The Wright Flyer (often retrospectively referred to as Flyer I or 1903 Flyer) was the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft, designed and built by the Wright brothers. They flew it four times on December 17, 1903, near Kill Devil Hills, about four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, U.S. Today, the airplane is exhibited in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
The U.S. Smithsonian Institution describes the aircraft as "...the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard." The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale described the 1903 flight during the 100th anniversary in 2003 as "the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight."
Design and construction
The Flyer was based on the Wrights' experience testing gliders at Kitty Hawk between 1900 and 1902. Their last glider, the 1902 Glider, led directly to the design of the Flyer.
The Wrights built the aircraft in 1903 using 'giant spruce' wood as their construction material. The wings were designed with a 1-in-20 camber. Since they could not find a suitable automobile engine for the task, they commissioned their employee Charlie Taylor to build a new design from scratch. A sprocketchain drive, borrowing from bicycle technology, powered the twin propellers, which were also made by hand.
The Flyer was a canard biplane configuration. As with the gliders, the pilot flew lying on his stomach on the lower wing with his head toward the front of the craft in an effort to reduce drag. He steered by moving a cradle attached to his hips. The cradle pulled wires which warped the wings and turned the rudder simultaneously.
The Flyer's "runway" was a track of 2x4s stood on their narrow edge, which the brothers nicknamed the "Junction Railroad".
The Flyer was conceived as a control-canard, as the Wrights were more concerned with control than stability. However it was found to be so highly unstable it was barely controllable. Following the first flight, ballast was added to the nose to move the center of gravity forward and reduce pitch instability. However the basics of pitch stability of the canard configuration were not understood by the Wright Brothers. F.E.C. Culick stated, "The backward state of the general theory and understanding of flight mechanics hindered them... Indeed, the most serious gap in their knowledge was probably the basic reason for their unwitting mistake in selecting their canard configuration".
Flight trials at Kitty Hawk
Upon returning to Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wrights completed assembly of the Flyer while practicing on the 1902 Glider from the previous season. On December 14, 1903, they felt ready for their first attempt at powered flight. With the help of men from the nearby government life-saving station, the Wrights moved the Flyer and its launching rail to the incline of a nearby sand dune, Big Kill Devil Hill, intending to make a gravity-assisted takeoff. The brothers tossed a coin to decide who would get the first chance at piloting, and Wilbur won. The airplane left the rail, but Wilbur pulled up too sharply, stalled, and came down in about three seconds with minor damage.
Repairs after the abortive first flight took three days. When they were ready again on December 17, the wind was averaging more than 20 mph, so the brothers laid the launching rail on level ground, pointed into the wind, near their camp. This time the wind, instead of an inclined launch, helped provide the necessary airspeed for takeoff. Because Wilbur already had the first chance, Orville took his turn at the controls. His first flight lasted 12 seconds for a total distance of 120 ft (36.5 m) – shorter than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, as noted by observers in the 2003 commemoration of the first flight.
Taking turns, the Wrights made four brief, low-altitude flights that day. The flight paths were all essentially straight; turns were not attempted. Each flight ended in a bumpy and unintended "landing". The last flight, by Wilbur, was 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds, much longer than each of the three previous flights of 120, 175 and 200 feet. The landing broke the front elevator supports, which the Wrights hoped to repair for a possible four-mile (6 km) flight to Kitty Hawk village. Soon after, a heavy gust picked up the Flyer and tumbled it end over end, damaging it beyond any hope of quick repair. It was never flown again.
Aviation historian Carroll F. Gray writes of this picture: "This photograph depicts The Flyer on its last flight of December 17, 1903. The Library of Congress
caption for this photograph reads, in part, 'Distant view of the Wright aircraft just after landing, taken from the starting point...' A closer analysis of the image indicates that The Flyer is actually still aloft, about 17 seconds into the flight, approximately 250 feet distant from the end of the launching track at an altitude of about 10 feet, with about another 600 feet and 42 seconds yet to go."
(Image cropped from original)
In 1904, the Wrights continued refining their designs and piloting techniques in order to obtain fully controlled flight. Major progress toward this goal was achieved with a new Flyer in 1904 and even more decisively in 1905 with a third Flyer, in which Wilbur made a 39-minute, 24-mile (39 km) nonstop circling flight on October 5. While the 1903 Flyer was clearly a historically important test vehicle, its hallowed status in the American imagination has obscured the role of its two successors in the continuing development that led to the Wrights' mastery of controlled powered flight in 1905.