How We Made The First Flight by Orville Wright

How We Made The First Flight by Orville Wright
How We Made The First Flight by Orville Wright

Here’s how the first flight in 1903 came about.  It is in Orville Wrights own words! The forward is by Dr. Paul Garber (Historian Emeritus – Smithsonian Air & Space Museum).   This is a nice look all the way back to the dawn of powered/manned flight.

…and more on this fascinating historical event!

Charlie Taylor was America’s first aircraft mechanic.  Along with assisting the Wright Brothers in constructing the first powered machine to fly with a human at the controls, Charlie actually hand-built the first aircraft engine.  Imagine how extraordinary this was in the very early 1900’s!

The Flyer’s wing span was 40 feet/4 inches, the chord 6 feet/6 inches, giving a total wing area of more than 500 square feet.  

The uprights between the wings are of a shape that they had determined prodded the least wind resistance by repeated wind tunnel tests, “square in cross section with rounded edges.”

The skids are much longer than those on the 1902 glider in order to withstand the much heavier weight of the flyer.  Longer skid reduced the danger of rolling over and provided extra support for the front horizontal rudder which was now a double elevator surface of 58 square feet.  The vertical rudder was also changed from a single to a double surface of more than 20 square feet.

The wing covering was unvarnished Pride of the West Muslin but the cloth was now stretched over both the top and bottom sides of the ribs and the ribs themselves were an improvement in strength and lightness over the solid spruce ribs of the Wright gliders.  Each rib was made as light as possible by reinforcing two thin wood strips of the proper curvature with blocks of wood wrapped into the ribs with glued paper at the place of insertion.

When the machine was finally put together in the camp at Kill Devil Hills (Kitty Hawk) one of its distinguishing characteristics was the droop of the wings.  They appeared too weak to support their weight, the tips being fully ten inches lower than the central wing-section when the machine was on the ground.  The droop was deliberate however.  It was meant to minimize the effect of wind-gusts from the side.  (We now call those “Cross-Winds”)…

Nor as readily noticeable was the lack of symmetry.   Like the Venetian Gondola whose right half is wider than the left to counter-balance the weight of the Gondolier who stands on the left the Flyer’s right wing was 4 inches longer than it’s left to provide additional lift for the motor and it’ accessories which weighted about 50 pounds more than the operator who lay prone on the lower wing to the left of the motor.

Construction of the Flyer began in February of 1903 and went on into the summer.  There were no major problems in construction but serious problems were confronter when the Wrights tried to procure a motor and design propellers for the machine.  In the fall of 1902 they had sent letters to a number of motor manufacturers hoping to purchase a relatively vibration-less motor weighing not more than 180 pounds.  Ten manufacturers bothered to reply but they were either unable to build a motor to the Brother’s specifications or were too busy to undertake such an unprofitable job.  So, Wilbur and Orville decided to build the motor themselves with Charlie Taylor’s help.

Its design was largely a joint effort.  One or the other of the brothers would make a rough sketch of the part they were discussing on a piece of scratch paper.  Charlier would spike the piece of paper above his bench and get to work.  The crank case was cast by a local foundry using the strongest aluminum alloy then obtainable.  Taylor machined the block in the (bicycle) shop.

He made the crankshaft from a slab of high carbon tool steel turning it down to size on the lathe in the bicycle workroom.

When finished the motor was a simplified version of a contemporary automobile motor with four water-cooled horizontal in-line cylinders but without fuel pump or carburetor.  Due was injected directly into the cylinders by gravity from a tank with a capacity of about a quart and a half fastened to a strut near the upper wing.  The slim vertical radiator was made of several lengths of metal tubing of the kind found in apartment-house speaking tubes, flattened to reduce their capacity.  There were no spark plugs.  The spark was created by opening and closing two contact points in each cylinder.  The cylinders were primed in advance with a few drops of gasoline.  Dry batteries provided the spark until after starting when a double throw knife switch connected the contacts to a low tension magneto driven by the 26 pound flywheel.  The speed of the motor could be regulated by retarding or advancing the spark, but it was impractical for the operator to alter the motor speed in flight.

