1901 gliding season, Wilbur developed his own value for Smeaton’s coefficient. In each case, the Wrights’ numbers differed from Lilienthal and Smeaton. They chose to trust their own.
Building a New Machine
The Wright brothers arrived in Kitty Hawk for the 1902 gliding experiments on August 29. Construction of the glider did not begin until eleven days later, on September 8th. Orville wrote in his diary: “…finally begin work on machine at a little after 2 p.m. Worked till 5:30. Completed frame of upper surface ready for ribs.”
The Wrights worked quickly but methodically in assembling their glider. The frame for the lower wing was built first. The ribs were then lashed in place, and the cloth covering was tacked in place. Eager to fly, the Wrights took the wing out and flew it as a kite before completing the rest of the glider on September 10.
“On flat sand. Wind 6 meters. Weighted front edge until surface pulled horizontally. Pull at each end 3 lbs. Weight of surface 36 lbs. Sand 11 lbs. Depth of curvature 1/24 to 1/26. Surface more than soared on hill with incline of 7 3/4 . Angle of incidence estimated at 4 to 5. Wind velocity 7 meters. Surface complete except covering to rear spar.”
They next built the lower wing and attached it to the upper wing with the struts from the 1901 glider, which had been stored in their shed. With the two wings complete, more kite tests were made, as recorded by Wilbur in a letter to George Spratt on September 16: “The main thing though is the new machine. We have the two surfaces complete and the uprights in place, but the rudder is not yet quite done. It is 32′ x 5′ spreading an area of 305 sq. ft. altogether. The curvature is about 1 in 25. We had it out making tests of its efficiency today and are very much pleased with the results of our measurements.”
The last sections to be built were the front and rear rudders. Three days later, on September 19, they took it out for tests. Orville wrote in his diary: “Completed the rear vertical tail at 10:30. After dinner took machine to small hill, and after taking two pictures, flying it as a kite, began gliding with the assistance of Dan Tate.”
Twenty-two days after their arrival, they were finally flying.
The Tunnel's Legacy
As recorded by their sister Katherine, the Wrights concluded their experiments on December 7, 1901. They never again used the wind tunnel. The tunnel experiments had brought them through the greatest crisis of their investigations, and lead them to an unparalleled understanding of the dynamics of flight. They had produced reliable data, and set about designing and building their next machine.
The 1902 Glider became the first fully controllable aircraft ever built. It was also the first to soar. The Wrights had solved the problems they had first established for themselves: lift and control. They could turn to power. The tunnel’s legacy is perhaps greatest in the Wrights’ work on powered flight. The data they assembled in 1901 was the basis for their propellers of 1903, the first to have a basis in aerodynamics, and whose performance rivals the best wooden propellers of today.
Simple Tools, Sophisticated Results
The Wright Flyer featured a forerunner of the modern flight data recorder. The device pictured to the left is a Richard anemometer and stopwatch of the same type used by the Wright brothers. This antique, original instrument was installed on the reproduction Flyer, and used in exactly the same way. The Wrights mounted the instruments on a strut, and set them to be started at when the pilot slipped the catch which held the Flyer in place, thereby recording data as soon as the machine began to move.
The instruments recorded the amount of air that passed through the anemometer, and the time of the flights. With this information and a measurement for distance travelled, the Wrights could determine the Flyer’s speed. A revolution counter was also connected to the same starting and stopping device, so the Wrights could calculate engine performance as well.
Sewing with the Wrights
The Wright brothers learned to sew from their mother, Susan Wright. Although she died from tuberculosis when both were quite young, she had a profound effect on their futures: not only encouraging their curiosity and inventiveness, but also teaching them a great many mechanical skills.
Susan Wright had learned from her father, a carriage maker, to use tools and to develop her own mechanical aptitude. She passed on much of what she knew to her children. When it came to sewing the fabric, Orville and Wilbur considered the sewing machine as much a tool as any other she had taught them to use.
Katharine Wright described Orville and Wilbur preparing the 1902 glider in a letter to their father, August 20, 1902:
“Will spins the sewing machine around by the hour while Orv squats around marking places to sew. There is no place in the house to live but I’ll be lonesome enough next week and wish that I could have some of their racket around.”
There is little in the written record beyond this point about the fabric. One can assume that the Wrights continued to do all their own sewing until their first production aircraft began rolling out of their factory in 1910.
Like all other aspects of the Wrights’ aircraft, the design and use of the fabric evolved as they learned more about its role in effectiveness of the wings.
