Hand color tinted photo of The Wright Brothers, first flight with the Wright Flyer December 17th 1903
Orville is piloting and Wilbur is running along side
The Wright brothers, Orville (August 19, 1871 – January 30, 1948) and Wilbur (April 16, 1867 – May 30, 1912), were two American brothers, inventors, and aviation pioneers who were credited with inventing and building the world’s first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903. From 1905 to 1907, the brothers developed their flying machine into the first practical fixed-wing aircraft. Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
The brothers’ fundamental breakthrough was their invention of three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. This method became standard and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds. From the beginning of their aeronautical work, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control as the key to solving “the flying problem”. This approach differed significantly from other experimenters of the time who put more emphasis on developing powerful engines. Using a small homebuilt wind tunnel, the Wrights also collected more accurate data than any before, enabling them to design and build wings and propellers that were more efficient than any before. Their first U.S. patent, 821,393, did not claim invention of a flying machine, but rather, the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine’s surfaces.
They gained the mechanical skills essential for their success by working for years in their shop with printing presses, bicycles, motors, and other machinery. Their work with bicycles in particular influenced their belief that an unstable vehicle like a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. From 1900 until their first powered flights in late 1903, they conducted extensive glider tests that also developed their skills as pilots. Their bicycle shop employee Charlie Taylor became an important part of the team, building their first aircraft engine in close collaboration with the brothers.
The Wright brothers’ status as inventors of the airplane has been subject to counter-claims by various parties. Much controversy persists over the many competing claims of early aviators.
The Wright brothers were two of seven children born to Milton Wright (1828–1917) of English and Dutch descent and Susan Catherine Koerner (1831–1889) of German-Swiss descent. Wilbur was born near Millville, Indiana, in 1867; Orville in Dayton, Ohio, in 1871. The brothers never married. The other Wright siblings were named Reuchlin (1861–1920), Lorin (1862–1939), Katharine (1874–1929), and twins Otis and Ida (born 1870, died in infancy). In elementary school, Orville was given to mischief and was once expelled.
In 1878 their father, who traveled often as a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, brought home a toy “helicopter” for his two younger sons. The device was based on an invention of French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor, it was about a foot long. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke, and then built their own. In later years, they pointed to their experience with the toy as the initial spark of their interest in flying.
Early career and research
Both brothers attended high school, but did not receive diplomas. The family’s abrupt move in 1884 from Richmond, Indiana to Dayton, Ohio, where the family had lived during the 1870s, prevented Wilbur from receiving his diploma after finishing four years of high school.
In late 1885 or early 1886 Wilbur was accidentally struck in the face by a hockey stick while playing an ice-skating game with friends, resulting in the loss of his front teeth. He had been vigorous and athletic until then, and although his injuries did not appear especially severe, he became withdrawn, and did not attend Yale as planned. Instead, he spent the next few years largely housebound, caring for his mother who was terminally ill with tuberculosis and reading extensively in his father’s library. He ably assisted his father during times of controversy within the Brethren Church, but also expressed unease over his own lack of ambition.
Orville dropped out of high school after his junior year to start a printing business in 1889, having designed and built his own printing press with Wilbur’s help. Wilbur joined the print shop, and in March the brothers launched a weekly newspaper, the West Side News. Subsequent issues listed Orville as publisher and Wilbur as editor on the masthead. In April 1890 they converted the paper to a daily, the The Evening Item, but it lasted only four months. They focused on commercial printing afterward. One of their clients for printing jobs was Orville’s friend and classmate in high school, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who rose to international acclaim as a ground-breaking African-American poet and writer. The Wrights printed the Dayton Tattler, a weekly newspaper that Dunbar edited for a brief period.
