We all know the story of how two bicycle-shop brothers from Ohio built and flew the first successful heavier-than-air aircraft from the dunes of North Carolina on December 17, 1903. Last time we looked at the path of science and imagination that created the atmosphere in which the Wright Brothers began their work. This time we’ll look at how the Wrights adapted that experience to finally conquer the air.
Ader’s Eole and Avion
Frenchman Clement Ader began unsuccessful experiments with gliding flight in 1872. He then turned to attempts at powered flight. In 1890 he completed the bat-like Eole, powered by a 12-horsepower, alcohol-fired steam engine. Confident, Ader arranged a public demonstration of the Eole on October 9, 1890.
Witnesses saw the 727-pound machine roll across a field southwest of Paris, and “hop” about 160 feet, a few inches above the ground. The Eole could not sustain flight, however, and was never really under control. Crosswinds ended the Eole’s “flight.”
Nonetheless, the French Army enthusiastically paid Ader to develop an advanced version he called the Avion III. The airplane never got off the ground during trials, and the order was cancelled. Ader later claimed to have flown the Avion III for distances up to 984 feet in 1897, but there is no evidence to back his claim.
Scientist and astronomer Samuel Pierpont Langley was the secretary-general of the Smithsonian Institution. With the assistance of Alexander Graham Bell and other notable inventors of his age, Langley set out on a government-sponsored quest to develop a heavier-than-air flying machine.
Like most of his era, Langley started work with small, rubber-powered models to test his theories. He fell into the trap so many others had before him — unpiloted models had to be stable in order to fly; his experiments convinced Langley that a manned machine must also be completely stable, so he failed to see the problem of movement, and made no provision for aircraft control.
Nonetheless, his unmanned Aerodrome No. 5 flew half a mile in 1.5 minutes, under steam power in 1896. That same year Langley’s Aerodrome No. 6, like all Langley designs was catapulted off the top of a houseboat on the Potomac River. It flew 4200 feet. Its high angle of dihedral allowed the steam-powered, unmanned craft to right itself when disturbed by the wind.
On the basis of this flight, the U.S. War Department gave Langley a $50,000 grant to create a man-carrying airplane. First Langley built a one-quarter scale model, the first aircraft to fly using a gasoline-powered engine. Langley employed engineer Charles Manly to design a huge, 52-horsepower engine, and to pilot the new Aerodrome. Manly’s October 7, 1903 flight ended when the Aerodrome was ripped apart from the stress of catapulting from zero to 60 miles per hour in only 70 feet.
After the second attempt at launching a manned Aerodrome failed and killed Charles Manly on December 8, 1903, Samuel Langley was discredited by Congress. The press, and the U.S. government concluded that manned, powered flight was likely impossible. It would be less than two weeks before the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight.
Getting it “Wright“
Wilbur and Orville Wright’s father was a church minister and bishop who fostered a love of learning. Their mother was the practical-minded daughter of the owner of a carriage manufacturer. She instilled in her children a desire to labor with their hands and understand how things work.
Traveling frequently, Bishop Wright liked to bring home gifts for his children that would expand their knowledge beyond the limits of their home. After one trip in 1878 the Bishop presented his sons with a rubber-band powered helicopter patterned after the Alphonse Penaud designs fueling a craze in Europe. The brothers made several copies of the toy. Once, when he got into trouble for tinkering with one in school, Orville explained that he and Wilbur were trying to make a helicopter big enough to carry them both.
After recovering from serious injuries in an ice-skating mishap that prevented him from attending Yale, Wilbur entered the printing business with his brother. Neither had finished high school, the only children in their large, education-minded family not to go on to college. After opening two newspapers, the hands-on Wrights began a bicycle manufacturing and repair shop near their Dayton, Ohio home — inventing the oil-retaining hub and coaster brakes still in use today. Bicycling in late pre-automobile times was big business, and the Wrights prospered.
Research (advice) and Development: The toy helicopter’s inspiration, however, had not faded with the brothers’ childhood. Wilbur and Orville followed press reports of Otto Lilienthal’s gliding success. When the German died in 1896, the Wrights were spurred into investigating the possibility of flight themselves. After exhausting all local sources of information, in May 1899 Wilbur penned a letter to the Smithsonian Institution, asking for more details about the development of aircraft. Langley’s Smithsonian provided little additional help to the two unknown competitors from Ohio. The Wrights received a much more enthusiastic response to a May 1900 letter to Octave Chanute. Chanute took to the brothers, then aged 33 (Wilbur) and 20 (Orville), providing valuable assistance before and after the Wright’s success.
