On December 17, 1903 two bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio launched a flimsy looking craft on a flight of 120 feet in 12 seconds, at a speed of 6.8 miles per hour on the remote sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They would complete three more flights that day, trading time piloting the craft from a prone position on the bi-plane’s lower wing. The longest flight covered 852 feet, achieved an altitude of about 10 feet, and lasted 59 seconds. Damaged on the final landing, but reparable, a gust of wind flipped the plane several times as it was being moved. It never flew again. The two inventors, brothers Orville and Wilber Wright, and five witnesses were on hand for the flights. Three of the men were from a nearby U.S. Life Saving Service station. One of them, John T. Daniels snapped a photo of the first flight form a camera that had been pre-positioned by Orville.
At the end of the day the brothers sent a telegram to their father tersely announcing their success and instructing him to “inform the press.” It turned out most of the press wasn’t interested. The Wright’s hometown Dayton paper refused to print the story, skeptical that it was true and convinced that even if the story were true, the flights were “too short to be of importance.” A telegrapher picked up the story and gave it unauthorized to a Virginia paper, which the next day carried a wildly inaccurate story, mostly made up from the wire, which was devoid of details. The secretive Wrights did not issue their own statement and full description of the flight until January. Even then, their claims were widely doubted and mocked.
Most people who kept abreast of rapidly developing technology knew that manned flight was imminent. Nobody expected the obscure Wright Brothers to be the ones to make the breakthrough. The 1890’s had produced an explosion of experimentation on flight, most of it using kites and gliders. In 1895 Octave Chanute had gathered several enthusiasts to test glider designs on the shores of Lake Michigan and himself had developed a bi-plane kite/glider which could carry a man hanging below it. It was press reports of these experiments that first interested the Wright Brothers in flight. Soon they were building their own kites, based generally on Chanute’s design. They were in contact with Chanute from 1900 and he was impressed by their work. He encouraged them and even helped them locate Kitty Hawk as an ideal place to conduct manned flight experiments. He also visited them there and witnessed their glider flights.
In Canada Alexander Graham Bell, one of the most respected inventors in the world, was also intrigued and began his own kite experiments. Even earlier German Otto Lilienthal was soaring with his single winged hang-glider, making over 2,000 flights by leaping from hills from 1891 until he was killed in a crash in 1895. Other Europeans were taking up his work.
But most experts expected the final breakthrough to be made by Charles Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. With the assistance of the Smithsonian staff, Langley had constructed model aircraft he called Aerodromes. These featured tandem wings, one in front of the other. After success with gliders, he mounted a steam-engine on two models and successfully launched them with a catapult from a deck on a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia on May 6, 1896. The second of the unmanned models flew at 25 mph more than 5,000 feet. Realizing that a steam engine would be too heavy for a manned version, Langley secured a $50,000 contract from the War Department to test and develop a full size Aerodrome capable of carrying a man. In development since 1898, the plane, now powered by a 25hp internal combustion engine was ready for testing by the fall of 1903. In a test in October the plane had fallen like a rock into the water after being launched. A second test on December 8 failed just as spectacularly drawing derision from the press, which had been breathlessly covering with expectations of success. Discouraged, Langley gave up his experiments. Langley had failed because his engine was still too heavy for his air frame and the frame was too delicate for the unanticipated stress of flight.
The Wrights had already solved these problems, along with a major obstacle to manned flight—how to control the air craft in flight—make it turn, rise and descend. This is where the meticulous scientific approach, their technical skill as builders and mechanics, and a well appointed machine shop at their disposal made all of the difference. They observed how birds, particularly soaring birds like gulls, controlled their flight by altering the angle of one wing relative to another allowing them to bank into a turn. They put their efforts into finding a way to make a man made wing do the same thing. The eventual result was wing warping, by which a system of pulleys and cables were used to twist the trailing edges of the wings in opposite directions.
The wing warping technique was first used by Wilber on a 5 foot box kite built like a bi-plane in 1899. It was so successful that the brothers went to Kitty Hawk to test a full size model the next year. The plane had cambered wings—a curving rather than flat surface and an elevator to control risings and descending in the front. It had no tail, as the brothers at this time did not believe one was necessary for control. For several days they flew the plane as a kite in the stiff winds. One day they took it to the sand dunes to be launched as a glider with Wilber as the pilot. About a dozen flights were made on one day. The glider’s lift was lower than expected and they did not get enough air time to fully test the wing warping technology.
A larger glider tested in 1901 was a disappointment. Lift was not efficient and the craft sometime responded to wing warping by turning the opposite direction intended, an affect called adverse yaw. Discouraged the brother returned home. They determined that the data on wing lift derived from Lilienthal’s experiments were unreliable. They built a crude wind tunnel to test various wing configurations and kept meticulous records of the results. That fall Chanute invited Wilber to address the Western Society of Engineers about the results of their tests. It was the first public airing of their work, but attracted little attention at the time.
