- Orville Wright, August 19, 1871– January 30, 1948, Dayton, Ohio, United States of America;
- Wilbur Wright, April 16, 1867– May 30, 1912, Millville, Indiana, United States of America.
Where to start? Heck… where to end? To do the Wright Brothers any justice, I’d have to write a book… and that’s not my plan.
I’m still going to give it a shot… but because this entry is about a 1910 Wills’s Aviation Card, I’m only going to go to 1910… with a bit more after that. I think that seems fair to all the other writers and historians out there who have written books on these men.
So… by reason of the importance of the Wright Brother’s contribution to aviation, this will be the longest entry.
Although widely accepted as the first to fly an aeroplane, many argue that others did it first—but argue all they like, there is a lot of evidence to support the Wright Brothers.
It is also important to note, that the Wright Brothers aeroplane was known as the ‘Flyer’ or ‘Wright Flyer‘, a heavier-than-air contraption that first flew on December 17, 1903… ushering the true era of aeroplane aviation.
Back in 1878 when Orville and Wilbur Wright were children, their father brought home a toy helicopter that was based on the principles of the French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud and the earlier designs of British aviation scientist Sir George Cayley. After playing with the toy until it broke, the Wright Brothers built their own, and later claimed the toy was what initially sparked their interest in aviation.
In 1892, the bothers opened up a bicycle repair and sales shop, as bicycles were all the rage in the U.S.
Spurred on by news of Otto Lilienthal and his successful control with the first hang glider (see Wills’s card #29) and with Samuel Langley’s steam-driven unmanned model aeroplanes (see Wills’s card #36 – forthcoming), the Wright Brothers became further intrigued with the possibilities of aviation.
In 1899, they began seriously experimenting with gliding to learn about aerodynamics before building a mechanical conveyance. They moved to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1900 and began manned gliding tests until 1902.
The Wright Brother’s took their time.
Rather than strapping a powerful motor into an aircraft, they sought how to achieve flight by compiling as much data as they could muster.
Using this information, they were able to design and manufacture wings and propellers to their exacting standards. Their most important determination was the invention of three-axis control which allowed a pilot to steer an airplane effectively.
By 1903, the Wright Brothers had constructed the Wright Flyer frame out of spruce with muslin covering the surface area. They also designed and carved their own wooden propellers based on data they had collected from their own wind tunnel that were just over 8-feet long and made of three laminations of spruce.
As well, after determining that none of the commercially available engines were suitable, he had their mechanic Charlie Taylor construct a motor in six weeks—with the engine block made of lightweight aluminum that was similar to a fuel injected engine, as it lacked a carburetor and fuel pump. Gasoline was gravity-fed to the crankcase via rubber tubing from the fuel tank mounted on a wing strut.
They decided on using the twin propellers as pushers, rotating counter to each other to cancel torque. The propeller sprocket drive chain was similar in design to a bicycle.
The pilot of this canard bi-plane, would lie on his stomach on the lower wing with his head toward the front to reduce drag. Steering was done in a manner similar to a glider, except that via a cradle attached to the hips pulled wires to warp the plane’s wings to turn the rudder.
Getting their money’s worth, the Flyer is reported to have cost only US$1,000—compared to the US$50,000 in monies given to Samuel Langley for his ‘Great Aerodrome’ (again, see Wills’s card #36 – forthcoming).
The Flyer was:
- Length: 6.43-meters (21-feet 1-inch);
- Height: 2.74-meters high (9-feet);
- Wing Span: 12.29-meters (40-feet 4-inches);
- Wing Area: 47-square meters (510-square feet);
- Weight, empty: 274-kilograms (605-pounds);
- Weight, maximum take-off (pilot and fuel): 338-kilograms (745-pounds);
- Engine: straight-4 water-cooled piston engine;
- Engine Weight: 92-kilograms (180-pounds);
- Horsepower: 12-horsepower.
- Speed, maximum:48-kilometers per hour (30-miles per hour);
- Ceiling: 9.144-meters (30-feet).
As for testing, on December 14, 1903 after delays during engine tests, Wilbur Wright won a coin toss and piloted the Flyer for three seconds before the engine stalled during the take-off causing minor damage to the plane.
On December 17, after repairs, Orville Wright flew the aeroplane into gusting headwinds flying 120-feet in 12 seconds at a speed of 6.8-miles per hour.
In the photo above, you can see the rail the Flyer utilized for take-off.
Wilbur flew next that day for 175-feet, followed by Orville again at 200-feet, each flying about 10-feet above the ground.
Wilbur flew the final flight on December 17—here’s Orville’s account of it: “Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o’clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two.”
Despite the Wright Brother’s lust for secrecy, five people witnessed that day’s flights: John Daniels who took the famous photo (see photo above); Adam Etheridge, and; Will Dough—all three were members of the U.S. government Coast Guard coastal lifesaving crew; local businessman W.C. Brinkley, and teenage neighbor Johnny Moore. After the amazing fourth flight, a gust of wind blew the Flyer over several times damaging it so badly that the plane never flew again.
