The First To Fly

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In this early glider, the control problem was not completely solved. The wings and their struts and braces were designed so that they could be warped and the glider tilted, or banked, to counteract any gusts that threatened to upset its equilibrium. But in addition the Wrights anticipated, correctly, that some sort of control would be needed over the up-and-down motion of the craft in order to make the transition between tethered kite and free-flying glider. Once again they rejected the method used by Lilienthal and Chanute of control by shifting the weight of the pilot. Instead, they designed a movable “rudder,” which they placed out in front on a separate frame. This rudder (in modern aviation terminology it would be called an elevator) resembled a small wing and when tilted downward tended to force the craft toward the ground. Conversely, when tilted upward it pointed the craft toward the sky.

The forward rudder was operated by a wire which ran back to the center section of the lower wing, where the pilot stretched out on his stomach. As bicycle experts the brothers well knew the value of reducing the amount of air resistance offered by a body sitting upright. Wing warping was also controlled by a wire that led in to where the pilot lay. The brothers quickly discovered when they actually began testing the glider that the pilot couldn’t manipulate both wires and still have one hand free to hang on with unless he clenched one of the wires in his teeth. “As we had neither the material nor the tools to change these so as to correct the trouble, we were compelled to test them separately,” Wilbur later reported to Octave Chanute in a long, detailed letter. “Two minutes trial was sufficient to prove the efficiency of twisting the planes to obtain lateral balance. We also found our system of fore-and-aft balancing quite effective, but it was only when we came to gliding that we became positive of this.”

The new craft was first flown as a kite a few feet off the ground. The brothers conducted several experiments with different loads in different winds and found that it took a fairly stiff breeze of about twenty-five miles per hour to keep their craft in the air with a man aboard. They were somewhat puzzled by the inability of their new wings to generate as much lift as some of Lilienthal’s theoretical tables said they should, but their vacation ended on an eminently satisfying note. As Wilbur wrote to Chanute:

“After we found the difficulty of simultaneously maintaining both fore-and-aft and lateral balance we almost gave up the idea of attempting to glide, but just before returning we went down to the big hill which was about ,three miles from our camp and spent a day in gliding. Our plan of operation was for the aeronaut to lie down on the lower plane while two assistants grasped the ends of the machine and ran forward till the machine was supported on the air. The fore-and-aft equilibrium was in entire control of the rider, but the assistants ran beside the machine and pressed down the end which attempted to rise. We soon found that the machine could soar on a less angle than one in six [a descent of one foot for every six feet of forward motion] and that if the machine was kept close to the slope (which was one in six by measurement) the speed rapidly increased until the runners could no longer keep up. The man on the machine then brought the machine slowly to the ground. … We had intended to have the operator turn his body to an upright position before landing but a few preliminary tests having shown that it was feasible to let the machine settle down upon its lower surface with the operator maintaining his recumbent position, we used this method of landing entirely. … The distance glided was between three and four hundred feet at an angle of one in six and the speed at landing was more than double that of starting. The wind was blowing about twelve miles. We found no difficulty in maintaining fore-and-aft balance. The ease with which it was accomplished was a matter of great astonishment to us. It was so different from what the writings of other experimenters led us to expect.”

Octave Chanute was impressed at Wilbur’s report of their successful gliding flights and wrote back a week later to ask for more details and to get the brothers’ permission to use the information they furnished him in a magazine article he was working on. A lively correspondence then ensued between Chanute and Wilbur Wright. Acting as a sounding board, the old engineer drew out the ideas of the brothers, constantly testing and querying and supplying them with information from his own gliding experience and the studies he had made of the works of others, such as Lilienthal. Wilbur, in turn, took full advantage of Chanute’s interest and reported on their work and problems at great length in letters that reveal a considerable talent for clarity, interest, and exciting descriptions of the highlights of their experiments.

By the end of October, 1900, the brothers were back in Dayton again. They left their glider behind at Kitty Hawk, where it was soon destroyed by the elements and by Mrs. Täte, wife of the postmaster, who made dresses for her daughters out of the sateen that covered the wings. But this was no great loss; already the Wrights had begun thinking about the next aircraft they would build.