For example, with their first four aircraft, the 1899 kite and the 1900, 1901, and 1902 gliders, the fabric covered only the one surface of the wing. As they designed more substanial ribs for the 1903 Flyer, though, both surfaces were covered. As Orville wrote to his father on October 15:
“We completed the upper surface of our new machine yesterday. It is the prettiest we ever made, and of a much better shape, being smooth on both upper and lower sides. Heretofore the pars running from tip to tip have been projecting on the under side of the surface. This, of course, was costly in the efficiency of the surface, but was a defect rather hard to overcome; and in this respect our former machines were far ahead of anybody else. This year is thickest at the front edge and gradually tapers off to the thickness of the cloth at the rear edge.”
The muslin used in 1903 was applied to the Flyers of 1904 and 1905. It wasn’t until 1908 that a change in the type of fabric. As Orville wrote to Wilbur on December 28:
“I think I will build a special machine for the U.S. so as to make the 44-mile speed. I have some samples of “Cravenetted” (rubberized)cloth which I am going to test as to shrinking qualities. If it is better than plain muslin I will use it. It is waterproof, and therefore ought not to absorb moisture and shrink.”
This fabric was used for the most produced aircraft, the Model B. As with all other aspects of their designs, the fabric went though a process of evloution and refinement. When the Wrights arrived at a solution which worked, it stayed.
The Wrights' Engine
The Wrights’ engine was one of the last components designed and built before the successful flights of 1903. After their success in Kitty Hawk, the Wrights built two further horizontal engines for their continuing experiments. One was used on the 1904 and 1905 Flyers, the other, pictured at left, was used as a “guinea pig” for engine development.
As shown below left, the third engine was fitted to a floating platform and tested on the Miami River. The results of these tests led Orville to investigate a new engine design in 1906. The new design was the Vertical Four.
As the Wrights’ aircraft improved, so did the requirements of their engines. In each case the Wrights determined ahead of time how much power was required. Although it evolved into a six-cylinder version, the Vertical Four was the final production engine design of the Wrights and powered most of their aircraft through 1912.
Although the Wright brothers shared credit for all their work, their remarkable partnership was built on their often complementary talents. Wilbur often took the lead in aerodynamic theory and design, while Orville contributed many of their elegant mechanical solutions. In engine design, Orville clearly the innovator.
The brothers’ work on the engines began as a joint project, with significant contributions from their talented machinist, Charley Taylor. As the demands for engine performance increased, Orville took on the task of improving their design. Wilbur acknowledged his brothers’ ability, and continued to experiment with Engine No. 3 as Orville pressed ahead, developing the Vertical Four engine in 1906.
Orville’s new engine was the primary powerplant for their aircraft for the next ten years. Although he was the engineer, the true success of the engine lay in the fact that he had a clear understanding of its requirements. It was only a part of the overall aircraft design, which relied on Wilbur’s contributions in other areas.
Founded by Colonel Edward A. Deeds and Charles F. Kettering, the Engineer’s Club of Dayton has proudly celebrated and encouraged the many outstanding engineering professionals from the area since 1914. The mission of The Engineers Club of Dayton is to foster the advancement of business, education, engineering and science, and to promote the professional development of its members. Orville himself was a member, and selected Engine No. 3 as his gift to the club upon his death.
The engine was presented to the club in 1948 by Milton Wright, Orville’s cousin. The engine has been on display since then as an inspiration for its members. The engine’s preservation to this point is a tribute both to the club’s care of the Wrights’ legacy, as well as Orville’s foresight in placing it in good hands. The club continues to this day, with an active board and hosting a variety of events.
Controlling the Aircraft
Why did the Wrights control their first aircraft lying down?
The Wrights’ controls of 1900-1905 were essentially the same design: the pilot lay down on the lower wing, facing the front of the aircraft. With his left hand he controlled the elevator in front, and, with a hip cradle, used his body to warp the wings. The early gliders of 1900-1901 had foot controls for the warping, and the aircraft from 1902-1905 used a hip cradle.
As with all aspects of their machines, the pilot’s position was a calculated part of their overall design. When designing the gliders, the Wrights estimated that the total drag of the glider would be one-half that of the machine with the pilot sitting upright. (Jakab, 75) Despite their success in controlled flight, their early supporter Octave Chanute expressed concern for their safety with this arrangement: “This is a magnificent showing, provided that you do not plow the ground with your noses”.
The Wrights moved to sitting in 1908, and modified the controls first for that position, then for training. The U.S. Army contract they were trying to fulfill required that the machine accommodate both a pilot and passenger. The prone position would not be a practical arrangement, and gave way to upholstered chairs mounted on the lower wing.
How It Felt to Fly the 1902 Glider
The Wright brothers recorded many aspects of their flights: distances, direction, glide angle, speed, and so on. Almost nowhere do they describe the sensation of flying itself. Their enthusiasm can only be inferred by a few comments and one outstanding fact: once they had cracked the problem of control, they flew the glider as much as they could.
