The National Air and Space Museum is fortunate to have the artifact that inaugurated the aerial age—the 1903 Wright Flyer. The craft that hangs in the central place of honor in the Museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery is the actual airplane that clattered over the wind-swept beach at Kitty Hawk on that historic December morning one hundred years ago.
From This Story
The Wrights’ first airplane is an icon of ingenuity and technical creativity. It is not only the centerpiece of the Museum; it is also one of the signature artifacts of the Smithsonian Institution. But, of course, when Wilbur and Orville built and flew the Flyer in 1903, it was not a national treasure. To the Wrights, it was essentially a research tool; they built it merely as one step in the process of creating a practical airplane. Its transformation into a priceless piece of American heritage, displayed in the nation’s capital, would take some interesting twists and turns.
The Flyer was the culmination of experiments that began in 1899 with a five-foot-wingspan kite the Wrights built to test their breakthrough concept for lateral control, which they called wing-warping. The brothers realized that the key to successful flight was controlling the airplane’s movement in three axes, vertical, lateral, and longitudinal, and that achieving this control aerodynamically was essential to building an airplane large enough to carry the weight of an engine, a pilot, and, ultimately, a payload. Previous experimenters had attempted to control their gliders by having the pilot shift his body weight, the same technique used to maneuver a modern hang glider, but that approach severely limited the size of the craft. With the Wrights’ wing-warping method, the wing tips on one side were angled upward while the wing tips on the other side were angled downward. This created a higher angle of attack on one side, which in turn produced greater lift on that side. Controlling the change in lift on one side or the other enabled the pilot to balance the wings aerodynamically and to bank into a turn. Today, this maneuvering is accomplished with ailerons, control surfaces on the trailing edges of the wings, but the concept is the same, and it originated with the Wrights. The brothers’ 1899 kite also featured a trussed-biplane design. Altogether, these elements formed the nucleus of the powered airplane that would carry the Wrights into the air in 1903. The 1899 kite, Wilbur and Orville’s first critical step toward flight, does not survive.
After experimenting with that kite, the brothers produced three full-size, piloted gliders between 1900 and 1902. Each aircraft incorporated the lessons learned from the last, with the result being a single, evolving design. Continuity of design was one of the keys to the Wrights’ success. They did not jump from one radically different idea to another. Equally important was the research they conducted in late 1901 with model airfoils in a wind tunnel; these studies enabled them to gather the aerodynamic data needed to perfect their wing design. The instruments they used and the manner in which they performed the experiments laid the foundation of modern aeronautical engineering. This contribution by the Wrights was as valuable to the future of aviation as the creation of the airplane itself.
By late 1902, Wilbur and Orville had solved the basic control and aerodynamic problems and developed a design for a powered heavier-than-air craft. Orville confidently wrote to a friend in June 1903, “Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so we could discover them!!”
After some highly original and imaginative research to create the world’s first aerial propellers, and the construction of a small lightweight gasoline-powered engine, the Wrights spent the spring of 1903 building an airframe for their first powered craft. Nothing was left to chance. Every aspect of the airplane was carefully engineered.
In what had become an annual late-summer/early-fall ritual, the Wrights then set off on their fourth trip to Kitty Hawk, a fishing village on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that had been the site of all their flight testing. They had months of bad weather, but they used the time assembling the Flyer and resolving problems with its engine and transmission system. Finally, in mid-December, they were ready to begin flight tests. The harsh Kitty Hawk winter was descending quickly, but the brothers were optimistic. “We will not be ready for a trial for several days yet on account of having decided on some changes to the machine,” Orville wrote their mechanic, Charles Taylor. “Unless something breaks in the meantime we feel confident of success.”
On December 14, they were finally ready for a trial. A toss of a coin determined that Wilbur would make the first attempt. Surprised by the sensitivity of the elevator, Wilbur over-controlled the Flyer on takeoff. It nosed up sharply, stalled, and smashed into the sand. The mishap did not deter them. Later that day Wilbur wrote home: “There is now no question of final success.” Orville affirmed their certainty with a succinct telegram to his father the next day:
Misjudgment at start reduced flight to hundred and twelve [feet]. Power and control ample. Rudder only injured. Success assured. Keep quiet.
Repairs were completed in three days. By 10:30 a.m. on December 17, everything was ready and the engine was started. It was now Orville’s turn in the pilot’s position. Rising slowly into a 27-mph wind, the younger Wright sailed forward 120 feet in 12 seconds. For the first time in history, a human being had flown a powered, controllable craft.