Monday, April 15, 2019

Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

The Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center highlights their lives and family with exhibits and programs that tell the story of the Wright Brothers' progress from beginning to first flight. It sits on the actual site where their first four flights took place on December 17, 1903.

They lived most of their lives in Dayton, Ohio. Their parents had seven children and passed on their values to their children: a belief in self-reliance, determination, and hard work; a love of learning, and a strong sense of social justice. 

The Wrights' Dayton Home


Wilbur, Orville and Katherine are extremely close. They have nicknames for each other: Wilbur is "Ullam", Orville is "Bubbo" and Katharine is "Swes" or "Sterchens." Katharine is only 15 when her mother dies. Supporting the family, she steps into the role of homemaker. She goes on to college and becomes a teacher. She is the only one of the Wright children to go to college.

Wilbur (above right in 1905 at age 38) is smart, well-spoken, quick-witted, able to retain facts and put things in a logical order, an athlete (gymnastics and cycling), and a natural leader. He is shy, calm, quiet and a little rumply. In 1912, he dies of typhoid fever, most likely from eating raw oysters.

Orville (above left in 1905 at age 34) is a dreamer, an idealist, a restless thinker, and a sharp dresser. He's mechanically minded ~ he can see why something does not work, fix it, and then make it better. He's an avid reader, a good cook, and a keen cyclist. Shy in public, Orville is a prankster and a chatterbox at home.

The Bat
In 1892 they opened up The Wright Bicycle Shop, which is where they experimented with flight. Their interest started when their father bought them a simple toy called the Bat, a wind-up toy powered by a rubber band. They eventually studied the designs of their predecessors.

George Cayley (1773-1857) was the father of aerodynamics. His 1804 glider model incorporated most design elements of a modern airplane. Alphonse Penaud (1850-80) built a rubber band powered "planophore" model. Its 131-foot flight was the first of an inherently stable aircraft.

Lilienthal in his hand glider
German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96) wrecked his glider in 1896, which cost him his life. Between 1891 and 1896 Otto Lilienthal made over 2,000 successful glider flights and is considered the world's most successful aviator. Again and again, Wilbur and Orville turn to Lilienthal's data on aerodynamics. In 1896, the death of Lilienthal reignites Orville & Wilbur's childhood interest in flight. They start to study what others may have done and imagine what might be. Soon their curiosity becomes their passion. 

Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), American engineer and head of the Smithsonian Institution. He thinks that a powerful motor is essential. In late 1903 he tests his motorized aircraft over the Potomac River in Virginia. Both times it falls into the water, but he survives.

Octave Chanute (1832-1910) was an American civil engineer, born in France. He thinks the problem of flight cannot be solved alone. He corresponds with aviation pioneers around the world to gather and publish ideas. Chanute and aviation pioneer Augustus Sheering (above) build a biplane in 1896 with bracing based on bridge design. It does not produce enough lift.

Percy Pilcher (1866-1899) was a British inventor. He thinks a powered machine is the way to go, but he first experiments with gliders. In 1899 he crashes his Hawk glider and dies two days later from his injuries.

Hiram Maxim (1840-1916) was an American-born inventor. He thinks the solution to flight is developing an internal-combustion engine. In 1890 he gets a few inches off the ground and goes 50 yards in a steam engine aircraft, but cannot control it.

From research and observation, Wilbur and Orville think the answer to control may lie in the way birds fly. Birds twist their wings, ever so slightly, to keep control in air currents. But how could the brothers replicate that motion with a flying machine's fixed wings?

Wilbur and Orville combine their wing-twisting ideas with a kite bracing system they borrow from this glider, created by Octave Chanute and Augustus Herring in 1896. The kite is controlled with four lines running from the top and bottom of the front outer struts to a pair of sticks held by the operator. Tilting the sticks in opposite directions causes the wing structure to twist.

Wilbur and Orville experiment with their glider at Kitty Hawk in 1901. Here, they fly it like a kite. Encouraged by their success with the 1899 kite, they take the next step: testing their theories with gliders. In September 1900, after their busy season at the cycle shop in Dayton is over, they come to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The 1900 glider is flown as a kite. To reduce the risk of crashing, they add an "elevator" in front of the wings. It helps control pitch (the movement up and down).