The motor took six weeks to build.  With valves popping noisily, it was first tested in the workroom behind the bicycle shop on February 12, 1903.  It worked.  It produced 12 horsepower, which was more than the 8 horsepower they had calculated they needed to power the Flyer.  Rather than increasing the size of the Flyer to take advantage of this windfall, they added to its weight by strengthening and bracing its framework.

They anticipated no problems at all in designing the propellers.  Using their tables of air pressures they calculated the thrust necessary to sustain their Flyer in flight.

The next step was to design a propeller that would provide this thrust using the power at their command. ——The came up with two propellers, each a little over 8 feet long made of three laminations of spruce glued together, then shaped with hatchet and spoke shave— — Designed as airfoils to produce the thrust (lift) they had calculated needed to sustain their Flyer in the air. They had decided to use two propellers instead of one, mounted behind the wings.  By running one clockwise and the other counter-clockwise they eliminated any twisting effect on lateral control.

Transmitting power from the motor to the propellers was no problem.  Sprockets and chains used to drive bicycles came readymade. Chains strong enough to drive propellers were another matter.  The Wrights knew where to turn.  The Diamond Chain Company of Indianapolis supplied them with chains of the type used in early automobile transmissions, made to their specifications.  By June of 1903 they were satisfied that their estimates of their propellers’ efficiency (66%) would prove correct within a point or two.

They crated their Flyer, motor, propellers and camping equipment, tools, spare parts and supplies and boarded the train in Dayton for Elizabeth City, North Carolina (and Kill Devil Hills by water) at 8:55 AM on September 23, 1903.  It is said that their father gave them a dollar with the request that they send him a wire as soon as they had made their first successful flight.

There is much detail about how they set up camp and were faced with terrible weather conditions until October when conditions permitted them to begin practice gliding preparatory to attempting powered flight.

The men at the life-saving station a quarter of a mile from their camp site were frequent visitors, bringing their mail and supplies and lots of conversation.

Bill Tate, their assistant in previous years, had turned over this job to his half brother, Dan, and there were frequent visits from other Kitty Hawkers.

The brothers practiced soaring when the wind and weather permitted.  On their firs Monday in camp the weather was so inviting that they carried the 1902 glider to Big Hill and, with Dan Tate’s help, made so many flights in 20 to 30 miles per hour winds that they lost count.  The most successful soaring flight was Wilbur’s in which he compeer only 52 feet although he was in the air for 26 seconds.

On October 8, Captain Midget’s sailboat, the Lou Willis, tied up at Kitty Hawk with the crates containing the Flyer.  They were hauled down to Kill Devil Hills on the Sand road along Kitty Hawk Bay.

The next morning, before unpacking the crates (of the Flyer), Wilbur and Orville made another attempt to glide, but a storm was coming up, so they brought the glider back to camp where they hurried to put the hinges on the new building before the storm broke.  Just as they finished the rain came down.  The storm lasted four days.  The wind reached 75 miles per hour.  They had to go out in the weather to make emergency repairs to the building.  On the third day they was a lull in the weather and, not realizing they were probably in the eye of a hurricane, they took the 1902 glider out and made two glides, the second of which ended when an unexpected gust caught Orville and he came down so fast he grazed the top of Wilbur’s head with one wing and broke two spars in landing.  Before they could get the machine indoors the storm re-commenced in all it’s fury breaking the door of the camp building and one of the props slipped away from under it.

On the fourth day they stayed indoors, islander in a sea of puddles, wet sand and pelting rainwater.  While the storm lasted, five vessels ran ashore between the Kill Devil Lifesaving Station and the entrance to Chesapeake Bay 60 miles to the north.

The day the storm ended the brothers began work on the upper wing of the Flyer.  The rear spar was now entirely enclosed in the wing covering so that the underside of the wing was as smooth as the top.  Both Wilbur and Orville took delight in the smoothness and perfection of the Flyer’s wing as it took shape under their hands.  “It is the prettiest we have ever made” Orville wrote his father.

