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The Invention of The Airplane

From left to right, Wilbur and Orville Wright

From left to right, Wilbur and Orville Wright

The first airplane inventors were the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who eventually sustained flight in on the 17th of December in 1903.

Brothers’ Wilbur and Orville Wright were born April 16th 1867 and August 19th 1871 and grew up in Ohio, USA. From a young age both brothers’ were said to have excelled in intellectual understandings and be interested in learning new things. The brothers’ looked to their mother for mechanical expertise and to their father for intellectual challenge. Their father, Milton Wright, was a bishop and on his travels he would bring back souvenirs and toys for the boys’. One time Milton bought home a toy helicopter-like top which sparked the boys’ interest in flying.

As they grew the boys’ later became business partners and first referred to themselves as ‘The Wright Brothers’ when they started up their own printing firm at the ages of 22 and 18. The boys’ printed odd jobs as well as their own newspaper from a press they built using a damaged tombstone and buggy parts. Then in 1892 they boys’ purchased bicycles and learned the mechanics of them, repairing friends and then later starting their own repair business. In 1893 they then opened the ‘Wright Cycle’ shop and three years later they were making their own bicycles called Van Cleves and St. Clairs.

In 1896 Orville became sick with typhoid and Wilbur who cared for him read about the death of a famous German glider pilot, Otto Lilienthal. This news led Wilbur to take an interest in flying and he hurriedly read everything he could about aviation from the Smithsonian’s to newspaper articles. On the 30th May 1899, he wrote to the Smithsonian Institution of aeronautical research who sent back papers regarding aerodynamics and within a few months he had read all he could find written on flying. Both brothers also read about the works of Cayley and Langley. Samuel P Langley was an astronomer and director of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Langley’s main contributions to flight involved attempts at adding power to gliders, the idea being once the glider was in the air; the power would keep it going. In 1896 Langley built a steam powered model which flew three quarters of a mile before running out of fuel. Langley with a government grant of $50,000 then set out to produce a full size version using a five cylinder engine made by his assistant; Charles M Manly. After two publicized failed attempts however the government withdrew its support from the project and Langley gave up on the idea.

The Wright brothers took the idea of needing power as it was essential to keep the airplane up. After studying all they could on aviation the brothers’ then defined the elements needed of a flying machine; wings to provide lift, a source of power for propulsion, and a system of control. After this, they then recognised something no other early aviator had yet. They saw that control was needed not just to go in a straight line but also for the ‘three axes of motion’; pitch, roll and yaw. Pitch meaning up and down directions, roll meaning tilting directions and yaw meaning turning directions, i.e. left and right. See the inset diagram for a visual understanding of the pitch, roll and yaw axes. Wilbur and Orville studied the problems which had been encountered by previous flyers and they talked about possible solutions to the problems. Both of the brothers’ spent a long time observing birds in flight and they realised over a period of time that what they were seeing was the birds shaping their wings to turn and manouver.They noticed birds soared into the wind and that the air flowing over the curved shape of their wings created lift. After this they then decided that control of the flying aircraft would be the most crucial and hardest problem to solve and they had an idea for solving that problem. The brothers believed they could use the birds’ technique in their design of an aircraft to obtain roll conrtol. The solution to the need for control in the aircraft was then called ‘wing warping’. Wing warping is a method of arching the wingtips slightly to control the aircraft rolling motion and balance when moving/in flight. Wilbur came up with the system by twisting an empty bicycle tube box with the ends removed, twisting the surface of each ‘wing’ changed its position in relation to oncoming wind. These changes resulted in direction of flight; this kind of folding is similar to how paper airplanes are made. Wilbur tested this theory on a small ‘kite’ and it worked.

