Wright flyer of 1903


Wright flyer of 1903

      first powered airplane to demonstrate sustained flight under the full control of the pilot. Designed and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright in Dayton, Ohio, it was assembled in the autumn of 1903 at a camp at the base of the Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, a village on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. After a first attempt failed on December 14, the machine was flown four times on December 17, to distances of 120, 175, 200, and 852 feet (36.6, 53.3, 61, and 260 m), respectively. It is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

      The 1903 Wright airplane was an extremely strong yet flexible braced biplane structure. Forward of the wings was a twin-surface horizontal elevator, and to the rear was a twin-surface vertical rudder. Wing spars and other long, straight sections of the craft were constructed of spruce, while the wing ribs and other bent or shaped pieces were built of ash. Aerodynamic surfaces were covered with a finely woven muslin cloth. The flyer was propelled by a four-cylinder gasoline engine of the Wrights' own design that developed some 12.5 horsepower after the first few seconds of operation. The engine was linked through a chain-drive transmission to twin contrarotating pusher propellers, which it turned at an average speed of 348 rotations per minute.

      The pilot lay on the lower wing of the biplane with his hips positioned in a padded wooden cradle. A movement of the hips to the right or left operated the “wing-warping” system, which increased the angle of attack of the wings on one side of the craft and decreased it on the other, enabling the pilot to raise or lower the wing tips on either side in order to maintain balance or to roll into a turn. A small hand lever controlled the forward elevator, which provided pitch control and some extra lift. The rear rudder was directly linked to the wing-warping system in order to counteract problems of yaw produced by the warping of the wings.

      The Wrights knew that it would be difficult to operate a wheeled aircraft from the rough and sandy surface where they planned to fly, so they decided to launch their machine into the air with a smooth run down a 60-foot-long monorail track. The launch rail consisted of four 15-foot two-by-fours, the thin upper edge of which was protected by a metal cap strip. The airplane ran down the rail on two modified bicycle wheel hubs.

      At the beginning of each flight the airplane was positioned at the head of the rail. A restraining line ran from a clip near the pilot's position at the leading edge of the lower wing to a stake driven into the ground behind the machine. The engine could not be throttled; a hand lever only allowed the pilot to open or close the fuel line. In order to start the engine, a coil box was connected to the spark plugs, and two men pulled the propellers through to turn the engine over. When the pilot was ready, he released the restraining rope with the hand clip, and the machine moved down the rail.

      The 1903 machine was never flown after December 17. While sitting on the ground after the fourth flight, it was flipped by a gust of wind and badly damaged. Shipped back to Dayton, it was reassembled and repaired as needed for temporary exhibitions before being put on display at the Science Museum, London, in 1928. There it remained for 20 years, at the centre of a dispute between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian Institution over claims that the Institution's third secretary, Samuel P. Langley, had constructed a machine capable of flight prior to the Wrights' flights of December 1903. The dispute ended with an apology from the Smithsonian in 1942, and the flyer was transferred permanently to the Institution's collection in 1948, several months after Orville's death.

Tom D. Crouch

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Universalium. 2010.

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