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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: From Gliding to Controlled Powered Flight

Wilbur Wright arrived in Kitty Hawk on September 13, 1900. He stayed with the family of William (Bill) Tate, the local postmaster, while he assembled the glider. When Orville arrived less then two weeks later they set up a tent near the Tate's home. The conditions that promised to be ideal for gliding were less than perfect for camping. Orville wrote to his sister in Dayton, "When one of these 45-mile nor'easters strikes us…there is little sleep in our camp….When we crawl out of the tent to fix things outside, the sand fairly blinds us. It blows across the ground in clouds. We certainly can't complain of the place. We came down here for wind and sand, and we have got them."¹

The brothers had determined the dimensions of their first machine and the curvature of the wings based on Otto Lilienthal's calculations on lifting power. The assembled aircraft was a 50-pound biplane with a 17-foot wingspan. The wooden frame was covered with French sateen. A movable horizontal rudder--called an elevator--extended in front of the wings to control up and down movements (pitch). Lying facedown on the lower wing, the pilot tilted the elevator up or down with a hand control and operated the wing-warping wires with his feet. Testing the glider as a kite showed that the wing warping balanced the machine, but the elevator's response was not consistent, and the wings did not produce the expected lift.

Anxious to attempt manned glides, the brothers and Bill Tate hauled the glider four miles south of Kitty Hawk to a group of tall sand dunes known as the Kill Devil Hills. They dragged it part way up the tallest hill (which the Wright brothers called Big Hill) where Wilbur got into position as the pilot. Orville and Bill Tate grabbed the wing tips and ran down the hill until the glider was in the air on its own. Wilbur made a dozen glides each lasting less than 20 seconds and covering a maximum distance of about 400 feet. Wilbur wrote, "We were very much pleased with the general results of the trip, for setting out as we did, with almost revolutionary theories…and an entirely untried form of machine, we considered it quite a point to be able to return without having our pet theories completely knocked in the head…and our brains dashed out in the bargain."² The brothers left the Outer Banks on October 19, 1900, to return to Dayton. They set to work designing an improved glider that would hopefully solve the problems encountered during the first season.

The 1901 glider had a 22-foot wingspan, now covered with cotton fabric, and weighed almost 100 pounds. Instead of using a foot control, the pilot now moved the wing-warping wires by shifting his hips in a hip cradle. Not wanting to wait until fall to test the new glider, the brothers hired mechanic Charlie Taylor to take care of the bike shop. They arrived on the Outer Banks in July and established a camp at the base of the Kill Devil Hills to be closer to their launching site. They set up a tent for themselves, and built a wooden shed or hangar to store the glider. Barely settled in, they endured a week of torrential rain followed by a terrible outbreak of mosquitoes. Orville complained, "There was no escape. Everything was fairly covered with them. They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks."³

They conducted up to 100 glides from July 27 to August 17, but there were several problems from the beginning. The glider's wings still did not produce enough lift, and the elevator was not always reliable. They also experienced frightening problems with the wing-warping system that caused the pilot to lose control of the glider unexpectedly. The rain returned, and they went back to Dayton with their spirits dampened. Wilbur later wrote, "When we looked at the time and money we had expended, and considered the progress made and the distance yet to go, we considered our experiments a failure."4

Rather than give up, the brothers worked to solve the problems of the 1901 season. Convinced now that Lilienthal's lift tables were incorrect, they designed a small wind tunnel inside the cycle shop to gather their own data. After testing wing shapes inside the wood and metal tunnel, they realized that a longer, narrower wing would perform better. During the winter and spring of 1902 they built a new 120-pound glider with a 32-foot wingspan. The glider now featured a fixed, vertical rudder extending several feet to the rear, which they hoped would address the wing-warping problem by controlling yaw.

Arriving on the Outer Banks on August 28, 1902, Wilbur and Orville made repairs to the shed and enlarged it to provide living quarters. By October 24, the brothers had completed several hundred glides from the Kill Devil Hills. Although the glider was much improved, it still behaved unpredictably at times. To solve the problem, the brothers made the rudder movable and connected it to the wing-warping wires so that it automatically turned in the proper direction. The 1902 machine now was a great success, making glides of more than 600 feet in 26 seconds. The Wrights had at last designed and flown a machine that could be fully controlled by a pilot. In a letter to his sister, Orville excitedly exclaimed, "We now hold all the records! …the longest distance glide, the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind!!!"5 The brothers left at the end of October eager to take the next step-adding an engine and propellers to create a powered flying machine.

