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The Wright Brothers, Orville Wright (August 19, 1871 - January 30, 1948) and Wilbur Wright (April 16, 1867 - May 30, 1912), are generally credited with the design and construction of the practical aeroplane, and making the controllable, powered heavier-than-air flight, along with many other aviation milestones.

Their accomplishments have been subject to many counter-claims by some people and nations.

Currently, their feat is officially recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) [ as being the first controlled, powered, sustained (from takeoff to landing) flight involving a heavier-than-air vehicle, and using mechanically unassisted takeoff (thrust/lift created chiefly by onboard propulsion).

Public Domain

Public Domain

Orville Wright

Wilbur Wright

Early Childhood

The Wright Brothers were the children of Milton Wright (1828-1917); and Susan Catherine Koerner (1831-1889). Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana in 1867, Orville Wright was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1871. The brothers never married. The Wright siblings were Reuchlin (1861-1920), Lorin (1862-1939), Katharine (1874-1929), and twins Otis and Ida (born 1870, died in infancy).

Early career and research

The Wright brothers both received high school educations, but did not receive diplomas. They grew up in Dayton, where they opened a bicycle repair, design, and manufacturing company (the Wright Cycle Company) in 1892. They used this endeavor to fund their growing interest in flight. Drawing on the work of Sir George Cayley, Octave Chanute, Otto Lilienthal and Samuel Pierpont Langley, they began their mechanical aeronautical experimentation in 1899. The brothers extended the technology of flight by emphasizing control of the aircraft (instead of increased power) for taking off into the air. They developed three-axis control, and established principles of aircraft control which are still used today.

The Wrights had researched and initially relied upon the aeronautical literature of the day, including Lilienthal's tables; but finding that the Smeaton Coefficient (a variable in the formula for lift and the formula for drag) was wrong, they built a wind tunnel and tested over two hundred different wing shapes in it, eventually devising their own tables relating air pressure to wing shape. Their work and projects with bicycles, gears, bicycle motors, and balance (while riding a bicycle), were critical to their success in creating the mechanical aeroplane.

During their research, the Wrights always worked together, and their contributions to the aeroplane's development are inseparable. Their assistant Charlie Taylor helped with some of the day to day work, especially with the wind tunnel and engine, but the Wrights themselves did all of the theoretical work and most of the hands-on construction


Toward flight

Public Domain

Title: First flight, 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 a.m.; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina -December 17th 1903

Summary: Orville Wright at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur Wright running alongside to balance the machine, has just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine.-  Photographer: John T. Daniels

Google satellite image of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

The Wright brothers were noted for placing the emphasis of their aviation research on navigational control, rather than simply lift and propulsion which would make sustained flight practical. To that end, they first made gliders (beginning in 1899), using an intricate system called “wing warping.” If one wing bent one way, it would receive more lift, which would make the plane lift. If they could control how the gliders' wings warped, then it would make flying much easier. To allow warping in the first gliders, they had to keep the front and rear posts that hold up the glider unbraced. The warping was then controlled by wire running through the wings, which led to sticks held by the flyer, who could pull one or the other to make it turn left or right.

In 1900 they went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to continue their aeronautical work — choosing Kitty Hawk (specifically, a sand dune called Kill Devil Hill) on the advice of a National Weather Service meteorologist because of its strong and steady winds, and because its remote location afforded the brothers privacy from prying eyes in the highly competitive race to invent a successful heavier-than-air flying machine. They experimented with gliders at Kitty Hawk from 1900 through 1902, each year constructing a new glider. Their last glider, the Wright Glider of 1902, applied many important innovations in flight, and the brothers made over a thousand flights with it. On March 23, 1903 they applied for a patent (granted as U.S. patent number 821,393, "Flying-Machine", on May 23, 1906) for the novel technique of controlling lateral movement and turning by "wing warping". By 1903, the Wright Brothers were perhaps the most skilled glider pilots in the world.

