Wright Brothers Experiment with Gliders - History

Wright Brothers Experiment with Gliders  - History

Wilbur and Orville Wright began flying gliders at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Gliders were flown primarily from Big Kill and Devil Hill.

Not within a Thousand Years .

The Wright brothers returned to North Carolina in July, 1901. They made their camp in Kill Devil Hills, rather than Kitty Hawk, as they found the large hills there more congenial to flight tests than the beaches of Kitty Hawk. The glider was an enlarged version of the 1900 glider. The wings were 22' wide and 7' deep, and offered more than 300 square feet of lifting surface to the stiff Outer Bank winds.

Click here for access to pictures from 1901 (from the mother web site)

Unfortunately, the 1901 glider still did not have adequate lift. Various attempts at free flight were made, the longest flight on August 8 covered a distance of 389 feet. The Wrights often tested their glider as a kite, in an effort to better understand how much lift the craft produced. It was clear that some error had crept into the formula they used to compute lift. The Wrights suspected the measurements of lift made by Lilienthal, although they also were aware that the Coefficient of Lift ("Smeaton's coefficient") could be wrong.

A high glide (photo Octave Chanute)

Still, the results of 1901 were discouraging. Wilbur wrote:
"When we left Kitty Hawk at the end of 1901, we doubted that we would ever resume our experiments. Although we had broken the record for distance in gliding, and although Mr. Chanute, who was present at that time, assured us that our results were better than had ever before been attained, yet when we looked at the time and money which we had expended, and considered the progress made and the distance yet to go, we considered our experiments a failure. At this time I made the prediction that men would sometime fly, but that it would not be within our lifetime."

Phrases, like fish that get away, have an odd habit of growing larger over time. Orville later remember that Wilbur had remarked "Not within a thousand years would man ever fly!" Fortunately the two brothers proved Wilbur wrong the very next year.

The 1901 glider flies low over the ground (photo Octave Chanute)

* NOTE: The longest distance for this glider is sometimes reported as 335 feet in length, a distance mentioned in the Chanute/Huffaker diary for August 9, 1901. However, Table "No. 2" on page 158 of the Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright indicates that glide number 7 on August 8 covered a distance of 389 feet.

All photos on these aviation history pages may be freely used for educational purposes.
Researched, written, and partly designed by Gary Bradshaw.
This page created 7/26/96 by webmaster Steve Wright updated 12/24/06.

The Wright Brothers: A Centennial Tribute

Otto Lilienthal, 1896 In 1895, the Wright Brothers read a paper by the German Otto Lilienthal concerning experiments with gliders. Lilienthal was "the father of gliding flight."
Otto Lilienthal, 1893 Sadly in the summer of 1896 his glider stalled and he fell 50 feet to his death. None-the-less, the brothers were inspired and tried to read all available material on Lilienthal's experiments, as well as those of other aviation pioneers. However, they had trouble finding a large variety of material. In a historic letter, Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian Institute in May 1899 to request material concerning human flight.
Langley in his "aerodrome", and Octave Chanute He received a reply in June which suggested readings by Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, and Octave Chanute. After reading the material, the brothers realized that in spite of all the research done, little significant progress had been made towards solving the problem. In terms of gliders, there are two engineering problems to address: producing leftwith the wings, and controlling the glider once it is in the air. Lilienthal had controlled his glider by shifting his weight, though he died in the process. Orville came up with the idea of varying the inclination of the wing tips in order to restore a glider to level flight. The process is called wing warping and was a large part of the Wright's patent claim made some years later.

A Reproduction of the 1899 glider To apply their ideas, the brothers made their first glider in August 1899. It was basically a biplane consisting of two five foot wings with an elevator at the rear.
Wing Warping with the 1899 glider They attached strings to the tips of the wings which they then attached to sticks. By manipulating the sticks, they could warp the wings and cause the glider (which more properly should be called a kite) to rise up and dive down on command. The brothers were pleased with the outcomes of their experiments.

In December 1899, they wrote to the Weather Bureau in Washington D.C. to gather information on wind conditions at various places around the country. They also wrote Octave Chanute telling of their plans for experiments with a man-carrying kite and asking him for suggestions on locations to perform the experiments. Chanute suggested a coastal location and recommended southern California, Florida, and the Carolinas. Taking into consideration Chanute's information and the data from the Weather Bureau, they decided on a small coastal town relatively close to Dayton: Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The 1900 Glider In late summer of 1900, the brothers began construction of their 1900 glider. With an estimated expenditure of about $15, they built another biplane kite. This time the elevator was put at the front. The total lifting area was 165 square feet. They gathered materials in Dayton and completed construction at Kitty Hawk. They mostly flew the kite with about 50 pounds of chain aboard. They did get about 10 minutes of experience with a man aboard, but they also flew it as a glider, but for only a total of about 2 minutes. The wing warping and front elevator performed well. However, the lift which was expected was not realized.
The 1900 Glider after a Crash Lilienthal had produced state-of-the-art tables concerning lift. However, the Wright's experiments seemed to contradict the tables.

The 1901 Glider Flown as a Kite For 1901, the Wrights set out to build the largest glider anyone had ever tried to fly. They constructed a biplane glider with 22 foot wings, a front elevator, a lifting area of 290 square feet, and a weight of about 98 pounds.
Wilbur in the 1901 Glider The brothers built a shed near Kill Devil Hill where they made camp and stored the glider.

