In Search of the Real Wright Flyer
IT’S ALL ORVILLE’S FAULT. THE WRIGHT BROTHERS' FIRST POWERED AIRPLANE made four short flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. After the last one, as the brothers stood talking, a gust of wind caught the airplane and tumbled it head over heels, cracking it into a jumble of sticks and wire. The Wrights crammed the parts (many of which were scavenged for their future airplanes) into a crate and shipped them home to Dayton, Ohio, where they remained unassembled until Orville rebuilt the Flyer in 1928 for display in the Science Museum in London, England.
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Occupying the exalted position reserved for research aircraft, Ken Hyde’s 1902 glider replica undergoes tests in a wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley center in Virginia. (Jeff Caplan/NASA Research Center)
Orville worked from memory—the brothers had produced little documentation because they always worried about rivals stealing their designs—and without the help of Wilbur, who had died of typhoid in 1912. Could Orville recall the few last-minute adaptations they had made before his first flight? Orville’s reconstruction, now hanging center stage at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is only his best guess at the original. We’ll never know exactly what flew in 1903.
As a result, anyone who takes on the task of building a 1903 Wright Flyer today must also resort to some guesswork, backed by three sources: the Wrights’ series of spectacular glass-negative photographs of the airplane, their letters, and a set of blueprints drawn from Orville’s reconstructed Flyer. Between these sources lies a minefield of missing details about fittings and spacing—issues critical to the delicate design. How a builder chooses to fill in the gaps will determine not only whether the airplane is “accurate,” but if it will even fly.
As the centennial of powered flight approaches, three notable teams are hard at work on the problem. Ken Hyde of the Wright Experience is determined to engineer the most accurate Flyer possible. The Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) wants a Flyer that is relatively stable and airworthy. Rick Young of Flugmaschine Wright is more interested in the process of discovery, and in re-creating the brothers’ working relationship.
As these modern-day builders struggle with the finer points of strut spacing and wing rib construction, each faces the same questions: Is history (and the pilot) better served by accuracy or interpretation? How many risks are worth taking—in the name of authenticity—with a re-creation of something as unstable and dangerous as the world’s first airplane?
Rick Young walks briskly to the end of the hangar that is the Virginia Aviation Museum in Richmond. There, the skeleton of his Flyer is alone along the far wall, the gleaming wood frame standing tall in a gallery full of its dark metal progeny. A freckled, energetic bundle of a man with pale hair and trim beard, Young is well known in aircraft building circles for reconstructing and flying the Wrights’ pre-1903 gliders. He also worked with Ken Hyde and the Wright Experience project, but ultimately broke things off after a few disagreements.
Young plans to test fly his replica in Virginia this winter, provided his diet takes off 30-odd pounds, bringing him closer to Wilbur’s weight of 140. Although his schedule puts him in the air before the other teams, Young maintains that such a first is beside the point.
“I’m not trying to experience the first flight,” he explains. “I’m trying to re-create what the Wright brothers went through.” Young works with an assistant, Grover Cleveland Taylor, in the close way he imagines that the Wrights worked. Young and a Chicago partner are funding the project themselves, “otherwise,” he says, “you spend all your time raising money. Funding is all agenda-driven, and you have to do things the way [the sponsors] want.” He estimates they will spend a mere $250,000 on their Flyer, saving money by following in the Wright tradition of using everyday materials.
“Take an issue like glues,” he explains earnestly. “The Wright brothers used horsehide glue. We could try to acquire that, but what’s more honest to the experience, getting the normal glue that’s right there, or going to the ends of the earth to get horsehide glue?” The Wrights relied on standard off-the-shelf materials, he says. “So use the everyday glue, stay on the normal scale rather than spend a fortune.”
Glue is an easy problem to solve. At a table next to the Flyer, Young unrolls a set of blueprints the National Air and Space Museum made as part of a Flyer conservation project in 1985. Here, the real problems begin.
