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.
The brothers made three more flights that day, taking turns as pilot. The best, with Wilbur at the controls, covered 852 feet in 59 seconds. After that final flight, a strong gust overturned the Flyer, tumbling it across the sand and badly damaging it. The world’s first airplane would never fly again. Having served its purpose as a research tool, the 1903 Wright Flyer entered a new phase of its history.
Wilbur and Orville had not saved any of their earlier gliders; when they were finished testing them, they simply left them at Kitty Hawk. They, did, however, recognize the historic significance of the first powered airplane, though they did not immediately consider it the treasure we do today. They disassembled it, put it in crates, and shipped those back to Dayton, where they were stored unopened for 13 years. The Flyer’s hibernation included two weeks under water and mud during a 1913 flood. In 1916, Orville reassembled the aircraft for the first time since Kitty Hawk for a brief public display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
The Flyer began to acquire the status of a national treasure in the 1920s as a feud developed between Orville and the Smithsonian Institution. The dispute centered on the Smithsonian’s public display of the aeronautical achievements of its former Secretary, Samuel P. Langley, and the Institution’s reluctance to credit the Wright brothers as the true inventors of the airplane. Langley had tested his tandem-wing aircraft, the Aerodrome, on October 7, 1903, and again two months later. Both times the Aerodrome failed to achieve sustained flight, instead crashing immediately into the Potomac River.
Langley died in 1906, but in 1914, Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott, a good friend of Langley’s, authorized aircraft inventor Glenn Curtiss—a Wright competitor—to flight test the Aerodrome in Hammondsport, New York. Curtiss’ tests were overseen by Albert F. Zahm, who was in charge of the Institution-backed Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory; the cost of the tests was covered by the Institution, which also paid Curtiss $2,000 for his services. From the waters of Lake Keuka, Curtiss was able to make a series of short hops in the craft, which had been equipped with floats. The Aerodrome had been substantially modified in other ways too, so it was hardly identical to the one that had fallen so pitifully into the Potomac 11 years before. Still, Walcott labeled the Aerodrome, on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum, as “Original Langley flying machine, 1903, the first man-carrying airplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight. Invented, built and tested over the Potomac River by Samuel Pierpont Langley in 1903. Successfully flown at Hammondsport, N.Y., June 2, 1914.”
In 1925, Orville tried to use the Flyer as leverage to shame the Smithsonian into correcting its stance. He announced that he would loan it to the Science Museum in London. Surely, Orville believed, the American people would not stand to have the world’s first airplane, built in America, by Americans, exiled to a foreign land. The assemblage of wood, wire, and fabric that two decades earlier the brothers had considered only an engineering research platform was now the symbol of their world-changing contribution to humanity.
But the Smithsonian refused to retract its claims about Langley, and to properly credit the Wrights, so Orville prepared to send the Flyer to England. Before displaying it at MIT in 1916, he had repaired the elevator, rudder, wing ribs, chain guides, and other parts that had been damaged when the airplane was overturned at Kitty Hawk. He had also replaced some engine components and portions of the fabric covering. Now, readying it for display abroad, he replaced all of the covering. The Flyer arrived at the Science Museum in 1928.
Orville lamented the entire situation. “In sending our original 1903 machine to the Science Museum, London, I do so with the belief it will be impartially judged and will receive whatever credit it is entitled to,” he wrote in the March 1928 issue of the journal U.S. Air Services. “I regret more than anyone else that this course is necessary.”
In the face of Orville’s action, the Smithsonian continued to dodge the issue. Secretary Charles Abbot—Walcott’s successor—offered only an unsatisfactory compromise on the language of the label accompanying the Langley airplane, and did so, in Abbot’s words, “not in confession of error, but in a gesture of good will for the honor of America.” These words only stiffened Orville’s resolve.
In 1942, the Smithsonian finally published a retraction of its views on the Langley matter, and in 1943 Orville made plans to have the Flyer returned to the United States and transferred to the Smithsonian for public display. During World War II, the airplane was stored with British national treasures in an underground chamber about 100 miles from London. After the war, Orville agreed to leave the Flyer at the Science Museum until restorers could make a copy for display there.
In January 1948, Orville, then 76, died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving it to the executors of his estate to fulfill his wishes and bring the Flyer home. It was installed at the Smithsonian in an elaborate ceremony on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after its history-making flights. On the occasion, the British ambassador to the United States, Sir Oliver Franks, eloquently summed up the significance of the airplane: “It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.”
Thirty-six years later, in late 1984, the National Air and Space Museum began a restoration of the Flyer, the first time it had received any major conservation treatment since Orville Wright had prepared it to go to the Science Museum in the late 1920s. Curator of aircraft Robert Mikesh supervised the work, with Wright brothers expert Tom Crouch providing historical guidance. The curators decided to perform the treatment in the Museum so visitors would not be deprived of the sight of the Flyer. Restorers carefully cleaned and repaired the wooden framework. They also removed corrosion on the metal fittings and treated the surfaces with preservative. In order to retain the remaining original paint on the engine but still refinish it, the workers applied a coating of light, inert wax before giving the engine a fresh coat of black paint. If need be, the new paint and wax can be easily removed to reveal the original paint underneath.
During four months of disassembling, cleaning, preserving, and studying the Wright Flyer, the Museum staff learned many things about the famous object. When the fabric covering was removed, details of the structure were better understood, and some interesting markings were revealed. Inside one of the wingtips was stamped the name “Browns.” Tom Crouch discovered that S.N. Brown Co. was a carriage company in Dayton, Ohio, and that the wingtips were made from bowed pieces of wood that formed a folding carriage roof. A restoration technician made a similar discovery when the wing spars were taken off the ribs and stacked in the correct order. Written on them was “Wilbur Wright” and the shipping destination of the parts, “Elizabeth City, N.C.” Comparison of the fabric Orville had put on in the 1920s with the original 1903 fabric, a sample of which is in the Museum’s collection, showed that Orville had sewn the covering slightly differently in 1927. When they applied new fabric in 1985, Museum technicians stitched it using the 1903 pattern, increasing the accuracy of the Flyer for subsequent display. Finally, draftsmen carefully measured and documented the aircraft, producing a set of drawings that very accurately represent the aircraft as it exists today.
When Orville had first made repairs and reassembled the Flyer in 1916, he had had to replace the engine crankcase, crankshaft, flywheel, and propellers. The 1984-1985 treatment showed the airplane to be in very good condition. Other than the fabric, nothing was replaced, and the airframe is exactly what flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Since coming to the Smithsonian in 1948, the airplane has been taken down from its hanging display only three times: to transfer it to the new Museum building in 1976, to restore it in 1984-1985, and to move it into another gallery during three months of repairs to the skylights in the Milestones of Flight gallery in 2000. This year we will take the Flyer down once more, this time to display it for the first time on the floor, in a gallery all its own, along with the most extensive presentation on the Wright brothers the Museum has ever offered. Opening this October, the Museum’s anniversary exhibition, “The Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age,” will provide visitors a two-year opportunity to see the aircraft in intimate detail.
The Wright Flyer reflects both the extraordinary accomplishment of two individuals and the enormous potential that resides in all humanity. We owe a great deal to the Wright brothers—their airplane changed the world forever.