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The Wright Brothers
Background Essay
Essay Home - Wing Warping - Why Kitty Hawk? - Breakthrough - Takeoff - History's First Drafts


The 1903 Wright Flyer had the same basic structure as the 1902 glider, but it was larger and sturdier to accommodate the weight of the motor, the transmission system, and two rear-mounted propellers.  It had a wingspan of just over forty feet and weighed just over six hundred pounds.  A front rudder, or elevator, controlled up-and-down motion.  A rear rudder controlled side-to-side motion.  The wing-warping system controlled the roll of the craft.  The pilot, lying prone in a cradle on the bottom wing, could operate the front rudder with a lever.  He could operate the rear rudder and the wing-warping system simultaneously by shifting his hips in the cradle. 

On the underside were two skids that rested on a little trolley.  The trolley fit over a monorail track.  The Flyer would move along the track to build up speed for takeoff.

On December 14, 1903, the Wrights laid sixty feet of the track down the slope of a sand hill.  With the help of the lifesaving men, they carried the Flyer to the top.  They tossed a coin to decide who would take the first turn as pilot.  Wilbur won.

Orville held on to one of the wing tips and ran alongside to steady the Flyer as it rolled down the track.  It slid so fast that in just a moment he had to let go.  Wilbur turned up the front rudder, but at too sharp an angle.  After rising about fifteen feet, the Flyer stalled and fell back down to the sand.

For their next attempt, on the morning of December 17, the Wrights laid the track on the sand flats.  It was windy enough that they did not need the extra force of gravity.  A successful launch from level ground would be better proof that the machine could lift itself. 

It was Orville’s turn to be pilot.  On this, the historic twelve-second flight, he had the same kind of trouble—the front rudder responded too readily, so that the Flyer rode bumpily on the air.  Each brother took two turns that morning.  On the fourth flight, Wilbur stayed in the air for almost a minute and traveled 852 feet.

While the brothers were discussing what to do next, a strong wind tipped the Flyer.  One of the lifesaving men, John T. Daniels, tried to hold on to it, but got tangled in the wires and went tumbling away with the machine.  Daniels suffered a few bruises.  For the rest of his life he would say that he was the first victim of an airplane crash.

The Flyer could not be fixed at Kitty Hawk, but it hardly mattered.  The brothers were eager to get back to Dayton for Christmas.  As they told the press a few weeks later, “We at once packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.”

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