Wright Brothers flights of 1909
Airplane inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright are famed for making the first controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flights on 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Lesser-known are other flights of theirs which played an important role at the dawn of aviation history. In 1909 Wilbur was invited by the Hudson-Fulton Celebration Committee to make paid exhibition flights to help mark 300 years of New York history, including Henry Hudson discovering Manhattan and Robert Fulton starting a successful commercial steamboat service on the Hudson River. The committee wanted the Wrights to demonstrate flights over the water around New York City. Orville was making flights for customers in Germany, so Wilbur, who had just finished training U.S. Army pilots, accepted the job.
Another acclaimed aviator, Glenn Curtiss, had agreed to participate. Curtiss had recently set the world airspeed record in France, and the Wrights had just filed suit against him for patent infringement of their control systems. The public's anticipation was fueled by news of the patent disputes. These flights would be a showdown between the two fliers.
They were both scheduled to make a series of flights from Governors Island in New York harbor. On September 29, Wilbur took off at 9:15 AM in windy conditions. Curtiss felt his airplane could not handle the winds and he declined to fly. When Curtiss admitted defeat to the wind, Wilbur is supposed to have said to him, 'It looks pretty good. I think I will take a little spin in a few minutes.' He flew for about two miles, which took a little longer than seven minutes.
Later that day Wilbur took off again, at 10:18 AM. He flew over the ocean liner Lusitania and a flotilla of other watercraft on hand for the Hudson-Fulton celebration, many blowing their horns and tooting their whistles when the Flyer appeared overhead. As Wilbur flew toward the Statue of Liberty, many onlookers feared he would crash into it, but he skillfully circled the statue as planned. This flight caused a sensation in the press and became an iconic event, despite lasting less than five minutes.
Still unable to fly in the gusty weather, Curtiss had to depart for St. Louis due to a prior agreement. He was supposed to have flown up the Hudson River for several miles and returned to Governors Island. 
Wilbur knew that if the engine failed and he had to set down, his skids would bite into the water, throwing him forward into the wires crisscrossing between the forward struts and possibly injuring him. As the wood-and-cloth wings would begin to settle and sink under the weight of the engine, they could drag him down before he could disentangle himself. So when Wilbur arrived on Governors Island, south of Manhattan, on the morning of September 29, he and Charlie Taylor, his mechanic, had made a strange modification to the Flyer: Beneath the lower wing, they had slung a bright red canoe, which Wilbur had purchased a few days earlier from the H&D Folsom Arms Company. A top-of-the-line Indian Girl canoe made by the Rushton Canoe Company, it featured a sturdy 16-foot frame made of northern white cedar, which Rushton claimed was nearly a third lighter than other cedars.
The canoe’s light weight (approximately 60 pounds) and sturdy construction attracted mostly Adirondack hunters and anglers used to portaging around rapids and waterfalls. Wright was drawn not only by these features but also by the canoe’s aerodynamic shape. To reduce drag, Wilbur had removed the Flyer’s second passenger seatback, and for waterproofing had tightly sealed the open canoe top with nailed-down canvas. In essence, the canoe turned the Flyer into the world’s first floatplane. Wilbur hoped that in the event the engine failed and the airplane ended up in the water, the canoe would keep the aircraft afloat. With luck, as the airplane glided into the water, the canoe might even hold the craft upright. As the airplane floated, the pilot would have time to extricate himself and swim away. The addition of a life vest next to him, which he could don before swimming clear, suggests that Wilbur had characteristically thought the matter through and come up with a contingency plan.
A blown engine cylinder that afternoon prevented any more flights. This series of flights marked Wilbur's last flying before a public audience. 
– Wilbur Wright, in a letter to his father Milton Wright
On Monday, October 4, Wilbur took off at 9:53 AM. He flew north over the Hudson along the west shore of Manhattan, passing Grant's Tomb, then returned by the same route, finishing the 21 mile, 33-minute flight with a safe landing on Governor's Island.  As many as a million people witnessed the flight. This was the exact flight that Curtiss had been unable to make. Before the flight, Wilbur attached a red canoe to the bottom of the airplane as a safety precaution in case of an emergency landing in the water. After Wilbur's death in 1912, Orville put the canoe in Hawthorn Hill, his estate in Oakwood, Ohio, as a memento. This first airborne canoe was later moved to Carillon Historical Park in Ohio and exhibited in a room adjacent to the Wright Flyer III in Wright Hall.