Capitalizing on the national bicycle craze (spurred by the invention of the safety bicycle and its substantial advantages over the penny-farthing design), the brothers opened a repair and sales shop in 1892 (the Wright Cycle Exchange, later the Wright Cycle Company) and began manufacturing their own brand in 1896. They used this endeavor to fund their growing interest in flight. In the early or mid-1890s they saw newspaper or magazine articles and probably photographs of the dramatic glides by Otto Lilienthal in Germany. 1896 brought three important aeronautical events. In May, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley successfully flew an unmanned steam-powered model aircraft. In mid-year, Chicago engineer and aviation authority Octave Chanute brought together several men who tested various types of gliders over the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. In August, Lilienthal was killed in the plunge of his glider. These events lodged in the consciousness of the brothers. In May 1899 Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information and publications about aeronautics. Drawing on the work of Sir George Cayley, Chanute, Lilienthal, Leonardo da Vinci, and Langley, they began their mechanical aeronautical experimentation that year.
The Wright brothers always presented a unified image to the public, sharing equally in the credit for their invention. Biographers note that Wilbur took the initiative in 1899–1900, writing of “my” machine and “my” plans before Orville became deeply involved when the first person singular became the plural “we” and “our”. Author James Tobin asserts, “it is impossible to imagine Orville, bright as he was, supplying the driving force that started their work and kept it going from the back room of a store in Ohio to conferences with capitalists, presidents, and kings. Will did that. He was the leader, from the beginning to the end.”
Ideas about control
Despite Lilienthal’s fate, the brothers favored his strategy: to practice gliding in order to master the art of control before attempting motor-driven flight. The death of British aeronaut Percy Pilcher in another hang gliding crash in 1899 only reinforced their opinion that a reliable method of pilot control was the key to successful—and safe—flight. At the outset of their experiments they regarded control as the unsolved third part of “the flying problem”. They believed sufficiently promising knowledge of the other two issues—wings and engines—already existed. The Wright brothers thus differed sharply from more experienced practitioners of the day, notably Ader, Maxim and Langley who built powerful engines, attached them to airframes equipped with unproven control devices, and expected to take to the air with no previous flying experience. Although agreeing with Lilienthal’s idea of practice, the Wrights saw that his method of balance and control—shifting his body weight—was fatally inadequate. They were determined to find something better.
On the basis of observation, Wilbur concluded that birds changed the angle of the ends of their wings to make their bodies roll right or left. The brothers decided this would also be a good way for a flying machine to turn—to “bank” or “lean” into the turn just like a bird—and just like a person riding a bicycle, an experience with which they were thoroughly familiar. Equally important, they hoped this method would enable recovery when the wind tilted the machine to one side (lateral balance). They puzzled over how to achieve the same effect with man-made wings and eventually discovered wing-warping when Wilbur idly twisted a long inner-tube box at the bicycle shop.
Other aeronautical investigators regarded flight as if it were not so different from surface locomotion, except the surface would be elevated. They thought in terms of a ship’s rudder for steering, while the flying machine remained essentially level in the air, as did a train or an automobile or a ship at the surface. The idea of deliberately leaning, or rolling, to one side seemed either undesirable or did not enter their thinking. Some of these other investigators, including Langley and Chanute, sought the elusive ideal of “inherent stability”, believing the pilot of a flying machine would not be able to react quickly enough to wind disturbances to use mechanical controls effectively. The Wright brothers, on the other hand, wanted the pilot to have absolute control. For that reason, their early designs made no concessions toward built-in stability (such as dihedral wings). They deliberately designed their 1903 first powered flyer with anhedral (drooping) wings, which are inherently unstable, but less susceptible to upset by gusty cross winds.
In July 1899 Wilbur put wing warping to the test by building and flying a biplane kite that had a five foot wingspan. When the wings were warped, or twisted, one end of the wings produced more lift and the other end, less lift. Unequal lift made the wings tilt, or bank: the end with more lift rose, while the other end dropped, causing a turn in the direction of the lower end. Warping was controlled by four cords attached to the kite. The cords led to two sticks held by the kite flyer, who tilted them in opposite directions to twist the wings.
In 1900 the brothers journeyed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to begin their manned gliding experiments. In a reply to Wilbur’s first letter, Octave Chanute had suggested the mid-Atlantic coast for its regular breezes and soft sandy landing surface. Wilbur also requested and scrutinized U.S. Weather Bureau data, and decided on Kitty Hawk after receiving information from the government meteorologist stationed there. The location, although remote, was closer to Dayton than other places Chanute had suggested, including California and Florida. The spot also gave them privacy from reporters, who had turned the 1896 Chanute experiments at Lake Michigan into something of a circus. Chanute visited them in camp each season from 1901 to 1903 and saw gliding experiments, but not the powered flights.
