Up close, the 1903 Wright Flyer looks as fragile as a child’s kite. Its struts are sticks, its skin translucent, its controls pulleys and wire. The pilot’s prone position is awkward and obviously hazardous. Its seemingly tail-first design manages to be both elegant and ungainly at the same time.
In flight, the Flyer was dangerously unstable. The Wright brothers continued to spend much time trying to solve the aerodynamic problems it posed.
Yet this unlikely contraption—which once blew away in a strong breeze—is the seminal artifact of the aviation age. Like the Rosetta Stone and the Mona Lisa, it is a historic object with an uncommonly powerful aura.
It hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where even those who see it every day can feel its pull. Three years ago it was taken down and placed on the ground for a night, while the museum underwent skylight repairs. Several docents asked the Smithsonian’s curator in charge of Wright materials, Peter L. Jakab, to point out details they could mention in tours.
Word got out, and 75 employees showed up for the walk around. Jakab talked for two hours.
To Jakab, the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer is really two things: the world’s first successful airplane and a powerful symbol of the Wrights’ pioneering approach to research and design.
The Flyer was the descendent of generations of kites and gliders which the Wrights had used to test their ideas. They would try, fail, rebuild, and test again in a process of methodical improvement that today’s aeronautical engineers would easily recognize.
This intensity set the Wrights apart from their rivals and brought them to Kitty Hawk, N.C., on a fateful December day.
“ They understood that an airplane was not just one invention but many inventions—all of which had to work in concert,” says Jakab.
In the Beginning
Orville and Wilbur Wright would say that their interest in flight began with a toy.
In autumn 1878, their father—Bishop Milton Wright of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ—came into their Dayton, Ohio, house one evening with something partially concealed in his hands. Before his boys could see what it was, he tossed it into the air. It flew up till it struck the ceiling, fluttered there a while, and then sank to the floor.
It was a toy helicopter with a cork and bamboo frame, with propellers at top and bottom driven by twisted rubber cords. Orville and Wilbur promptly dubbed it a “bat.”
“ A toy so delicate lasted only a short time in the hands of small boys, but its memory was abiding,” they wrote in a 1908 Century Magazine article that still stands as the fullest personal account of their early motivations.
Years later their interest was piqued again, this time by a tragedy: the 1896 death of German flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal in a gliding accident.
By then Orville and Wilbur’s bicycle business was a prosperous success. Eager to try something new, they pored over all available published works dealing with flight theory. They determined that there were two schools of thought regarding aviation: one that emphasized development of the power sources necessary for heavier-than-air flight and a second that focused on gliders, soaring, and the development of control.
“ Our sympathies were with the latter school,” the brothers wrote in Century Magazine.
Orville and Wilbur were enchanted by a vision of sailing through the air on fixed wings. They also thought it impractical to mount a costly engine on wings no one had learned to manage.
Yet the more they looked at it, the more they realized that control of these wings was no simple matter. Lilienthal had steered by simply swinging his weight, as do modern hang gliders—a crude method that works only with small craft. In addition, most experimenters of the time were trying to build inherently stable gliders, which would likely be difficult to actively maneuver in powered flight.
So the Wrights determined to build a system of mechanical controls and incorporate it into a machine that would not tend to right itself. It was a fateful decision that, by itself, gave them an enormous advantage over their rivals.
“ Technically, their greatest and fundamental achievement was their invention of three-axis aerodynamic control,” concluded F.E.C. Culick, a professor of mechanical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and expert on the science of Wright aircraft, in a 2001 paper for the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
The brothers started their flying experiments in 1899, using a kite. Continuity of design would be a Wright hallmark throughout their careers, and that first effort foreshadowed the 1903 Flyer design.
Like the Flyer, the kite was a biplane. Like the Flyer, the kite had an elevator for control of climb and descent mounted in the front.
Most importantly, the kite had the Wrights’ first “wing warping” system. A series of lines enabled the person on the ground to twist the tips of one wing up, while simultaneously twisting the tips of the other wing down. This caused the wings to produce different amounts of lift, causing the kite to bank.