Camp and Hanger in 1903 The summer of 1901 was a difficult one and the brothers were plagued by mosquitoes and sand fleas. Though the Wrights broke all distance records for gliding, the overall results were disappointing to them. Following the 1901 experiments, Wilbur is alleged to have claimed that "Not within a thousand years would man ever fly!" However, Octave Chanute had witnessed some of the gliding experiments that season and strongly encouraged the brothers to continue. Somewhat frustrated, Orville made a small wind-tunnel in late 1901 (the first ever) in which he tested a number of shapes of wings.
The Wright's Wind Tunnel Initial success lead the brothers to build a larger wind-tunnel in which they tested more than 200 types of wings. The results of these laboratory experiments were to generate tables of lift values from which one might design an airplane that could fly. Additionally, their tables indicated that the accepted values of Lilienthal were inaccurate. These tables were, at the time, the Wright brothers greatest contribution to aviation. However, they wished to apply this data to an actual glider. This they did with great success in 1902.

The 1902 Glider Flown as a Kite The 1902 machine had roughly the same lifting area as the 1901 glider, but contained other modifications suggested by the wind-tunnel experiments. The most noticeable change was the addition of a vertical tail fin (giving the 1902 glider an appearance very similar to the 1903 flyer).
Wilbur in the 1902 Glider During September and October 1902, the brothers made over a thousand gliding flights, some of them for a distance of over 600 feet. The successes of the 1902 season gave the Wrights' the knowledge to address the two requirements for gliding flight: lift and control (though some modifications had to be made to optimize control). But, for powered flight, they needed to solve a third problem: thrust, which would be provided by an engine.

The Wright Brothers 1900 Glider Experiments at Kitty Hawk

Before the Wright Brothers, all other attempts to fly were failures. In 1896, the death of the famous German glider pilot Otto Lilienthal, victim of a glider accident, discouraged further attempts to fly by the Europeans. The death of Lilienthal after six successive years of experiments involving 2,000 glides, had the opposite effect on the Wrights. It strengthened their resolve to find the solution.

They began by studying the available literature. They found no books on the subject of aeronautics in the Dayton Library. At the time, aeronautics was a discredited subject and consequently the libraries did not ordinarily carry books on that subject.

They wrote and received material from the Smithsonian Institution and from Octave Chanute. Chanute, author of “Progress in Flying Machines,” was an internationally respected Chicago aeronautic historian and experimenter. Wilbur wrote to Chanute and an extraordinary collaboration resulted that included 435 letters that continued until Chanute’s death in 1910

From Lilienthal they were reinforced in their idea to learn to fly gliders before advancing to powered machines and the use of cambered wings. They also used the aerodynamic coefficients that were developed by Lilienthal in their design calculations for their gliders.

On the whole, Wilbur was not impressed with the information he found. The main thing he learned was the mistakes that others had made. He concluded that the problem of flight was so vast and many-sided that no one could hope to win unless possessed with the unusual ability to grasp the essential points and to ignore the nonessentials.

Orville and Wilbur, unlike the others, who kept doing the same things and got the same unsatisfactory results, identified the essential issues of flight were lift and control, but especially control – the ability to balance and steer the machine in flight.

Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute, “My observation of the flight of buzzards leads me to believe that they regain their lateral balance when partly overturned by a gust of wind, by a torsion of the tips of the wings.”

To test his theory, in 1899, he built and flew a 5-foot biplane box kite at Ahlers Park not far from his home in Dayton. Wilbur rigged the kite with four cords that were arranged so that he could exercise control of flight by twisting the wing tips of the kite simultaneously in opposite directions, a process Chanute named as wing warping.

It worked! It would enable the Wrights to build the ability to control a flying machine into the machine itself.

By 1900, the Wrights had progressed sufficiently in their engineering analysis of the mystery of flying that they were ready to conduct real life experiments using gliders.

Their 5-foot kite had worked, but they were not sure that it would work with a scaled-up glider. They remembered that a scaled-up version of a toy helicopter they made as children, did not work.

They designed a glider with a forward elevator (canard) and used the latest data available on the appropriate camber shape for the wings. The glider had a wingspan of 17-feet, 5-inches and weighed 52 pounds. It cost $15. Now they needed a place to experiment with the glider.

They wanted a location that provided privacy, sufficient wind for lift, and sand for soft landings. The latter was important because many others had died in their attempts at flying. A popular saying at the time was: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old and bold pilots.”

It is a good thing they considered safety because in hindsight their glider had many problems and was dangerous to fly.

They considered a number of locations such as California, Florida and South Carolina. Kitty Hawk was in sixth place on the list of windy locations provided by the weather bureau. What drew them to the little fishing village of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was Bill Tate.

Bill, 40 years old, was a Currituck County commissioner, notary public and the assistant postmaster of Kitty Hawk. He also was the best-educated citizen of Kitty Hawk, a town with a population of about 60. He found out about the Wrights when Wilbur wrote to the government weather station on Kitty Hawk on August 3, 1900 inquiring about weather conditions.

Somehow the letter was transferred to Tate to answer. Tate, who was interested in promoting this remote area, wrote the Wrights that Kitty Hawk offered excellent conditions for their experiments, “including a sandy beach with a bare hill in the center 80 feet high with no trees or bushes to obstruct the wind.” As further inducement, he offered his family’s hospitality.

