The Wright Flyer

The first powered, piloted, controlled, heavier-than-air flight took place at about 10:35 on the morning of December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. With the help of a 60-foot guide rail, this first flying machine lurched into the air, flew erratically for a distance of 120 ft, and came to Earth after just 12 s. The Wright Flyer I had averaged 10 ft/s, or 6.8 mph groundspeed. By today's standards, this sterling accomplishment of Wilbur and Orville Wright seems almost laughably primitive. Yet they accomplished something of lasting significance in the annals of aerospace history. Before this first powered flight, they had made some 1,000 glide flights, and were therefore experienced pilots. At the time, there had been no engine to power their Flyer, and so they simply built their own, an accomplishment in itself. This is an important fact, for improvements in the field of aviation are almost always accompanied by improvements in power. The Wright brothers flew the Flyer I three more times that first morning, the last time covering 852 ft in 59 s (Fig. 1.1).1

Fig. 1.1 Orville Wright makes the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight in human history, December 17, 1903, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (courtesy NASA)
Fig. 1.2 Fully suited aeronaut prepares to take Wright Apache to high altitude in 1928. The 18-cylinder radial engine was a significant advancement over the Wright Flyer (courtesy NASA)

There are certain discontinuities in engineering, analogous to the kind found by geologists in layers of ancient rock. These discontinuities represent a gap in the fossil record, or a jump in technology. Replacing the horse by the engine was one such discontinuity. Making the switch from airships to airplanes was another. Yet a third was the jump from the reciprocating engine to the turbojet. When the Wright brothers mounted chain-driven propellers and a 12-hp engine to the frame of Flyer I, they had just made one of these leaps of progress. And there was no going back.

The process of refining and improving the design of the first airplanes started almost immediately after the first flights. It was not long before the Wright brothers could fly around the patch with confidence. They controlled their craft through a unique wing-warping scheme, rather than by the use of ailerons and elevators. Later, the invention of the radial engine (Fig. 1.2) and the development of the multiengine airplane would extend the power and range of airplanes. World War I saw the first use of the airplane in combat, and the first aerial dogfights.

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