Air Force

December 20, 2013

This week in history

Courtesy photo

Dec. 17, 1903: First flight

One hundred and ten years ago this week, Orville Wright flew the Wright Flyer 125 feet in 12 seconds at 10:35 a.m. Dec. 17. His was the first-ever manned heavier-than-air, sustained, controlled and powered flight.

Orville designed and built his own printing press and began a printing business in the late 1880s while living in Dayton, Ohio. His older brother, Wilbur, joined him in the business.

In 1893, the brothers joined the safety bicycle rage and opened a shop. Besides sales and repair, the brothers began designing, manufacturing and selling their own bicycles. Their success funded their efforts to fly.

In the mid 1890s, Wilbur and Orville became interested in manned flight. Based on their background, they approached the subject through study, experiments and practice flights. They saw three challenges – lift, pilot control and light-weight power.

In August 1899, they tested a biplane kite with a five-foot wingspan. They began a search for a location with higher winds. In September 1900, they took a 17-foot wingspan biplane kite/glider with a front elevator to Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. They conducted all future flight tests there.

The brothers tested a 22-foot wingspan biplane glider the following year. Up to that point, they used Otto Lilienthal’s aerodynamic tables to calculate lift. While their glider flew 389 feet, they only achieved about a third of the expected lift. Therefore, they threw out Lilienthal’s tables.

Back in Dayton, they built their own wind tunnel and tested more than fifty airfoils. Their efforts enabled them to accurately calculate lift. Challenge number one was solved.

In 1902, they attacked the challenge of pilot control. In the wind tunnel they noticed that wing warping induced adverse yaw, making the nose turn away from the desired turn. To test their solution, the brothers built a 32-foot wingspan glider with fixed rudder surfaces. During their 700-plus test flights, they modified the glider with moveable rudders. Challenge number two was solved. They moved on to light-weight power.

The standard cast iron engine was too heavy. Therefore, they asked their mechanic, Charlie Taylor, to design and build a light-weight engine. The brothers took on designing a propeller. Both tasks were major undertakings. Taylor built the engine block with a rarely used material, cast aluminum. For propellers, the brothers used their wind tunnel results. In doing so, they created highly efficient wooden propellers. Challenge number three was solved.

In 1903, the Wrights tested the engine and propellers. Finally on Dec. 14, they were ready to attempt powered flight. Flipping a coin, Wilbur tried first. Stalling the 40-foot, 4-inch wingspan aircraft resulted in a three-second flight that damaged the biplane. Three days later, Orville took off on that historic flight. Swapping piloting duties, the brothers flew a total of four flights that day with the longest being 852 feet in 59 seconds. A gust of wind then picked up the Wright Flyer and tossed it across the dunes.

It never flew again, but currently hangs restored in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The bothers continued to design, manufacture and test aircraft. They were the first instructor pilots, publicized manned flight and sold aircraft to the Army. Wilber died of typhoid fever on May 31, 1912. Orville lived until Jan. 30, 1948.




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