The Wrights accepted the invitation and as it turned out, the Tate family was a big help. Bill and his half brother, Dan, assisted with the experiments and even Dan’s 9-year old son occasionally served as ballast on the glider. Orville used Bill Tate’s wife’s sewing machine to sew the French sateen fabric on the wings.

Wilbur wrote to his father, “It is my belief that flight is possible and, while I am taking up the investigation for pleasure rather than profit, I think there is a slight possibility of achieving fame and fortune from it.”

The technical problems of flying weren’t the only problems that Orville and Wilbur Wright had to overcome. Getting themselves and their equipment from Dayton, Ohio, to Kitty Hawk was difficult and dangerous. Wilbur almost drowned in a storm in Albermarle Sound on this first trip in 1900.

On September 6, 1900, Wilbur left Dayton by train headed for Kitty Hawk for the first of what became four annual trips. Orville would follow later with the camping equipment. Wilbur had with him the disassembled glider and all the tools needed for the experiments, except for the long spruce spars used in the wings. He planned to buy those in Norfolk, Virginia.

He arrived in Old Point Comfort, Virginia and a day later took the ferry to Norfolk. The next day he tried to buy the spruce wing spars but had to settle for white pine that were two feet shorter than the planned eighteen-foot length. As a result, this required an unplanned design modification to the wings upon arrival at Kitty Hawk. That change reduced the area of the wings and consequently the effectiveness of their “lift” experiments.

The day in Norfolk was an unseasonably hot 100 degrees. Wilbur, always properly dressed in a suit and wearing a starched collar, almost had a heat stroke. However, the greatest obstacle to his health was yet to come.

In those days there were no bridges to Kitty Hawk. The usual way people ventured to Kitty Hawk was by a small sailboat from Manteo, Roanoke Island, NC. Manteo is located 50 miles from Elizabeth City.

Wilbur was impatient and decided to take a shortcut, bypassing Manteo. Arriving in Elizabeth City, he decided to rent a boat to take him directly to Kitty Hawk.

He was able to secure passage on a schooner owned by Israel Perry, a resident of Kitty Hawk. Perry’s schooner was anchored several miles away and could be reached only by a flat-bottomed fishing boat that Perry lived on.

Wilbur set out on the fishing boat with a trunk and the 16-foot wing spars. There wasn’t room for the crates that held the dissembled glider so he left them behind in storage to be forwarded later by a freight boat.

The fishing boat rode low in the water and it wasn’t long before all hands, including Wilbur, had to bail water to keep the boat afloat. In this manner they reached Perry’s schooner, the Curlicue. Any feeling of relief the party may have had wouldn’t last long.

The worst was yet to come.

The Curlicue set sail down the Pasquotank River into Albemarle Sound about nightfall. Shortly thereafter, with little warning, a storm struck. The Curlicue began to violently roll in the waves and sprung an ominous leak. Once again everyone had to bail water.

The schooner couldn’t be turned around because of the danger of being swamped, so they headed into the wind and managed to go back up around the tip of Camden Point. In the process, the foresail blew loose and Wilbur was pressed into service to help take it down. Then the mainsail tore loose and caused the stern to swing around to the wind, allowing waves to break over the stern.

Fortunately, the schooner made relative safety of the North River by reaching a sandbar with only the jib taking the wind. Disaster was prevented. They rode out the rest of the storm at anchor. A drenched Wilbur spent the night on the deck trying to sleep.

The next day the weather cleared and the Curlicue set sail again for Kitty Hawk, arriving that night at the wharf. It was dark when they arrived. Not knowing the way, Wilbur spent another night sleeping on the deck.

The next morning Wilbur arrived at the Tate house famished, exhausted and bedraggled. He hadn’t eaten anything in the past 48 hours but some jelly his sister, Katharine, had packed for him.

A young neighbor boy, Elijah Baum, showed Wilbur the way to the house. When Tate answered the door, Wilbur took off his cap and introduced himself as the man “to whom you wrote concerning this section.” His arrival was a surprise to the Tates because he had not bothered to write and tell them he was coming. However, the Tates were very gracious and made room for Wilbur in their house.

It had taken Wilbur a week to journey from Dayton to Kitty Hawk. He stayed at the Tate’s house until Orville arrived two weeks later. Orville had an easier trip of four days. His only problem was his boat became becalmed on Albemarle Sound for a day because of no wind.

The people at Kitty Hawk thought they were eccentric as they dressed in suits as the middle class did in those days. The villagers also were not sure that God meant man to fly. But it turned out that it wasn’t long before the Wright were accepted.

Experiments Had Mixed Results

The results of their glider experiments were mixed. They used a spring scale to measure lift and measured the angle of attack and wind speed. Their biggest disappointment was that the glider did not produce as much lift as they had predicted. The unmanned glider would not fly in a wind of less than 22 mph. They thought it might be because they had had to substitute the two-foot shorter spars than called for in their design.

Their original design would have provided a wing area of 250 square feet. Because of the design change, the area was reduced to 165 square feet.

They also considered other causes of inadequate lift. The camber of the wing might be insufficient, the cloth used in the wings might not be sufficiently air tight, and the Lilienthal tables that they used in their lift calculations might be in error.

They mostly flew their glider as a kite, sometimes attached to a derrick. They even tried throwing it off the brow of a dune. Sometimes they placed chain on the craft to add weight. Young Tom Tate, Bill Tate’s eight-year-old nephew, rode the glider several times.

