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After many bizarre pioneers came the triumphant Wright brothers

Posted in Aviation, Famous Inventors, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 1 October 2013

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This edited article about aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 414 published on 20 December 1969.

Wright brothers, picture, image, illustration

The first flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, Carolina in 1903 began the amazing story of flying.

It all depended on the toss of a coin. Who would be the first man to fly. . . ?

The coin was spun by one of the Wright brothers; Wilbur, the elder brother, won the toss and crawled carefully on to the lower wing of their Flyer.

The Flyer, a flimsy construction of struts and fabric, was the result of seven years’ hard study, research and work. For Wilbur and Orville Wright were not the kind of men who stuck together a crack-pot contraption in the hope that it might work. Everything about their aeroplane was the outcome of experiment, testing and careful scientific observation.

The Wrights were determined young men who lived in Dayton, in Ohio, where their father was a bishop of a local church. They had begun their working lives selling bicycles. Later on they built the bicycles they sold, and were successful enough in business to have the money available for their flying experiments.

They studied the wing motions of gliding birds. They spent many hours observing the local buzzards, and noticed how the birds kept themselves level in the air by twisting the ends of their wings.

When they built their first aircraft, a 5 ft. wide kite in August 1899, the Wrights remembered the buzzards and arranged the wings so that they could be bent and twisted like the buzzards’ wings. This technique became known as “wing-warping” and was used to great effect by the Wright brothers. In modern aircraft ailerons have taken the place of wing-warping. This bi-plane kite was an experimental model, controlled by wires from the ground, and the brothers used this to test out several of their early ideas.

The next step was to build themselves a full-sized glider. This they completed in September the following year. It already had the basic shape that they were to use for many years to come. It was a bi-plane with squarish wings and the elevator (a small “wing” for steering the aircraft up or down) to the front. A few gliding flights were made in this, but again it was flown mainly as a kite, so that the brothers could test out their theories without risk.

Two more gliders followed, each an improvement on the former.

The inventive pair even built a wind tunnel, a device used today by all aero-engineers, to study the action of wind currents on various shapes of wings. The Wrights’ wind tunnel was only 6 ft. long and about 16 in. square but in this they studied the performance of over 200 different shapes of wings at various angles.

When satisfied that they had solved the basic problems of keeping an aircraft in the air, and of being able to control it reasonably well, the brothers were then faced with the problem of power and propulsion. Since there were no small engines light enough and powerful enough to be of use in their aeroplane they built one themselves. It was a 12 horse power engine and weighed 200 pounds. It drove two propellers, which they had designed and made entirely by themselves. Bicycle chains were used from the engine to the propellers, which rotated in opposite directions to keep the aircraft in balance.

The propellers were of the “pusher” type and mounted behind the wings. Thus with the propellers at the rear and the elevator “tail” in the front the Wrights’ Flyer has a strange back-to-front appearance.

At long last, all was made ready for the first historic flight of mankind. The date was Monday, 14th December, 1903. The place was some sand dunes at Kill Devil Hills about four miles from Kitty Hawk.

Wilbur lay face down beside the roaring engine. His brother and helpers stood by the tethers which held the vibrating aircraft back until the propellers had run up to full power.

At a signal the aircraft was unleashed.

The Flyer lurched forwards, gathering speed rapidly. It lifted slightly. Orville watched his brother, a black blob in a quivering web of wire and tubing.

The contraption parted from the wooden ramp. Wilbur moved the elevator control. In modern terms “he over-corrected” and the Flyer obstinately dipped its nose into the Kill Devil sand. The flight had ended before it had begun.

Orville and the little band of helpers ran up. Wilbur was unhurt, but he had not become the first man in history to fly. There could be no more attempts that day because the Flyer had been slightly damaged. History would have to wait for the repairs to be done.

On the dull morning of Thursday, 17th December 1903, the Flyer was again ready to make history.

This time it was brother Orville Wright’s turn at the controls. He lay flat on one of the lower wings, slightly off-centre to balance the weight of the engine beside him. Just after half past ten the engine was started and the long, fragile-looking wings of the aircraft were held steady as the engine warmed and the twin propellers bit at the chill air. A stiff wind blew into the men’s faces. On the dunes of Kill Devil Hills this steady wind could be relied upon. This was an important factor.

Wilbur gave the signal for the flight to begin. The lines holding back the aircraft were let go. The Flyer, powered by its noisy 12 hp engine began to move smoothly forwards. Its landing skids were resting on a two wheeled frame which ran along a wooden mono-rail some 60 feet long. This ensured it had a friction-free take-off run.

After some nervous seconds the aircraft rose off its wheeled yoke. It was flying . . . actually flying!

Wilbur ran after the machine in his excitement. The five local people who had been persuaded to come along as witnesses of this historic event watched the scene from their coat-collars, hunched against the morning cold. Someone took a photograph, all unaware that this was to be the only pictorial record of one of the most stupendous events in the history of man.

Man was in the air. He was not drifting in any direction that the breeze cared to take him, as in the case of balloon flights. He could turn and choose the direction in which he wanted to travel, regardless of the wind. He was no longer gliding, thrown into the wind by a catapult or by momentum gathered from a downhill run, and airborne only so long as that speed lasted. Orville Wright was the first man to fly under power and under control, and to land on ground as high, or higher, than that from which he had taken off.

Against a 20-22 mph wind he flew a land distance of 120 feet in 12 seconds. He landed safely. The Flyer was remounted on its wheeled yoke and Wilbur took a turn.

Each brother made two flights that morning, Wilbur making the last and the longest at noon, remaining in the air for 59 seconds and covering 852 ground feet or more than half a mile in the air, if allowing for the wind.

Needless to say, the determined cycle-makers did not finish with their aeroplanes with this success, tremendous though it was. They immediately began work on a Flyer II, and nine months later had flown the first aerial circuit. The Flyer III, in which Wilbur toured Europe in 1908, remained airborne for a sensational hour and a half . . . or approximately the time a manned satellite takes to orbit the earth.

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