Back home in Dayton, the brothers, assisted by their bicycle shop mechanic Charlie Taylor, had to build a suitable gasoline engine themselves. The completed cast aluminum, four-cylinder engine weighed approximately 200 pounds. Designing propellers turned out to be even more difficult because nothing similar was in use. With their wind tunnel data, they decided to construct two 8 ˝ foot-long propellers that turned in opposite directions. The propellers were linked to the motor, which was placed on the lower wing to the right of the pilot, by a chain-drive transmission similar to a bike. The "Flyer," as they called the machine, had a wingspan of 40 feet and weighed 605 pounds.

When they arrived back at camp on September 26, 1903, the brothers had to repair the building, which had been blown from its foundation during winter storms. They erected a second building to house the Flyer and used the original building as living quarters and workshop. By the beginning of November, the Flyer was almost put together and engine testing was underway. One test damaged the propeller shafts, which had to be sent back to Dayton for repairs. Once the shafts were repaired and returned, they soon failed again. Continuing problems forced Orville to go to Dayton himself to make new ones. He did not return to the Outer Banks until December 11. They had already endured periods of extreme winds, rain, and bitter temperatures and were anxious to try the machine before the weather got even worse. On December 14, they attempted to launch the Flyer from the gentle lower slope of the hill because the wind was not sufficient to take off from level ground. Unfortunately, this first attempt failed when Wilbur lifted the airplane at too sharp an angle, which caused an immediate stall and damaged the elevator in the resulting hard landing.

On the morning of December 17, with temperatures near freezing and winds between 20 and 27 mph, the Wright brothers were ready to try again. Three men from the lifesaving station and two other locals arrived to help. They laid out the sections of a 60-foot wooden launching track on flat ground about 100 feet west of their camp, and Orville took his place as pilot. The airplane traveled along the launching rail on a wheeled dolly or truck, rose into the air, and landed in the sand after an unsteady, 12-second, 120-foot flight. Wilbur made the second flight which covered 175 feet in 12 seconds. Then Orville flew 200 feet in 15 seconds. At 12:00 p.m., Wilbur flew 852 feet and stayed airborne for 59 seconds at an altitude of between 8 and 12 feet before the airplane landed and sustained minor damage. The group had returned to the camp for a break when a sudden gust of wind toppled the airplane and damaged it beyond repair. The 1903 Flyer would never fly again, but it had effectively launched the age of human flight and secured the Wright brothers' place in history.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What problems did the brothers encounter during their experiments each season on the Outer Banks? How did they attempt to solve these problems? What did this indicate about their perseverance as well as their skill as inventors?

2. When did Wilbur and Orville begin the 1901 season? What did this indicate about their enthusiasm and priorities at the time?

3. Where did the Wright brothers live during each of the four seasons on the Outer Banks? What were some of the conditions they endured during their stays?

4. Create a chart that shows the characteristics (wingspan, weight, physical features) of each of the Wrights' flying machines. Based on the chart, how did the machines evolve from 1900 to 1903?

5. What was the distance and time of each flight on December 17, 1903? Why didn't they make more flights that day?

Reading 2 was compiled from Harry Combs, Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979); Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989); Tom D. Crouch, First Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Airplane (Harpers Ferry, WV: National Park Service Division of Publications); Russell Freedman, The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (New York: Holiday House, 1991); Fred C. Kelly, The Wright Brothers: A Biography (1943; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1989); Marvin W. McFarland, ed., The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, vol. 1 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953); and Orville Wright, How We Invented the Airplane: An Illustrated History, ed. Fred C. Kelly (1953; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988).

¹ Orville Wright to Katherine Wright, October 18, 1900. In Marvin W. McFarland, ed., The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953), vol. 1, 37.
² As quoted in Russell Freedman,
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (New York: Holiday House, 1991), 38.
³ Orville Wright to Katherine Wright, July 28, 1901. In Marvin W. McFarland, ed.,
The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953), vol. 1, 73.
4 As quoted in Harry Combs,
Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), 147.
5 Ibid., 173.

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