The flight around the Statue of Liberty was duplicated on May 26, 2003 by the Dayton 'Wright B Flyer, Inc.' group, with a replica of the Wright airplane as a part of the celebrations of the anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight.
The Real Wright Flyer
The Smithsonian literally has millions of objects in its vast collections. Everything from specimens of flora and fauna from around the globe, to machines that have shaped the modern world, to cultural artifacts that reflect our rich diversity, to important works of art. Even live animals at the National Zoo. Every aspect of human endeavor and creativity and the natural world can be found at the Smithsonian. Among this great store of history, science, and art objects, some stand above the rest for their uniqueness, historical importance, and cultural value. In addition, they are objects that are powerfully associated with the Smithsonian. I like to call these “signature Smithsonian objects.” Things such as the Hope Diamond, the Star Spangled Banner, the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane are good examples—one-of-a-kind items, familiar to all, and widely known to reside at the Smithsonian. Also in this subset of signature objects is one of the most significant in the entire Smithsonian collection—the Wright Flyer, the world’s first airplane.
The flying machine with which Wilbur and Orville Wright made those historic first flights at Kitty Hawk on a cold December morning in 1903 represents a moment when the world changed. The ability to fly has so dramatically refashioned human existence that the achievement of the Wright brothers defies measure. When the Wright Flyer was installed in the Smithsonian in 1948, a visiting dignitary at the ceremony remarked, “It is a little as if we had before us the original wheel.” For the last 25 years, I have had the great privilege to be the curator of the Wright Flyer. During that quarter century I have pored over every detail of the airplane, studied every aspect of its design, written three books about the Wright brothers, mounted a major exhibition, and given countless lectures about this artifact. I have spent a career with this object and at this point have a very personal connection with the Flyer. I’ll even admit to a bit of an emotional attachment to this machine. Needless to say, I never tire of talking about the Flyer and sharing its wonderful story. But there is one thing that always frustrates me when I hear it—when people say the airplane in the Smithsonian is not the real Wright Flyer! Let me assure you, the airplane on view at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is indeed the actual machine with which the Wrights made their pathbreaking first flights at Kitty Hawk. IT IS THE REAL WRIGHT FLYER. So how could anyone doubt this? Most of the reasons are simple. First, the Flyer currently doesn’t look old. The near pristine white fabric on its wooden framework doesn’t look to be a century old. Well, it isn’t. In 1984 and 1985, the museum did conservation work on the Flyer. It was disassembled, inspected, cleaned, and documented inside and out. The most important decision we had to make was whether or not to save the tattered fabric. There was much internal debate about this, but in the end we put new fabric on the Flyer. Critical to that decision was that the fabric then on the airplane was not on it when it flew in 1903. In 1928, Orville Wright loaned the Flyer to the London Science Museum, where it stayed for 20 years. In preparation for the trip to England, Orville recovered the Flyer entirely. So when the Smithsonian received the airplane in 1948, none of the fabric on it dated from 1903. Considering its condition and that the airplane never flew with that fabric, for the long-term preservation interest of the artifact, new fabric was put on in 1985, precisely to the specifications of 1903. So to the uninitiated, the Flyer currently doesn’t look old and people sometimes make the assumption that it is not the original airframe.
