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Wright Brothers and Their First Powered, Controlled Flight

At the turn of the 20th-century, two brothers made the amazing feat of the first flight.

On December 17 in 1903, Orville Wright made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft in a small plane he built with his brother, Wilbur. They only managed a total flight distance of about 120 feet (36.5 meters) on their first run, but this was the foundation upon which modern air travel was built.

Their flight was an inspiration to others who were working to create airplanes, and today more than a billion people fly in airplanes every year.

the wright brothers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Let's find out a little more about these amazing innovators and their incredible machines. 

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Who were the Wright brothers?

Wilbur and Orville Wright were American inventors and pioneers of aviation. In 1903, the pair achieved the amazing feat of the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight in history.

An amazing accomplishment in its own right, but only a few years later the brothers successfully designed and flew the very first practical airplane as well. 

Born in Millville, Indiana to a preacher father and loving mother, the brothers would become fascinated with engineering and flight at a young age. Their father once brought home a toy helicopter which the boys played with it until it broke, and then built their own. As they grew older, they would often spend their time tinkering with mechanical projects and would keep up to date with the latest in scientific research into flight.

Orville dropped out of high school after his junior year to start a printing business, and he designed and built his own printing press with Wilbur's help. The brothers started a newspaper and then became interested in the latest craze - bicycles. In 1892, the brothers opened a bicycle repair and sales shop and in 1896 began manufacturing their own bicycles. 

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At the same time, they renewed their interest in flight, possibly encouraged by news of the work of the German aviator Otto Lilienthal

After Lilienthal was killed in a glider accident in 1896, the brothers decided to develop their own explorations into manned flight. In May 1899, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information and publications about aeronautics and soon began their own aeronautical experimentation.

Like Lilienthal, the brothers reasoned that it was necessary to first practice gliding in order to master the art of control. They felt that a reliable method of pilot control was the key to a successful and safe flight. Unlike other flight pioneers, who focused on building powerful engines, the Wright brothers focused on developing a system of control that could safeguard the pilot's life.

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They built their own wind tunnel, using it to collect data that enabled them to design more efficient wings and propellers. But their major breakthrough was the creation of a three-axis system of flight control that allowed the pilot to steer the aircraft and also maintain its equilibrium. In fact, their first U.S. patent did was not for the invention of a flying machine, but for a system of aerodynamic control.

In order to test their designs, the brothers eventually headed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina -- a place famed for its strong winds. 

The site chosen was also clear of trees, hills, and other obstacles, making testing a less risky affair. 

the wright brothers flight
Colored photo of the Wright Brothers' first flight. Source: Jared Enos/Flickr

Inspired in part by nature, their first aircraft "The Flyer" had wings which incorporated a concept called "wing warping". This works in a similar way to how birds change the angle of their wings to bank or lean into a turn, or to how people lean when riding a bicycle - something the brothers were very familiar with. To reproduce this ability in an airplane, they developed a system of pulleys and cables that allowed the pilot to twist the trailing edges of the wings in opposite directions. They also added a moveable rudder and a powerful engine. 

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They soon realized they'd hit on the magic formula when they managed to fly their plane for a total of 59 seconds on December 17, 1903.

Why are the wright brothers important?

The Wright brothers are important for their amazing contributions to human flight. The culmination of centuries of work and study on flight, their labors would prove that safer, controllable heavier-than-air flight was possible. This, in turn, opened up an entirely new form of transportation. 

The first airplane designed by the brothers, "The Flyer", weighed more than 600 pounds (274kg) and included a 200-pound (91kg) propulsion system. They made calculations for how large the wings of the plane would have to be by creating a wind tunnel experiment and scaling the results up to a craft that could hold a human.

the wright brothers flyer
Replica of the Wright Brothers' "The Flyer". Source: Chuck Miller/Flickr

Their first design required a wing area of over 500 square feet (46 m2), with a wingspan of 40 feet (12.2m), to create the required lift to pull the pilot, the steel frame, the propellers, and the engine into the air.

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The Flyer used a 4-cylinder water-cooled engine with 12 horsepower to get the plane up to flying speed. For reference, modern jet engines pull upwards of 100,000 horsepower.

"The Flyer" also had three different controls: a wing warper allowed for lateral balance, a movable rudder for small adjustments, and a sail elevator to control the pitch. These controls are still used by modern planes as well, albeit with a little bit more sophisticated control panels.

The propulsion system required a minimum amount of strength to power the prop, but none of the Wright's local manufacturers were able to produce engines with enough power. So the brothers built one themselves.

They knew the engine was going to have to be powerful, but it was paramount that it also be as light as possible; any extra weight would make the flight that much more difficult. They decided on an aluminum crankcase design.

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Aluminum is super light and durable for its weight, and it is still used today in the construction of many aircraft parts.

Wright Brothers and Their First Powered, Controlled Flight
Source: NASA on the Commons/Flickr

The plane had two 8-foot long propellers made out of wood that spun in opposite directions to eliminate the gyroscopic effect. They were spun by a belt twisted into a figure eight, that was powered by their 12 horsepower engine.

This triumph of engineering is why the Wright brothers are called the "Fathers of Flight". Many of the things that the Wright brothers made possible had once been considered fantasy, but they were determined to see it through.

They spent years studying and improving their knowledge of physics to hone their aeronautical skills. Despite initial skepticism, the brothers continued demonstrating their craft and eventually convinced the world that the era of powered flight had arrived.

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