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.

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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 prior to 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.

To learn more about the Wrights' classic airplanes and the specifications for the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, go to the next page.

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