Orville And Wilbur Wright: Showing The World

In the early 1890s the Wright brothers had settled into a respectable life as proprietors of a small business in Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur, four years older, was quiet and intense, a dreamer who could lose himself in books. Orville was outgoing, talkative, and an immaculate dresser. Both combined intuitive mechanical ability with analytical intelligence.

In 1892 they opened a bicycle shop. Their energies focused on two events of 1896: the death of Otto Lilienthal, German glider experimenter, in a flying accident, and the successful unmanned powered model flights of Samuel Langley.

The Wrights’ serious work in aeronautics began in 1899 when Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian Institution for literature. Dismayed that so many great minds had made so little progress, the brothers were exhilarated by the realization that they had as much chance as anyone of succeeding.

Wilbur took the lead in the early stages of their work, but Orville was soon drawn in as an equal collaborator. They developed their own theories, and for the next four years devoted themselves to the goal of human flight.

The Wrights knew that the solutions to lift and propulsion needed refining, but no one had achieved lateral control. Rejecting the principle of inherent stability-the conventional wisdom-they wanted control to depend on the pilot. Wilbur hit upon the idea of warping the wings-sparked by watching birds and idly twisting a box-to rotate the wings and stabilize flight. They tested wing-warping-the forerunner of ailerons-on a five-foot biplane kite.

Confident their design was sound, the Wrights built a 17-foot glider with an unusual elevator. They went to Kitty Hawk hoping to gain flying experience, but the wings generated less left than expected, and they flew the glider mostly as a kite, working the control surfaces from the ground. Wilbur’s time aloft in free flight totalled only 10 seconds. They went home somewhat discouraged, but convinced they had achieved lateral and longitudinal control.

This was the year the Wrights sharpened their focus. Trying to overcome the lift problem, they increased the camber of the 1901 Glider. They also lengthened its wingspan to 22 feet, making it the largest glider anyone had attempted to fly. But at their new Kill Devil Hills Camp, lift was still only a third of that predicted by the Lilienthal data upon which the wing design was based. And the Glider pitched wildly, climbing into stalls. When they returned to the earlier camber, they achieved longitudinal control and eventually glided 335 feet. But the machine was still unpredictable. When the pilot raised the left wing to initiate the expected right turn, the machine instead tended to slip to the left (adverse yaw). This failure, and the realization that their work had relied on false data, brought them to the point of quitting. Instead they built a wind tunnel and produced their own data.

The 1902 Glider embodied the Wrights’ research. They gave it 32-foot wings and added vertical tails to counteract adverse yaw. The pilot moved a hip cradle to warp the wings. Some 400 glides proved the design workable, but still flawed. Sometimes, when the pilot tried to raise the lowered wing to come out of a turn, the machine instead slid sideways toward the wing and spun into the ground. Orville suggested a movable tail to counteract this tendency.

After Wilbur thought to link the tail movement to the warping mechanism, the Glider could be turned and stabilized smoothly. If others had thought about steering at all, it was by rudder-a marine analogy unworkable in the air. The Wrights saw that control and stability were related, that a plane turned by rolling. Six hundred more glides that year satisfied them that they had the first working airplane.

Now the Wrights had to power their aircraft. Gasoline engine technology had recently advanced to where its use in airplane was feasible. Unable to find a suitable lightweight commercial engine, the brothers designed their own. It was cruder and less powerful than Samuel Langley’s, but the Wrights understood that relatively little power was needed with efficient lifting surfaces and propellers. Such propellers were not available, however, Scant relevant data could be derived from marine propeller theory. Using their air tunnel data, they designed the first effective airplane propeller, one of their most original and purely scientific achievements.

Returning to Kill Devil Hills, they mounted the engine on the new 40-foot, 605-pound Flyer with double tails and elevators. The engine drove two pusher propellers with chains, one crossed to make the props rotate in opposite directions to counteract a twisting tendency in flight. A balky engine and broken propeller shafts slowed them, until they were finally ready on December 14. Wilbur won the coin toss, but lost his chance to be the first to fly when he oversteered with the elevator after leaving the launching rail. The flyer climbed too steeply, stalled, and dove into the sand. The first flight would have to wait for repairs.

December 17, 1903
Three days later, they were ready for the second attempt. The 27-mph wind was harder than they preferred, because their predicted cruising speed was only 30 to 35 mph. The headwind would slow their groundspeed to a crawl, but they proceeded anyway. With a sheet they signaled the volunteers from the nearby lifesaving station that they were about to try again. Now it was Orville’s turn.

Remembering Wilbur’s experience, he positioned himself and tested the controls. The stick that moved the horizontal elevator controlled climb and descent. The cradle that he swung with his hips warped the wings and swung the vertical tails, which combination turned the machine. A lever controlled the gas flow and airspeed recorder. The controls were simple and few, but Orville knew it would take all his fitness to handle the new and heavier aircraft.

At 10:35 he released the restraining wire. The flyer moved down the rail as Wilbur steadied the wings. As Orville left the ground, John Daniels from the lifesaving station snapped the shutter on a preset camera, capturing the image of the airborne aircraft with Wilbur running alongside. Again the flyer was unruly, pitching up and down as Orville overcompensated with the controls. But he kept it aloft until it hit the sand about 120 feet from the rail. Into the 27-mph wind the ground speed had been 6.8 mph, for a total airspeed of 34 mph. The brother took turns flying three more times that day, getting a feel for the controls and increasing their distance with each flight. Wilbur’s second flight-the fourth and last of the day-was impressive: 852 feet in 59 seconds.

This was the real thing, transcending the powered hops and glides others had achieved. The Wright machine had flown. But it would not fly again, after the last flight it was caught by a gust of wind, rolled over, and damaged beyond easy repair. Their flying season over, the Wrights sent their father a matter-of-fact telegram reporting the modest numbers behind their epochal achievement.


About the Author: Nicetas Juanillo

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