From Dreams to Reality: Part 4

Success! After years of experimentation, building on the work of countless others yet furthering the science of aeronautics well beyond any others before them, Wilbur and Orville Wright had solved the elusive problem of aircraft control in gliding flight. The ultimate prize, however, was to combine that control with power to go when, where and however long they wished. The Wright Brothers needed an engine.

In December 1902, freshly returned from gliding at Kill Devil Hills, Wilbur wrote ten leading engine manufacturers of the age. He inquired about an engine meeting these specifications: gasoline powered, producing at least eight horsepower, weighing no more than 180 pounds. To his and Orville’s dismay, the replies confirmed that such an engine simply did not exist.

Typically, the Wrights saw this not as an impediment, but instead merely another challenge to be overcome. They turned to their bike-shop mechanic, Charles Taylor, with instructions to design and build an engine to their specifications.

Meanwhile, the Wrights made another leap of logic while experimenting with propeller designs in their wind tunnel. Researching propulsion methods, they had written to the engineering branch of the Navy asking about the mathematics of ship’s propeller design. They were aghast at the reply: ship’s screws were designed entirely by trial and error, twisting the blades this way and that until a particular pitch seemed to work. There was no science to blade pitch and design… sounding like another job for the Wright Brothers.

With their wind tunnel the Wrights quickly came to the not-so-obvious-at-the-time realization that a propeller blade was simply another airfoil, subject to the same physics and mathematics governing wing design. Making that simple yet dramatic realization, they began testing propeller designs. Their result was extremely efficient in turning horsepower to thrust, rivaling some propeller designs of as late as the Second World War, and recorded on propeller design tables that were still in use well into the 1950s. Needing to turn low horsepower into high thrust at low forward speeds, the Wrights settled on a pair of huge, two-bladed propellers, counter-rotating to eliminate the added control problem of torque. The blades would be spun by bicycle chain from their single, gasoline-powered engine … if a powerful and light enough engine could be built.

Charles Taylor is now known in the aviation technical profession as the first aircraft mechanic, first airport manager, and first air crash investigator. His career took him from the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop to aircraft hangars at the dawn of the Jet Age. In fact, the FAA’s highest accolade for aircraft technicians, the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award, honors this vital aviation pioneer (read much more about Charles at

Taylor came back to the Wrights with a four-cylinder, 201-cubic inch, water-cooled engine. It was heavier than the Wrights wanted — weighing 200 pounds — but it was 50% more powerful than “spec,” producing 12-horsepower at full throttle, the only operational setting. First engine-stand tests were disastrous, but by May of 1903 this engine (the basis for over 200 he’d later build for the Wrights) was running reliably, and smooth.

With wing-warping and a moveable rudder providing control, wildly efficient low-speed propellers, and a light powerful engine, the Wrights began cutting wood and sewing cloth for what Orville called a “whopper flying machine.” The 1903 craft, dubbed the Flyer, had a wingspan of just over 40 feet.

As they made final preparations the Wrights filed an application for a patent on their invention. The U.S. Patent Office declined, saying it was not their first such application, claiming the Wrights’ drawings and descriptions were not detailed enough, and concluding that “obviously the device could not perform its intended function” anyway (all of which to me sounds like trying to get a Form 337 Field Approval these days!). Undeterred, on September 23, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright, their disassembled Flyer, and their new launch-rail system departed Ohio for the North Carolina shore.

While they rebuilt their remote camp at Kill Devil Hills and assembled the powered airplane, the Wrights took a “flight review” by experimenting with their 1902 glider. Meanwhile, ground-based engine runs of the assembled Flyer caused extreme vibrations that threatened to destroy the craft. The Wrights shipped the damaged propeller shafts back to Dayton, where Charles Taylor rebuilt them. The repaired shafts, when reinstalled, were quickly damaged again. As ingenious as the Wrights themselves, Taylor produced a new design built from solid steel. The new propeller shafts did the trick.

Although the Wrights had planned to first test the 1903 Flyer as an unpowered glider, the delays prompted them to move directly to powered flight testing in order to be home as promised for Christmas. All was ready for flight on Saturday, December 12th, but the winds were too light for launching. Honoring their promise to their father, Bishop Wright, not to fly on a Sunday, the first flight was rescheduled for Monday, December 14.

On that Monday morning the Wrights held their famous “coin toss” to see which of the two would have the honor of becoming the first to pilot a controllable, powered, heavier-than-air machine. Wilbur won. The Wrights and volunteers from the local Lifesaving Service station manhandled the Flyer into position on its launching rail.

A chilly wind blew in from offshore. Wilbur lay prone on the bottom wing of the Flyer at the controls. The engine balked as Orville spun the props, but it eventually started; the Flyer began slowly moving down the launch rail, supported on a small, wheeled dolly. Not realizing the effectiveness of the Flyer‘s huge elevator Wilbur over-rotated; the Flyer became briefly airborne, then slammed down onto the sand in a stall. Repairs took two days. But now Wilbur and Orville were sure their airplane would soon fly.

With a steady, 25 mile per hour wind, the Wrights and their volunteers again positioned the Flyer on its rail at 10 a.m., December 17th, 1903. Since Wilbur had the first chance on the 14th, it was Orville’s turn to fly. Like Wilbur, Orville over-rotated at first, quickly entering an up-and-down pilot-induced pitch oscillation that lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet, until the Flyer slid to a stop in the sand. But there was no mistaking that Orville had flown, and that the Flyer responded to his control. At the moment of liftoff, a pre-positioned volunteer snapped a picture that has been described as the most-reproduced photograph of all time. It captured liftoff on the first controlled (albeit, poorly), powered, heavier-than-air aircraft from level ground.

Taking turns, the Brothers made three more, increasingly successful (in control and distance) flights as they taught themselves to fly among the dunes. During ground-handling for a fifth attempt, a gust of wind damaged the Flyer enough to suspend further flight operations. The longest flight traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds. Beaming, Orville traveled to the lifesaving station and sent his father a famous telegram that started with the word that says it all: “Success.

Building on the wealth of hundreds, if not thousands of years of knowledge borne of myth and science, two flying enthusiasts made phenomenal advances by drawing together the best information of their age and tempering it with their own insight and ingenuity. These two, who received formal education not beyond high school, painstakingly developed the system of aircraft control still in primary use today; one lost technology is even making a comeback in the latest test versions of the wing-warping F/A-18 Hornet supersonic attack jet.

BOTTOM LINE: Seeing failures and dead-ends as challenges and opportunities, Wilbur and Orville Wright had taken aviation from dream to reality. More than the accomplishment itself, that spirit is what we’re honoring now, on the centennial of their first flight. Live it.