On the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, NC, the Wright Brothers made the first controlled flight of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft on this date in 1903.
You are invited to take flight with brothers Orville and Wilbur for a “bands of brothers” playlist on Crosscurrents, 12/17 at 8 am….and hear the following bro’s
Beach Boys: Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson
The Allman Brothers Band: Duane and Gregg Allman
The Vaughan Brothers: Jimmie and Stevie Ray
Sunnyboys: Peter and Jeremy Oxley
The Undertones: Damian and John O’Neill
Crowded House: Neil and Tim Finn
Kings of Leon: Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill
The Kinks: Dave and Ray Davies
The Black Crowes: Chris and Rich Robinson
Sly and the Family Stone: Sly and Freddie Stone
The Proclaimers: Charlie and Craig Reid
The Everly Brothers: Don and Phil Everly
Brothers … Neville, Chambers, Homes, and Isely
Cowboy Junkies: Michael and Peter Timmins (with sister Margo Timmins)
10 Things You May Not Know About the Wright Brothers
Thanks to a coin toss, Orville was the first brother airborne.
The brothers tossed a coin to see who would first test the Wright Flyer on the sands of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Older brother Wilbur won the toss, but his first attempt on December 14, 1903, was unsuccessful and caused minor damage to the aircraft. Three days later, Orville, in coat and tie, lay flat on his stomach on the plane’s lower wing and took the controls. At 10:35 a.m., the Wright Flyer moved down the guiding rail with Wilbur running alongside to balance the delicate machine. For 12 seconds, the aircraft left the ground before touching down 120 feet away in the soft sands. The brothers exchanged turns at the controls three more times that day, and each flight covered an increasing distance with Wilbur’s final flight lasting nearly a minute and covering a distance of 852 feet.
A toy launched their flying obsession.
When the brothers were youngsters in 1878, their father returned home one evening with a gift that he tossed into the air. “Instead of falling to the floor, as we expected,” the brothers recalled in a 1908 magazine article, “it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor.” The model helicopter made of cork, bamboo and paper and powered by a rubber band mesmerized the boys and sparked their passion for aviation.
Neither brother received a high school diploma.
Wilbur finished four years of high school, but the family moved from Richmond, Indiana, to Dayton, Ohio, before he could receive his diploma. Orville, although intellectually curious, dropped out of high school before his senior year to launch a printing business.
The Wright brothers once printed a daily newspaper together.
Wilbur eventually joined Orville’s printing business, and in 1889 the brothers began to publish a weekly newspaper, the West Side News. The following year, they published a short-lived daily newspaper, The Evening Item. In 1892 they switched gears and opened the Wright Cycle Company, a successful bicycle repair and sales shop that financed their flying experiments.
The brothers never married.
The tight-knit brothers, born four years apart, were wedded to their work; Wilbur told reporters that he didn’t have time for both a wife and an airplane.
The Wright brothers flew together just one time.
Orville and Wilbur had promised their father, who feared losing both sons in an airplane accident, they would never fly together. The father made a single exception, however, on May 25, 1910, and allowed the brothers to share a six-minute flight near Dayton with Orville piloting and Wilbur the passenger. After landing, Orville took his 82-year-old father on his first and only flight. As Orville gained elevation, his excited father cried out, “Higher, Orville, higher!”
After the first day airborne, the 1903 Wright Flyer never flew again.
The brothers made four flights in the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903, and as Orville and Wilbur stood discussing the final flight, a sudden strong gust of wind caught hold of the aircraft and flipped it several times. The aircraft sustained such heavy damage to its ribs, motor and chain guides that it was beyond repair. The Wright Flyer was crated back to Dayton and never flew again.
Orville was involved in the first fatal aviation accident.
After their success in 1903, the Wright brothers continued their aircraft development. They marketed their two-passenger Wright Military Flyer to the U.S. Army, which required a demonstration. On September 17, 1908, Orville took to the air for a demonstration flight at Fort Myer, Virginia, with Army Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge as a passenger. Just a few minutes into the flight, the propeller suddenly disintegrated, the aircraft spiraled out of control and it smashed into the ground at full speed. Rescuers pulled an unconscious Selfridge from the wreckage, and the lieutenant died hours later. Orville was hospitalized for six weeks after suffering a broken leg, four broken ribs and a back injury that impaired him for the rest of his life.
For decades, Orville refused to donate the Wright Flyer to the Smithsonian Institution.
The 1903 Wright Flyer is one of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, but for decades Orville refused to donate the aircraft to the national institution. In 1914, the Smithsonian attempted to restore the reputation of its former secretary Samuel Langley—whose experiments with his Langley Aerodrome ended in failure nine days before the Wright brothers first left the ground—by altering the aircraft and then concluding it was the first machine “capable” of manned flight. A furious Orville loaned the Wright Flyer overseas to the London Science Museum in 1925, believing it to be “the only way of correcting the history of the flying machine, which by false and misleading statements has been perverted by the Smithsonian Institution.” After the Smithsonian admitted in the 1940s to misrepresenting the Langley Aerodrome, Orville agreed to donate the aircraft to the institution. It finally arrived at the Smithsonian in 1948, nearly a year after Orville’s death.