The first day they began glider experiments flying the glider as a kite. It didn’t take long before Wilbur wanted to try his hand at flying on the glider. Orville and Bill Tate each grabbed the wing tips on each side along with 15-20 feet of coiled line tied to each side. Wilbur took a position in the cutout on the middle of the lower wing. It was much like a beginner at hang gliding learns to fly today.

At Wilbur’s signal, all three ran with the glider into the wind. Wilbur jumped aboard and grabbed the elevator control while placing his feet on the T-bar at the rear.

Meanwhile Orville and Tate begin playing out the line slowly as the glider rose in the wind. At the height of 15-feet the glider began to pitch rapidly up and down. Wilbur yelled, “Let me down.”

Orville and Tate pulled on the ropes and gently the glider came down and landed without incident. Wilbur commented: “I promised Pop I would take care of myself.”

On September 23 Wilbur wrote to his father: “I do not intend to take dangerous chances, both because I have no wish to get hurt and because a fall would stop my experimenting, which I would not like at all. The man who wishes to keep at the problem long enough to really learn anything positively must not take dangerous risks. Carelessness and over confidence are usually more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks.”

Wilbur decided that they would continue their testing with the glider unmanned. They erected a derrick from which a rope was attached to the glider. They would send the glider up to about 20 feet and control it by manipulation of strings attached to the elevator (they called it the rudder at that time). They had problems, however, because the glider wanted to keep climbing in the wind and when they pulled hard on the strings to bring it down, it would dart for the ground.

They decided that flying the kite from a tower wasn’t going to work. They then flew the glider from the ground but discovered that it was very difficult to manipulate the wing warping and rudder mechanism’s simultaneously. The problem seemed to be with the elevator.

The wing warping system for lateral control worked satisfactorily, but there were problems with the elevator used for pitch control (nose up and down). Orville wrote home to his sister, Katharine, “We tried it with tail (elevator) in front, behind, and every other way. When we got through, Will was so mixed up he couldn’t even theorize.”

They even tossed their unmanned glider off the brow of a dune to see what would happen. They learned that the glider would come down with little damage. That gave them confidence in the airworthiness of their design.

Their last day at Kitty Hawk, October 19, was perfect for gliding. Wilbur decided to get on and fly the glider again. The wing warping was tied off. Orville and Tate at the wingtips ran with the glider as long as possible to maintain lateral balance as it skimmed down the slope of the dune. By the end of the day Wilbur made a number of glides of 300-400 feet, lasting as long as 15 seconds, flying within 5-feet of the ground. This was as good as Octave Chanute and Lilienthal had been able to achieve. He was jubilant, sufficiently so to look forward to returning next year with an improved glider.

Before departure from Kitty Hawk, they gave the glider one last toss from the top of the dune. The Wrights told Mrs. Tate she could have the French sateen fabric covering the wings to make new dresses for her two daughters. One of her daughters, interviewed years later, still had her dress.

Although they were disappointed with the lift of their glider, they were pleased overall with their first attempt to fly. Wilbur wrote to Chanute, “The short time at our disposal for practice prevented as thorough tests of these features as we desired, but the results obtained were very favorable and experiments will be continued along the same line next year.”

They also had a good time on what they considered their vacation. They supplemented their food supply by hunting. “This is a great country for fishing and hunting,” Orville wrote to his sister. “The fish are so thick you see dozens of them whenever you look down into the water. The woods are filled with wild game, they say even a few “b’ars” are prowling about the woods not far away.”

It was also significant that Orville became committed to the project and Wilbur for the first time began using “we” when describing their activities.

Brief History of the Ancient Human Dream of Human Flight

The ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who built wings to escape prison, depicted both the attraction and the dangers of flying. (Image: Wmpearl/Public domain)

First Flight

The winds were blowing at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In the nearby lonely Kill Devil Hills, part of the Outer Banks barrier islands of North Carolina, the cold winds were more intense, reaching speeds up to 21 miles per hour. Occasionally, sand from the beach swirled up.

It was the morning of December 17, 1903, at 10:35. A small cluster of seven people were standing by the side of a strange long contraption: a frame covered with muslin cloth. Two men, both dressed with a certain odd formality in white shirts with dark ties and dark suits, were the focus of attention.

They shook hands, then one man lay down upon the structure, which vibrated with the pulse of a machine, and then started to move along a track on the ground. The other man ran alongside the sliding object.

Then, suddenly, the structure lifted up into the air. This thing, which its inventors called the Wright Flyer, sailed up in the air. For 12 seconds, it stayed up in the air, and then smacked down into the sand, after having traversed 120 feet. Later flights lasted longer and went further.

This was an exhilarating turning point in human history, as two bicycle engineers on a lonely beach broke the shackles of Earth for the very first time, achieving the ancient human dream of steered and powered human flight.

Ancient Stories of Flight

Today, we’ve become so used to the routine of air travel that it’s difficult to imagine a time before this, to really feel the wonder that clung to the very idea of flying. The possibility of humans soaring like birds had been declared impossible many times, and yet this was always a permanent fantasy of the human race.

The heavens were both alluring and forbidding they were the realm of divinity, not of humans. From the earliest art, gods and angels and spirits were depicted with wings added to human-like forms, to show their power and transcendence literally their ability to rise above. Psalm 55 exclaims, for instance, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove. I would fly away.”

The ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus depicted both the attraction and the dangers of flying. In this story, to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete, the inventor Daedalus built himself and his son wings of wax and feathers, and then they both took off for freedom, over the waters of the Mediterranean.

