The story, as I first heard it, was that Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics who invented an airplane.

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 1...

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They were bicycle and printing press mechanics, repairmen, manufacturers and sellers, and used these revenues to explore how to build a machine to fly.

But it wasn’t that they built the first human-powered flight, in any case. It was that they built the first fixed-wing plane that the pilot could control and steer while he flew.

They recognized right from the beginning that solving this problem was key to practical flight and invented a three-axis control system that is used in fixed-wing aircraft to this day.

Others at the time thought the key was a more powerful engine.

But, it was the Wright Brothers’ experience with the balance necessary to keep a bicyle upright that led them to the insight that they needed to control the balance, or orientation, of an airplane to keep it up.

They were also convinced pilots had to practice, just like learning to ride a bicycle required practice, instead of assuming that, like a ship, if you just get it in the air, it will fly level and steady.

They learned their piloting skills by building and flying gliders, both manned and unmanned. Yet, the death of another glider convinced them that simply changing your balance, like you do on a bike, was not enough control for safe flight. Pilots needed a control system to adjust the three orientations in the air.

They built a wind tunnel to test the effect of various wing and propeller designs.

The three axes are nose up or down (pitch), wings up on the left or right (roll), and nose turning left or right (yaw). All three of these axes have to be stabilized in order to stay in the air and fly in the direction you want.

Changing the pitch, pointing the nose up or down, makes you climb or descend, but if you do either too fast you will lose that delicate lift that keeps the plane in the air and stall (nose too far up) or spiral (nose too far down).

Changing the yaw, by pointing the nose left or right, changes its direction and helps stabilize the plane during the turn.

Changing the roll, that is dipping either the left or right wing, turns you in that direction even faster.

They applied for a patent on this three-axis control system for their “flying machine” on March 23, 1903.

The Wright Brothers credit their father’s gift of a toy helicopter, invented by a French aeronautical engineer, when they were 7 and 11, with inspiring their interest in flight. They flew it until it broke, then made their own.

On December 17, 1903, at 10:25 AM, Orville made a 120-foot flight that lasted 12 seconds, at a speed of 6.8 miles per hour, at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the first controlled, sustained, powered, heavier-than-air man’s flight.

Wilbur and Orville, respectively, then flew 175 feet and 200 feet, about 10 feet above the ground.

The fourth and last flight of the day was flown by Wilbur, for 852 feet, lasting 59 seconds. Damaged by a gust of  wind as it was being put away, that was the plane’s last flight ever.

It was another eight months, August 1904, before they were able to fly longer than the longest Kitty Hawk flight. By September, they had flown the first circle and by December, a year after their first flights, had accumulated about 50 minutes of flight time.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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