The Problem of Control: From their research the Wrights concluded that the one factor that had prevented success to those who had tried to fly before was the problem of controlling an airplane moving in three dimensions. The Wrights devised a method of lateral control called “wing warping,” which actually twisted the wing structure to alter lift, thereby banking the airplane and using the horizontal component of lift to change direction. To counter the adverse yaw of the warped wing, the Wright design included an aft-mounted rudder. Pitch control was obtained by a moving surface mounted ahead of the airplane — which the Wrights called an “elevator.” In July 1899 Wilbur successfully controlled a kite in all three axes using his wing-warping control system.
Why North Carolina? In 1900 the brothers began building a larger kite capable of carrying a man. They wrote the U.S. Weather Bureau asking for information about locations with consistent, strong winds, deciding on Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as their testing ground. Wilbur left Dayton in September, 1900, assembling the 17-foot-wingspan glider in North Carolina. Orville joined him soon afterward.
Willing Victims: First flights of the glider in October were made tethered as a kite, with 10-year-old Tom Tate, nephew of the local postmaster, aloft as “test pilot.” On October 18, Wilbur free-flew the glider in the strong Outer Banks winds — flying up to 400 feet, in 15 seconds — validating the wing-warping control system and gaining valuable experience for later flights. Successful, the Wrights started back for Dayton, abandoning the glider in the sand. Mrs. Tate cut fabric off the Wright’s glider to make dresses.
The Wrights labored over the next several months, returning to Kill Devil Hills in 1901 with a new glider. The 1901 glider, with nearly twice the wing area of the Wrights’ 1900 device and sporting a 27-foot wingspan, was the largest glider ever flown to that time. Two apprentices of Octave Chanute, Edward Huffaker and George Spratt, accompanied the Wrights … as did Chanute himself.
The large glider did not fly well — it was difficult to control, and experience showed the flawed nature of Lilienthal’s camber calculations. The crew rebuilt the glider on-site to match the previous year’s camber. They then flew a single, 389-foot flight, outdistancing Chanute’s longest, and returned to Dayton vowing to re-investigate the mathematics of lift. The Brothers were nontheless discouraged.
Wilbur Wright is said to have predicted in late 1901 that “Not within a thousand years will man ever fly.“
They were reenergized when Octave Chanute arranged for them to speak at the meeting of the Western Society of Engineers. The resulting presentation, titled “Some Aeronautical Experiments,” was well received. In the talk the Wrights showed how Lilienthal’s lift tables were wrong. Back in Dayton, they devised an unconventional means of testing new airfoils, using a precursor to the wind tunnel — a modified bicycle.
A model airfoil was placed on a wheel on one side of the bike, at a five-degree angle of attack. On the other side of the wheel they placed a flat plate. When they rode the bike briskly, if the airfoil created more lift than drag, the wheel would rotate. Hence, they could empirically find the best-lifting airfoil designs.
To make even more accurate studies of airfoils, the Wrights designed and built a contained wind tunnel. In the autumn of 1901 they tested over 200 different wing designs, varying camber and chord to arrive at the optimum cross-section to loft a heavy machine. The results of the Wrights’ wind tunnel tests were directly applied to the construction of their 1902 glider and the Flyer in 1903.
1902 — Breakthrough
The scientifically derived 1902 glider was an astounding success. After initial control coordination problems with fixed, twin rudders, the Wrights modified the machine to employ a single, moveable rudder. It was the first glider to employ full, three-axis control. Orville Wright used the 1902 glider to make the first controlled turns, regularly flying 500 feet or more — observed by a growing crowd of the gliding community, including Octave Chanute.
Throughout September and October, the brothers flew over 1000 gliding flights, suffering several minor crashes as they taught themselves to fly but gaining experience and confidence that would serve them well the following year. The Wrights had developed the system of aircraft control still in use today.
Triumphant, the Wrights returned to Ohio and began the search for the final piece of their puzzle, an engine with which to fly.
Next time: Powered, controlled flight.