The Wrights based the design of their kite and full-size gliders on work done in the 1890s by other aviation pioneers. They adopted the basic design of the Chanute-Herring biplane hang glider (“double-decker” as the Wrights called it), which flew well in the 1896 experiments near Chicago, and used aeronautical data on lift that Lilienthal had published. The Wrights designed the wings with camber, a curvature of the top surface. The brothers did not discover this principle, but took advantage of it. The better lift of a cambered surface compared to a flat one was first discussed scientifically by Sir George Cayley. Lilienthal, whose work the Wrights carefully studied, used cambered wings in his gliders, proving in flight the advantage over flat surfaces. The wooden uprights between the wings of the Wright glider were braced by wires in their own version of Chanute’s modified “Pratt truss”, a bridge-building design he used for his biplane glider (initially built as a triplane). The Wrights mounted the horizontal elevator in front of the wings rather than behind, apparently believing this feature would help to avoid, or protect them, from a nosedive and crash like the one that killed Lilienthal. When Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont flew his 14-bis in Paris in 1906, French newspapers dubbed the tail-first arrangement a “canard”, because of the supposed resemblance to a duck in flight. Wilbur incorrectly believed a tail was not necessary, and their first two gliders did not have one. According to some Wright biographers, Wilbur probably did all the gliding until 1902, perhaps to exercise his authority as older brother and to protect Orville from harm as he did not want to have to explain to Bishop Wright if Orville got injured.
The brothers flew the glider only a few days in the early autumn of 1900 at Kitty Hawk. In the first tests, probably October 3, Wilbur was aboard while the glider flew as a kite not far above the ground with men below holding tether ropes. Most of the kite tests were unpiloted with sandbags or chains (and even a local boy) as onboard ballast.
They tested wing-warping using control ropes from the ground. The glider was also tested unmanned while suspended from a small homemade tower. Wilbur (but not Orville) made about a dozen free glides on only a single day. For those tests, the brothers trekked four miles (6 km) south to the Kill Devil Hills, a group of sand dunes up to 100 feet (30 m) high (where they made camp in each of the next three years). Although the glider’s lift was less than expected (causing most tests to be unmanned), the brothers were encouraged because the craft’s front elevator worked well and they had no accidents. However, the small number of free glides meant they were not able to give wing-warping a true test.
The pilot lay flat on the lower wing, as planned, to reduce aerodynamic drag. As a glide ended, the pilot was supposed to lower himself to a vertical position through an opening in the wing and land on his feet with his arms wrapped over the framework. Within a few glides, however, they discovered the pilot could remain prone on the wing, headfirst, without undue danger when landing. They made all their flights in that position for the next five years.
Hoping to improve lift, they built the 1901 glider with a much larger wing area and made 50 to 100 flights in July and August for distances of 20 to 400 ft (6 to 122 m). The glider stalled a few times, but the parachute effect of the forward elevator allowed Wilbur to make a safe flat or “pancake” landing, instead of a nose-dive. These incidents wedded the Wrights even more strongly to the canard design, which they did not give up until 1910. The glider, however, delivered two major disappointments. It produced only about one-third the lift calculated and sometimes failed to respond properly to wing-warping, turning opposite the direction intended—a problem later known as adverse yaw. On the trip home after their second season, Wilbur, stung with disappointment, remarked to Orville that man would fly, but not in their lifetimes.
The poor lift of the gliders led the Wrights to question the accuracy of Lilienthal’s data, as well as the “Smeaton coefficient” of air pressure, which had been in existence for over 100 years and was part of the accepted equation for lift.
The Lift Equation
L = lift in pounds
k = coefficient of air pressure (Smeaton coefficient)
S = total area of lifting surface in square feet
V = velocity (headwind plus ground speed) in miles per hour
CL = coefficient of lift (varies with wing shape)
The Wrights—and Lilienthal—used the equation to calculate the amount of lift that wings of various sizes would produce. On the basis of measurements of lift and wind during the 1901 glider’s kite and free flights, Wilbur believed (correctly, as tests later showed) that the Smeaton number was very close to 0.0033, not the traditionally used 60 percent larger 0.0054, which would exaggerate predicted lift.
