The Dawn of Flight

Understanding Flight

Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine.
Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine.
Wright State University Archives

If th­e 120-year interval between balloon flight and powered flight is remarkable for its length, the four years in which the Wright brothers worked to create a successful aircraft is even more remarkable for its brevity. In that time, they went from inquisitive inventors seeking information about the experiments of others to the forefront of aviation, completely outstripping all competition. At the time of their great success at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, th­e Wrights were at least a decade ahead of their most advanced competitors and light-years ahead of the others.

The Wright brothers obtained this lead in part by virtue of their systematic, scientific approach, but the real advantage they possessed--the one that no other experimenter had even begun to achieve--was their insight into the basic problems of flying an airplane. They were able to calculate very precisely what would be needed in terms of lift, power, and most important, control. Unlike every other experimenter of the time, the Wrights understood that an aircraft would have to be flown in three dimensions. It was not going to simply be steered with an oar like a rowboat or chauffeured about the sky with the turn of a steering wheel. They also knew they would have to learn to fly, and they became proficient at piloting their gliders before they ever attempted powered flight.

­Unfortunately for the Wrights, and fortunately for the horde of soon-to-be competitors, their basic understanding of flight would be partially revealed to anyone who watched them fly. It was obvious to the knowledgeable that the Wrights were controlling their aircraft in three dimensions, about the three axes of flight, and that their piloting was expert. All that remained for would-be competitors was to adopt the general Wright design and either copy their control system directly or cobble together one that derived from it but appeared different enough that it could be defended in court.