The First To Fly


The brothers arrived at the site of their previous camp on Thursday, August 28, 1902, and began drilling a well and tidying up their old storage shed. They cannibalized their old 1901 glider, which they had left behind in the shed, to make a new and bigger one, with wings that measured 32 feet 1 inch. It was more graceful-looking due to the fact that the wings were narrower. The curvature of the upper surfaces was also much less pronounced than in the previous year’s model, as a direct result of the Wrights’ wind tunnel experiments; the new glider incorporated the most efficient wing design that they had developed so far. The design of the control system was refined somewhat in order to permit the pilot, again lying prone, to handle everything and still have a hand left over to hang on with. Up-and-down control was once again effected with a forward horizontal “rudder” that could be tilted by working handles jutting back just in front of the pilot. However, the wing-warping wires were led into a wooden cradle which fitted around the pilot’s hips as he lay on the lower wing. By moving his hips from side to side he also moved the cradle from side to side and manipulated the wires that warped the wings of the aircraft.

In their last flights in 1901 the Wrights had experienced some difficulty with the glider’s tendency to slew around when the wing-warping controls were used. Now they reasoned that the addition of a fixed vertical tail would stabilize the aircraft when the wings were banked. It did, but a new problem had developed: every time the glider got into a steep bank, its nose pitched up.

After one potentially disastrous crash, which reduced their craft to what Orville described as “a heap of flying machine, cloth, and sticks … with me in the center without a bruise or a scratch,” Orville had an inspired thought. Why not make the vertical tail movable, instead of fixed? He noted, simply, in his diary: “While lying awake last night, I studied out a new vertical rudder.” The Wrights rebuilt their machine, and as October, 1902, drew to a close they made more than 375 flights, including their best: a breathtaking flight of 622½ feet that lasted twenty-six seconds. Control was no longer a problem; the wings they had designed on the basis of scientific data from their wind tunnel experiments proved to be powerful lifting surfaces, and time and time again they soared out from the top of the big hill.

Orville wrote home to Katherine:

“The past five days have been the most satisfactory for gliding that we have had. In two days we made over 250 glides. … We have gained considerable proficiency in the handling of the machine now, so that we are able to take it out in any kind of weather. Day before yesterday we had a wind of sixteen meters per second or about 30 miles per hour, and glided in it without any trouble. That was the highest wind a gliding machine was ever in, so that we now hold all the records! The largest machine we handled in any kind of weather, made the longest distance glide (American), the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind!!! Well, I’ll leave the rest of the ‘blow’ till we get home.…”

Now all the Wrights needed to do was obtain a lightweight engine, hook it up to a set of propellers, and, in addition to the other records Orville was so proud of, they would have the world’s first self-propelled aircraft. In all the world, no one had yet come as close to attaining man’s age-old desire to fly as these two self-taught scientists. There had been a flurry of activity in France at about the same time the Wrights began their glider work, but it was not related to the experiments at Kitty Hawk and had been spectacularly unsuccessful. In the United States, Langley was moving steadily and happily toward the disasters of 1903, completely in the dark, as was everyone except Octave Chanute and the Wrights’ immediate family, about the significance of the developments on the remote North Carolina beach.

Within a few weeks after their return to Dayton the Wrights V T began trying to locate a small engine, weighing around 180 pounds, that might develop eight or nine horsepower. They wrote to at least ten well-known American engine manufacturers, but nothing promising turned up. So the brothers decided to build their own engine, counting heavily on the skill and ingenuity of Charles E. Taylor, the top mechanic in their bicycle factory. Here, in Taylor’s words, is the way they went about it:

“The first thing We did as an experiment was to construct a sort of skeleton model in order that we might watch the functioning of the various vital parts before venturing with anything more substantial.…

“When we had the skeleton motor set up we hooked it up to our shop power, smeared the cylinder with a paint brush dipped in oil and watched the various parts in action. It looked good so we went ahead immediately with the construction of a four cylinder engine. I cut the crank shaft from a solid block of steel weighing over a hundred pounds. When finished it weighed about 19 pounds. We didn’t have spark plugs but used the old ‘make and break’ system of ignition [in which a spark is produced by the opening and closing of contact points inside the combustion chamber]. The gas pump was geared on to the cam shaft and the gas was led in and made to spread over the chamber above the heated water jackets and this immediately vaporized it. … I must admit there wasn’t much to that first motor—no carburetor, no spark plugs, not much of anything but cylinders, pistons and connecting rods, but it worked.” By May of 1903 they had an engine that tested successfully.