Over the next three years, Wilbur and his brother Orville would design a series of gliders which would be flown in both unmanned (as kites) and piloted flights. When unmanned, the ‘kites’ had ropes dragging from behind them used to twist the trailing edges of the wings in opposite directions, this however proved to be a hard way of controlling the wings (the warping). When manned the wing warping could be controlled by the pilot who would have several ropes/cables which he would use to pull the wing up or down depending on the direction he was trying to achieve. After successful flights of these kites/gliders the brothers’ designed and built a full-size glider that they chose to test in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They chose this as their test site because of its wind, sand (for soft landings) and remote location. The piloted biplane glider they tested was seventeen foot long in wingspan and weighed fifty pounds. The flight was to a degree a success and from the results the brothers’ planned to refine the controls, the landing gear and to build a bigger glider. The Wright Brothers went on to build another glider, the result was a glider with a wingspan of 22 feet (ft) and a weight of nearly 100 pounds. In 1901 at the Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the Brothers flew their glider, the largest glider ever flown before. However, there was several problems with the glider; the ribs on the wings flexed under the weight of the pilot, distorting the aerofoil shapes of the wings, the brothers’ fixed the trouble however the wings did not have enough lifting power. The forward elevator was also not effective enough and so they could not control the pitch (pointing the nose up or down) and the wing-warping used caused the airplane to occasionally spin out of control or go in the opposite intended direction. It was at this point in disappointment that Wilbur and Orville predicted that man will never fly in their lifetime. In spite of the problems with their last attempts at flight, the Wrights reviewed their test results and determined that the calculations they had used were not reliable. The Wrights invented their own homemade wind tunnel and made and tested a variety of wing shapes and their effect on lift. Through these tests the Brothers had a greater understanding of how an airfoil (wing) worked and could then calculate with greater accuracy how well a particular wing design/shape would fly. Then the inventors went on to design their third glider in the winter of 1901 to 1902 at their home in Dayton Ohio.They built many of the components of the glider in Dayton, but they completed assembly at their Kitty Hawk camp in September of 1902. The new glider had a wings span of 32 feet and also had a tail to help stabilize it. The Brother’s studies showed them that a movable tail would help balance the craft and so connected a tail to the wing-warping wires to coordinate turns. The Brothers then began to test their new glider on the 19th September 1902. Over a span of five weeks the brothers’ made between 700 and 1000 glide flights, though they did not keep detailed records. However it is known that the longest of these flights lasted for 26 seconds and the glider flew 622.5 ft (189.7 meters). After tests the Brothers’ added a single steerable rudder in replacement of a fixed double vertical rudder. With successful glider flights the Brother’s set their sights for greater success in aviation history and planned to build a powered aircraft with a propeller and engine.

To design the propeller and engine Wilbur and Orville returned once again to Dayton. After months of studying how propellers work using principles they used to design and build the wings, the Brother’s invented their propeller and their own 4-cylinder, 12 horsepower engine. To accommodate for the extra weight of the engine and the vibrations that would occur the Brother’s also designed a new sturdier aircraft known as ‘The Flyer’. They built the 1903 Flyer in sections in the back room of their cycle shop at 1127 West Third in Dayton. When completed, it was shipped down to Kitty Hawk and assembled. The aircraft weighed a total of approximately 700 pounds and on December 14, 1903, Wilbur won a coin toss and made the first attempt to fly the machine. The brothers built a movable track to help launch the Flyer. This downhill track would help the aircraft gain enough airspeed to fly. Unfortunately Wilbur stalled it on take-off, causing some minor damage. The plane was repaired, and Orville made the next attempt on December 17 at 10:35 a.m. and made the first heavier-than-air, machine powered flight in the world. Orville carried out a flight lasting only 12 seconds and covering just 120 feet, this was a great achievement in aviation.

The first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903

The first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903

In 1904, the’ Flyer II’ was the second powered aircraft built by the Wright Brother’s and was very similar to the original 1903 Flyer. The ‘Flyer II’ though had a slightly more powerful engine and was built form white pine instead of the spruce the Brother’s used for the first ‘Flyer’. Because of the slightly bigger engine and the use of pine, the ‘Flyer II’ was around 200 pounds heavier than the ‘Flyer’.The Wrights tested the new aircraft at Huffman Prairie, in a field outside of Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur was the first to fly the ‘Flyer II’ and did so on November the 9th1904. All together the Brother’s flew the ‘Flyer II’ around 105 times and achieved flights lasting up to five minutes. On September the 20th Wilbur succeeded in flying full circles. The Wrights disassembled the airframe of the Flyer II during the winter of 1904-05. They salvaged the propeller chain drive, its mounts, and the engine which went into the new airframe of the Wright Flyer III. The wing ribs, uprights and related wooden parts were reportedly burned (according to Orville's memory) in the early months of 1905.