Years later Orville Wright restored this original Flyer, and eventually arranged to have it placed on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Despite the importance of the first flight, few people knew of it, although Aero Club of France members, already stimulated by Chanute’s reports of Wright gliding successes, took the news more seriously and increased their efforts to catch up to the brothers.
Part of the problem with the Wright Brothers was their insistence on keeping their secrets, in the hope of making money from it via the U.S. government to whom they wished to sell the technology. As such, the brothers shunned public attention, often refusing to fly in front of reporters or insisting that no photography be allowed.
Claims of fraud and sour grapes aside, the Wright Brothers are recognized as being the first to fly an aeroplane. In 1904, they built and flew the ‘Flyer II’ with Wilbur Wright on August 13 flying 1,300-feet.
The chief difference between the Flyer II and the Flyer, was that it had a more powerful engine, and they used white pine instead of spruce for its construction.
As well, the Wright Brothers reduced the wing camber to 1-in-25 from the 1-in-20 used in the Flyer version. By doing this, they hoped to reduce drag, but less lift was the result. Perhaps because of the wood used or perhaps because of the engine, the Flyer II weighed 200-lbs more than the Flyer.
On September 20, 1904, the Flyer II with Wilbur Wright at the controls flew in a complete circle for the first time, covering 4,080-feet in 90-seconds.
By the end of the year, they had made 105 flights.
In 1905, the brother’s scrapped the Flyer II, saving the engine and used it in the ‘Flyer III’.
In this design, the Wright Brothers added a separate control for the rear rudder, rather than having the rudder linked to the wing warping technique used for the previous two versions. Despite the alteration, it performed similarly to the Flyer II.
After a crash on July 14, 1905, the Flyer III was rebuilt with the rear rudder and front elevator made bigger and moved farther away from the wings which helped create better stability and control. The modifications helped it make longer flights up to 38 minutes and three seconds in duration flying about 39.4-kilometers (24.5-miles).
Although this flight was witnessed by a few people, the Wright’s certainly did not seek out public attention as they continued to be afraid of people stealing their concept.
Whether justifiable or not, the Wright Brothers did not want to give away their invention, as they still lacked a patent. Thus, after a single flight on October 5, 1905, they refused to fly unless they had a signed contract from a buyer.
They contacted the U.S., British, French and German governments to try and interest them in the flying machine, but lacking evidence to prove their flight—they refused to show a photo of the plane in flight—everyone said no to the two unknown bicycle manufacturers from Ohio.
It’s their lack of fanfare and choosing to work in obscurity that causes some to doubt the Wright Brother’s claims. In fact, they made no flights at all in 1906 or 1907 while they pursued the above-mentioned governments, even though they received their patent in May of 1906.
In late 1907 they packed a Model A Flyer in a crate and traveled to Europe for face-to-face talks with the governments and finally in early 1908 signed a contract with both the U.S. Army and a French company.
Back at Kitty Hawk, the brother’s prepped for demonstration flights for their two would-be customers using the 1905 Flyer III.
The contracts called for the public flight demonstration to carry a pilot and passenger, so they modified the 1905 plane by installing two seats and adding upright control levers.
After tests with sandbags in the passenger seat, Charlie Furnas, a helper from Dayton, OH, became the first fixed-wing aircraft passenger on a few short flights May 14, 1908, though a later test that day ended in a crash, completely destroying the craft.
Despite the crash, the brothers felt the tests were successful, and so Wilbur sailed to France and Orville traveled to Washington, D.C.
Wilbur began official public demonstrations on August 8, 1908 at the Hunaudières horse racing track near the town of Le Mans, France.
His first flight lasted only one minute 45 seconds, but his ability to effortlessly make banking turns and fly a circle made believers of the skeptical French. In the following days Wilbur made a series of technically challenging flights including figure-eights, demonstrating his skills as a pilot and the capability of his flying machine, which far surpassed those of all other pilot pioneers.
Orville followed his brother’s success by demonstrating another nearly identical Flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia, starting on September 3, 1908. On September 9, he made the first hour-long flight, lasting 62 minutes and 15 seconds.
On September 17, Army lieutenant Thomas Selfridge who was part of the U.S./Canada Aviation Experiment Association led by Alexander Graham Bell (see Wills’s card #43 – forthcoming) rode along as a passenger with Orville.
A few minutes into the flight at an altitude of about 100 feet (30 meters), a propeller split and shattered, sending the aircraft out of control.
Selfridge suffered a fractured skull in the crash and died that evening in the nearby Army hospital, becoming the first fatality of an airplane crash.
Orville was badly injured, suffering a broken left leg and four broken ribs.
Twelve years later, after he suffered increasingly severe pains, X-Rays revealed the accident had also caused three hip bone fractures and a dislocated hip.
Here’s something cool… It’s a German-made silent movie (despite the added soundtrack) from 1909 called “Wilbur Wright und seine Flugmaschine” (“Wilbur Wright and his Flying Machine”). It is supposed to be the first-ever use of motion picture aerial photography as filmed from a heavier-than-air aircraft.
