The History of the Airplane (The Wright Brothers - First Flight)
The Wright Brothers’ first aircraft blueprint was born in 1899. This followed a
formal request for flight experiment data submitted to the Smithsonian
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
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.