The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Orville and Wilbur Wright. From glider to flying machine

Category: Famous people

Orville and Wilbur Wright. From glider to flying machine“Success. Four flights Thursday morning. All against wind with engine power alone. Aver­age speed through air thirty-one miles. Longest flight fifty-nine seconds…”

Such was the triumphant telegram Orville and Wilbur Wright sent to their father in December 1903, when their machine took to the air.

How easily a bird flies from one tree to another! How difficult it was for men to learn to fly! The story of the coming of the aeroplane is a story of difficulty and death.

Men have wanted to fly for more than two thousand years. There is a very old story about Daedalus and his son, Icarus, who were in prison in the island of Crete and got out by flying. They rose into the air on wings joined together by wax. The son fell and was killed because he came too near to the sun and the wax joints of the wings melted. But his father reached the island of Sicily safely. It is a fairy-tale, but it shows that men already wanted to know how to fly.

In other stories we read of magic carpets and other things which could fly. All these stories go far back into the past.

The first known scientific approach to flying was made by Leo­nardo da Vinci about the year 1500. He observed the flight of birds and designed a flying machine, the bat-like wings of which were operated by a man with ropes attached to his arms and feet.

Only more than two hundred years later men really became airborne. In October 1783, the Montgolfier brothers in France sent two men almost twenty-five metres up in a balloon made by themselves.

In 1785 the English Channel was crossed by a hydrogen-filled balloon and from that time men made every effort to produce a flying machine. These efforts were crowned with success in 1881 when the first aeroplane in the world was created by A. Mo­zhaisky, the outstanding Russian inventor. This aeroplane was tested between 1882—1885 and during a test it took to air.

How It All Began

On the other side of the world, in America, two men built another aeroplane, and here is the story of their famous invention, When Wilbur Wright was eleven years old and his brother Orville was seven, their father gave them a toy which could be made to fly round the room simply by twisting a rubber band. From that time the boys began to take a great inte­rest in flight.

The Wrights were a simple family. The children (there were five of them) were taught at a very early age to make themselves useful about the house. Although the Wrights had little money, the father thought it wrong to attach too much importance to money, and he discouraged his children from doing so. He constantly encouraged them to learn.

The four years’ difference in their ages meant that at first the two brothers each made their own friends. But after their father had given them their flying toy, they began to play together very often. They played with their new toy so much that it broke. “Never mind, we’ll make ourselves another one—a bigger and better one that will stay in the air for longer than just a few seconds,” Wilbur comforted his younger brother. Wilbur had assumed that the larger the model, the longer and higher it would fly; he did not know that if a flying machine is doubled in length it requires, not twice, but eight times the power to propel it. So when he and Orville began to test their new home-made model they found that it did not fly better than their first model. It did not fly at all!

Orville, to comfort himself, tried his hand at making a kite. Soon Wilbur joined in his brother’s experiments. They built a very successful kite. They made it of very thin wood, which bent backwards in the wind, like the swept-back wings of a modern aeroplane and this gave it a better performance than the standard, more strongly built kites of that time. The boys used light wood simply because they could not find anything stronger. But they did not know that in doing this they were following an important prin­ciple in aerodynamics.

A Study of Flight

Some years passed. The brothers read many scientific books and magazines. One day they read a newspaper article about the work of Otto Lilienthal, a German who built a glider and was carrying out gliding experiments down the side of a hill. This short newspaper article interested them very much, and they decided to make a serious study of flight and to see if they, too, could build a glider.

They read every book and newspaper on flight, and they came to the conclusion that the reason for so little progress being made was that nobody knew how to keep the equili­brium of a heavier-tlian-air machine when it was in the air.

So the brothers first set to work to find out how to keep equilibrium. They decided that the earlier gliders had wrongly designed wings. This meant that there was not sufficient or correct resistance to the wind. And secondly, that the experimenters had not taken into account the fact that the air pressure was not always the same on both sides of the machine. They felt sure that it was these factors that caused the rolling and made sustained flight impos­sible. They thought that balance might be obtained by de­signing adjustable wings. The wings could be operated in flight in a way that would enable the pilot to concentrate the wind where it was most needed and to even up the pres­sure on the two sides.