A famous story holds that the idea for this innovation came to Wilbur one day when someone entered the Dayton bicycle shop and asked for an inner tube. Wilbur took down a box, opened it, and gave the tube to the customer for examination; while waiting, Wilbur idly twisted the box in his hands.
He noticed that when he twisted one side down, the other went up. The box was roughly the shape of a biplane—so why shouldn’t they try this motion in flight? Perhaps it would allow them a means of control, like the twisting of bird wings he and Orville had so often observed.
To their delight, the technique worked. The innovation allowed a means of lateral control and opened the way to control in all three dimensions. Being based on aerodynamic principles rather than the shifting of weight, it could be applied to wings of any size.
Encouraged by their success, the brothers moved on to full-size designs. In 1900 and 1901 they flew two piloted gliders over the sands of Kitty Hawk—a place identified by the US Weather Bureau as having lots of space and lots of wind.
They perfected airfoils and structural design. Their control systems worked well. But something was still missing—lift. Their wings did not produce the lift that their calculations, based on data from eminent scientists, predicted.
So they went back to the shop, where the Wrights produced another of their pioneering insights. The brothers decided that, to understand the aerodynamics of a large wing, they could simply make a small one of the same proportions and test it in a wind tunnel. They built such a tunnel in the back of their shop, as well as tiny, ingenious instruments that could measure coefficients of drag and lift on model wings.
The Scientists Were Wrong
Their own experiments convinced them that the eminent scientists had figured things wrong. Their 1902 glider was a breakthrough success, proving that they were right. After they fixed one last control problem by making their fixed vertical tails into a movable rudder, they were able to glide as far as 600 feet. They made nearly 1,000 flights in this machine and were eventually able to keep it aloft for a minute.
“ Little wonder that our unscientific assistant should think the only thing needed to keep it indefinitely in the air would be a coat of feathers to make it light!” they wrote in Century Magazine.
In the spring and summer of 1903, their shop in Dayton hummed with activity as they carefully constructed a machine that they believed stood a very good chance of being the first heavier-than-air machine to take flight.
There were no blueprints—or, at least, none that have survived. The brothers did make a preliminary drawing of the Kitty Hawk Flyer on brown paper. It consists of pencil sketches of the top, side, and front, with some computations in Wilbur’s handwriting.
Given the power of their engine, which they estimated at eight horsepower, weight was to be saved at all costs. Spars were fitted through ribs, bolts were as small as possible, and the drive chain came from a bicycle. Wing covering was light, plain muslin—a variety known as Pride of the West, which was used primarily for ladies undergarments.
Even today the ingenuity of Wright engineering can be seen in such touches as the wire wrapped around the struts to enable them to flex.
“ They recognized that, if you have a vertical beam with a compression load, that if you support that in the middle, you’re essentially halving the length of the strut, and you can make it thinner and lighter,” says Jakab.
They kept the forward-mounted, canard elevator. The brothers believed that design element made the airplane less likely to stall—and they were very aware that stalling had killed Lilienthal. They found the fact that they could see the elevator comforting, as they could spot a mechanical problem in an instant.
In fact, canard designs are not less likely to stall and are difficult to design correctly, due to their relatively forward centers of gravity. This was a flaw the Wrights did not fix until later in their careers.
“ There is no evidence that the Wrights intentionally designed their aircraft to be unstable—they just turned out that way,” wrote Culick.
The Flyer was also designed with twin propellers, contra-rotating. The Wrights figured they could push a greater mass of air with large props, moving slowly.
In some ways, their propellers were more sophisticated than their aircraft. They approached their design scientifically, unlike almost all other aeronauts of the age. Deciding that the propellers were wings turned sideways, acting on the air, they gave them airfoils that maximized their efficiency. It was an insight others would not match for years.