In 1903, they built the Wright Flyer - later the Flyer I (today popularly known as the Kitty Hawk) - carved their own propellers, and had a purpose-built engine made by Taylor in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. The propellers had an 80% efficiency rate. The engine was superior to manufactured ones, having a low enough weight-to-power ratio to use on an aeroplane. (The chain used in the engine was, naturally, a bicycle chain.) While the early engines used by the Wright brothers are thought to no longer exist, a later example, serial number 17 from circa 1910, is on display at the New England Air Museum in Connecticut.

Public Domain

Wright brothers engine, serial number 17, on display at the New England Air Museum, Connecticut, USA - Circa 1910

Then on December 17, 1903, the Wrights took to the air, both of them twice. The flight, by Orville, of 39 meters (120 feet) in 12 seconds, was recorded in a famous photograph. In the fourth flight of the same day — the only flight made that day which was actually controlled — Wilbur Wright flew 279 meters (852 ft) in 59 seconds. [1].

The flights were witnessed by 4 lifeguards and a boy from the village, making it arguably the first public flight. A local newspaper reported the event, inaccurately. Only one other newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, printed the story the next day.

The Flyer I cost less than a thousand dollars to construct. It had a wingspan of 40 feet (12 m), weighed 750 pounds (340 kg), and sported a 12 horsepower (9 kW), 170 pound (77 kg) engine.

Milestones of the flight

The Wright Flyer flight was notable in that 1) the aircraft moved under its own power, unassisted by gravity; 2) the flight was prolonged through direct, conscious, and active manipulation of control surfaces, instead of merely making an uncontrolled "hop"; 3) the flight has been reproduced experimentally using a painstakingly recreated replica of the original aircraft. Also notable is the fact that the Wright Brothers accurately described several principles of flight (including aerodynamics and propeller design) that previous pioneers had either described inaccurately or not at all.

It is important to note that several replicas of the original Wright Flyer have been modified by using modern aerodynamic knowledge to improve their flight characteristics. However, at least one replica exists that has made flights without being so modified. The Wright Experience, through painstaking research of original documents, photographs, and artifacts from the original Flyer (conducted much like an archaeological expedition), managed to accurately and precisely recreate it. Their stated purpose was to build an exact replica of the original aircraft, whether or not it would actually fly. As it turned out, the aircraft did indeed make several successful flights.

Trouble establishing legitimacy

The Wrights established a flying field at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, and continued work in 1904, building the Flyer II and using a catapult take-off system to compensate for the lower air pressure compared to Kitty Hawk (caused by the higher altitude and higher temperatures). By the end of the year, the Wright Brothers had sustained 105 flights, some of them of 5 minutes, circling over the prairie, which is now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In 1905, they built an improved aeroplane, the Flyer III.

In 1904 and 1905, the Wright Brothers conducted over 105 flights from Huffman Prairie in Dayton, inviting the press and friends and neighbours. Here they completed the aerial circle and by October 5, 1905 Wilbur set a record of over 39 minutes in the air and 24 1/2 miles (39 km), circling over Huffman Prairie.

The press was not sympathetic to the Wright Brothers. When a large contingent of journalists arrived at the field in 1904, for instance, the Wrights were experiencing mechanical difficulties, and were unable to correct them within two days. As a result, the first local report of the flights appeared in a beekeeping magazine. The news was not widely known outside of Ohio, and was often met with skepticism. The Paris edition of the Herald Tribune headlined a 1906 article on the Wrights "FLYERS OR LIARS?"

This was reinforced by the fact that the Wright Brothers, wary of the competition stealing their plans, refused to make public demonstrations of their machines or take part in air shows before signing firm contracts with the military. They attempted to sign contracts with the United States Army, the French Army, the British Army, and even the German Army, but all refused as they had not been shown the flying machine in operation. Thus, ridiculed by the press, the Wright brothers continued their work in semi-obscurity, while other pilot pioneers like Brazilian pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont or US pioneer Glenn Curtiss were occupying the limelight.