Back home, furiously pedaling a strange-looking bicycle on neighborhood streets, they conducted makeshift open-air tests with a miniature Lilienthal airfoil and a counter-acting flat plate, which were both attached to a freely rotating third bicycle wheel mounted horizontally in front of the handlebars. Because the third wheel rotated against the airfoil instead of remaining motionless as the calculations predicted, the Wrights confirmed their suspicion that published data on lift were unreliable, and they decided to expand their investigation. They also realized that trial-and-error with different wings on full-size gliders was too costly and time-consuming. Putting aside the three-wheel bicycle, they built a six-foot wind tunnel in their shop and conducted systematic tests on miniature wings from October to December 1901. The “balances” they devised and mounted inside the tunnel to hold the wings looked crude, made of bicycle spokes and scrap metal, but were “as critical to the ultimate success of the Wright brothers as were the gliders.” The devices allowed the brothers to balance lift against drag and accurately calculate the performance of each wing. They could also see which wings worked well as they looked through the viewing window in the top of the tunnel. Prior to beginning their wind tunnel experiments, Wilbur, at Chanute’s invitation, traveled to Chicago to give a speech to the Western Society of Engineers on September 18, 1901. Wilbur’s speech consisted of detailed accounts of his and Orville’s glider experiments at Kitty Hawk up to the fall of 1901 and was complemented by a lantern slide show of photographs. Wilbur’s speech was the first public account of the brothers’ experiments.
Lilienthal had made “whirling arm” tests on only a few wing shapes, and the Wrights mistakenly assumed the data would apply to their wings, which had a different shape. The Wrights took a huge step forward and made basic wind tunnel tests on 200 wings of many shapes and airfoil curves, followed by detailed tests on 38 of them. The tests, according to biographer Howard, “were the most crucial and fruitful aeronautical experiments ever conducted in so short a time with so few materials and at so little expense”. An important discovery was the benefit of longer narrower wings: in aeronautical terms, wings with a larger aspect ratio (wingspan divided by chord—the wing’s front-to-back dimension). Such shapes offered much better lift-to-drag ratio than the broader wings the brothers had tried so far.
With this knowledge, and a more accurate Smeaton number, the Wrights designed their 1902 glider. Using another crucial discovery from the wind tunnel, they made the airfoil flatter, reducing the camber (the depth of the wing’s curvature divided by its chord). The 1901 wings had significantly greater curvature, a highly inefficient feature the Wrights copied directly from Lilienthal. Fully confident in their new wind tunnel results, the Wrights discarded Lilienthal’s data, now basing their designs on their own calculations.
With characteristic caution, the brothers first flew the 1902 glider as an unmanned kite, as they had done with their two previous versions. Rewarding their wind tunnel work, the glider produced the expected lift. It also had a new structural feature: a fixed, rear vertical rudder, which the brothers hoped would eliminate turning problems.
By 1902 they realized that wing-warping created “differential drag” at the wingtips. Greater lift at one end of the wing also increased drag, which slowed that end of the wing, making the aircraft swivel—or “yaw”—so the nose pointed away from the turn. That was how the tailless 1901 glider behaved.
The improved wing design enabled consistently longer glides, and the rear rudder prevented adverse yaw—so effectively that it introduced a new problem. Sometimes when the pilot attempted to level off from a turn, the glider failed to respond to corrective wing-warping and persisted into a tighter turn. The glider would slide toward the lower wing, which hit the ground, spinning the aircraft around. The Wrights called this “well digging”.
Orville apparently visualized that the fixed rudder resisted the effect of corrective wing-warping when attempting to level off from a turn. He wrote in his diary that on the night of October 2, “I studied out a new vertical rudder”. The brothers then decided to make the rear rudder movable to solve the problem. They hinged the rudder and connected it to the pilot’s warping “cradle”, so a single movement by the pilot simultaneously controlled wing-warping and rudder deflection. Tests while gliding proved that the trailing edge of the rudder should be turned away from whichever end of the wings had more drag (and lift) due to warping. The opposing pressure produced by turning the rudder enabled corrective wing-warping to reliably restore level flight after a turn or a wind disturbance. Furthermore, when the glider banked into a turn, rudder pressure overcame the effect of differential drag and pointed the nose of the aircraft in the direction of the turn, eliminating adverse yaw.