When it was assembled at Kitty Hawk, the Flyer had a wingspan of 40 feet, four inches. It was 21 feet long and nine feet, four inches high. With pilot, it weighed 750 pounds, giving it a wing loading of 1.47 pounds per square foot, about 75 percent greater than that of their 1902 glider.
Events of the fall of 1903 in Kitty Hawk are among the most historic in the annals of invention. Initially the brothers were seriously delayed by problems with their tubular propeller shafts, to the point that Orville had to return to Dayton to manufacture new ones, from solid tool-grade steel, that were smaller in diameter to provide some spring. They knew that their American rival Samuel Pierpont Langley, an eminent scholar and head of the Smithsonian Institution, was on the verge of launching his own Aerodrome airplane from a houseboat in the Potomac.
After winning a coin toss, Wilbur went first and made an unsuccessful attempt to fly on Dec. 14. On Dec. 17, knowing that Langley’s Aerodrome had plunged into the drink, the brothers tried again. At 10:35 a.m., Orville took the Flyer down its wooden rail and took to the air for a 12-second flight, traveling 120 feet.
Wind speed at the time was 35 miles per hour or more, almost a gale. The Flyer was probably only traveling six to eight miles per hour when it reached the end of the track.
The Big Day
The photograph of that moment, taken by helper John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Life Saving Station, is one of the most widely reproduced pictures of all time. The Flyer has just lifted off and Wilbur is half-turned, body weight forward, having just released the wingtip.
They made three more flights that day, with the brothers alternating at the controls. The last, with Wilbur aboard, was of almost one minute duration and covered 852 feet.
After this last flight, the aircraft landed hard, damaging the elevator. As the Wrights discussed the situation, a gust of wind flipped the Flyer over and sent it tumbling across the sand. Daniels was trapped between the wings and was shaken about, “like a rattle in a box as the machine rolled over and over,” the Wrights reported.
Daniels was not seriously hurt, but the aircraft was irretrievably damaged.
Unlike previous Wright experimental craft, however, the 1903 Flyer was saved. The brothers crated it up and shipped it back to Dayton.
Today the 1903 Flyer is one of the icons of the Smithsonian Institution. It has “flown” over the heads of visitors entering the National Air and Space Museum, next to Spirit of St. Louis, for decades. This October it will be taken down and placed at ground level, where it will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit honoring the Wrights’ contribution to 100 years of flight.
The Flyer took a roundabout journey to Washington’s Mall, however. In any case, replacements and reconstructions mean that the Flyer today may be only 60 to 70 percent original.
Following their triumph at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights focused on perfecting their designs and flying skills and profiting from their labors.
Their 1905 Flyer was their first practical flying machine, as opposed to the Kitty Hawk aircraft, which was more like a flyable test bed. The 1905 model had more power and an engine less prone to overheating. The canard was larger, and farther forward, providing more control. Wings were flat across, as opposed to the 1903 aircraft’s downward sloping anhedral, which had helped make that design unstable.
By the end of 1909, spectacular flights in Paris and New York had made Wilbur and Orville celebrities. They were also immersed in legal fights to protect their flight-control patents—fights that would drain them for years but most of which they would ultimately win.
The Kitty Hawk Flyer was not entirely forgotten. But for years it was stored, still in crates, in a shed behind the Wrights’ Dayton bike shop. With it were all the brothers’ research material and many of their early documents—a treasure trove of historical material.
Then in March 1913, the most devastating flood in Dayton’s history put the bike shop’s West Third Street neighborhood under 12 feet of water. When the water receded, the crates were pried open. Miraculously, little was damaged. Mud had formed a sort of sealant on the outside of the boxes, preventing serious water damage.
In 1916, the Flyer was reconstructed for the first time, at the request of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was put on public display for a brief two days. Even at this early date, the engine was not original, and much of the structure was new construction.
According to a label prepared for the exhibit, “the front and rear rudders had to be almost entirely rebuilt. The cloth and the main cross spars of the upper and lower center sections of the wings also had to be made new.”
