Tag Archives: Orville Wright

17 December 1903, 10:35 a.m.

Orville Wright at the controls of the Flyer, just airborne on its first flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, 17 December 1903. Wilbur Wright is running along to stabilize the wing. This photograph was taken by John Thomas Daniels, Jr., using the Wright Brothers’ Gundlach Optical Company Korona-V camera. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

17 December 1903, 10:35 a.m.: Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, had been working on the development of a machine capable of flight since 1899. They started with kites and gliders before moving on to powered aircraft. At the Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the eastern shoreline of the United States, they made the first successful flight of a manned, powered, controllable airplane.

Orville was at the controls of the Flyer while Wilbur ran along side, steadying the right wing. Against a 27 miles per hour (12 meters per second) headwind, the airplane flew 120 feet (36.6 meters) in 12 seconds.

Three more flights were made that day, with the brothers alternating as pilot. Wilbur made the last flight, covering 852 feet (263.7 meters) in 59 seconds. The Flyer was slightly damaged on landing but before it could be repaired for an intended flight four miles back to Kitty Hawk, a gust of wind overturned the airplane and caused more extensive damage. It never flew again.

Flyer after fourth (final) flight. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company)

The 1903 Wright Flyer is a canard biplane, with elevators to the front and rudders at the rear. The flight controls twisted, or “warped,” the wings to cause a change in direction. The pilot lay prone in the middle of the lower wing, on a sliding “cradle.” He slid left and right to shift the center of gravity. Wires attached to the cradle acted to warp the wings and move the rudders. The airplane is built of spruce and ash and covered with unbleached muslin fabric.

Wright Flyer, front view. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company)
Wright Flyer, front view. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company)

The Flyer is 21 feet, 1 inch (6.426 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 4 inches (12.293 meters) and overall height of 9 feet, 3 inches (2.819 meters). The wings have an angle of incidence of 3° 25′. A built-in curvature of the wings creates a continuously-varying anhedral. (The wingtips are 10 inches (25.4 centimeters) lower than at the centerline.) The vertical gap between the upper and lower wings is 6 feet, 2 inches (1.880 meters). There is no sweep or stagger. The total wing area is 510 square feet (47.38 square meters). The Flyer weighs 605 pounds (274.4 kilograms), empty.

Wright Flyer, right quarter view. The airplane was damaged during the landing after its fourth flight. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company)

The Flyer was powered by a single water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 201.06-cubic-inch-displacement (3.30 liter) 4-cylinder inline overhead valve gasoline engine, which produced 12 horsepower at 1,025 r.p.m. The engine was built by the Wright’s mechanic, Charlie Taylor. The engine has a cast aluminum alloy crankcase with cast iron cylinders. Fuel is supplied from a gravity-feed tank mounted under the leading edge of the upper wing. Total fuel capacity is 22 fluid ounces (0.65 liters).

Wright Flyer, left profile. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company)
Wright Flyer, right profile. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company)

Using chains, sprockets, and drive shafts, the engine turns two fixed-pitch wooden propellers in opposite directions at 350 r.p.m. They turn outboard at the top of their arcs. The propellers have a diameter of 8 feet, 6 inches (2.591 meters) and are positioned at the trailing edges of the wings in a pusher configuration.

The Wright's airfield at Kittyhawk, North Carolina. Wilbure Wright is standing in the hangar. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company)
The Wright’s airfield near Kittyhawk, North Carolina. Wilbur Wright is standing in the hangar. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company)

In 1928, the Wright Flyer was shipped to England where it was displayed at the Science Museum on Exhibition Road, London. It returned to the United States in 1948 and was placed in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Wright Brothers’ first airplane flew a total of 1 minute, 42.5 seconds, and travelled 1,472 feet (448.7 meters).

The 1903 Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian Institution. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)
The 1903 Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian Institution. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville continued to fly until 1918. He served as a member of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, predecessor of NASA) for 28 years. He died in 1948.

The Boeing XB-15, 35-277, flies past the Wright Brothers Memorial at the Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 September 1904

Wilbur Wright, 1867–1912. (Library of Congress)

20 September 1904: In an effort to improve their airplane, the Wright Brothers moved their test flights from the windy Kill Devil Hills of North Carolina to Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, Ohio. Without the winds, however, they needed to achieve greater speed for the airplane to take off, so they devised a catapult which used a 1,200 pound (544 kilogram) weight dropped from a 20 foot (6.1 meter) wooden derrick to pull the Wright Flyer II down a wooden track.

The Wright Flyer II was very similar to the original Flyer. Some parts of the airframe were strengthened, which slightly increased the new airplane’s weight.

Wilbur Wright was at the controls of the Flyer II on 20 September 1904, when it made the first-ever complete circular turn by an airplane. This was witnessed by Ames I. Root, who wrote about it in his magazine, Gleanings in Bee Culture:

“When it turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it, and I said then and I believe still, it was. . . the grandest sight of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing right toward you – a locomotive without any wheels. . . but with white wings instead. . . Well, now, imagine that locomotive with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with the tremendous flap of its propellers, and you have something like what I saw.”

The 30th flight of Flyer II at Huffman Prairie, August 1904. (Wright State University)

The Wright Brothers flew the Flyer II 105 times that summer. Next would come the Flyer III.

Wilbur Wright and the Flyer II on Flight 85 at Huffman Prairie. (Wright State University)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 September 1908

Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge (Robert B. Williams)

17 September 1908: Orville Wright brought his Wright Flyer to Fort Myer, Virginia to demonstrate it to the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  A crowd of approximately 2,500 spectators had gathered to watch the flight.

Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge, Signal Corps, United States Army, wanted to ride along with Wright and asked to go first. Lieutenant George Sweet, U.S. Navy was scheduled for the first flight, but he and Wright agreed to let Lieutenant Selfridge go. The two men aboard the Wright Flyer made four circuits of the field approximately 150 feet above the ground. The starboard propeller broke and struck the wires supporting the rudder. As the rudder rotated sideways, it caused the airplane to pitch nose down.

Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge and Orville Wright aboard the Wright Flyer. (U.S. Air Force)

Orville Wright later described the accident:

“On the fourth round, everything seemingly working much better and smoother than any former flight, I started on a larger circuit with less abrupt turns. It was on the very first slow turn that the trouble began. . . A hurried glance behind revealed nothing wrong, but I decided to shut off the power and descend as soon as the machine could be faced in a direction where a landing could be made. This decision was hardly reached, in fact I suppose it was not over two or three seconds from the time the first taps were heard, until two big thumps, which gave the machine a terrible shaking, showed that something had broken. . . The machine suddenly turned to the right and I immediately shut off the power. Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started straight for the ground. Our course for 50 feet was within a very few degrees of the perpendicular. Lt. Selfridge up to this time had not uttered a word, though he took a hasty glance behind when the propeller broke and turned once or twice to look into my face, evidently to see what I thought of the situation. But when the machine turned head first for the ground, he exclaimed ‘Oh! Oh!’ in an almost inaudible voice.”

The wreck of the Wright Flyer, Fort Myer, Virginia, 17 September 1908. (Library of Congress)

The Wright Flyer struck the ground and both men were seriously injured. Thomas Selfridge suffered a fractured skull. He underwent neurosurgery but died without regaining consciousness. Orville Wright had a broken leg, several broken ribs and an injured hip. He spent seven weeks in the Army hospital.

This was the first fatal accident involving an airplane. Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge was the first person to die in an airplane accident.

Doctors attend to the unconscious Lieutenant Selfridge following the crash of the Wright Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia, 17 September 1908. He died later that day. (Library of Congress)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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