Another reason visitors sometimes think the Wright Flyer in the Smithsonian is not real is because so many modern reproductions of the Flyer are on view in other museums. Especially leading up to the centennial of the first flights in 2003, many reproduction Flyers have been built. With so many copies out there and the real Wright Flyer having relatively new fabric on it, one can see how visitors might get confused. Finally, many people know that after the Wrights made their last flight on December 17, 1903, the Flyer was upturned by a strong gust of wind and severely damaged. Thinking the airplane was destroyed, some of these folks are under the impression that the original 1903 Wright Flyer doesn’t exist at all. So let me make clear for all, when you visit the National Air and Space Museum and stand before the Wright Flyer you will be just a few feet away from the original, real, world-changing 1903 Wright Flyer—not a copy. There is also a good chance you’ll find me in the gallery spending time with my old friend, the endlessly fascinating world’s first airplane—a signature Smithsonian object.
17 December 1903: the day the Wright Brothers flew into history
When Wilbur and Orville Wright’s 'Flyer' took off the ground on 17 December 1903, it was a milestone moment in human flight. It didn’t get very high or very far (and it only survived one day), but it was an aircraft – considered the first of its kind – that was powered and fully controlled by a pilot. Here's everything you need to know about the first flight in history and the brothers behind it
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Published: December 17, 2019 at 12:00 pm
The biting wind, at 27mph, may have been gusting harder than was ideal, but Wilbur and Orville Wright were determined to complete a test of their latest invention: a powered biplane. After all, they chose the Kill Devil Hills, a barren patch of land in North Carolina, as the site for their Flyer’s inaugural flight specifically for its strong winds. So they set up the launch rail on the flat rather than an incline, and Orville climbed into position aboard the lower wing and took the controls.
At about 10.35am on that chilly morning of 17 December 1903, the Flyer lurched into life… for about 12 seconds. It came down with a bump some 36 metres away, which may not sound overly impressive, but it was enough to prove that the Wright Brothers had built an aircraft – considered the first of its kind – that was powered and fully controlled by a pilot.
The American brothers, taking it turns at the controls, made three further flights that day reaching 53, 61 and, saving the best for last, 260 metres. They would have kept going, but while the brothers were celebrating the massive distance achieved by Wilbur, a gust of wind flipped the Flyer and caused severe damage. It was never flown again, yet in its short life, the first Wright Flyer ensured its place as one of history’s most famous planes.
What made this creation so innovative? There were other, more-qualified engineers developing their own craft at the same time (it is even argued that one, Gustave Whitehead, made a flight before the Wrights), but the Flyer’s vital advance was that it could be controlled on all three axes needed for a successful airplane: pitch, roll and yaw. This was achieved by the pilot, while sat in a wooden cradle, bending the material of the 12-metre wings in a process called ‘wingwarping’, which – with the rudder and a hand lever – made all the difference when steering.
Over the next few years, the Wrights continued to refine their design, resulting, on 5 October 1905, with Wilbur making a 39-minute flight in their third Flyer. However, they didn’t find commercial success until they travelled to France, where, by 1908, they were giving public demonstrations to wildly excited crowds. Aviation was taking off and the Wright Brothers were in the pilot’s seat.
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First Flight of the Wright Flyer I, 1903
On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright tested out their Wright Flyer I near Kill Devil Hills by Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The photo above is of the first successfully powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with a pilot aboard. Orville acted as the pilot while Wilbur ran at the wingtip to balance it. The starting rail, wing-rest and a coil box are visible, these were necessary for flight preparation. The camera was preset by Orville with John T. Daniels charged with squeezing the rubber bulb which tripped the shutter.
The structure of the Wright Flyer was made out of spruce and ash with muslin coverings. There were fabric pockets sewn inside to help the aircraft “float.” Powered by a four-cylinder engine created by the brothers, the Wright Flyer proved to be strong, flexible and light.
In order to fly the aircraft, the pilot laid on their stomach with their head forward while their left hand operated the elevator control. Attached to the pilot’s hips was a cradle that pulled wires – warped the wings and turned the rudder. To steer, the pilot would move their hips from side to side. The brothers patented their “wing warping” technique (a system for lateral control of a fixed-wing machine).