Neil Armstrong carried a piece of the Wright Flyer with him to the moon.
When another aeronautical pioneer from Ohio, Neil Armstrong, became the first man to step foot on the moon in 1969, inside his spacesuit pocket was a piece of muslin fabric from the left wing of the original 1903 Wright Flyer along with a piece of wood from the airplane’s left propeller.
THE WRIGHT FLYER
The Wright brothers inaugurated the aerial age with the world’s first successful flights of a powered heavier-than-air flying machine. The Wright Flyer was the product of a sophisticated four-year program of research and development conducted by Wilbur and Orville Wright beginning in 1899. After building and testing three full-sized gliders, the Wrights’ first powered airplane flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, making a 12-second flight, traveling 36 m (120 ft), with Orville piloting. The best flight of the day, with Wilbur at the controls, covered 255.6 m (852 ft) in 59 seconds.
The Wrights pioneered many of the basic tenets and techniques of modern aeronautical engineering, such as the use of a wind tunnel and flight testing as design tools. Their seminal accomplishment encompassed not only the breakthrough first flight of an airplane, but also the equally important achievement of establishing the foundation of aeronautical engineering.
Allowing 200 pounds for the propulsion system, they estimated that the aircraft with pilot would weigh 625 pounds. Based on this estimate, they calculated power, thrust, and speed requirements and concluded they needed an 8-horsepower engine generating 90 pounds of thrust to achieve a minimum airspeed of 23 miles per hour.
A reproduction of the Wright brothers’ preliminary sketch of the 1903 Wright Flyer, drawn in pencil on brown wrapping paper. The notations are in Wilbur’s handwriting. The original is at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
Seeking a power plant for their airplane, the Wrights contacted many of the dozens of firms that by then were manufacturing gasoline engines. Ten responded, but none could meet power and weight Trequirements the Wrights specified, or could do so at a reasonable price. Undeterred, the brothers decided to build their own.
The engine was cooled by water from a narrow vertical water reservoir mounted on a forward strut. The system was not a radiator in the typical sense, for the water did not circulate. The reservoir simply replenished the water jacket as the water evaporated from it.
The aluminum crankcase: A first
The Wright engine, with its aluminum crankcase, marked the first time this breakthrough material was used in aircraft construction. Lightweight aluminum became essential in aircraft design development and remains a primary construction material for all types of aircraft.
Making the propellers
Conceiving the aerodynamic propeller was another example of the Wrights’ great ability to think visually and turn abstract ideas into working hardware. The Wrights decided to use two, slow-turning, large propellers, because this arrangement offered great efficiency, and the propellers could be spun in opposite directions to neutralize the gyroscopic effects of the whirling blades.
Each propeller was 8 feet in diameter and made from two laminations of 1-inch spruce. The blades were shaped with a hatchet and a drawknife and the tips covered with fabric and varnished to prevent splitting.
Chain-and-Sprocket transmission system
Wilbur and Orville again drew upon their familiarity with bicycles in creating the transmission linkage. To transfer power from the engine to the propellers, they devised a simple chain-and-sprocket arrangement running from the engine crankshaft to a pair of steel propeller shafts. To make the propellers rotate in opposite directions, they simply twisted one of the two chains in a figure eight.
A small complement of instruments recorded flight data. A Richard anemometer and a stopwatch were mounted on the front strut to the pilot’s right. They recorded distance through the air in meters and the duration of the flight, readings from which airspeed could be calculated. A Veedor revolution counter was mounted at the base of the engine to record engine revolution.
The instruments were arranged so all could be turned off, along with the engine, the instant the flight was over by a single movement of a wooden lever mounted on the lower wing.
The Wrights’ initial confidence waned, however, as they began to confront an unsettling pattern of setbacks. Between technical problems and bad weather, they at times wondered if their self-assured intention to fly the airplane in 1903 was premature.
The grand junction railroad
Because of its size and weight, the Flyer could not be hand launched like the Wright gliders. The brothers built a 60-foot launching rail from four 15-foot two-by-fours laid end to end. To take off, the airplane rode down this track on a small, wheeled dolly or “truck,” as the Wrights called it. The brothers referred to their launching track as the “Grand Junction Railroad.”
Flyer was airborne for only 3 1/2 seconds, but the power of the engine and the responsiveness of the controls bolstered Wilbur’s confidence. He wrote home, “There is now no question of final success.”
With damage repaired, the Flyer was again ready for flight on December 17. The Wrights arose that morning to freezing temperatures and a 27-mile-per-hour wind. At 10:35 a.m., the Flyer lifted off the launching rail with Orville at the controls. The overly sensitive elevator control caused the Flyer to dart up and down as it sailed slowly over the sand, coming to rest with a thud 120 feet from where it had taken off. The flight was short—only 12 seconds—but it was a true flight nevertheless. A human had flown.
“After a while they shook hands, and we couldn’t help notice how they held on to each other’s hand, sort o’like they hated to let go; like two folks parting who weren’t sure they’d ever see each other again.”