It’s beautiful… and if you take a moment to think, you’ll realize just how brilliant these guys were… except for the fact that even after others had used wheels, the Wright Brothers still were reluctant to use them!
If it doesn’t work, try: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dslFMPP0a-M
In July 1909 Orville, with Wilbur assisting, completed the proving flights for the U.S. Army, meeting the requirements of a two-seater able to fly with a passenger for an hour at an average of speed of 40 miles an hour (64 km/h) and land undamaged.
They sold the aircraft to the Army’s Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps for $30,000 (which included a $5,000 bonus for exceeding the speed specification).
Wilbur climaxed an extraordinary year in early October when he flew at New York City’s Hudson-Fulton Celebrations, circling the Statue of Liberty and making a 33-minute flight up and down the Hudson River alongside Manhattan in view of up to one million New Yorkers. These flights solidly established the fame of the Wright brothers in America.
For us non-Americans, the Hudson-Fulton Celebration from September 25 to October 9, 1909 in New York and New Jersey celebrated the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River and the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s first successful commercial application of the paddle steamer. For the record, I named my son Hudson after Henry Hudson mostly for his contributions to Canada.
The Wright Company was incorporated on November 22, 1909. The brothers sold their patents to the company for $100,000 and also received one-third of the shares in a $1,000,000 stock issue and a 10 percent royalty on every airplane sold.
With Wilbur as president and Orville as vice-president, the company set up an airplane factory in Dayton and a flying school/test flight field at Huffman Prairie; the headquarters office was in New York City.
In mid-1910 the Wrights changed the design of their aeroplane, moving the horizontal elevator from the front to the back and adding wheels. It had become apparent by then that a rear elevator would make the airplane easier to control, especially as higher speeds grew more common.
This aircraft was designated the Model B, although the original canard design was never referred to as the ‘Model A’ by the Wrights. However, the US Signal Corps which bought the airplane did call it ‘Wright Type A’.
There were not many customers for aircraft, so in the spring of 1910 the Wrights hired and trained a team of salaried exhibition pilots to show off their machines and win prize money for the company—despite Wilbur’s disdain for what he called “the mountebank business”.
The team debuted at the Indianapolis Speedway on June 13, 1910. Before the year was over, pilots Ralph Johnstone and Arch Hoxsey died in air show crashes, and in November 1911 the brothers disbanded the team on which nine men had served (four other former team members died in crashes afterward).
The Wright Company transported the first known commercial air cargo on November 7, 1910 by flying two bolts of dress silk 65 miles (105 km) from Dayton to Columbus, OH for the Moorehouse-Marten Department Store, which paid a $5,000 fee. Company pilot Phil Parmelee made the flight—which was more an exercise in advertising than a simple delivery—in an hour and six minutes with the cargo strapped in the passenger’s seat. The silk was cut into small pieces and sold as souvenirs.
Between 1910 and 1916 the Wright Company flying school at Huffman Prairie trained 115 pilots who were instructed by Orville and his assistants.
Several trainees became famous, including Henry “Hap” Arnold, who rose to Five-Star General, commanded U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, and became first head of the U.S. Air Force; Calbraith Perry Rodgers, who made the first coast-to-coast flight in 1911 (with many stops and crashes) in a Wright Model EX named the “Vin Fiz” after the sponsor’s soft drink; and Eddie Stinson, founder of the Stinson Aircraft Company.
Neither brother married – so you can all forget about making a claim on their discoveries…
After Wilbur provided a training flight to a German pilot in June of 1911, he never flew again. He became embroiled in the Wright Company business, dealing with lawsuits and other business matters. The lawsuits and patent matters put great stress on Wilbur, spending six months in Europe and making multiple trips back and forth between New York, Washington and Dayton – it put a lot of physical and emotional and mental stress upon him.
Wilbur became ill on a trip to Boston in April of 1912, still weak, he returned to Dayton in early May 1912 and became ill again this time diagnosed with typhoid fever – getting stronger and worse again and again until he passed on May 30, 1912 at the age of 45.
As for Orville… Orville took over the company business in 1912 after his brother’s death. He made his last flight as a pilot in 1908 in a 1911 Model B… retired… and became an elder statesman of aviation, serving on many boards and committees, such as: National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NANA), predecessor agency to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (ACCA), predecessor to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).
Orville died on January 30, 1948, following his second heart attack. One day later, John T. Daniels, the Coast Guardsman who took their famous first flight photo died.
The Wright Brothers are buried in the family plot at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.
Okay… that’s all for now… I am sure you can find greater information elsewhere. However… despite the shortcomings of aeroplane designer Adler… I still think he flew first.
There are all these rules which says a flight must be so many meters long and so high and must have a safe landing – but what the heck?! Adler got his plane up in the – regardless of how low it was – for a certain distance and crashed… but who made the rules (and when) about what constitutes a flight?
I still think the Wright Bros were brilliant, however… but read this HERE, and make up your own mind. But at least we have photographic proof of what the Wright Brothers accomplished.