Santos-Dumont received a world triumph after succeeding with the first public take-off, flight, and landing in the history of aviation, flying 60 meters with his Oiseau de proie aircraft during a public demonstration at Bagatelle, on the outskirts of Paris, on October 23, 1906. On November 12 he flew 220 meters. It was a very pale performance compared to the 39 kilometers flown by the Wright Brothers the year before, but at the time the October 23, 1906 flight in Paris was thought to be the first flight of an airplane in human history, as people were unaware or doubtful of the previous flights of the Wright Brothers. As for Glenn Curtiss, he succeeded with America's first public and official airplane flight on July 4, 1908.

The first airplane: The 14-bis versus the Wright Flyers

Many people firmly believe that these flights, and not those of the Wright brothers, are the true dawn of aviation. In Brazil, Santos Dumont is known as the "father of aviation", and is the person who "invented the airplane". Depending on how you define "airplane", this view could be accurate.

Public Domain

Santos Dumonts erster Flug 1905,

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, founded in France at the beginning of the century to keep track of aviation records and other aeronautical activities, changed its rules to include only aircraft that took off without a catapult, in order to exclude the Wrights. This meant that the 14-bis was, technically, the first airplane according to the Fédération, because in 1908 the Wrights usually used a weight-driven catapult-rail system, although they did not need one. Wilbur Wright responded in September 1908 by dispensing with the catapult and taking off with a longer rail to win the Prix de la Hateur. [T. Crouch, p. 381.] To this day, some people claim Wrights could not make an aircraft that could take off from a smooth grassy or paved surface rather than from a rail, but it is clear that they easily could, and they used a rail only because it was convenient and cheap. The Wrights built the first heavier-than-air aircraft able to fly for prolonged periods and to be fully controllable. During Dumont's short hops, the Wrights were already flying for minutes at a time in nicely controlled curves, ascents, and descents. However, Dumont fans still mistakenly believe that the Wright's Flyers could not get into the air without being accelerated by a large contraption, so they were not a practical vehicle.

(Note that this line of thought also strips away the records made in the X-1, X-15, X-43, and SpaceShipOne, as all of those were dropped from larger aircraft and thus could not have broken their respective records if they had to take off unassisted from a runway. This is why the "official" speed record is held by the SR-71, and the altitude record by the unmanned Helios, as those aircraft could take off and land unassisted and still break those records).

Using this letter, many people argue that while the Wright Flyer may have been superior in the air, its take-off apparatus made it overly impractical to operate and transport. This ignores the fact that the Wrights easily dispensed with the take off apparatus, and that wheeled aircraft would be useless at both Kitty Hawk and at the Dayton field where they flew until 1908.

One last noteworthy point in this debate is that some people discredit the Wrights' flights "because they used a catapult". This refers to a device that launched projectiles, rather than a horizontal-acceleration device. Because of this some believe that the Wright Flyer was simply thrown up into the air and quickly fell again - not an aircraft at all, not a flying machine, simply a projectile, not worthy of any claim to being a form of aviation technology. This is factually incorrect, since the machine flew for over an hour hundreds of meters high when their rivals were still struggling to get airborne. It also ignores the years of hard work, innovations, scientific testing, and aerial control achieved by the Wrights.

Opinions vary on whether the Wright Flyers or the 14-bis was the more practical (and thus the "first") heavier-than-air flying machine, but many of these opinions - on both sides - are driven by ignorance of the truly amazing and uniquely innovative pioneering efforts of the Wright brothers and of Santos Dumont. Both designs, made independently of each other, used new technologies to achieve lift and controllability. Both could, once in the air, fly where the pilot desired, although the 14-bis could only perform shallow, nearly uncontrolled turns. The Wrights flew flew first in 1903 without a catapult, and many times after that. Their flyers were safer, faster, far more efficient and better controlled than any other. All practical aircraft built after 1908 were patterned on the Wright design, which is why the patent was upheld.