In the process, Daedalus warned Icarus to take a middle course, flying above the waves but not too close to the Sun, not too high, because that would melt the artificial wings. But his son Icarus, once he had begun flying, was just enraptured by the sheer joy of it, and flew too high, until the Sun melted his wings and he fell to his death. So from the very beginnings, there was a cautionary note about the entrancing prospect of flying.

Over the centuries, in each age, there were men who were driven by this dream to fly, who sought to recreate birdlike wings to get themselves aloft after jumping from heights. Predictably, many of these intrepid souls ended up killing themselves in the attempt.

In the 15 th and 16 th centuries, the genius inventor Leonardo da Vinci also had a lifelong fascination with flight, but fortunately he did not injure himself with such practical experiments. He mused, “A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law … which it is within the capacity of man to reproduce.” Showing great prudence, Leonardo advised anyone who did want to experiment with flying to do so near a lake, in order to avoid injury.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Montgolfier Brothers and Their Hot Air Balloon

The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Étienne, built the first hot air balloons. (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Public domain)

Just before the epic events of the French Revolution, two brothers achieved something marvelous in France. These were the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Étienne, who had observed a fascinating fact: lighting a fire under a bag would cause it to rise. This led the Montgolfiers to build the first hot air balloons.

At the palace at Versailles in September 1783, the Montgolfiers demonstrated their invention for the king of France, Louis XVI, in happier days. Their balloon did not take up human subjects, but instead, a sheep, a rooster, and a duck. The crowds were astonished.

Then, in November of 1783, with the American scientist Benjamin Franklin watching, the Montgolfiers’ balloon actually carried two men over Paris. Yet steering such an aircraft remained a problem.

Other Major Experiments with Human Flight

In Britain, the engineer George Cayley experimented with gliders throughout the first half of the 19 th century. One of his great advances involved understanding the importance of streamlining to reduce air resistance.

It is said that, in 1853, Cayley built a glider and had his coachman fly it across a valley. The experiment was a success, but the coachman on returning to earth is said to have immediately quit his job, complaining to Cayley that he had been hired to drive, not to fly.

Experiments with lighter-than-air craft continued, using hydrogen gas to lift the vehicles. In the year 1900, the German Count von Zeppelin pioneered airships named after himself. Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was heir to a coffee fortune, was absolutely obsessed with flying, as well.

In fact, in his apartment in Paris he actually ate meals in the air on a specially designed table and chairs that were six feet high. The waiter would need to get a ladder in order to serve this budding flyer and his guests. In 1901, Santos-Dumont flew above and around the Eiffel Tower in a dirigible.

Otto Lilienthal made scientifically documented flights in the early 1890s. He died in a failed flight in 1896. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The German engineer Otto Lilienthal, in the 1890s, further perfected gliders. He produced graceful birdlike forms from which the pilot dangled. However, Lilienthal turned out to be one in a long line of aviation fatalities. He died in a gliding accident in 1896.

It was Lilienthal’s crash and his fate that inspired the Wright Brothers. Orville Wright remembered afterwards that, “Flight was generally looked upon as an impossibility.” This did not deter the Wright brothers it actually provoked them. As Wilbur Wright somewhat understatedly confessed, For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.”

Common Questions about the History of Human Flight

The story of Icarus is an ancient Greek myth , in which Icarus and his father Daedalus tried to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete. Daedalus built himself and his son wings of wax and feathers, and then they both took off for freedom, over the waters of the Mediterranean. Daedalus warned Icarus to take a middle course, flying above the waves but not too close to the sun, as that would melt the artificial wings. But Icarus was just enraptured by the sheer joy of flying, and flew too high, until the sun melted his wings and he fell to his death.

The Montgolfier brothers observed that lighting a fire under a bag caused it to rise. Inspired by this they built the first hot air balloon. And in 1783 they organized several public demonstrations, including for the king of France, Louis XVI at the palace at Versailles in September 1783.

During the demonstration of their hot air balloon for the king of France, the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a rooster, and a duck up in the air. Later, in November of 1783, with the American scientist Benjamin Franklin watching, the Montgolfier brothers actually sent two men over Paris in the hot air balloon.

The German engineer Otto Lilienthal is known for perfecting the design of gliders . He produced graceful birdlike forms from which the pilot dangled. Unfortunately, Lilienthal died in a gliding accident in 1896.

Did you know six years before the Wright Bros. famous flight a manned glider flew 15 feet over Mobile Bay beach in Alabama?

The land around Brookley field in Mobile, Alabama has played a part in United States aviation history since 1893, six years before Wilbur and Orville Wright’s famous flight.

In 1893, bicycles were the craze so Wilbur and Orville Wright, the two brothers who are credited with discovering the principles of human flight, opened a bicycle shop to take advantage of the interest. That same year, the people of Mobile looked up in wonder at as a self-built manned glider flew over the beach of Mobile Bay. The “twisted rubber band powered propeller” i managed to propel the glider in the air for about 15 feet.

John Fowler constructed a flying machine in a shop behind his house

The man who had built the glider was John Fowler, a Mississippi born watch, clock, and sewing machine repairman, who arrived in Mobile, Alabama around 1890. “He was known not only for being a fine craftsman and occasional preacher, but also for spending all his spare time constructing a “flying machine” ii in a small shop behind his house. After his successful flight in 1893, “the public noticed his efforts and became curious about his future experiments.”