1899 Kite

1900 Glider

1901 Glider 

1902 Glider

Model of the Wrights' Airplane
The four obstacles they had to overcome were:

(1) Lift
(2) Control
The brothers major breakthrough is their invention of three-axis control (roll, pitch, and yaw). The wings and hip cradle (wing-warping), elevator, and rudder help Wilbur and Orville master controlled turns in the sky.

(3) Thrust

(4) Power
Wind helped with lift
Sand provided a soft landing
Wilbur and Orville tested and proved their flight theories in Dayton, Ohio. To test the actual flight, however, they needed a special location to experiment. Using US Weather Bureau statistics, they looked for a place that was windy, sandy, and out of the public eye. They found Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks to be the right place to test their gliders.

View of Kitty Hawk from the Wrights' camp in 1900. During 1901, 1902, and 1903, they worked at Kitty Hawk in late summer through autumn. 

Local fisherman hold the glider's wings as they launch it off a sand dune in 1901. Wilbur is the pilot.

The brothers spent countless hours studying birds' flight in Dayton and Kitty Hawk to see what it might teach them. They watch how different birds glide, soar and move their wings to stay airborne ~ and imitate their motions. 

Part of the Wrights' success lies in key refinement. In 1902 they added a fixed rudder but problems continue with the glider spinning into the ground. The movable rudder and wing-warping system is controlled by the hip cradle, allowing the pilot to operate both controls in a single motion. The brothers can now fully control the aircraft and safely turn in the air.

With lift and control now mastered, they tackle thrust (propellers) and power (engine) during winter 1902 and spring 1903. They find the engine is the easier of the two to produce. The design of the propellers is one of the most difficult challenges they faced.

The First Flight
On the morning of December 17, 1903, puddles of water around the hanger are frozen and a cold wind blows from the north. Friends of the Wrights are there to help move the flyer to the launch site. After a final check, the brothers each pull a propeller and the engine starts to roar. They step aside, speak quietly, and shake hands. Orville boards the flyer. At 10:35 am, Orville slips the rope restraining the flyer. The flyer is moving down the rail while Wilbur runs alongside holding the wing. Before reaching the end of the rail, the flyer is in the air and Orville is flying! He flies for 12 seconds and 120 feet. For the first time in history, when most people thought flying was just a fantasy, the brothers prove that that anything is possible.

The second flight was 175 feet in 12 seconds; the third flight was 200 feet in 15 seconds, and the fourth and final flight was 852 feet in 59 seconds.

Their new goal was to fly for extended periods under pilot control. In 1904 and 1905 they built new airplanes, and tested them at Huffman Prairie, a cow pasture that's a short trolley ride from their Dayton home. On October 5, 1905, Wilbur flies for 39 minutes and over 24 miles. In the 1905 Flyer, the first practical airplane, circling flights of up to 38 minutes became routine. When the Wrights offered the Flyer to the US Army, it was dubious of their achievement and refused to meet with the brothers. Unwilling to show their control system without a written contract in hand, the Wrights did not fly for another three years.

The Wrights' refusal to fly caused even early believers to doubt their success. By 1908 a French pilot had flown for over 20 minutes. That year the Wrights signed contracts with the US Army and France and showed the world what they could do ~ Wilbur in France and Orville in America. 

On August 8, 1908, crowds gather in Le Mans, France to watch Wilbur fly, and witness history being made. Overnight the brothers become global celebrities. In September Orville flies at Fort Myer, Virginia.

After Wilbur flew a circle under good lateral control and landed gently, no one questioned that the Wrights had truly mastered flight. The French attempts were shaky, barely on the edge of control. Wilbur's was effortless, graceful and decisive. In other flights he flew over two hours and reached an altitude of 360 feet, showing the Flyer's ability and endurance. 

By 1910 the rest of the world had caught up. The French refined the Wright design with monoplane wings, closed body, front propeller, rear elevator, single stick control, wheels, and ailerons. But the principle behind the Wrights' control system was unchanged. A 1911 Wright Model B reflecting some of these changes is the prototype for planes today.

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