Public showing

Public Domain

Demonstrating flight to the U.S. Army, September 17, 1908. - By an unknown photographer. Wright Aeroplane, Ft. Myer, VA. Orville Wright in plane. Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer.

It is only after they signed a contract with the US Army and a French company that the Wright Brothers accepted to take part in public demonstrations and flying contests. Their first public demonstration was held on August 8, 1908, on the racing track of Le Mans, Sarthe département, France, where Wilbur Wright took the command of the Wright Flyer model A and made a series of technically challenging flights, demonstrating to the world his skills as a pilot as well as the potential of his flying machine, far surpassing all other pilot pioneers. The Wright Brothers became world famous overnight.

Orville Wright followed his brother's success by demonstrating the flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia on September 17, 1908. Thomas Selfridge became the first person killed in a powered airplane on that day (Charlie Furnas had become the first air passenger on May 14), when a propeller failure caused the crash of the passenger-carrying plane Orville was piloting. Orville broke a leg and two ribs. (This was the only serious accident the Wrights suffered.) In late 1908, Madame Hart O. Berg became the first woman to fly when she flew with Wilbur Wright in Le Mans, France.

The French public was thrilled by the feat of Wilbur Wright, and the Wright Brothers were offered the direction of a flying school in the Sarthe département, and later in Pau, southern France, which they accepted. Later, they returned to the United States. On September 29, 1909, one million New-Yorkers witnessed the extraordinary flight of Wilbur Wright above the Hudson River and around the Statue of Liberty, which solidly established the fame of the Wright Brothers in America.

Also in 1909, the Wrights won the first US military aviation contract when they built a machine that met the requirements of a two-seater, capable of flights of an hour's duration, at an average of 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) and land undamaged. $30,000 of the federal budget was reserved for military aviation. That year the Wrights were also building Wright Flyers in factories in Dayton and in Germany.

On October 25, 1910, the Wright Brothers were engaged by Max Moorehouse of Columbus, Ohio to undertake the first commercial air cargo shipment. Moorehouse, owner of Moorehouse-Marten's Department store in Columbus, asked if the Wright Brothers could carry a shipment of silk ribbon from a wholesaler in Dayton to Columbus. The Wright brothers agreed to the proposal, adding that their pilot and airplane would put on an exhibition once the cargo was delivered to the Driving Park landing area on the east side of Columbus. Moorehouse, in turn, agreed to pay the Wrights $5,000 for the service, which was more an exercise in advertising than a simple delivery. The actual flight occurred on November 7, 1910, with the Model "B" Wright Flyer piloted by Phil Parmalee. The 62 mile (100 km) flight took 62 minutes, with Parmalee overtaking the Big Four express train in London, Ohio. In addition to carrying the first air-freight, Parmalee's speed of 60 miles an hour (97 km/h) set a world record for in-flight speed. For the return trip, however, the Wright Flyer was loaded on a train the night of the world record flight, and Parmalee returned to Dayton on the same Big Four Express train that he overtook in the air the day before.

The Wrights took over 300 photographs of flights and many other events of those pioneer days of aviation.

The Wrights were involved in several patent battles, which they won in 1914. Wilbur died from typhoid fever in 1912, an event Orville never completely recovered from. Orville sold his interests in the airplane company in 1915. He and Katherine moved to a mansion, Hawthorn Hill, Oakwood, Ohio, where they lived quietly. Katherine married in 1926, which upset Orville. He cut her off, refusing to meet with or write to her. He finally agreed to see her just before she died of pneumonia in 1929. Orville died in 1948, from a heart attack. Both brothers are buried at a family plot at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio. Neither brother married nor had children.