John Fowler’s manned flight took place six years prior to the famous Wright Brothers flight in a motor-powered craft, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

After Fowler’s initial success in 1893, Fowler built his second “flying machine” on Virginia Street in Mobile near the Jewish cemetery in 1895. The motorcycle had just been invented and Fowler attempted to use “a pair of two-cylinder motorcycle engines to overcome natural torque generated by whirling propellers.” However, little was known about propellers in those days and “despite his detailed preparations, Fowler’s craft never flew” and crashed when a flight was attempted.

After this failure, Fowler moved his workshop closer to Monroe Park, near the present day Brookley field, and started on his third “flying machine” in 1899. He tested the machine secretly behind the open-air theater using a rope to tie the glider. When the winds were “strong enough”, he released the rope and sailed through the air at the joy of spectators who began paying “eagerly to watch John Fowler fly at what was Arlington Park.”

Entrance to Monroe Park ca. 1900

The Wright brothers heard of John Fowler’s success and one of the brothers visited his workshop around 1900 and he showed great interest in Fowler’s aircraft, “particularly the wings and control surfaces.” When the Wright Brothers achieved their success in 1903, they used Fowler’s wing design in their plane.

After the Wright Brothers’ achievement, aviation development grew and Brookley field became a noted landing port for many famous pilots, such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

Commercial planes to transport passengers began to develop. Osbert Edwin Williams, a Michigan-born pilot relocated to Mobile, Alabama in 1917 and opened a flight school and manufacturing facility. The US government was supplied with airplane engines built by Williams. In fact, the first reliable air speed indicator was built by his company and is still in use today.

1931 Mardi Gras court greeted a plane and its crew on a visit to Bates Field – Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Farmland in the area of Brookley was bought from Mayor Cecil Bates in 1929, and became the city’s first municipal airport, called Bates field in honor of Mayor Bates. In 1939, Bates Field was selected by the United States War Department for the Southeastern Air Depot of the U. S. Army Air Corps on which now became a 1,400 acre site which according to Gen. Hap Arnold to become “the largest of flying fortresses.”

Mechanics Repairing a Flying Fortress at Brookley Field, Mobile, Alabama ca. 1930-1939 (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

The site was renamed Brookley in December 1940 by the War Department for Air Corps Captain Wendell H. Brookley, who was killed while testing a wooden propeller on an airplane at Bolling Field in Washington.

Wendell H. Brookley ca. 1900 (Bain News Service from Library of Congress)

During WWII, Brookley Air Force Base was heavily used. Workers built the ‘Ocean Terminal’ at Brookley, making it the only Air Material Area in the continental United States with a deep water port. By January of 1943, Brookley had a peak employment of 17,097 workers and was the largest employer of the city of Mobile. Later that year Arlington Pier (a recreation area near the base) was condemned and became a part of the base.

Airacobras Being Serviced On Line At Brookley Field, Mobile, Alabama ca. 1940s (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

”One of the keys to Allied victory in Europe was the Norden Bomb Sight, which enabled bomber squadrons to target Germany’s war-making industry and infrastructure much more accurately. The military repaired and calibrated the bombsights at Brookley in a secret facility, still standing and in use today. After the war, Brookley continued to operate as an Air Material Command.” iii

Brookley Air Force Base participated in the “Pacific Air Lift,” in 1950 by sending troops, supplies and material to Korea and helped with the evacuation of wounded soldiers.

“By the 1960s, Brookley base had nearly 13,000 employees. Rumors about closing Brookley Air Force Base started to surface in early 1960s. The Secretary of Defense announced its closure in 1964, widely believed to be President Lyndon Johnson’s retaliation for Alabama voting for his opponent Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential elections. When Brookley closed officially in June 1969, nearly 10% of the local workforce lost their jobs. This was the largest base closure in history.” iv

The Federal Government returned Brookley Field to the City of Mobile and the city in turn leased a large portion of Brookley to Teledyne Continental Motors. Teledyne builds the engines that powered the Voyager on its record-breaking non-stop round-the-world flight in 1980.

This scene from the Close Encounters of the Third Kind was filmed inside one of the Brookley hangers

In 1977, Brookley Aeroplex took an unworldly path when much of the main spaceship scene in the Steven Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was filmed in the largest indoor movie set ever built in dirigible hangars at Brookley Field. Sets for some of the homes were built in hangars at the airfield.

“In 1984, NASA wanted to display the revolutionary Space Shuttle at the New Orleans World’s Fair. NASA needed a runway long enough to land a specially modified 747 carrying the Space Shuttle on its back. Once on land, the Shuttle was too big to transport by road or rail, so the runway had have immediate access to a deep-water port where the craft could be loaded onto a barge and carried to the World’s Fair site. Brookley’s unique combination of long runway and deep-water port at Arlington Point made it the only facility able to handle the transfer.” Since then, many other companies in the aviation industry found Brookley, with its unique blend of road, rail, water and air, was a perfect site for aircraft manufacturing and repair and they have located there.

“In 2012, Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley was selected to become home of Airbus’s first U.S. final assembly line manufacturing the A320 family aircraft.