In short, the Wrights discovered the true purpose of the movable vertical rudder. Its role was not to change the direction of flight, but rather, to aim or align the aircraft correctly during banking turns and when leveling off from turns and wind disturbances. The actual turn—the change in direction—was done with roll control using wing-warping. The principles remained the same when ailerons superseded wing-warping.
With their new method the Wrights achieved true control in turns for the first time on October 8, 1902, a major milestone. During September and October they made between 700 and 1,000 glides, the longest lasting 26 seconds and covering 622.5 feet (189.7 m). Hundreds of well-controlled glides after they made the rudder steerable convinced them they were ready to build a powered flying machine.
Thus did three-axis control evolve: wing-warping for roll (lateral motion), forward elevator for pitch (up and down) and rear rudder for yaw (side to side). On March 23, 1903, the Wrights applied for their famous patent for a “Flying Machine”, based on their successful 1902 glider. Some aviation historians believe that applying the system of three-axis flight control on the 1902 glider was equal to, or even more significant, than the addition of power to the 1903 Flyer. Peter Jakab of the Smithsonian asserts that perfection of the 1902 glider essentially represents invention of the airplane.
In 1903 the brothers built the powered Wright Flyer I, using their preferred material for construction, spruce, a strong and lightweight wood, and Pride of the West muslin for surface coverings. They also designed and carved their own wooden propellers, and had a purpose-built gasoline engine fabricated in their bicycle shop. They thought propeller design would be a simple matter and intended to adapt data from shipbuilding. However, their library research disclosed no established formulas for either marine or air propellers, and they found themselves with no sure starting point. They discussed and argued the question, sometimes heatedly, until they concluded that an aeronautical propeller is essentially a wing rotating in the vertical plane. On that basis, they used data from more wind tunnel tests to design their propellers. The finished blades were just over eight feet long, made of three laminations of glued spruce. The Wrights decided on twin “pusher” propellers (counter-rotating to cancel torque), which would act on a greater quantity of air than a single relatively slow propeller and not disturb airflow over the leading edge of the wings.
Wilbur made a March 1903 entry in his notebook indicating the prototype propeller was 66% efficient. Modern wind tunnel tests on reproduction 1903 propellers show they were more than 75% efficient under the conditions of the first flights, and actually had a peak efficiency of 82%. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that modern wooden propellers have a maximum efficiency of 85%.
The Wrights wrote to several engine manufacturers, but none met their need for a sufficiently lightweight powerplant. They turned to their shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, who built an engine in just six weeks in close consultation with the brothers. To keep the weight low enough, the engine block was cast from aluminum, a rare practice for the time. The Wright/Taylor engine was a primitive version of modern fuel-injection systems, having no carburetor or fuel pump. Gasoline was gravity-fed into the crankcase through a rubber tube from the fuel tank mounted on a wing strut.
The propeller drive chains, resembling those of bicycles, were actually supplied by a manufacturer of heavy-duty automobile chain-drives. The Flyer cost less than a thousand dollars, in contrast to more than $50,000 in government funds given to Samuel Langley for his man-carrying Great Aerodrome. The Flyer had a wingspan of 40.3 ft (12.3 m), weighed 605 lb (274 kg) and sported a 12 horsepower (8.9 kW) 180 lb (82 kg) engine.
In camp at Kill Devil Hills, they suffered weeks of delays caused by broken propeller shafts during engine tests. After the shafts were replaced (requiring two trips back to Dayton), Wilbur won a coin toss and made a three-second flight attempt on December 14, 1903, stalling after takeoff and causing minor damage to the Flyer. (Because December 13, 1903, was a Sunday, the brothers did not make any attempts that day, even though the weather was good.) In a message to their family, Wilbur referred to the trial as having “only partial success”, stating “the power is ample, and but for a trifling error due to lack of experience with this machine and this method of starting, the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully.” Following repairs, the Wrights finally took to the air on December 17, 1903, making two flights each from level ground into a freezing headwind gusting to 27 miles per hour (43 km/h). The first flight, by Orville, of 120 feet (37 m) in 12 seconds, at a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour (10.9 km/h) over the ground, was recorded in a famous photograph. The next two flights covered approximately 175 feet (53 m) and 200 feet (61 m), by Wilbur and Orville respectively. Their altitude was about 10 feet (3.0 m) above the ground.