The Flyer I is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum, a division of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Flyer III, the only airplane designated a National Historic Landmark, was dismantled after the 1905 flights, but rebuilt and flown in 1908 at Kitty Hawk, and was restored in the late 1940s with the help of Orville. It is on display at Dayton, Ohio in the John W. Berry Sr., Wright Brothers Aviation Center at Carillon Historical Park. The display space for the aircraft was designed by Orville Wright.

Earlier and later flying craft

There are many claims of earlier flights made by other flying machines in various categories and qualifications. See First flying machine.

Lighter-than-air balloons, dirigibles, airships had been taking people into the sky for much of the 18th century before the Wrights, and several people had been working on heavier-than-air flying machines as well. Numerous claims before the Wrights aspire to the title of being the first powered, controlled, and self-sustaining flight (or minor variations of this classification). Several claims are actually after the Wrights, and lay claim by discounting the Wrights' attempt either on the basis of its validity, on some technical basis of the flyer, or sometimes both. (Note that claims earlier than the Wrights are often criticized on similar grounds.)

The Wrights' flights have what is usually considered to be reasonable proof, including photos and multiple eyewitnesses. However, some of the strongest claims lie in the design qualities of the craft itself and the spread of those features to other pioneers. The ability of the Wrights to demonstrate the source of, and in many cases explain, the features that they combined and developed into the first working aeroplane, along with the ability to see these same features turn up in later craft, is among the most powerful evidence of what they accomplished.

Many earlier attempts featured powerful powerplants or very light powerplants. Many had wing designs of some effectiveness. Many had the ability to glide (translate forward speed into lift), and some had control mechanisms. The Wright Brothers' patented three-axis system of control, using wing warping (later supplanted by other 3-axis control systems), an effective wing design for the craft's weight, a light enough motor with power to maintain steady flight, an effective system to turn the engine power into thrust (the propeller), and some other features allowed it to be significantly better than any previous manned flying machine. The careful balance between all these areas are seen in any craft capable of sustained flight, and they first happened in the flyer.

Still, controversy in the credit for invention of the airplane has been fuelled by the Wrights' secrecy while their patent was prepared, by the pride of nations, by the number of firsts made possible by the basic invention, and other assorted issues.

There has also been much debate about whether the Wright Brothers' early flights (as well as those of earlier claims) flew high enough to be out of ground effect. Or that the Wright's early flights were usually flown only into the wind (helping lift) and that they landed on ground at lower elevation than where they launched.

Another source of attack is that some of the recreations of the Wright Flyer do not fly. The reasons for failures of recreations usually stem from an inability to know exactly the Wrights' design and to duplicate the conditions of the flight. Specific features of the Flyer I that even the Wrights did not know were important in rendering it capable of flight are lost to history, such the octane of the fuels used, and the small details of aerodynamics that can have disproportionate effect on the ability to fly. The Wrights' initial troubles with their own recreation, the Flyer II, makes the matter even harder. Regardless, some recreations do fly, and the Flyer II's impressive performance and flights largely vindicate the design.

After their Kitty Hawk flights, which used a rail but no mechanical assistance in windy conditions, the Wrights developed a weight-powered catapult in Ohio to aid initial acceleration. This method of launching has been the source of controversy for some attacks on the Wrights' claim. Some consider that a plane incapable of taking off using its own power could not be a true aircraft, but choosing this definition does not necessarily exclude the Wrights.

Just as many aircraft do not have enough power to take off in certain conditions, the Flyer's trouble with achieving its take off speed on land is not a real issue. The Flyer did manage to get off the ground under its own power in some instances, and its powered and controlled flights after it was aided in achieving its take-off speed by the catapult largely redeem it. Furthermore, if an aircraft does not have enough peak power to overcome the extra drag from being in contact with the ground, some other means must be found to overcome it. This is done in a number of ways. In modern aircraft a landing gear and long runways enable them to build up to take-off speed. This important advancement would have to wait till Alberto Santos-Dumont and the flight of the 14-Bis to be implemented in aircraft. This machine used the Wright's essential developments. Catapults do remain in use on aircraft carriers where planes cannot build enough speed to take off, and these still make use of landing gear.