Their plans to make the first test of the Flyer by November first went badly awry.  Several times during the next two months they had reason to believe that all their fine work had been in vain.  On October 19th t noticed that the observed gliding angles for four long glides made that day were much larger than the calculated angles, indicating that something was wrong with their calculations.  They ran calibration tests of their anemometer with one brother holding the anemometer and running beside the glider being flown by the other brother.  Their tests proved that, although the anemometer was more nearly accurate than they had assumed, the error was not large.  They were still on the safe side.

On the afternoon of October 21st they made nine excellent glides of between 400 and 450 feet in length, many at 40 to 60 feet above the sides of Big Hill.  The encouraging aspect of these glides was not the distance or the awesome altitudes but that the beginning of each glide was, for all practical purposes, soaring: the machine moving over the ground at a speed of only one or two feet per second.  Wilbur’s best glide of the day was 59 seconds in duration, bettered only by Orville’s earlier glide of one minute, 1.5 seconds.

On December 17, 1903 Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane 20 feet above the wind-swept beach.  The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet.  Three more successful flights were made that day with Orville’s brother, Wilbur, piloting the second one.

From Orville’s diary, “we got the machine out early and put out the signal for the men at the Station.  Before we were quite ready, John T. Daniels, W.S. Donough, A.D. Etheridge, W.C. Brinkley of Manteo and Johnny Moore of Nags Head arrived.

After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial.  The wind, according to our anemometers, at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (27 mph according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk).

On slipping the rope, the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles (per hour).  The machine lifted from the truck (track?) (that we had constructed to launch it) just as it was entering on the fourth rail (each rail was a 15 foot 2X4 so this would have been at 45 feet from the start).

Brother Wilbur was holding the right wing tip to steady the craft.  Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks.”  

“I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult as it was balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other.  As a result, the machine would suddenly rise up 10 feet and then as suddenly. On turning the rudder, it would head for the ground.  A sudden dart out about 12 seconds.  (This was a guess as in the excitement the stop watch was not stopped at the moment of impact).  The lever for throwing off the engine was broken and the skid under the rudder was cracked.  After repairs, at 20 minutes after 11 o’clock, Will made the second trial.  The course was about the same, up and down though a little longer over the ground.  Distance was not measured but was around 175 feet, wind speed not quite so strong.  With the aid of the Station men present we picked the machine up and carried it back to the starting ways.  At about 20 minutes to 12 o’clock I made the third trial.  When out about the same distance as Will’s I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and slide the machine off to the right in a lively manner.  I immediately turned the machine down and then worked thewhen about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight.  Time left wing struck first showing the lateral control on the machine to be much more effective than on any of our other ones.

At just 12 o’clock, Will started on the fourth and last trip.  The machine started off with its ups and downs as it had before, but by the time he had gone over three or four hundred feet he had it under much better control and was traveling over a fairly even course, it proceeded in this manner till it reached a small hummock out about 800 feet from the starting ways.  When it began its pitching again and darted into the ground.  The front rudder frame was badly broken up but the main frame suffered none at all.  The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds.”

They carried their machine back to camp when a sudden gust of wind turned it over with minor injuries to Mr. Daniels and major injuries to the Flyer.

After dinner they went to Kitty Hawk to send a telegram to M.W. White and called on Captain and Mrs. Hobbs, Dr. Cogswell and the Station men. Later they crated up their Flyer ae end control.  Much to our surprise,, on reaching the ground thend their possessions and took the train back home to Dayton, Ohio in time for Christmas.

I hope you like it,


Note: this was transcribed from Wilbur and Orville, auto book by Fred Howard, from Wikipedia and from the two-volume book, Kill Devil Hill, by a dear-departed friend, Harry Combs

Wilbur “Will” Wright — 1867 – 1912

Orville Wright —  1871 – 1948

Charlie Taylor — 1868 – 1956




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