Born with Wings, The Brothers Wright

Orville Wright

Orville Wright (August 19, 1871 – January 30, 1948) and Wilbur Wright (April 16, 1867 – may 30, 1912) were bicycle retailers, airplane manufacturers and pilot trainers. The Wright brothers were famous for being the first to show that powered flight was possible. Their accomplishment changed the world.

Wilbur Wright

For ages, aircraft were envisioned as great galleons sailing the skies. If a wave destabilized a ship, it would quickly correct itself. Likewise for aircraft should be able to stabilize after harsh winds. Emphasis was put on maintaining stability, not flight – it was the aircraft’s job to stabilize itself, not the pilot’s.

The Wright brothers instead saw aircraft as bicycles. For bicycles, stability was the job of the cyclist not the bicycle. To the Wrights if an airplane became unstable, it was up to the pilot to stabilize it. With less emphasis on stability, the Wright brothers focused on getting their plane to fly.

A Wright Glider. The Wright brothers testing their gliders 700 times before moving on to powered flight. The windiness of Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina were ideal for glider tests.

The brothers moved to a windy beach near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to test kites and gliders. They needed to construct a wing that would give optimal lift before attempting powered flight. For a plane to fly, lift has to be stronger than gravity. Lift depends on thrust and the shape of the wing. With a properly shaped wing, the air on the top of the wing moves faster than the bottom, creating a pressure difference. The air above the wing has less pressure, so the wing is forced upward to fill the gap. The faster the wing moves the greater this pressure difference and the stronger the lift.

Forces that act on a plane in flight. Lift is dependent on the speed of the wind and thrust and the shape of the wings.

Confident with their wing design, they now needed thrust. They looked towards steam boat propellers, but little study had been done on their efficiency. Nevertheless, the brothers realized that a propeller blade was a vertical wing. Rather than causing a vertical pressure difference, propellers would produce a horizontal pressure difference that would push the plane forward. This gave the plane thrust. As a result, they designed their propeller blades similar to their wings.

The final problem was how the pilot would stabilize the plane in flight. A simple mechanic called wing warping where the front edge of the wings on one side would tilt up and the front edge on the other side would tilt down, allowed the pilot to have more control of the plane.

Finally, on a windy day in 1903, on the sands of Kill Devil Hills close to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers took their idea out for a test. Their first flight lasted for 12 seconds, but it would not be their last.

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