For 115 years, Brookley has seen some of the greatest developments in aviation. From a rubber-band powered “flying machine” to the newest and most sophisticated military aircraft, the aerospace industry has found Brookley Field on Mobile Bay the perfect place to be.” v

Cape Cod Kitty Hawk

Before people began to take flying machines—and even space bound shuttles and rockets—for granted, the innovations in flight fascinated much of the globe’s population. People had dreamed of flying, perhaps since they first saw birds in the sky and felt a desire to soar. Leonardo da Vinci loved the idea of flying and even tested an unsuccessful flying machine in 1496 the Smithsonian Institute states that he produced over 35,000 words and 500 drawings on the subject of aviation. His ideas about flight, especially those outlined in his “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” a twenty-odd page document published (posthumously, of course) in the 19th Century, significantly contributed to the development of human flight. Interest in flying has ebbed and flowed in popular consciousness, but the fact that the Smithsonian devoted an entire museum to “Air and Space” demonstrates its importance. What has been nearly lost, and is certainly absent from basic history books, is the influential part that Cape Cod played in the development of flight a soaring school in Wellfleet that operated for just a few years in the late 1920s laid the runway for aerial advancements around the globe.

For decades, little balsa wood airplane kits with rubber band drives were popular kids’ toys. A variation on this flying design is the slingshot glider. These toys were usually racier, shaped more like jet fighters or darts or even hang gliders. Kids would hold the slingshot in one hand, hook the nose of the jet over a powerful rubber band, then pull the airplane back, stretching the band to its limits before letting go. Depending on the wind and the quality of the toy, the aircraft could glide impressive distances. However, very few children playing with these toys realize that they are miniature versions of the real gliders that helped advance the field of aviation. Similar to the rubber band launcher, the gliders used massive bungie cords, and instead of mere seconds, they would soar for minutes—and eventually hours or even days—at a time. The Wright Brothers 1902 glider presented a major breakthrough, and, according to the Smithsonian, the aerial pioneers would fly it between 700 and 1,000 times in September and October of that year alone. Orville Wright would note to his mother, “We now hold all world records” for flying. Their flights often took them on distances of 500-600 feet and set the stage for their first motorized airplane, which they flew the following year. Even while the brothers worked on developing powered aircraft, however, they continued to experiment with glider soaring, and in their 1911 model, Orville set a new world record for time aloft, clocking in at nine minutes, 45 seconds in a 40 mph upslope wind. His world record would stand for 10 years, and it became a kind of standard that other pilots tried to beat. It wasn’t until 1929 that another American would top this achievement. And this is, indirectly, how the dunes of Truro and Wellfleet came into play.

At the end of WWI, the Treaty of Versailles banned military aviation in Germany, so pilots there turned to non-motorized gliders. Because of the restrictions, they made significant advances, and in 1921 an engineer and pilot named Wolfgang Klemperer flew a “sailplane” for 13 minutes, breaking Wright’s 10-year-old record. Klemperer emigrated to the USA in 1924, where he played an important role in the area of aerospace engineering. It was soon after that another German took flight in Truro. On July 26, 1928, to the delight of a large crowd of aviation enthusiasts and golfers from the course nearby, Peter Hesselbach was launched from Corn Hill in Truro by massive bungie cords. He flew to the crowd’s astonishment for 58 minutes. In a film clip from the event, one of the spectators can be heard marveling, “Gee, he has perfect control, hasn’t he,” as Hesselbach buzzes past the throng of people at the top of Corn Hill. Three days later, Hesselbach would soar—without landing—for a total of 120 miles, making loops over Cape Cod Bay for over four hours. While the world record for soaring at the time had stretched all the way to 14 hours, Hesselbach’s Cape flight set the record for the USA, and the fanfare helped to establish a young gliding school in Wellfleet.

How Did the Wright Brothers Make Human Flight a Reality?

On December 17, 1903, when the Wright brothers got an airplane built by them to fly the first time, the flight lasted 12 seconds. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

A Lifelong Fascination with Flight

The Wright brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur and his younger brother Orville together formed a close partnership. Neither man married, but devoted all of their lives to their shared work. As Wilbur put it, they even ‘thought together’ in a sense.

Their father, Milton Wright, was a bishop of the United Brethren church, and his responsibilities in ministry meant that he was often away from home and his family. The Wrights’ mother, Susan, was of German background from a family of carriage makers. She was very adept at mechanical challenges, and seems to have passed this trait along to her sons.

One day, their father, perhaps returning from one of his frequent travels, gave the boys a toy, a toy which launched their life’s work. It was a toy helicopter, a fragile construct of cork and bamboo and rubber bands that twisted rotors that were attached to the toy.

Coming into the house, their father threw it to them, and instead of it falling, it flew and buzzed about the room. As the brothers recalled later, the toy didn’t last very long in the hands of energetic small boys, but the memory of that toy was abiding.

The brothers had little in the way of formal schooling, but were fired in their youth by a love of science, much like the youthful Thomas Edison. As they grew older, the Wrights set up a printing shop, following the invention of Gutenberg. In addition, they also set up a bicycle shop, to sell and repair bicycles, which were all the rage in the 1890s.

The Wright Brothers Started Building from Scratch

News of the death of the German inventor Otto Lilienthal, in a glider accident, galvanized the Wright brothers. They set about studying all that was known about flying, surveying the work of earlier pioneers. As they did so, they discovered something that shocked them.

They uncovered errors in calculations of air resistance, and this fact prompted them not to rely any longer on received wisdom or other people’s earlier work, but to launch their own experiments.