Trouble establishing legitimacy
In 1904 the Wrights built the Flyer II. They decided to avoid the expense of travel and bringing supplies to the Outer Banks and set up an airfield at Huffman Prairie, a cow pasture eight miles (13 km) northeast of Dayton. They received permission to use the field rent-free from owner and bank president Torrance Huffman. They invited reporters to their first flight attempt of the year on May 23, on the condition that no photographs be taken. Engine troubles and slack winds prevented any flying, and they could manage only a very short hop a few days later with fewer reporters present. Some scholars of the Wrights speculate the brothers may have intentionally failed to fly in order to cause reporters to lose interest in their experiments. Whether that is true is not known, but after their poor showing local newspapers virtually ignored them for the next year and a half.
The Wrights were glad to be free from the distraction of reporters. The absence of newsmen also reduced the chance of competitors learning their methods. After the Kitty Hawk powered flights, the Wrights made a decision to begin withdrawing from the bicycle business so they could devote themselves to creating and marketing a practical airplane. The decision was financially risky, since they were neither wealthy nor government-funded (unlike other experimenters such as Ader, Maxim, Langley and Santos-Dumont). The Wright brothers did not have the luxury of giving away their invention; it was to be their livelihood. Thus, their secrecy intensified, encouraged by advice from their patent attorney, Henry Toulmin, not to reveal details of their machine.
At Huffman Prairie, lighter winds and lower air density than in Kitty Hawk (because of Ohio’s higher altitude and higher temperatures) made takeoffs very difficult, and they had to use a much longer starting rail, stretching to hundreds of feet, compared to the 60-foot (18 m) rail at Kitty Hawk. During the spring and summer they suffered many hard landings, real crackups, repeated Flyer damage, and bodily bumps and bruises. On August 13, making an unassisted takeoff, Wilbur finally exceeded their best Kitty Hawk effort with a flight of 1,300 feet (400 m). Then they decided to use a weight-powered catapult to make takeoffs easier and tried it for the first time on September 7. On September 20, 1904, Wilbur flew the first complete circle in history by a manned heavier-than-air powered machine, covering 4,080 feet (1,244 m) in about a minute and a half. Their two best flights were November 9 by Wilbur and December 1 by Orville, each exceeding five minutes and covering nearly three miles in almost four circles. By the end of the year the brothers had accumulated about 50 minutes in the air in 105 flights over the rather soggy 85-acre (340,000 m2) pasture, which, remarkably, is virtually unchanged today from its original condition and is now part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, adjacent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Towards the end of 1904, in September, the brothers were visited by the first of many important Europeans they would befriend in coming years, the distinguished Briton Colonel J. E. Capper who was interested in the success of aeronautics in the behest of his island nation. Capper and his wife were arriving in the United States aboard the Lucania and would be heading towards the big fair in St. Louis that fall. He cabled the Wrights from the ship for a meeting. The Wright patent was granted at its earliest in 1904 in Britain hence the interest from important people like Capper.
Despite progress in 1904, the Flyer was still frequently out of control. The Wrights scrapped the battered and much-repaired airplane, but saved the engine, and in 1905 built a new Flyer III, which included an important design change. The brothers installed a separate control for the rear rudder instead of linking the rudder to the wing-warping “cradle” as before. Each of the three axes—pitch, roll and yaw—now had its own independent control. Nevertheless, this Flyer offered the same marginal performance as the first two. Its maiden flight was June 23 and the first several flights were no longer than 10 seconds. After Orville suffered a bone-jarring and potentially fatal crash on July 14, they rebuilt the Flyer with the forward elevator and rear rudder both enlarged and placed several feet farther away from the wings. These modifications greatly improved stability and control, setting the stage for a series of six dramatic “long flights” ranging from 17 to 38 minutes and 11 to 24 miles (39 km) around the three-quarter mile course over Huffman Prairie between September 26 and October 5. Wilbur made the last and longest flight, 24.5 miles (39.4 km) in 38 minutes and 3 seconds, ending with a safe landing when the fuel ran out. The flight was seen by a number of people, including several invited friends, their father Milton, and neighboring farmers.
