MIAMI – Today in Aviation, the Wright brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer in 1903. The flight took place 4 mi (6 km) south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The Wright Flyer (often referred to retrospectively as Flyer I or Flyer 1903) was the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft to fly successfully. Designed and constructed by the Wright brothers, it flew four times 117 years ago today.

The Wright Flyer was based on the experience of the Wrights testing gliders at Kitty Hawk from 1901 and 1902. Their last glider, that of 1902, became the base for the Wright Flyer concept.

Wright brothers aeroplane patent plans from 1908. Photo: Wiki Commons

The Flyer


In 1903, the Wrights designed the Flyer using giant spruce wood as their building material of choice. The wings were built with a camber that was 1-in-20. To power the Flyer, the brothers commissioned their employee Charlie Taylor to create a new design from scratch, essentially a rudimentary 12-horsepower (9-kilowatt) gasoline engine, since they could not find an acceptable automobile engine for the job.

Borrowing from bicycle technology, a sprocket chain drive powered the also hand-made twin propellers. One drive chain was crossed over so that the propellers rotated in opposite directions in order to eliminate the possibility of torque effects from impacting the handling of the aircraft.

As with the previous gliders, in an attempt to decrease drag, the Flyer Pilot flew lying on his stomach on the lower wing with his head towards the front of the plane. By shifting a cradle attached to his hips, the Pilot was able steered the aircraft. The cradle pulled wires, which warped the wings and simultaneously turned the rudder.

In terms of its configuration, the Flyer was a biplane canard. In aeronautical terms, canard (French for duck) is a type of fixed-wing aircraft in which the tailplane is in front of the main lifting surfaces rather than behind them as in traditional aircraft, or when there is an additional small set of wings in front of the main fixed wings. The term “canard” may be used to describe the aircraft itself, the wing configuration, or the foreplane.

On returning to Kitty Hawk in 1903, while training on the 1902 Glider from the previous season, the Wrights completed the assembly of the Flyer and were ready to test it out.

Orville in flight over Huffman Prairie in Wright Flyer II. Flight #85, approximately 1,760 feet (536 m) in ​40 15 seconds, November 16, 1904. Photo: Wiki Commons

The Flight


The Wrights decided go ahead with their first attempt at achieving powered flight on December 14, 1903. On that morning, the brothers pushed the Flyer and its launching rail to the incline of a nearby sand dune, Big Kill Devil Hill, with the aid of men from the nearby government life-saving station. It was at this point that the brothers tossed a coin to see who would get the first chance to pilot the Flyer. Wilbur won and was ready to make the gravity-assisted takeoff.

The aircraft left the rail. Wilbur pulled up too sharply, stalled, and after 3 1/2 seconds, the Flyer came down, suffering little damage.

After the abortive first flight and repairs that took three days, on December 17, the wind averaged more than 20 miles per hour (32 km/h) and the Wrights were ready to take the Flyer to the skies. The brothers laid the launch rail on level land, pointing it at the wind. On this day, there was no need for an inclined launch. The wind generated the requisite airspeed for takeoff. Orville took his turn at the controls. He was about to make history.

For a total distance of 120 feet (37 m), his first flight lasted 12 seconds. Taking turns, the brothers made four short low-altitude flights that day. The flight paths were all basically straight; there were no attempts to turn the aircraft. The last flight, performed by Wilbur, flew 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds, much longer than any of the three previous flights of 120, 175 and 200 feet. Each flight ended in a bumpy and unintended ‘landing’ (37, 53 and 61 m).

That landing broke the support for the Flyer’s front elevator, which the Wrights hoped to restore for a potential four-mile (6 km) flight to the village of Kitty Hawk. Soon after, the Flyer was picked up by a strong gust, which tumbled it end-over-end and destroyed it beyond any hope. The Wright Flyer never flew again.

In 1904, in order to achieve fully controlled flight, the Wrights began improving their designs and piloting techniques. With a new flyer in 1904 and even more decisively in 1905 with a third flyer, in which Wilbur made a 39-minute, 24-mile (39 km) non-stop circular flight on 5 October, substantial progress towards this goal was achieved.

By 1905, with the Wright Flyer II, the brothers designed their flying machine to make longer-running and more aerodynamic flights, followed by the Wright Flyer III, the first truly practical fixed-wing aircraft.

The Wright Flyer in 1995 after restoration. Photo: Wiki Commons

The Legacy


With their Flyer aircraft series, the Wright brothers were the first to achieve powered heavier-than-air flight. Some of the theoretical achievements the Wrights used for the series were influential for aviation advancement as a whole.

The Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible. In addition, the pioneering use of “roll control” by twisting the wings to adjust the wingtip angle with respect to the airstream led directly to the more practical use by imitators such as Curtiss and Farman in their ailerons.

Furthermore, the Wright’s original idea of a synchronized, coordinated roll and yaw control (rear rudder deflection), which they discovered in 1902, refined in 1903-1905, and patented in 1906, represents the solution for controlled flight and is used on virtually every fixed-wing aircraft today.

The Wright Brothers did not publicize their efforts, giving only a single declaration to the press in January 1904 and a failed public demonstration in May of that same year. Other aviators around the world working on achieving human flight were initially thought by the press to have preceded the Wright brothers by several years.

However, on August 8, 1908, the Wright brothers were accepted as pioneers after their demonstration flight in France and received extensive media attention. In the years leading up to the Wright Flyer milestone, many aviators such as Alberto Santos-Dumont had the clout, the money and the best teams available to develop their solutions to the problem of flight. As such, they were followed by the media everywhere.

The 30-year-old Wright brothers, on the other hand, had no money, were helped by a bunch of friends who believed as they did in the power of human flight and how it would change the world, and the media followed them nowhere. Their story and legacy are at the core of what American innovation is.

The Wright Flyer is currently displayed in Washington D.C. at the National Air and Space Museum. The US Smithsonian Institution describes the aircraft as “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a Pilot aboard.” The Wright Flyer flight marks the beginning of the “pioneer era” in aviation.


Featured image: The first powered, controlled, sustained airplane flight in history. Orville Wright, age 32, is at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. His brother, Wilbur Wright, age 36, ran alongside to help balance the machine, having just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine. (Orville Wright preset the camera and had John T. Daniels squeeze the rubber bulb, tripping the shutter.) This image was restored by User: Wright Stuff in November, 2018. Article sources: The first 5 flights: thewrightbrothers.org, the World Digital Library (WDL), Wikimedia.