On it’s first flight, the aircraft took off and flew for 12 seconds and landed with a distance of 120 feet. They flew the Wright Flyer I four times that day, with the brothers alternating as pilot. Of the four flights, the longest lasted 59 seconds with a distance of 852 feet with Wilbur as the pilot.
After the last flight, those present discussed Wilbur’s long flight. A gust of wind lifted up the Wright Flyer and it went crashing across the sand. It was severely damaged and would never be flown again. However, the Wright brothers accomplished what they set out to do. They demonstrated that basic techniques could in fact fly heavier-than-air aircrafts. The Smithsonian nicley summarized the Wright brothers famous 1903 flight:
Their seminal accomplishment encompassed not only the breakthrough first flight of an airplane, but also the equally important achievement of establishing the foundation of aeronautical engineering.
Distant view of the Wright airplane just after landing, taken from the starting point, with wing-rest in center of picture and launching rail at right. This flight, the fourth and final of December 17, 1903, was the longest: 852 feet covered in 59 seconds. Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Wright military flyer of 1909
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Wright military flyer of 1909, airplane built by Wilbur and Orville Wright and sold to the U.S. Army Signal Corps in July 1909. It was the world’s first military airplane. For the Wright brothers, it represented a first step in their efforts to produce marketable aircraft incorporating the principles that they had employed six years earlier in achieving the first powered heavier-than-air flight.
The 1909 flyer was similar to a series of aircraft that were produced by the Wrights in Dayton, Ohio, from 1907 to 1909 and are now known by the designation “Model A.” Like the other Wright machines, it was a biplane design employing the “wing-warping” control system and stabilized in the pitch axis by a horizontal stabilizer positioned forward of the wings. Twin pusher propellers were turned through a chain drive by a four-cylinder engine that generated up to 32 horsepower. The airplane was launched into the air by a weight falling from the top of a derrick.
The Army’s performance specifications called for an observation craft that would keep a pilot and passenger aloft for more than one hour and fly at an average speed of 40 miles (65 km) per hour. A throng of 10,000 people, including President William Howard Taft, gathered at Fort Myer, Va., on July 27, 1909, to watch Orville complete one of the final qualifying flights for the sale. Lieutenant Frank Purdy Lahm joined Orville for a flight of 1 hour 12 min. 37 4 /5 sec., setting a new world’s duration record for flight with a passenger. (Portions of this trial flight are shown in the film footage .)
President Taft and 7,000 other spectators returned on July 30 to watch Orville take another passenger, Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois (shown standing at the wingtip at one point in the film), on a 10-mile cross-country flight to Alexandria, Va., and back, during which the machine averaged 42.583 miles per hour. With that flight the Wright brothers completed all the terms of the sale. The purchase price, including a bonus for exceeding the required speed, was $30,000.
What fabric covered the wings of the Wright Flyer?
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.
Secondly, what was the purpose of the Wright Flyer? They envisioned the propeller as an aircraft wing placed on its side and spun around to create the air flow for horizontal "lift," the force needed to move an aircraft forward. The Wright brothers built a 12-horsepower engine to power two propellers mounted behind the wings of their 1903 Flyer.
Similarly one may ask, what were the two parts of the Wright Flyers Wings?
The two controls, rudder and wing warping (or yaw and roll) were &ldquocoupled,&rdquo acting at the same time. In later aircraft, the Wrights split these controls so they could be operated independently. For pitch control.
What material was the first airplane made of?
Interestingly, the earliest planes were rarely made out of materials such as steel and aluminum. In fact, the Wright Brothers used a combination of wood &mdash mostly ash and spruce &mdash to make the first airplane and they used a muslin fabric to cover it once construction was complete.
The Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss
We all know that the Wright brothers hold the title for first in flight – on December 17, 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first sustained and controlled human flights – but for this post let’s clear the air about some of the fallacies I just watched in a “documentary” on Netflix last night (it aired on NatGeo on June 1, 2015). Even though the viewer is given the following warning, I fear that many will not heed it.
“This program includes dramatizations inspired by history. Some events have been altered for dramatic purposes.”
