Invention of Wright Flyer

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1903 Flyer Tutorial


The Wright Brothers built their gliders and tested them at Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wilbur and Orville did not attempt to invent their flying machine without research and studying. They studied earlier experiments and flying attempts by men such as Otto Lilienthal, Octave Chanute, and Samuel Langley. They also obtained information from the Smithsonian Institute on flight.1

1901 Flyer


The previously mentioned “glider kite” was just the beginning for the Wright brothers. After studying the kite, they began to construct real gliders. From 1900 to1903, the brothers made different gliders and ran numerous test flights before they had true success. The 1901 glider was not successful because it was not always under direct power of the pilot. Octave Chanute tried to help the brothers by his letter correspondence. He also helped Wilbur and Orville gain further access to aeronautical research.2  Chanute would remain in the background during the entire development of the Wright Flyer. The 1902 glider also had issues concerning control by the pilot. Historians Walt Burton and Owen Findsen note, “Orville, lying awake one night . . . thought of making the tail fin a movable rudder that could be steered in conjunction with the wings. It worked. They now had the world’s first practical, controllable glider.”3 Another important factor of control was the wings. The Wrights are attributed to the use of “wing warping.”

1903 engine


The utilization of an engine in the 1903 Wright Flyer made history. The mechanic at the Wright Cycle Co., Charlie Taylor, devised the engine.4  Taylor made engine-powered flight possible for the Wrights and it was not an easy task. Freelance writer Peter Unitt remarks, “They were concerned not only with weight and balance, but also reliability. Furthermore, their engine would have to be one that could, for the most part, be built with what they had in their shop. They had to consider how the engine would be cooled, as well as a means of ignition, carburetion, lubrication, fuel supply and a suitable layout. As if all this weren’t enough there was a time crunch.”5

There was definite competition between the Wrights and Samuel Langley. The brothers claimed, “‘There was no race between Langley and ourselves. Langley probably did not know that we were working on a motor plane. We had heard only rumors that he was building a man-carrying machine.’”6  There were vast differences between the Wright brothers’ attempts to sustain flight and Samuel Langley’s methods. For example, in 1903 the price to fly the Aerodrome was $20,000 as opposed to the four dollar Wright brothers’ method. Overall, Langley was unsuccessful in his endeavors to maintain flight.7 


On December 17, 1903 Orville Wright flew the Kitty Hawk Flyer for twelve seconds in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, making aviation history. Burton and Findsen relate Orville’s written words, “‘This flight lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.’”8  In their early life, the Wrights had a great interest in photography which proved invaluable to their success. The only true evidence that this flight occurred is the photograph that John Daniels captured.9



Famous image from Smithonsian

Orville and Wilbur had not just created an airplane; they had created a system to maintain flight. Historian John Anderson asserts, “The Wrights . . . designed the first successful aeronautical system wherein aerodynamics, propulsion, structures, and flight control worked synergistically together.”10



 Katherine Wright, sister of Wilbur and Orville, sent this telegram to Octave Chanute on December 17, 1903: “‘Boys report four successful flights today from level against twenty-one mile wind. Average speed through air thirty-one miles. Longest flight fifty-seven seconds.’”11

Chanute’s response: “‘I am deeply grateful to you for this telegram of this date advising me of the first successful flights of your brothers. It fills me with pleasure.’”12

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  1. Tom D. Crouch and Peter L. Jakab, 31.
  2. Burton and Findsen, 35-36.
  3. Burton and Findsen, 41.
  4. Burton and Findsen, 43.
  5. Peter J. Unitt, “The Wright Brothers’ Mechanician,” Aviation History 14, no. 2 (November 2003): 37, (accessed February 7, 2011).
  6. Orville Wright to William G. Shepherd of Collier’s Weekly, Aug. 8, 1928 in Wilbur Wright, Orville Wright, and Fred C. Kelly, Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright, ed. Fred C. Kelly, 2nd edition (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002), 417.
  7. Burton and Findsen, 46.
  8. Orville Wright, “How We Made the First Flight,” Flying (December 1913): 10-12, 35-36., in Peter L. Jakab and Rick Young, eds. The Published Writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 47.
  9. Burton and Findsen 13, 53.
  10. Anderson, Jr, 126.
  11. Katharine Wright to Octave Chanute, December 17, 1903, in The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright: Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute, 1899-1905, ed. Marvin W. McFarland (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1953), 1:397.
  12. Octave Chanute to Katharine Wright, December 17, 1903, in The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright: Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute, 1899-1905, ed. Marvin W. McFarland (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1953), 1:397-398.

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