Using the results of more than 200 wind tunnel tests of various airfoil shapes, the brother designed a new glider for 1902 with longer, narrow, and flatter wings. As tests proceeded a vertical rear rudder was added which was controlled by the same cable as the wing warping. The rudder stabilized the craft as the wing warping allowed it to bank into turns. They achieved true control in turns for the first time on October 2. They made hundreds of glides of a few hundred feet each successfully maneuvering with the new control system.
They returned to Dayton convinced that they were ready to progress to powered flight. They were also so confident that they applied for a patent on the Flying Machine on March 23, 1903. Specifically they protected their system of three-axis control—a front elevator for pitch, wing warping for roll, and rudder for yaw. However in a sentence of the patent application that would be important in future years, they admitted that other techniques than wing warping might be developed for adjusting the outer portions of a machine's wings to different angles on the right and left sides to achieve lateral control.
Having devised an air frame and control system, the brothers turned to a power source. Avoiding Langley’s pit fall, the brother knew that they needed a light weight internal combustion engine. Unable to find one from existing manufacturers, the Wrights decided to build their own engine from scrap in their shop. They had all of the machine tools necessary and a skilled mechanic, Charlie Taylor. Their major innovation was using light weight aluminum for the block. The 4-cycle vertical 12 hp, 180 lb engine had a gravity feed for the fuel instead of a carburetor—sort of a primitive fuel injection system. The efficient motor was intended to power two push propellers via a chain drive.
The propellers were another challenge. The brothers discovered that no one had ever done studies on propeller design. After deciding that in an aircraft a propeller was essentially a rapidly rotating airfoil. They again turned to extensive wind tunnel tests to determine the best configuration. Each hand made blade was eight foot long and made of three laminations of specially dried spruce. They proved to be amazingly efficient—even better than the brothers suspected. Modern tests show them to have a peak efficiency of 82% comparing well to the best performing modern blades at 85%.
The finished Flyer had a wingspan of 40.3 feet and weighed 605 lbs. By the Wrights careful calculations it cost less than $1,000 to build compared to the government’s $50,000 investment in Langley’s failure.
Back at Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1903 and feeling the pressure from Langley’s anticipated attempts, things at first did not go well. There were weeks of delay caused by propeller shafts broken in testing which required two trips back to Dayton to supervise machining new parts to exacting specifications. On December 14 with Wilber at the controls, they finally attempted a flight, but the engine stalled after just three seconds and the Flyer was damaged. Finally, they succeeded three days later.
In 1904 using a new machine, the Flyer II, the brothers set up an airfield in a pasture near Dayton to continue their tests. Lighter winds and lower air density reduced lift and made flights more difficult. Of the first two attempts with the local press in attendance, the first was a failure and the second was unimpressive. As what little public interest there was waned, the brothers adapted to the new circumstances by extending the rail along which the Flyer was launched and using a catapult to give it extra air speed for takeoff. By fall, using these techniques they were achieving longer and longer flights. On September 20 Wilber flew the first complete circle flight. They solved persistent control problems by enlarging both the elevator and the rudder and moving them farther from the wings. Soon they were going substantial distances over a ¾ mile course. On October 5 the Flyer II made the last and longest flight of the year—24.5 miles in 38 minutes.
The Wrights were now convinced that they had a commercially viable product and began to transition out of the bicycle business to concentrate on manufacturing and sale of airplanes. The problem was selling them. Only sketchy local press coverage described the progress of 1904 and the Wright’s claims were skeptically received both in the U.S. and Europe.
The Wright’s business strategy was risky at best, fueled by their fears that their secrets might be revealed and their patents stolen. They abandoned flying and testing entirely. They sent letters to the U.S. and European governments offering the Flyer for sale but declining to demonstrate it, or even show a photograph of a plane in flight until a signed contract was in hand. With public skepticism of their achievement mounting, they failed to attract much, if any interest.
Meanwhile others were ramping up their own efforts at flight. The Aéro-Club de France, whose members included many of the foremost engineers in Europe, stepped up their support for experimenters. On October 23, 1906 Brazilian born Alberto Santos-Dumont, already famous as the developer of the dirigible, made public flights in Paris in his 14-bis bi-plane. Although the longest flight of the day lasted only 22 second under power and spanned 700 feet and the aircraft was incapable of making controlled turns, the Aéro-Club certified it as the first powered heavier than air flight.
