The Wright brothers and the first flight


Controlled, powered flight had seemed impossible until on the 17th December 1903. At 10:35 a.m., when the first heavier-than-air, machine powered flight in the world was performed. In a flight lasting only 12 seconds and covering just 37 meters. What men and women had only dreamed of doing for centuries become real. One hundred years later powered flight has become a key element for our entire civilisation.

The brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright performed this. I regard this as maybe the most admirable highlight in human history. The key to the Wright Brother's success was engineering skill in combining trial and error with systematic experiments and theoretical development. Having only very limited resources they showed great scientific ingenuity.

On December 14, 1903, Wilbur won a coin toss and made the first attempt to fly the machine. He stalled it on take-off, causing some minor damage. The plane was repaired, and Orville made the next attempt on December 17. At 10:35 a.m., he made the first heavier-than-air, machine powered flight in the world. In a flight lasting only 12 seconds and covering just 37 meters, Orville did what men and women had only dreamed of doing for centuries, . . . he flew!

The preparations

They worked independently, as most American heroes have done, free of the entanglements of large industrial or government organizations. Their intense preoccupation with their airplane was fuelled not by economic necessity -- income they already had, from their bicycle business -- but mostly from their imaginative determination to cross one of the last technological barriers to human flight- stability in the air.

Wilbur first became interested in the idea of mechanical flight after reading of Otto Lilienthal's successful gliding experiments in Germany. From these studies and observations, the Wrights built their first machine in 1899. It was a biplane kite, which they fitted with wings that could be mechanically twisted.

Wilbur read all that was written about flying. He then defined the elements of a flying machine: wings to provide lift, a power source for propulsion, and a system of control. Wilbur recognized the need to control a flying machine in its three axes of motion: pitch, roll, and yaw. His solution to the problem of control was 'wing warping.

When their test flights did not produce as much lift as they had expected, they went back to first principles and carried out a series of scientific experiments, starting with the bicycle balance and moving on to wind tunnel experiments. They were the first to understand how the lift from the aerofoil changes in flight, and the first to design their propellers as a form of aerofoil.

The Wright Brothers designed the 1903 Flyer to protect themselves from injury whilst they learnt to fly. Experiments with the bicycle balance in 1901 helped the Wright Brothers in their lift calculations.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were originally in the bicycle business. In their bicycle shop, they experimented with their aviation ideas and built their 1903 Flyer. On December 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they launched the Flyer for the world's first manned, heavier-than-air powered flight. Their bicycle shop may truly be called the birthplace of aviation.

They chose a remote sandy area off the coast of North Carolina near a place named Kitty Hawk, where winds averaged 13 m.p.h.

Construct a wind tunnel to test the effectiveness of a variety of wing shapes. Using the results of the wind tunnel experiments, they constructed their 1902 glider. Testing it at Kitty Hawk in October, they met with success, gliding a record 620 feet Having designed a propeller with the same principles thy used to design their wings, Wilbur and Orville then built their own 4-cylinder, 12-horsepower engine. They built the 1903 Flyer in sections in the back room of their cycle shop. When completed, it was shipped down to Kitty Hawk and assembled. Before attempting a powered flight, they decided to master gliding and built three biplane gliders, which they flew at Kitty Hawk 

They designed and built the first efficient propeller for an airplane, their own lightweight gasoline engine, and developed aerodynamic tables.


The first flight itself

Kitty Hawk is located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina’s Atlantic coast in the town of Kill Devil Hills. It is now a National Memorial

The reasons to select the place were as follows: Frequent rather hard and steady winds. To start fly against a wind of 40 km/hr means that the speed over ground needed to lift is only the magnitude 10-20 km/hr. That greatly reduced the risk of injuries and reduced the need of the starting and stopping stretch. The outer sand banks outside North Carolina were rather isolated, today car access is over long bridges over shallow water, but at the time of first flight only ferry access was accessible. That reduced the number of spectators and journalist who may review all problems and perhaps they also wanted to keep the details in the design rather secret to increase the likelihood to earn money on it. The sand at the site had no stones or obstructions, the smoothness of a crash and the landing was thus likely. In the same time there was a 40-meter tall hill at the site, which could be used for gliding training.  

On December 14, 1903, Wilbur won a coin toss and made the first attempt to fly the machine. He stalled it on take-off, causing some minor damage. The plane was repaired, and Orville made the next attempt on December 17. At 10:35 a.m., he made the first heavier-than-air, machine powered flight in the world. In a flight lasting only 12 seconds and covering just 37 meters,

Only seven persons witnessed the historic moment.


Picture from the first flight.

The two "hobbyists" had succeeded in just eight years while other "scientists" had failed for decades. This flight lasted only 12 seconds and 37 meters, but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine heavier-than-air carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started. They made additional three a little longer flights the next hours.

A press release about the issue was delivered, but rather few newspapers printed it and the significance of the break-through was not immediately evident, it took some years till mankind acknowledged it as one of the big steps forward.