Reporters showed up the next day (only their second appearance at the field since May the previous year), but the brothers declined to fly. The long flights convinced the Wrights they had achieved their goal of creating a flying machine of “practical utility” which they could offer to sell.
The only photos of the flights of 1904–1905 were taken by the brothers. (A few photos were damaged in the Great Dayton Flood of 1913, but most survived intact.) In 1904 Ohio beekeeping businessman Amos Root, a technology enthusiast, saw a few flights including the first circle. Articles he wrote for his beekeeping magazine were the only published eyewitness reports of the Huffman Prairie flights, except for the unimpressive early hop local newsmen saw. Root offered a report to Scientific American magazine, but the editor turned it down. As a result, 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?”
In years to come Dayton newspapers would proudly celebrate the hometown Wright brothers as national heroes, but the local reporters somehow missed one of the most important stories in history as it was happening a few miles from their doorstep. James M. Cox, publisher at that time of the Dayton Daily News (later governor of Ohio and Democratic presidential nominee in 1920), expressed the attitude of newspapermen—and the public—in those days when he admitted years later, “Frankly, none of us believed it.”
A few newspapers published articles about the long flights, but no reporters or photographers had been there. The lack of splashy eyewitness press coverage was a major reason for disbelief in Washington, D.C. and Europe and in journals like Scientific American, whose editors doubted the “alleged experiments” and asked how U.S. newspapers, “alert as they are, allowed these sensational performances to escape their notice.”
The Wright brothers were certainly complicit in the lack of attention they received. Fearful of competitors stealing their ideas, and still without a patent, they flew on only one more day after October 5. From then on, they refused to fly anywhere unless they had a firm contract to sell their aircraft. They wrote to the U.S. government, then to Britain, France and Germany with an offer to sell a flying machine, but were rebuffed because they insisted on a signed contract before giving a demonstration. They were unwilling even to show their photographs of the airborne Flyer. The American military, having recently spent $50,000 on the Langley Aerodrome—a product of the nation’s foremost scientist—only to see it plunge twice into the Potomac River “like a handful of mortar”, was particularly unreceptive to the claims of two unknown bicycle makers from Ohio. Thus, doubted or scorned, the Wright brothers continued their work in semi-obscurity, while other aviation pioneers like Santos-Dumont, Henri Farman, Leon Delagrange and American Glenn Curtiss entered the limelight.
In 1906, skeptics in the European aviation community had converted the press to an anti-Wright brothers stance. European newspapers, especially in France, were openly derisive, calling them bluffeurs (bluffers).
Ernest Archdeacon, founder of the Aéro-Club de France, was publicly scornful of the brother’s claims in spite of published reports; specifically, he wrote several articles and in 1906, stated that “the French would make the first public demonstration of powered flight”.
The Paris edition of the New York Herald summed up Europe’s opinion of the Wright brothers in an editorial on February 10, 1906:
The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It’s easy to say, ‘We have flown.’
In 1908, after the Wrights’ first flights in France, Archdeacon publicly admitted that he had done them an injustice.
Contracts and return to Kitty Hawk
The Wright brothers made no flights at all in 1906 and 1907. They spent the time attempting to persuade the U.S. and European governments that they had invented a successful flying machine and were prepared to negotiate a contract to sell such machines. They also experimented with a pontoon and engine setup on the Miami River (Ohio) in hopes of flying their airplane from the water. These experiments proved unsuccessful.
Replying to the Wrights’ letters, the U.S. military expressed virtually no interest in their claims. The brothers turned their attention to Europe, especially France, where enthusiasm for aviation ran high, and journeyed there for the first time in 1907 for face-to-face talks with government officials and businessmen. They also met with aviation representatives in Germany and Britain. Before traveling, Orville shipped a newly-built Model A Flyer to France in anticipation of demonstration flights.