In Nova Scotia, Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in 1907 to support and sponsor experimentation. Early members included American motorcycle racer Glenn Curtis, U.S. Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and two University of Toronto students, Fredrick Baldwin, and John H. D. McCurdy. They built the Red Wing and on March 12, 1908 made the first public flight in North America over Keuka Lake in Up State New York. The innovative bi-plane was the first with an enclosed cockpit. Continuing their work the AEA developed the aileron--a hinged control surface attached to the trailing edge of a wing to control the aircraft in roll. This dramatic advancement immediately made wing warping—and the Wright Flyers obsolete. Curtis designed and flew the June Bug, a third AEA plane, incorporating the aileron. On July 4, 1908, he flew 5,080 feet, to win the Scientific American Trophy for the first public flight of more than 1 kilometer and its $2,500 purse. This was considered the first pre-announced public flight in America. Curtis bought the rights to the June Bug from the AEA and used it as the basis for his Curtis No. 1. When he went into production, he became a competitor of the Wrights who had stayed on the sidelines too long.
During their hiatus from flying, the Wright’s finally received their patent on the Flyer in 1906 and journeyed to Europe to try to interest governments there in the machine. In 1908 they finally got contracts from the French and U.S. governments for the delivery of a Flyer each, pending demonstration flights. The U.S. contract called for the plane to carry a passenger.
Back in Kitty Hawk, the brothers modified a version of the 1905 Flyer III with side by side seats on the lower wing and upright control levers. Three years out of practice flying they had trouble adapting. Wilber had a near fatal crash on May 14. After ironing out problems, Wilber went to Europe to meet the French, and Orville went to Washington for a demonstration of his own.
To say that the French were skeptical of Wright is putting it mildly. By 1908 there were several aviation pioneers taking to French skies. Wilber began public demonstrations on August 8 near Le Mans. In several flights that day he demonstrated superiority to anything the French had in the air conducting challenging figure-8 turns and making flights of impressive length and altitude. In a single day Wilber swept away doubt. Overnight he and his machine were celebrities. At last the Wrights were getting the attention they deserved.
Orville duplicated his brother’s success for the Army at Ft. Myer in Virginia on September 3. As demonstrations continued, the flights grew longer. By September 9 he became the first man to be airborne for more than an hour. But tragedy struck on September 17 when with Lt. Selfridge aboard a propeller shattered and the Flyer crashed. Selfridge was killed, the world’s first aviation fatality, and Orville grievously injured. Despite the accident, the Army granted a year extension on the contract so that Orville could recover and continue demonstrations in a new aircraft.
After months of recuperation Orville and his sister Kathleen sailed to Europe to join Wilber’s successful sales trip. The now famous pair were entertained by royalty and presidents and—more important—sold planes and trained pilots before returning to the U.S. in 1909 to yet more accolades, including a meeting with President William Howard Taft.
Back home, their Wright’s first priority was defending their patents. They sued Glenn Curtis and anyone else who attempted to build, fly, or market airplanes. The bitter litigation dragged on for years. Curtiss went about building a major aviation company concentrating on engines and sea planes. The Wrights, distracted by the suits, failed to continue to make significant improvement in their Fliers, which were obsolete by 1911. The whole American aviation industry languished. Soon the French, Germans, and even the Dutch were leapfrogging American products.
Wilber, who spearheaded the relentless round of lawsuits, died of typhus in 1912. In 1914 the Supreme Court finally ruled in the Wright’s favor in the patent case with Curtis. Vindicated by the decision, Orville decided to sell the company and retire. With the World War I, the government demanded that all aviation manufactures join in the Manufacturers Aircraft Association, to which member companies paid a blanket fee for the use of aviation patents. Both the company then known as Wright-Martin and Curtis received what were essentially $2 million dollar bribes by the government to join the consortium.
By that time both faced tough sledding with the Army. By 1913 11 Army pilots had been killed in crashes. All six Wright Model C planes were destroyed in fatal crashes. The Army determined that the pusher type planes built by both the Wrights and Curtis were inherently unstable and announced that henceforth they would purse on tractor aircraft with the engines in front. Orville had resisted changing over, fearing the new style might void his patents.
When America entered the war, the domestic aviation industry was so backward that no company could be found to produce planes capable of modern combat. The Army Air Corps had to go to war in planes purchased in Europe from the French and English. Eventually French designed Spads were produced under license in the states and by war’s end American technology was finally catching up. The Curtis Company, which had adapted more readily, was in better shape.
By 1929 the companies founded by the former bitter rivals were merged as the Curtis-Wright Corporation, still a major aerospace company.
Orville had a long, bittersweet retirement. He became estranged from his sister because he did not approve of her husband. Never married, he lived alone in a Dayton mansion. He feuded with the Smithsonian, which had honored Langley with the instillation of his Aerodrome and a claim that it was the first aircraft “capable” of flight. He served on the board of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), predecessor agency to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Orville Wright died as the honored elder statesman of aviation on January 30, 1948.