Some technical specifications for the Flyer:

Private life

Wilbur was born in Millville, Indiana and Orville in Dayton, Ohio. They were the sons of a bishop of the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Both completed high school courses, but neither graduated formally. They lived the most proper lives imaginable. They neither smoked or drank, and always wore conventional business suits even when tinkering in a machine shop. Both the brothers died bachelors; aviation had been their only passion

When Wilbur was 22 years old, he and Orville (who was 18) opened their own printing office. They recycled broken parts and built the printing press they would use to start their business. In 1893 the brothers opened a shop for the sale, repair, and manufacture of bicycles. Income from the shop supported them during the early years of their aeronautical experiments.

Their achievement was doubted and undermined. Government bureaucrats thought they were crackpots; others thought that if two bicycle mechanics could build a successful airplane, anyone could do it.

The brothers established the Wright Company in 1909 to manufacture airplanes. Orville managed the business. Wilbur was consumed with protecting their patents, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, taking suspected infringers to court. In 1912, on a trip to Boston, Wilbur became ill with typhoid. After Wilbur's death, Orville lost interest in the Wright Company, and in 1915 sold it along with their patents for one million dollars. Orville would find it necessary to spend much of his time insuring that he and his brother received the credit they deserved.

The Wright Brothers, in their lifetimes, never received the fame or fortune they deserved. Wilbur spent the last few years of his life fighting about the patent and he died without knowing the world finally recognized his work. In 1914, The Franklin Institute became the first major scientific institution to recognize the Wright Brothers' achievement.

Controlling an airplane

The person who merely watches the flight of a bird gathers the impression that the bird has nothing to think of but the flapping of its wings. As a matter of fact this is a very small part of its mental labour.

The difficulties which obstruct the pathway to success in flying-machine construction are of three general classes: (1) Those which relate to the construction of the sustaining wings; (2) those which relate to the generation and application of the power required to drive the machine through the air; (3) those relating to the balancing and steering of the machine after it is actually in flight.

The balancing of a flyer may seem, at first thought, to be a simple matter, yet almost every experimenter had found in this the one point which he could not satisfactorily master. The balancing of a gliding or flying machine is very simple in theory. It consists in causing the centre of gravity to coincide with the centre of pressure. But in actual practice there seems to be an almost boundless incompatibility of temper, which prevents their remaining peaceably together for a single instant. Many different methods were tried. Some experimenters placed the centre of gravity far below the wings, in the belief that the weight would naturally seek to remain at the lowest point. It was true, that, like the pendulum, it tended to seek the lowest point; but also, like the pendulum, it tended to oscillate in a manner destructive of all stability. A more satisfactory system, especially for lateral balance, was that of arranging the wings in the shape of a broad V, with the centre low and the wingtips elevated. In theory this was an automatic system, but in practice it had two serious defects: first, it tended to keep the machine oscillating; and, second, its usefulness was restricted to calm air.

In a slightly modified form the same system was applied to the fore-and-aft balance. The main aeroplane was set at a positive angle, and a horizontal tail at a negative angle, while the centre of gravity was placed far forward. As in the case of lateral control, there was a tendency to constant undulation, and the very forces, which caused a restoration of balance in calms, caused a disturbance of the balance in winds. Notwithstanding the known limitations of this principle, it had been embodied in almost every prominent flying machine that had been built.

The Wright brothers saw that the calculations upon which all flying machines had been based were unreliable, and that all were simply groping in the dark. Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, they were driven to doubt one thing after another, till finally, after two years of experiment, all existing knowledge was more or less cast aside, and they decided to rely entirely upon their own investigations.

The Wrights had to find out about the forces, which keep an aircraft in the air, and the forces, which slow it down or make it fall to earth.

The Wright brothers’ original design had its problems. You can try to master it yourself at

Engineers from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics began their efforts to build and fly a Wright brothers replica in the late 1970s.The goal of the educational project is to repeat the famous 120-foot first powered flight of December 1903 and to experience what challenges the Wright brothers must have encountered and overcome. But till 2002 the plane, as designed, won't stay airborne.

How could the Wright brothers fly it if no one else can? The Wright brothers did have two years of set up and practice before actually making the flight on the sands at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It's amazing what fantastic engineers the Wright brothers were. They developed their own wind tunnel and tested little components of the airplane in the wind tunnel. The engine that they used was their own design, their own construction. It was a modern R and D (research and development) program, which they developed themselves.


Patents and legalistic

There are legal papers relating to lawsuits and patent claims. Efforts by the Wright brothers to apply for patents were in place already 1903. The basic features of the Wright flying machine were patented in 1906; see

However, as the airplane came into more general use, numerous instances of the possible unauthorized use of features that they had patented came to their attention. It may have contributed to that the greatness of the Wright brothers was not easily accepted that they challenged others, who made use of the same principles. In their defence it was argued that the right to patent the inventions was not theirs, as other than the Wright brothers invented the same things.

Some comments: Patents must be reproducible, but today’s engineers have not been able to build a flying reconstruct of the first flying machine, that would be one reason for challenging the patent. 1908 the construction was sold to the American army and to French interests, which brought in some money and later the company of the brothers was sold for a lot of money, I just cannot say how important the patent was in this connection[DL1] .


Tentative conclusions


Last edit Dag Lindgren 02-04-04





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