Wilbur and Orville Wright

Wilbur and Orville Wright were sons of a Bishop, Milton Wright, and his wife Susan. The Wrights had four sons, Wilbur being the 3rd and Orville the 4th, and one daughter. The children were always encouraged to investigate whatever made them curious, and to follow their interests. At the start of the 20th century, there was much curiosity and experimentation to develop powered aircraft.

In 1900, Wilbur and Orville Wright decided to build a glider. They looked for a remote place with strong winds. Wilbur found Kitty Hawk, in North Carolina. The brothers studied the designs of successful gliders, and designed a biplane glider. They tested their glider at the beginning of October, and developed some new theories about aircraft.

In July 1901, the Wright brothers returned to North Carolina, but camped at Kill Devil Hills because these large hills were better for test flights. The new glider was a bigger version of the last, with bigger wings for more lifting surface. Unfortunately, it still did not have enough lift, and the brothers realised they needed to make new calculations.


Wilbur wrote: 

"When we left Kitty Hawk at the end of 1901, we doubted that we would ever resume our experiments. Although we had broken the record for distance in gliding, and although Mr. Chanute, who was present at that time, assured us that our results were better than had ever before been attained, yet when we looked at the time and money which we had expended, and considered the progress made and the distance yet to go, we considered our experiments a failure. At this time I made the prediction that men would sometime fly, but that it would not be within our lifetime."

However, the Wright brothers continued to make calculations and designs. They were the first to use a wind tunnel to make exact and accurate measurements of lift and drag. They identified common errors that others were making, and that a long, narrow wing shape was better than the short, stubby wing shape they had used. Their 1902 glider was the first aircraft to overcome the problems of lift, and the control of wobbling motion. It was the first heavier-than-air aircraft, but because it didn't have power it was classified as a glider, not as an aeroplane .

To add power, the Wrights made another discovery: how propellors work on aircraft. They read about ship building to learn the principles, and then reasoned that for an aircraft the propellor was really a moving wing that moved the craft forwards. They tested propellor shapes in their wind tunnel to find the most effective shape. They then needed to develop a power source to drive the propellor.

An engine for the plane


The Wrights wanted a lightweight petrol engine. They could not find anyone who would build one to their specifications, so they built their own four cylinder model. In 1903, the brothers built a larger version of their 1902 glider, and added propellors and power. On 14 December they tossed a coin to determine that Wilbur would be the pilot. A crew lugged the plane up a big hill and laid about 30 metres of monorail. The plane went too fast down the track, and Orville, running alongside to hold it steady, could not keep up.  A wing hit the ground and the plane broke.  However, the Wrights now knew that it would work. In two days the plane had been repaired, and on 17th December 1903 the wind was right. It was Orville's turn to be pilot. They had realised it would be better to lay the track on flat ground, and Wilbur was able to remain running alongside keeping the right wing steady.

The plane lifted off the monorail and flew for 12 seconds, travelling over 37 metres (120 feet). It was the first controlled, sustained flight in a heavier-than-air craft.

This is a photograph of the first flight, 17th December 1903. The plane is just lifting off the ground. Wilbur Wright is the figure on the ground. Orville Wright is the pilot. Photo courtesy of http://AviationHistory.info/

This is a photograph of the first flight, 17th December 1903. The plane is just lifting off the ground. Wilbur Wright is the figure on the ground. Orville Wright is the pilot. Photo courtesy of http://AviationHistory.info/

The brothers made three more flights that day, covering more distance each time. The final flight was by Wilbur, travelling about 177 1/2 metres (852 feet) in 59 seconds. The Wright brothers launched humankind into the age of flight.

Go here for a timeline of the lives of the Wright Brothers.