Wright Flyer (often retrospectively referred to as
Flyer I and occasionally Kitty Hawk) was the first powered
aircraft designed and built by the Wright Brothers. It is considered by many to
be the first successful powered, piloted aircraft.
First flight 17 December, 1903
Designers Orville and Wilbur Wright
Dimensions - Length 21 ft 1 in 6.43 m - Wingspan 40 ft 4 in 12.29 m - Height 9
ft 0 in 2.74 m - Wing area 510 ft² 47 m²
Weights - Empty weight 605 lb 274 kg - Gross weight 745 lb 338 kg
Performance - Maximum speed 30 mph 48 km/h
Wing loading - 1.4 lb/ft² 7 kg/m²
Power/mass - 0.02 hp/lb 30 W/kg
Power plant - Engine 1x water-cooled straight-4 piston engine - Power 12 hp 9 kW
Design and construction
The Flyer was based on the Wrights' experience testing gliders at
Kitty Hawk between 1900 and 1902. Their last glider, the 1902 Glider, led
directly to the design of the Flyer.
The Wrights built the aircraft in 1903. Since they could find no suitable
automobile engine for the task, they commissioned their employee Charlie Taylor
to build a new design from scratch. A sprocket chain drive, borrowing from
bicycle technology, powered the twin propellers, which were also made by hand.
The Flyer was a canard biplane configuration. The pilot flew lying on
his stomach on the lower wing with his head toward the front of the craft. He
steered by moving a cradle attached to his hips. The cradle pulled wires which
warped the wings and turned the rudder.
The Flyer's "runway" was a track of 2x4s stood on their narrow end,
which the brothers nicknamed the "Junction Railroad."
Flight tests at Kitty Hawk
Upon returning to Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wrights completed assembly of the
Flyer while practicing on the 1902 Glider from the previous season. On
December 14, 1903, they felt ready for their first attempt at powered flight.
They tossed a coin to decide who would get the first chance at piloting, and
Wilbur won the toss. However, he pulled up too sharply, stalled, and brought the
Flyer back down with minor damage.
The repairs for the abortive first flight took three days, so that the
Flyer was ready again on December 17. Since Wilbur had had his chance,
Orville took his turn at the controls. His first flight lasted 12 seconds for a
total distance of 120 feet (36.5 meters).
Taking turns, the Wrights made four brief, low-altitude flights on that day.
The last, by Wilbur, lasted 59 seconds and covered 853 feet (260 meters). Soon
after this flight, a heavy gust picked up the Flyer and tumbled it end
over end, damaging it beyond any hope of quick repair.
The Flyer after Kitty Hawk
The Wright Brothers returned home to Dayton for Christmas after the flights
of the Flyer. While they had abandoned their other gliders, they realized
the historical significance of the Flyer. They crated it and shipped it
back to Dayton, where it stayed in storage for 13 years. It was inundated in a
flood in 1913.
In 1916, Orville brought the Flyer out of storage and prepared it for
display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Wilbur had died in 1912.)
He replaced parts of the covering, the props, and the engine's crankcase,
crankshaft, and flywheel.
Debate with the Smithsonian
The Smithsonian Institution refused to give credit to the Wright Brothers for
the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft. Instead, they honored
Samuel Pierpont Langley, whose 1903 tests of his own Aerodrome design on
the Potomac were not successful. In 1914, a heavily modified Aerodrome
had flown from Lake Keuka, providing the Smithsonian a basis for its claim.
In 1925, Orville attempted to shame the Smithsonian into recognizing his
accomplishment by threatening to send the Flyer to the Science Museum in
London. The threat did not have its intended effect, and the Flyer went
on display in the museum in 1928. During the Second World War, it was moved to
an underground vault 100 miles from London where England's other treasures were
kept safe from the conflict.
The Smithsonian Institution published in 1942 a retraction of its long-held
stance that Langley had made the first flight. The next year, Orville agreed to
return the Flyer to the United States. The Flyer stayed at the
Science Museum until a replica could be built, based on the original.
In the Smithsonian
The Flyer was put on display in the Arts and Industries Building of
the Smithsonian on December 17, 1948, 45 years after the aircraft's only
flights. (Orville did not live to see this, as he died in January of that year.)
In 1976, it was moved to the Milestones of Flight Gallery of the new National
Air and Space Museum. It currently resides in an exhibit of "The Wright Brothers
and the Invention of the Aerial Age," where it will stay until October, 2006.
In 1981, discussion began on the need to restore the Flyer from the
aging it sustained during years on display. During the ceremonies celebrating
the 78th anniversary of the first flights, Mrs. Harold S. Miller, one of the
Wright brothers' nieces, presented the Museum with the original covering of one
wing of the Flyer, which she had received in her inheritance. She
expressed her wish to see the aircraft restored.
The fabric covering on the aircraft at the time, which came from the 1927
restoration, was discoloured and marked with water spots. Metal fasteners holding
the wing uprights together had begun to corrode, marking the nearby fabric.
Work began in 1985. The restoration was supervised by Senior Curator Robert
Mikesh and assisted by Wright Brothers expert Tom Crouch. Museum director Walter
J. Boyne decided to perform the restoration in full view of the public.
The wooden framework was cleaned, and corrosion on metal parts removed. The
covering was the only part of the aircraft replaced. The new covering was more
accurate to the original than that of the 1927 restoration. To preserve the
original paint on the engine, the restorers coated it in inert wax before
putting on a new coat of paint.
The effects of the 1985 restoration were supposed to last 75 years before
another restoration would be required.
The AIAA's Flyer replica undergoing testing in a NASA wind tunnel
A number of individuals and groups have attempted to build reconstructions of
the Wright Flyer for demonstration or scientific purposes.
In 1978, 23-year-old Ken Kellett built a replica Flyer in Colorado and
flew it at Kitty Hawk on the 75th and 80th anniversaries of the first flight
there. Construction took a year and cost $3,000.
As the 100th anniversary on December 17, 2003 approached, the U.S. Centennial
of Flight Commission along with other organizations opened bids for companies to
recreate the original flight. The Wright Experience, led by Ken Hyde, won the
bid and painstakingly recreated replicas of the original Flyer plus many
of the prototype gliders and kites as well as several subsequent Wright
airplanes. The completed Flyer replica was brought to Kitty Hawk and
pilot Kevin Kochersberger attempted to recreate the original flight at 10:35 AM
December 17, 2003 from Kill Devil Hill. Although the aircraft had previously
made several successful test flights, sour weather, rain, and weak winds
prevented a successful flight on the actual anniversary date.
Numerous no flying replicas are on display around the United States and
across the world, making this perhaps the most replicated single aircraft in
Mikesh, Robert C., and Tom D. Crouch, "Restoration: The Wright Flyer." National
Air and Space Museum Research Report 1985, pp. 135-141.
- Hise, Phaedra, "In Search of the Real Wright Flyer."
Air&Space/Smithsonian, January 2003, pp. 22-29.
- Jakab, Peter L., "The Original," Air&Space/Smithsoniann, March, 2003,