This idea of controlling the wings later led to the intro­duction of the ailerons, now used in all aeroplanes.

The brothers spent some time working out how to put their new idea into practice. They decided to test their theory by building a kite with wings that could be control­led from the ground by means of long cords. They made a kite with wings of one and a half metre span and tested it near the town of Dayton, Ohio. They found that by a cor­rect use of the cords they could turn their kite splendidly. And they also obtained greater height.

Encouraged by this success, they next built a man-car­rying glider on the same principles. They spent months on its design and structure.

In September 1900 they went to test their glider at Kitty Hawk, in North Carolina, about 1,600 kilometres away, where they had been told that the weather conditions were particularly favourable for gliding.

They first tested their new machine as a kite, controlling the wings by cords from the ground as before. Then they hauled it along the sands to a sand dune thirty metres high, and took turns in gliding it from the top of this dune. They could not, however, stay in the air for nearly as long as they had hoped. But they skimmed over the sands at about twenty-four kilometres an hour, some sixty or ninety cen­timetres above the ground, and found that for the short period that they were in the air they had good control of their glider. They could turn the wings just as easily in flight as from the ground, and so did not need to use the weight of their bodies to correct a roll.

Wilbur and Orville felt so much encouraged by this that they returned home to build a bigger glider.

They built their new machine with wings of almost a seven-metre-span, and they tested it at Kitty Hawk in the summer of 1901. But they were disappointed to find that their machine was not so good as the earlier one. In fact, the results were so disappointing that the Wrights stopped their tests and returned home.

But they soon resumed experimenting.

When the Wrights were designing their first two gliders, they had relied on air-pressure tables published in the va­rious books they had read. It now occurred to them that perhaps those tables were not always accurate, and that might be the reason for the disappointing results of their last tests. So they decided to conduct a number of experi­ments and produce their own air-pressure table.

They made a long narrow box with both ends open. At one end they placed a fan that could stir up a very strong wind, and at the other end they placed, in turn, a variety of differently shaped pieces of wood and material. They watched how each of them behaved in that artificial wind.

The box was a wind tunnel and they were experimenting to see whether there was a wing shape which would lift a heavier-than-air machine into the air.

They got much useful and surprising information from these experiments, which showed that the air-pressure tables they had worked from, were, in fact, wrong and mis­leading.

The brothers now made a new glider based on their own air-pressure tables; and at the end of August 1902 they went again to Kitty Hawk to try it.

A Power-Driven Machine

The results were now so satisfactory that the Wrights decided to try their hand at building

a power-driven machine. So in March 1903 they began the construction of America’s first aeroplane.

The construction of a power-driven flying machine had become possible as a result of the development of the petrol engine.

But the Wrights could not find a petrol engine suitable for their requirements; therefore, though they had never built an engine before, they made their own petrol engine. Then they constructed an aeroplane with wings of more than twelve-metre span, placed their engine on the lower wing, and added a tail.

Last of all they designed their propeller. They had thought that there would be plenty of information to help them in this; but they found practically no information at all. So they had to make a great number of new experi­ments.

By September 1903 they had finished their propeller, and their aeroplane was ready for testing. So they set off once more for Kitty Hawk. They lugged their machine to the launching site and tossed as to who should make the first attempt. Then Wilbur, who won the toss, took up his position on the lower wing, started up the engine, and was off. But in three or four seconds he was down again. He had tried to lift the aeroplane too quickly, and consequently it had fallen to the ground.

Three days later, on December 17, after repairing the machine, Orvile took his turn at piloting, and he was more successful. But the flight lasted only twelve seconds. Later in the morning, both brothers improved this achievement. Wilbur even made a flight of fifty-nine seconds, during which he covered a distance of 260 metres.

Well satisfied with their efforts, they returned to their hut and sent the triumphant telegram to their father.

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