“In fact, we have spent but little time in measurements and have consequently greatly increased the amount of practice, which we consider to be the only thing now lacking to attain soaring flight.” -Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, Sept 23, 1902
In fact, many of their comments reflect their self-instruction as pilots. Learning to operate the controls effectively seemed to be consuming most of their attention while in the air.
“We went to the small hill again, and then to the second hill, where I spent most of the afternoon in practice on the end control in a wind of from seven to nine meters per second. I had great difficulty in getting started and, while trying to use the end control, caused the machine to bounce a great deal by turning the front rudder too far.” -Orville Wright, October 10, 1902
By the end of their stay at Kitty Hawk, they were elated by their success: “The past five days have been the most satisfactory for gliding that we have had. In two days we made over 250 glides, or more than we had made all together up to the time before Lorin left. We have gained considerable proficiency in the handling of the machine now, so that we are able to take it out in any kind of weather. Day before yesterday we had a wind of 16 meters per second or about 30 miles per hour, and glided in it without any trouble. That was the highest wind a gliding machine was ever in, so that we now hold all the records!” -Orville Wright to Katherine Wright, October 23, 1902
An Unusual Fate
The 1903 Flyer is surely one of aviation’s most prized artifacts. All the early experimental Wright aircraft: the 1899 kite, the 1900-1902 gliders, the 1904 Flyer, and the 1905 Flyer were arguably as significant as the 1903 machine.
The only aircraft they deliberately saved was the 1903 Flyer. The gliders were all left in the sand or in the sheds at Kitty Hawk. The 1904 flyer was burned to make more room in their Dayton hangar. The 1905 Flyer, the first practical airplane, was also left to rot in the sand after its last flights in 1908. (Others later salvaged it and its restoration was Orville’s last great project).
The Wrights understood the significance of their achievement. What they prized the most was the knowledge they had gained, not the machines they had built. The machines were always to be improved, rebuilt, tried and tested again and again. Once their usefulness to the process was over, the Wrights simply let them go.
The 1903 Flyer was saved, but it was all but forgotten. Gradually, as Orville defended his work with Wilbur through numerous controversies, the Flyer’s importance grew, as it became the defining symbol of what they had achieved.
Preparing for Powered Flight
The fall of 1903 saw the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk preparing for their first trials of the Flyer. While they were assembling the machine, they practiced flying in the 1902 glider, which they had left in camp from the year before. They made hundreds of glides, and literally wore the glider out. The fabric became loose, the wooden members dry and brittle. The constant practice was excellent preparation for the demands of the unstable Flyer.
The Wrights only made five attempts at flight in the Flyer. They did not consider the first, on December 14, 1903, to be successful. Wilbur brought the machine up too steeply, stalled, and settled back to the ground. All the remaining attempts were made on December 17, 1903, and all were successful. Despite the Flyer’s inherent instability, and the dangerously high winds of the day, the brothers’ skill had been so well developed that each was able to pilot the machine. Wilbur’s stunning 852 foot, 59 second last flight proved beyond a doubt that the Flyer could fly.
The Cutting Edge circa 1903
This shattered fragment is almost all that remains of the original 1903 Flyer propellers. The propellers were the most advanced propellers ever made – the first to be based on sound aerodynamic theory, and designed to meet a specific requirement. They are arguably the Wrights most significant contribution to aviation. They were certainly the most complex single element in the 1903 Flyer.
This fragment also illustrates the Wrights’ attitudes toward their machines: they were the tools of their experiments. The 1903 propellers were not broken in the wreck of the 1903 Flyer. They were damaged during the trials of the 1904 Flyer. The later 1904 propellers were in turn used on their 1908 machine in France.
After Wilbur’s death and Orville’s retirement from business, the few surviving propellers, engines, and aircraft began to be collected and preserved. Like the Flyer, they helped support Orville’s defense against other claimants to the invention of the airplane.
Where is the Rest of the Flyer?
Orville first rebuilt the Flyer in 1916 with the help of Jim Jacobs of the Dayton-Wright Company. Many of the parts had been broken in the tumble across the sand following the fourth flight in 1903. Others had been used and broken in the tests of the 1904 airplane. All were replaced in the reconstruction. Many of these replaced pieces still exist.
The most significant losses were the engine, the fabric, and the propellers. The crankcase and legs were broken off in 1903 and the engine was never used again. The fabric was stored separately and given to the Wright family upon Orville’s death in 1948. Other pieces, like the hub to the dolly and the propeller shaft sprockets also exist. Most of these survivors are in the collection of the National Park Service.
Although retired, Orville Wright continued to be a presence in the development of aviation. Although enemies had been made during the long court battles, and persistent doubters remained, he was increasingly honored and recognized by notable institutions and people.
He performed his elder statesman role with grace and dignity, accepting honorary degrees and awards from universities and governments on his and Wilbur’s behalf. Monuments were built in Kitty Hawk, Dayton, and in Europe.