The Wright brothers built their own wind tunnel for measurements, and finally created a biplane glider design, with a rudder for steering and forward elevators to ascend or descend. (Image: Wright brothers/Public domain/)

The Wrights even built their own wind tunnel for measurements. A key innovation they arrived at was so-called wing warping, which was intended to stabilize flight. These inventions came not from a university or an extensive research institute, but from their own small workshop in Dayton, Ohio.

From 1900, the Wrights took their experiments to a site near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There they settled at the Kill Devil Hills in a rickety cabin. The area had sand dunes for soft landings (or at least softer than otherwise would have been the case), and the height of the dunes made them ideal for launching aircraft. But this environment was not mild or pleasant. It could be cold and fiercely windy, and during the summer mosquitoes were a terrible besetting plague.

Here, on a succession of gliders, the Wrights worked out practically the challenges before them. Ultimately, they created a biplane glider design, with a rudder for steering, and forward elevators to ascend or descend. To all of this they added a 12 horsepower engine, which drove revolving propellers, which were essentially wings that spun round and round and round to propel the flight.

The Day of the First Flight

The brothers were men of few words. Inside, however, beneath that calm exterior, they oscillated between confidence and doubt. They were sure that they were making real progress on their own. Yet, in 1901, just two years before their triumphant moment, Wilbur had told a friend that he didn’t really expect to see flight achieved in his lifetime.

But on December 17, 1903, they did achieve it. The Wright brothers invited locals from miles around to come see this experiment. Only five people took them up on this invitation, but those people witnessed world history. After tossing a coin to decide which of the brothers would begin, Orville won and made the first flight.

The fact that the Wrights had a lifeguard there to take a photograph with a camera on a tripod that they had set up in advance meant that the Wright brothers suspected they were going to succeed that day and wanted it recorded for history.

In that first flight, lasting 12 seconds, Orville fulfilled the dream. Then Wilbur took a turn and covered 175 feet. Orville flew again, this time he traveled 200 feet. But it was on Wilbur’s second flight that they had the biggest success of that day. Wilbur covered 852 feet and stayed in the air for 59 seconds.

The two brothers telegraphed their father with the news. The first word of the message they sent really said it all: “Success.”

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Wrights Dedicated Their Entire Lives to Human Flight

The success of the Wright brothers galvanized interest in human flight. (Image: Photoprint copyrighted by Cole & Co./Public domain)

Back in Ohio, the brothers continued improving their machine. They received a patent for their plane design in 1906, and later successfully fought off legal disputes by competitors. In 1908, Wilbur Wright took the show on the road as it were. He travelled to France to demonstrate the invention, and elsewhere in Europe.

The French, proud of the pioneering role of the Montgolfier brothers, were sure that their nation would achieve flight first. For this reason, the French often mocked the claims of the Wrights at first, but then actually seeing the demonstration meant believing.

In 1909, the Wright brothers founded a company to build and sell their planes. Wilbur died in 1912, but Orville Wright lived until 1948. Imagine, by 1948, how much Orville had seen in the way of their invention being improved, revolutionized, and improved again.

The result of this invention was a veritable flying craze. Huge crowds gathered to witness this amazing spectacle. When Wilbur Wright flew over Manhattan in 1909, a million people watched him, enthralled.

A French journalist who witnessed Wilbur’s demonstration of flying in France put it very eloquently. He said, “Nothing can give an idea of the emotion experienced and the impression felt … a flight of mastery, assurance and incomparable elegance.”

Contemporaries marveled at what they felt was really the beginning of a new age of human history. Some of them called it the ‘Air Age’. In a word, to fly was to be modern.

Common Questions about the Wright Brothers

Some flying or floating contraptions like gliders and hot air balloons had been invented previously, but it was the Wright brothers who first built a functional powered and steered airplane.

The first flight of the Wright brothers , which took place on December 17, 1903 at a site near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, lasted for 12 seconds.

The Wright brothers were without a doubt entrepreneurs. Even before entering the world of flying, they had set up a printing shop, following the invention of Gutenberg, and set up a bicycle shop, to sell and repair bicycles. After inventing the first airplane, they patented their design in 1906, and in 1909, the Wright brothers founded a company to build and sell their planes.

The Wright brothers grew up in Dayton, Ohio . After entering the field of aviation, they moved to a site near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina , where they settled at the Kill Devil Hills in a rickety cabin, to conduct their experiments.

The Flyer

In 1902, the Wright brothers flew numerous test glides using their new glider. Their studies showed that a movable tail would help balance the craft and so they connected a movable tail to the wing-warping wires to coordinate turns. With successful glides to verify their wind tunnel tests, the inventors planned to build a powered aircraft.

After months of studying how propellers work, the Wright Brothers designed a motor and a new aircraft sturdy enough to accommodate the motor's weight and vibrations. The craft weighed 700 pounds and came to be known as the Flyer.


After their success in North Carolina, the Wright brothers continued to travel around the world, perfecting their craft and modifying their designs. But they did so much more, kicking off the era of modern aviation and inspiring future adventurers.

The decades following Kitty Hawk were filled with accomplishments in aviation, including the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean and the first passenger flight. And, of course, flight didn’t just stay in this world—a little over 65 years after the Wrights’ famous first flight, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The Wright brothers didn’t just fly the first piloted engine-powered airplane—they created a whole new way for us to explore our world.

Watch the video: Orville Wright, Wilbur Wright, Original Footage!!! First Flight Mlitary Airplane 1909