Most counter-claims to having the 'first plane' often have some truth to them. Many heavier-than-air aircraft became airborne before the Wrights, but lacked as much control. Endlessly more advanced machines came after. But the Wright Flyer stands out as the first practical flying machine with a combination of features not used before, but included in all that came later, to this day (effective wings, 3-axis control, an effective system to generate power and turn into thrust, and a takeoff system).

The Smithsonian issue

In the early 1900s professor Samuel P. Langley was secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He had a claim to being "father of flight" as he had for many years worked on gliders and successful powered models, and his assistant C. M. Manley was actually employed by the US government to construct aircraft for military use. His full-sized planes, however, were complete failures at flight. When the Smithsonian proposed a display that would not have made this clear, Orville Wright responded by loaning the Flyer I to the London Science Museum. Orville stated it would not be returned until he and his brother were acknowledged as the "Fathers of Powered Flight". The Smithsonian eventually agreed, but the Flyer remained at Kensington in London until 1948. On November 23, 1948 the executors of the estate of Orville Wright wrote a contract with the Smithsonian Institute regarding the display of the aircraft, stating that "Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight." If this was not fulfilled the Flyer would be returned to the heir of the Wright brothers.

Effect on Dayton

See Dayton for city history. The Wrights' contributions to the city of Dayton were and remain immeasurable. From their use of local materials, when Requarth Lumber Company wood was used to construct the Flyer I and other airplanes, to the encouragement of local arts and sciences, as with Paul Laurence Dunbar, to their financial and political contributions, as with the massive Air Force base and museum, the Wright Brothers changed the city's history.

Ohio/North Carolina dispute

The states of Ohio and North Carolina both take credit for the Wright Brothers and their world-changing invention - Ohio because the brothers developed and built their design in Dayton, and North Carolina because Kitty Hawk was the site of the first flight. With a spirit of friendly rivalry, Ohio has adopted the informal slogan "Birthplace of Aviation" (later "Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers", with a tip of the hat to not only the Wrights, but also John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, both Ohio natives.) North Carolina has also adopted the slogan "First In Flight" and includes the theme on state license plates.

As the positions of both states can be factually defended, and both states play a significant role in the history of flight, neither state truly has a complete claim to the Wrights' accomplishment. It was in Ohio, however, where the Wright Brothers' many inventions were made, and where the 1903 Wright Flyer was manufactured prior to its partial disassembly and shipment to North Carolina.


But, in the end, the first flight occurred in North Carolina. The Wright brothers were ranked #28 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.

Pilots associated with the Wrights

  • Henry H. Arnold was trained by the Wrights. He was the first pilot to receive a military flight rating, was commander of the US Army Air Forces from 1941 until 1945, and was the first General of the Air Force.
  • Lincoln Beachey "An aeroplane in the hands of Lincoln Beachey is poetry. His mastery is a thing of beauty to watch. He is the most wonderful flyer of all.", Orville Wright.
  • Walter Richard Brookins was the first pilot trained by the Wrights, and was the first pilot to ascend to an altitude of 1 mile.
  • Glenn Curtiss was sued by the Wrights for infringing on their patents.
  • Benjamin Foulois was a United States Army Officer trained by the Wrights.
  • Elrey Jeppesen who earned his pilot license at 20, signed by Orville Wright. Denver International Airport’s terminal building is named for this businessman and aviation pioneer whose “Jepp” navigational maps and charts are standard equipment in nearly every commercial airline cockpit around the world.
  • Samuel Pierpont Langley offered financial assistance to the Wrights.
  • Gustave Whitehead was visited by the Wright brothers who discussed the purchase of one of his engines and they exchanged ideas and discoveries regarding flight.

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