For the Flyer, a life as a sort of nonflying barnstorming curiosity followed. It appeared at the New York air exposition in 1917 and at a Society of Automotive Engineers meeting in 1918. In 1919, it was the New York exposition again. In 1924, it was shown at the National Air Races.
On Display—in London
In 1928, the world’s first heavier-than-air flying machine finally went on constant display—but it was not at the Smithsonian. It was not even in the United States. Smithsonian officials of the time were unwilling to clearly credit the Wright brothers as the first to fly—so Orville, after years of frustration, loaned the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum in London.
“ No one can regret more than I the situation in the Smithsonian Institution which has made it impossible for me to place our first airplane in its care,” wrote Orville in a 1925 letter to a New York museum president.
The problem revolved around one of the Smithsonian’s own, Samuel P. Langley. Langley’s Aerodrome did not fly before the Wrights did, but, in 1914, after extensive modification by inventor and Wright rival Glenn Curtiss, it did make a series of short hops at a New York lake.
The Aerodrome duly went on display at the Smithsonian, with a label dubbing it “the first man-carrying airplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.”
Unsurprisingly, Orville considered this an outrage. (Wilbur had died of typhoid in 1912.) It took years of negotiations before a newer generation of Smithsonian leaders in 1942 publicly retracted the museum’s position.
The Flyer did not return to its native land until 1948, shortly after Orville’s death. The director of the London Science Museum escorted the airplane as it crossed the ocean aboard the Mauretania. But a dock strike prevented a New York arrival. The ocean liner diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, instead.
The Smithsonian curator entrusted with receiving the treasured exhibit was Paul E. Garber, a famous collector of air memorabilia since aviation’s early days. Garber had known Orville personally. He also had served five years in the Navy in World War II.
Stuck in Halifax, his military experience came in handy. Garber called Navy headquarters back in Washington.
“ This is Commander Garber. I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the most immortal airplane on Earth, and I need some help,” Garber said, according to an interview he gave in 1986.
An aircraft carrier was diverted to help. On the 45th anniversary of the historic first flight, Dec. 17, 1948, the 1903 Flyer was finally presented to the Smithsonian. The formal acceptance speech was given by Vice President Alben W. Barkley, a Smithsonian regent.
Many groups and individuals have attempted to reproduce an airworthy 1903 Flyer in the years since it arrived back in the US. All have discovered the airplane’s hidden secret—it is almost impossible to fly.
The Wright Experience, a Virginia-based group that intends to fly an exact reproduction of the Flyer at Kitty Hawk this Dec. 17, has discovered that training pilots to handle the unstable craft is one of their biggest challenges.
“ Our pilots are going to have to unlearn everything they know to fly the Wright machine,” says Ken Hyde, a retired airline pilot who is one of the driving forces behind the effort.
Trying to pilot the Flyer has been described as similar to balancing two yardsticks on two fingers, simultaneously. In 2001, a group of Air Force test pilots from Edwards AFB, Calif., took turns at a ground simulator rigged to mimic the Flyer. Every one crashed their first time.
Yet the Wrights managed it. Their experience with their machine, plus the luck of ideal weather, got them into the air. Then they improved their aircraft bit by bit as they figured improvements to aerodynamic problems.
They were both the first fliers and the first flight testers of powered aircraft.
The evolution of their aircraft can be traced to the many photographs they took of their efforts, says Hyde. Viewed in sequence, the pictures reveal such changes as the lengthening of their elevator control for more leverage.
“ Each time they learned, they changed something to make it better,” says Hyde.
It was this practicality that enabled them to beat many of the world’s eminent aeronautical theoreticians into the air and to create an icon of flight that still thrills millions of people every year.
“They had a powerful ability to move from the abstract to the concrete,” says Jakab.
Seeing the airplane close up, as visitors will be able to do starting this fall, greatly maximizes its power, explains the Wright curator.
“ It’s a very compelling object,” he says. “It does have the wowie zowie factor.”
Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Remembered War,” appeared in the July issue.