The Wright Flyers: 1903, 1905, and 1908

The Wright Flyers of 1903, 1905 and 1908 established Orville and Wilbur Wright as leaders in the field of aviation. One of their classic airplanes, the original Wright Kitty Hawk Flyer from 1903, is deceptively simple in appearance. Yet it is a sophisticated machine, one that embodied the secrets of flight that only the Wrights perceived.

The first of these was the need for control around each of three axes -- pitch, roll, and yaw, to be furnished respectively by the elevators (pitch), the warping of the trailing edge of the wings (roll), and the coordination of the rudder with the wing warping (yaw). The second was that they would have to learn to fly the airplane in three dimensions -- it could not be chauffeured about like an automobile.


The underpowered 1903 Wright Flyer was just barely capable of flight. Its four-cylinder engine developed a touch under 16 horsepower for 15 seconds, then dropped to less than 12 horsepower. This was just enough to get the Flyer airborne and sustain it for each of the four short flights, the only ones it ever made. Yet, the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer proved the Wrights' theories, and this classic airplane set them a decade in advance of all other inventors pursuing the dream of flight.

The Wrights' 1904 Flyer initially did not perform well, but they were eventually able to make no less than 105 flights at their Huffman Prairie, Ohio, flying field. The 1904 Wright Flyer's performance now justified their offer to sell it to the U.S. Army. But the Army was blind to their success and declined on the basis that the aircraft had not been brought to the stage of practical application.

Wilbur Wright uses an anemometer to check wind speed before a flight.
Wilbur Wright uses an anemometer to check wind speed before a flight. The Flyers' light weight made them vulnerable to wind; many flights were scrubbed when conditions were not perfect.

It was just as well, for the brothers' 1905 Flyer was much stronger, had an improved wing profile, and most important, possessed an engine capable of delivering 25 horsepower. Of all the classic airplanes, this was the first practical aircraft in history. Wilbur Wright capped a series of successful flights with a record-setting hop of 39 minutes and 23 seconds.

Sadly, the vast majority of people, especially in Europe, continued to consider the Wrights liars. The Wrights, properly insulted, stopped flying in November 1905 and did not resume until 1908. When they resumed, it was with a style and grace that amazed the aviation world.

Read on for more info about the Wrights' classic airplanes and the specifications for the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer.


The Wright Flyers Specifications

The genesis of the first Wright Flyer can be traced to an experimental biplane kite tested in August 1899.

The Wright Flyers of 1903 and 1905 landed Orville and Wilbur Wright in the record books, but another classic airplane from the Wrights would take them even further. On August 8, 1908, leading European aviation enthusiasts were gathered in the small crowd of about 30 people at the Hunaudieres racetrack in Le Mans, France. After many delays, Wilbur at last took off. He handled his Flyer with such skill that he left his audience breathless.

When he next flew, more than 4,000 people would gather to watch. He had proved to all of Europe that the Wright Brothers had created not just the first airplane in the air but an entirely new technology. All of those who came to scoff at him now cheered -- and many made notes of the clever design of the aircraft. In doing so, they reduced the Wrights' lead in technology, and then, in just a few years, surpassed it.


Wilbur Wright's triumph was complete, but tragedy awaited Orville at Fort Myer. On September 17, 1908, after having given a display of flying equal to Wilbur's in France, Orville was flying over the Fort Myer parade ground, with Lt. Thomas Selfridge at his side as an observer. The aircraft suddenly pitched over and crashed, injuring Orville and killing Selfridge, the first man to die in the crash of a powered airplane.

The Wrights would return to Fort Myer a year later and successfully complete the military trials, selling, at last, an example of their plane to the Army. It, the world's first military aircraft, like the Kitty Hawk Flyer and other classic airplanes, may still be seen in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Wilbur Wright at Le Mans,France, 1909.
Wilbur Wright at Le Mans, France, 1909.

Orville and Wilbur Wright functioned as a single individual rather than as a team. They were often able to solve problems quickly because their thought processes were so closely attuned. This duality undoubtedly contributed to their amazing success, from the start of their collaborative experiments in flight until their brilliant triumphs in 1908 and in 1909, culminating with the sale of the Military Flyer to the Army.

One of the most amazing things about their first aircraft, the Kitty Hawk Flyer from 1903, is that mod­ern scientists have not been able to duplicate it and fly it successfully. There is some speculation that even with modern help in the form of simulators and extensive training, no modern pilot will be able to fly an exact copy of the classic Wright Flyer, because no modern pilot is an exact copy of the integrated personalities of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

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