In France Wilbur met Frank P. Lahm, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Aeronautical Division. Writing to his superiors, Lahm smoothed the way for Wilbur to give an in-person presentation to the U.S. Board of Ordnance and Fortification in Washington, D.C. when he returned to the U.S. This time, the Board was favorably impressed, in contrast to its previous indifference. With further input from the Wrights, the U.S. Army Signal Corps issued Specification #486 in December 1907, inviting bids for construction of an airplane under military contract. The Wrights submitted their bid in January. In early 1908 the brothers also agreed to a contract with a French company. In May they went back to Kitty Hawk with their 1905 Flyer to practice in private for their all-important public demonstration flights, as required by both contracts. Their privacy was lost when New York newspapers heard about the tests and sent several reporters to the scene.
Their contracts required them to fly with a passenger, so they modified the 1905 Flyer by installing two seats and adding upright control levers. After tests with sandbags in the passenger seat, Charlie Furnas, a helper from Dayton, became the first fixed-wing aircraft passenger on a few short flights May 14. For safety, and as a promise to their father, Wilbur and Orville did not fly together. However, several newspaper accounts at the time mistakenly took Orville’s flight with Furnas as both brothers flying together. Later that day after flying solo seven minutes, Wilbur suffered his worst crash when—still not well-acquainted with the two new control levers—he apparently moved one the wrong way and slammed the Flyer into the sand between 40 miles (64 km) and 50 miles (80 km) an hour. He emerged with only bruises and a cut nose, but the accident ended the practice flights—and the aircraft’s flying career.
Return to Glider Flights
In October 1911, Orville Wright returned to the Outer Banks again, to improve the aircraft and conduct tests for safety and stabilization with a new glider. On October 24, he soared for nine minutes and 45 seconds, a record that held for almost 10 years, when gliding as a sport began in the 1920s.
Neither brother married. Wilbur once quipped that he “did not have time for both a wife and an airplane.” He became ill on a business trip to Boston in April 1912, the illness sometimes attributed to eating bad shellfish at a banquet. After returning to Dayton, he was diagnosed with typhoid fever. He lingered in and out of consciousness for several weeks until he died, at age 45, in the Wright family home on May 30. His father Milton wrote about Wilbur in his diary: “A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died.”
Orville succeeded to the presidency of the Wright company upon Wilbur’s death. Sharing Wilbur’s distaste for business but not his brother’s executive skills, Orville sold the company in 1915. He, Katharine and their father Milton moved to a mansion, Hawthorn Hill, Oakwood, Ohio, which the newly wealthy family built. Milton died in his sleep in 1917. Orville made his last flight as a pilot in 1918 in a 1911 Model B. He retired from business and became an elder statesman of aviation, serving on various official boards and committees, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), predecessor agency to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (ACCA), predecessor to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). Katharine married Henry Haskell of Kansas City, a former Oberlin classmate, in 1926, which greatly upset Orville. He refused to attend the wedding or even communicate with her. He finally agreed to see her, apparently at Lorin’s insistence, just before she died of pneumonia in 1929.
Orville Wright served NACA for 28 years. In 1930, he received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal established in 1928 by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. In 1936, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Scipio” was Orville’s famed St. Bernard.
On April 19, 1944, the second production Lockheed Constellation, piloted by Howard Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye, flew from Burbank, California, to Washington, D.C. in 6 hours and 57 minutes (2300 mi – 330.9 mph). On the return trip, the aircraft stopped at Wright Field to give Orville Wright his last airplane flight, more than 40 years after his historic first flight. He may even have briefly handled the controls. He commented that the wingspan of the Constellation was longer than the distance of his first flight. Perhaps the last major highlight of Orville’s life was supervising the reclamation and preservation of the 1905 Wright Flyer III, an aircraft that stands equally in importance with the 1903 Flyer.
Orville died on January 30, 1948, after his second heart attack, having lived from the horse-and-buggy age to the dawn of supersonic flight. He was followed a day later by John T. Daniels, the Coast Guardsman who took their famous first flight photo. Both brothers are buried at the family plot at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.