The third powered aircraft built by the Wright Brother’s was the ‘Wright Flyer III’ (inset) and had a new airframe of spruce construction, but used the propulsion system from the Flyer II, and was essentially the same design and same performance as Flyers I and II. On the 14th of July 1905, the Wrights suffered a blow when their ‘Flyer III’ had a severe crash. When rebuilding the airplane the Brothers made some radical changes to the design, they added two fixed vertical vanes (called "blinkers") between the elevators, and gave the wings a very slight dihedral (to keep stability in the longitudinal (roll) axis). They disconnected the rudder of the rebuilt Flyer III from the wing-warping control, and as in most future aircraft, placed it on a separate control handle. The Brother’s also nearly doubled the size of the rudder and elevator and moved them about twice the distance from the wings. After rebuilding the ‘Flyer III’ with their new additions/changes the Wright’s test flew the airplane in September 1905 and almost immediately saw results. The pitch instability present in ‘Flyers I & II’ was brought under control and the crashes the Brother’s experienced which were sometimes severe disappeared. The test flights carried out in the ‘Flyer III’ started lasting up to and over 20 minutes, it was then that the ‘Flyer III’ became a practical and dependable aircraft flying solidly for a consistent duration being able to successfully bring the pilot back to the start point safely and itself without damage. Then on 5 October 1905, Wilbur flew 24 miles (38.9 km) in 39 minutes 23 seconds, longer than the cumulative total duration of all the flights of 1903 and 1904. On the 7th of November 1905 the Brother’s disassembled the ‘Flyer III’ and later refurbished it to be flown at Kitty Hawk from 6th to 14th May 1908. These flights enabled Wilbur and Orville to test their new controls and also the passenger- carrying abilities of the aircraft. Finally on the 14th of May, 1908 Wilbur took up mechanic Charles Furnas (one of the Wright’s mechanics) in the Flyer III making Furnas the first passenger the brothers ever flew. Orville later flew with Furnas for four minutes. From this success the Brother’s allowed further passengers to be taken for flights, however on the 17th of September 1908 when a Orville took flight with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, things took a turn for the worse. Orville incidentally performed the first fatal air crash, he survived the crash but his passenger did not. The flyer III was left in the hangar at Kitty Hawk unrepaired. In 1911 the Berkshire Museum of Pittsfield, Massachusetts obtained parts of the disassembled aircraft and the 1911 Wright glider, but never assembled or exhibited them. These parts of the 1905 aircraft remained in Massachusetts for around forty years, then Orville requested its return in 1946 for its restoration as a central exhibit at Edward A. Deeds' Carillon Park in Dayton, Ohio. Some residents at Kitty Hawk also possessed pieces of the airplane; Deeds and Orville also obtained many of these for the restoration. At the end of the 1947-1950 restoration process, restorers estimated that the 1905 aircraft retained between 60 and 85% of its original material. The 1905 airplane is now displayed in the Wright Brothers Aviation Center at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio and is a component of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

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After the invention of ‘the airplane’ many people began to create their own airplanes, and more powerful planes to go across large distances. The Wright Brother’s initial invention led to the invention of the monoplane, designed by the Frenchman Louis Blériot. Inset is an image of Louis’s monoplane. Louis Blériot was born on July 1st 1872 and died on August 2nd 1936 and was an inventor and an engineer. On 25th July, 1909 Blériot achieved the first flight over a large body of water (the English Channel) and received £1000 for doing so. Blériot was also a pioneer of the sport of air racing.

During World War I and II, there was an enormous development in the airplane and many were made at the time. The military began to use planes to carry out aerial combat and aerial attacks.

The airplane then over the years has seen dramatic changes as new technologies have come and radically improved the basic design of the first airplane. The first airplanes were made from fabric and wood that were light but strong. As time went on, they were built with lightweight sheet metal. Today, airplanes are built from a mix of metals and other materials such as plastics, which provide strength without being very too heavy. The invention and development of airplanes has led to the advance of helicopters, engines, jet fighters and all other aerial transport that we have today. Even today though, airplanes are being modified and change, a lot of these changes are due to safety aspects. An American airplane; the GE CF34s, may be taken out of service for a while due to possible in-flight fires or engine failure. The problem is cracked fan blades; a seemingly simple problem however a new design will have to be made and then produced and tested before the planes are allowed to be flown again.

One major difference the ‘airplane’ has made to humans in general is that of travel. Today people can be taken around the world and in large numbers, taking only a few hours where previously it could take many months. Inset is a picture of a modern plane holding passengers. It is the invention of the passenger airline type airplanes that have made this possible and the next step in aviation history is to send people into space, as people are sent around the world today. Though this may be possible in the future, the expense will be great, at least the beginning of the new era. As with most inventions though, i.e. the car & airplane, prices will fall and soon not only the rich but also ‘every day’ people will be able to afford the commodity.


Jamie'92 on July 17, 2014:

Very in depth and informative!

Bob on December 14, 2012:

This really helped me on a project for histroy class.

Matt Dawes (author) from England on January 30, 2012:

Thanks Sunasia! If it hadn't been for their dad and that helicopter toy, things might be very different today!

sunasia22 from Philippines on January 29, 2012:

Another very informative hub! Well presented and very comprehensive! The world must thank the Wright brothers, for if not for them, travelling to another place or country will take days or even weeks. This is one of the most useful inventions the world has ever had. Thanks Hwakstryker for such an awesome and interesting hub. Voted up!

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