The first flight by the Wright Brothers.
The first flight by the Wright Brothers.
Credit: NASA

This is part of a series of articles on the Most Amazing Flying Machines Ever, the balloons, airplanes, rockets and more that got humans off the ground and in to space.

Almost 58 years before the first human flew in space, the 1903 Wright Flyer became the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air and (to some degree) controlled flying machine.

Wilbur and Orville Wright played with a toy rubber-powered helicopter and flew kites to find their inspiration for flight early in life. Their eventual triumph at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, relied upon innovations in flight control and self-propulsion — both necessary for an aircraft to stay aloft without crashing during its first successful flight tests on Dec. 17, 1903.

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The birth of the Wright brothers' serious interest in flight began with the death of glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal in 1896, according to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Like Lilienthal, the brothers decided to begin experimenting with kite and glider designs to build up to the first aircraft.

Past glider pilots had steered their gliders by shifting around their body weight. But the Wright brothers came up with a more elegant solution — they twisted (warped) the aircraft's wing tips in opposite directions to affect the air flow over the wings. That created different amounts of lift on each wing so that the aircraft would tilt toward one side.

The pilot controlled the warping of the Wright Flyer's wing tips by using wires connected to a hip cradle. That meant Wilbur or Orville Wright could steer by sliding his hips from side to side.

Wind tunnel tests in the fall of 1901 and hundreds of gliding tests in 1902 led to an aircraft design with better lift, a forward elevator to pitch its nose up or down, and a vertical tail rudder for more effective flight control. Such improvements set the stage for the flying machine that would achieve sustained flight in 1903.

A diagram showing the evolution of the Wright Brothers' airplane design, culminating in the vehicle that achieved humanity's first powered flight in 1903.
A diagram showing the evolution of the Wright Brothers' airplane design, culminating in the vehicle that achieved humanity's first powered flight in 1903.
Credit: NASA

Making a flying machine that could do more than glide required the Wright brothers to invent the first working aircraft propellers. They envisioned the propeller as an aircraft wing placed on its side and spun around to create the air flow for horizontal "lift" — the force needed to move an aircraft forward. [10 Traits of Successful Innovators]

The Wright brothers built a 12-horsepower engine to power two propellers mounted behind the wings of their 1903 Flyer. A chain-and-sprocket transmission system connected the engine to the propellers so that it could turn them.

Muslin cotton fabric covered the spruce and ash wood that formed the framework of the 1903 Wright Flyer. The aircraft had a wingspan of 40 feet 4 inches (12.3 meters), a length of 21 feet (6.4 m), a height of 9 feet 3 inches (2.8 m), and weighed 605 pounds (274 kilograms) without a pilot.

The Wright Flyer made its historic 12-second flight on Dec. 17, before flying again three more times and covering a distance of 852 feet (255.6 m) in 59 seconds on the fourth and final flight. The age of powered flight had begun.

— Jeremy Hsu, SPACE.COM Senior Writer


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