Everybody probably knows of the Wright Brothers and has heard of their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but if you are like me, that’s about the full extent of my knowledge so it was interesting to tour the Wright brother’s museum and memorial. Like many others, Wilbur and Orville Wright had a fascination with the theory that a person could fly with the help of machinery. The Wright brothers lived in Dayton, Ohio and owned a bicycle shop while thinking about human flight as a hobby and later as an obession.
In 1899, they contacted the Smithsonian Institution for literature about the progress of manned flight and realized that they had as much chance as anyone to solve the riddle of human flight. This encouraged them to deeply immerse themselves in the goal of being the first to create a flying machine. They were natural scientists and they developed and then tested their own theories of what it would take to be successful. First, they needed to solve the three key principle of maintaining flight: Lift (generating an upward force greater than the weight of the plane), Thrust (propelling the plane forward) and Control (stabilizing and directing the plane’s flight). Many others were also working on “flying machines” but no one had mastered these three elements in a predictable, controllable way. Most people were counting on the design alone to make flight successful. The Wright brothers took an unconventional approach and thought the pilot should control the plane.
The Wright brothers spent from 1899 to 1902 inventing and perfecting a glider including creating an innovative wing design. This included designing a wind tunnel to test their theories and to be able to produce their own data rather than relying on other people’s calculations. They chose Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk as their real world testing ground for their theories because of its isolation with high dunes, strong winds and sand for soft landings. In 1902, they set up shop in Kitty Hawk and made 1,000 glider flights as they retooled and perfected their design and finally they had their first working airplane. At this point it was still considered a glider because it relied on wind for power and floated downhill for flight. The next step would be to develop a motorized version that would not have to rely on wind and gliding down a dune to operate.
The criteria for true “flight” (versus gliding) were 1) the machine needed to leave the ground under its own power, 2) move forward, under control, without losing speed and 3) land on a point as high as that from which it started. The Wright brothers couldn’t find a suitable light weight, gas-powered engine so they created their own engine design. They also had to design the propellers – previously the only propellers were used for boats and were not suited for air. They used their wind tunnel to invent and create the first effective airplane propeller. Today’s propellers still use the design they created. Finally, on December 14th, 1903 they were ready to make their first attempt at powered, manned flight. Their plane had a 40 foot wing span and weighed 605 lbs. Wilbur won the coin toss to be the first to fly but over steered and the plane stalled, fell to earth and needed repairs before it could fly again.
Three days later, on December 17th, 1903 Orville laid on the lower part of the wing, manned the controls and flew for 120 feet before landing in the sand. He controlled the plane by using a stick shift to control the climb and descent of the plane, his hips were used to move a cradle that warped the wings and swung the vertical tail. There was also a lever that controlled the gas flow. Obviously, the skill of the pilot was just as important as their innovative design features. They flew three more times that day, gaining distance and air time with each flight as they adjusted how they controlled the plane. The last flight lasted 59 seconds and the plane traveled 852 feet, a huge breakthrough achievement. After the fourth flight, the high winds flipped the plane, caused significant damage and ended their experiment for that year. This was a truly historic day and the birth of aviation. Now just over 100 years later, air travel is commonplace; as is sophisticated space exploration. What tremendous progress over that relatively short period of time.
The museum has an exact reproduction of the last glider they built as well as a full-sized model of the first powered plane. It also has a beautiful gallery of portraits of key people who have made significant contributions to flight, all the way to present time. You can walk to the top of Kill Devil Hill to see the Wright Brothers Monument celebrating the glider trials and walk the flight paths of the first four powered flights. They have also reconstructed the 1903 hangar and the Wright brothers workshop and living quarters. I liked that they had a ladder to the rafters and burlap slings that look like hammocks that they slept in. It looked very comfortable, efficient and cool.
There is also an outdoor bronze sculpture of the plane with Orville laying on the wing, Wilbur running along side (having just released holding the wing tip to steady it during take off), plus statues of a few local men who helped get the plane situated and one who acted as the photographer to record the historic moment when the plane first took off. This was my favorite part of the exhibit. Even though it wasn’t made of the authentic materials, you could walk right up to the plane or statues and really get a feel for what it might have felt like to either be on the plane or close by as it made its first flight.
It was amazing to learn about all the theories and specialized designs that the Wright brothers created to fulfill their dream of manned flight. They are a testament to the American spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation. Now Michael wants to go hang gliding!
NOTE: All information is courtesy of the Wright Brothers National Memorial brochure, National Park Service. Any inaccuracies are mine alone.