His relationship with other aviation pioneers included Charles Lindbergh, who often encouraged Orville to write the story of the invention of the airplane, but to no effect. Orville had become a deeply private man, and was unconvinced in his own abilities as a writer. The book was never written.
Another Surviving Flyer?
Of the handful of original surviving Wright aircraft, perhaps the most significant after the Flyer is the Wrights’ third machine, now restored and on permanent display. A dramatic revision of the design begun by the 1903 Flyer, it was flown successfully in 1905, culminating with flights over 40 miles, with the Wrights mastering complete control of the machine.
It was refurbished and taken to Kitty Hawk for flight practice in 1908. The image to the left is the only picture the Wrights made of the machine there. When the flights were complete, it was, like the gliders before it, left to the mercy of the elements, sheltered only by the Wrights’ flimsy shed. The engine alone was returned to Kitty Hawk.
It lay in the sand for three years, until Mr. Zenas Crane secured the parts for a museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Eventually Orville became interested in a restoration project, and it became the last major work of his life. The restoration was begun under his supervision and was finished after his death. It is about 60 percent original. Like the 1903 Flyer, it offers a direct link to the actual workmanship of the Wrights’ own hands.
Orville's Flight School
The Wrights established their flying school in 1910. Their first student was Walter Brookins. The school was first operated in Montgomery, Alabama, and was later moved to the Wrights’ home field of Huffman Prairie outside Dayton, Ohio. The field was also known as Simms Station.
Orville was the original instructor at the school, and managed other instructors as they became qualified. Orville set the standards by which the student pilots were trained. There was considerable emphasis placed on maintenance of the machines. Each pilot became fluent in the mechanics and repair of the Wright aircraft. Students practiced flying in a machine known as the “balance” machine, which was an older Wright plane set up on the ground with functioning controls, something like a modern flight simulator.
Students were taught to fully control their machines and how to handle emergency situations, such as having the engine quit. Orville instructed many of the students personally, preparing them for their appearances as members of the Wright demonstration team.
Students typically learned to fly in under eight hours of instruction. Many of the graduates of the Wright school were the most famous aviators of their time: Arch Hoxsey, ‘Cal’ Rodgers, Ralph Johnstone, Frank Coffyn. Henry “Hap” Arnold went on to establish the United States Air Force (Crouch pp. 426-428, 435-439).
Showing the World
The era in which Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane was one of the most technologically innovative periods of history. The use of film to document the unveiling of the airplane marks a dramatic confluence of two remarkable inventions at the service of each other.
Although the Wrights had succeded in making the first powered flights in 1903, and had developed the first practical airplane by 1905, by 1908 they still had not formally flown in public to demonstrate their achievement. The Wrights waited until they had contracts for the sales of their machines in hand, both in the United States and in Europe.
Wilbur flew first, in Le Mans, France, in May of 1908. By that time, many in the aviation community and the general public believed that the Wrights were bluffeurs, that it was the French who had flown first and still flew the best. When Wilbur took to the air, his complete control of the machine, his sweeping bank turns, his altitude records, and the ease with which he flew passengers were nothing short of astounding. Although there were no cameras present on his first flight there, the event was such a sensation to the French that very soon afterward film crews were on hand to document his flights.
Orville’s demonstrations at Fort Myer in 1908 had a similiar effect on the doubting United States military and general public alike. Although the trail flights began as a great success, a crash brought them to an abrupt end, and resulted in the death of Lt. Thomas Selfridge, Orville’s passenger. The Wrights returned to Fort Myer in 1909 to complete the trials with a new machine. Two film cameramen were on hand to record the event, and the result is an almost complete set of sequences showing the launching and flying of the machine, with Orville setting many world records.
The Wrights gave their cameramen what they were looking for most: exciting and dramatic subjects. In turn, the films not only provided ample proof of the Wrights’ claims, but also served to spread the news of the arrival of aviation to the modern world.
Events & Anniversaries
The final appearances by the Wrights on film were made by Orville alone. Wilbur died in 1912, and there is little footage of him past 1909 in the United States. Orville was active in aviation for his remaining years, first with the Wright Company itself, and then as advisor and elder statesman to several organizations and institutions.
As aviation developed with astonishing speed, growing in sophistication beyond even what the Wrights had envisioned, Orville was often called upon to be present at a variety of ceremonies marking the origins of flight. Ironically, despite his integral role in inventing the airplane, and the use of film to spread the news of his invention, there could not have been a less suitable person to be placed in front of the cameras on these grand occasions.
Wilbur had been the writer, the speech-maker, the more public face of the brothers. In almost every film of Orville in his later years, his rarely even looks into the camera. He stands quietly and with great dignity, but he is clearly not going to say or do anything other than simply be present. Fortunately, there were many of his colleagues, students, and fellow pioneers who were willing to record their reminicences on film.