Instead of outlining each of the incorrect statements or over dramatizations, I’ll just outline the basic story of these three incredible American engineers and innovators.
The rivalry between the Wright brothers and Curtis mostly began after the Wrights filed for (and won) a patent lawsuit which asserted their ownership of the skies via motorized plane. Their patent was No. 821,393 for a “flying machine.”
Glenn Curtiss rode the world’s first V-8 motorcycle to a speed of 136 mph and became known as “the fastest man on earth.”
Starting out, Glenn Curtis was a bicycle shop owner (like the Wrights) and probably the best engine mechanic/designer in America at the time. Eventually, Curtiss morphed his bicycles and engines into one, creating powerful motorcycles. “In 1903, on Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day), Curtiss used a V-twin motorcycle to win a hill climb, win a ten-mile race, and set a new one-mile speed record (Langley, 2009, para. 6).” Catching wind of the Wrights flying machine, Curtiss tried to sell his engines to them to be used in their aircraft, but the Wrights refused the business. Instead, Curtiss continued his work on engines and within five years had become known as “the fastest man on earth.”
That same year Curtiss joined the Aerial Experiment Association, or AEA, a group founded by Alexander Graham Bell, the famous inventor. Shortly after, Curtiss offered a free engine to the Wrights for use in their plane, but again they refused. The next year Curtiss flew a plane called the June Bug which he designed, created and fashioned with one of his engines. In coordination with the AEA, Curtiss became the second in North America to design, build, and fly airplanes. Curtiss had much success in building new, inventive aircraft, but because of the patent the Wrights held, he was unable to sell them without embarking into a long patent war.
Meanwhile, Wilbur showed off the Wright’s flying capabilities in New York with a two-mile flight around Governor’s Island as well as did a loop around the Statue of Liberty. Wilbur Wright also “flew ten miles up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb, and then returned to base. His 20-mile flight lasted over 33 minutes, averaging 36 miles per hour. An estimated one million New Yorkers witnessed at least some part of his flight (Langley, 2009, para. 21).”
Less than a year later, Curtiss beat the Wright’s record by successfully flying 151 miles. This flight lasted 2 hours and 51 minutes, and averaged 52 miles per hour, due in large part to the engine design skills. It was the longest airplane flight to date, and won for Curtiss both a $10,000 prize and permanent possession of the Scientific American trophy. (Langley, 2009)
Wilbur Wright’s funeral procession passes through the gates of Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery on June 1, 1912.
In 1912 Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever. Almost two years later the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of New York ruled in favor of the Wright Company in its suit against Glenn Curtiss. The ruling stated that Curtiss could not manufacture, use, or sell flying machines which infringe on the Wright’s patent (The Wright Brother’s Timeline, 2016). Curtiss continued to create airplanes that were different in design than the Wrights, keeping Orville in a continued patent infringement lawsuit.
In 1914, the Smithsonian Institution contracted with Curtiss to verify if Samuel Langley’s 1903 Aerodrome was the true first powered flight machine. After 29 years, Orville finally proved that Curtiss had made adjustments to Langley’s plane, rendering it able to fly when in actuality, the original plane could not. The Wright Flyer now hangs at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC as the world’s first “powered heavier-than-air flying machine.” (Langley, 2009)
In 1917, with World War I well underway, the U.S. government pressured Wright and Curtiss to resolve their patent differences in an effort to meet the war’s aviation needs. In the end, they both received cash settlements for resolving their disputes and patent war finally ended. With the suit over, Curtiss was able to manufacture and sell innovative aircraft to his biggest client, the U.S. War Department.
“In 1929, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation took shape from twelve Wright and Curtiss affiliated companies, and became the second-largest firm in America. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation still exists today. The company’s official website describes it as ‘a diversified global provider of highly engineered products and services of motion control, flow control, and metal treatment.’ In the rough economic market of late 2008, the firm still reported assets of over two billion dollars and a net income of over 109 million dollars.” (Langley, 2009, para. 36)