The 1902 Wright Glider

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  uilt in Dayton, Ohio and test-flown at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the original 1902 Wright Glider is one of the most important machines ever designed. Although the Wright Brothers are better known for the 1903 Wright Flyer, in which they made the first sustained powered flights, their 1902 glider was the first fully controllable aircraft, with movable surfaces that balanced the craft in the air in all three axes.

It was also the basis of their patent. If you look up the Wright brothers patent No. 821,323 for a "Flying Machine," you'll find drawings of the 1902 Wright Glider, not a powered aircraft. Putting a motor on an airplane was nothing new, even in the Wrights' day. What was new, however, was the manner in which they controlled and navigated their aircraft.

The vertical rudder (at the back of the glider) yawed the nose from side to side. The horizontal elevator (at the front of the glider) pitched the nose up and down. And a unique wing-warping system (the forerunner of modern ailerons) rolled the wings left and right. This allowed a pilot, for the first time, to navigate in all three dimensions. This basic, brilliant idea -- yaw, pitch, and roll control -- is still used in every aircraft flying today. It's also the basis of spacecraft control, submarine navigation, robotics, computer-aided design and manufacture, and digital animation. These remarkable advances all trace their roots back to this simple machine. If you research the fundamental patent on the airplane, you'll find a drawing of the 1902 Wright Glider, not the 1903 Wright Flyer.

So far, we've built and flown three copies of the 1902 Wright Glider. The particular replica you see in these photographs was built for our educational mission. We designed it to come apart so it will fit through an ordinary door. This allows us to set up the glider inside a school or museum quickly, easily, and inexpensively. All we need is a 20' by 40' space and about an hour's time to assemble the glider. So far, this glider as traveled as far east as Portland, Maine and as far west as Pasadena, California. We've set it up for the enjoyment and education of students from kindergarten to high school. If you would like us to bring this glider and our "portable museum" of the Wright Brothers to your school or educational institution, see "The Secret of Flight" Project.

One of the first places we exhibited our 1902 Wright Glider was at the Purdue University Airport in Lafeyette, IN. It was nestled in between Purdue's Boeing 737 and a brand new 2002 Grob glider. There was exactly 100 years of aeronautic progress between the two gliders.

While the Grob represented to pinnacle of the soaring art in 2002, the 1902 glider was the most advanced aircraft of its day. It was the first aircraft that the Wright brothers designed using the scientific data they had gleaned from their wind tunnel experiments, and the first whose performance they could predict with certainty.

A front view of the 1902 glider. With a length of 17 feet (5.1 meters) the Wright glider is less than 1/8 the size of the 737. In fact, just the tailspan of the 737 (47 feet/14.3 meters) is 1.5 times the entire wingspan (32 feet/9.7 meters) of the glider. 

The Wright glider from the left front viewed diagonally.

A view of the Wright glider from the left side.

The Wright glider from the left rear diagonally.

A rear view of the Wright glider.

The glider from the right rear diagonally.

The glider from the right side.

A close up view of the glider's front elevator or "canard."

The cockpit of the 1902 Wright glider. The pilot lay prone with his hips in the U-shaped cradle. By moving his hips left and right, the pilot warped the wings.

A close-up of the elevator control. The pilot grasped the horizontal control bar with both hands and rolled his wrists forward or back to pitch the aircraft nose down or nose up.

The control wires for the wing warping ran over boxwood pulleys. The pulleys were turned from roller-skate wheels.

A close-up of the strut-to-spar connection. Note the guide for the control wire.

Click on this thumbnail for an animated demonstration of wing warping.

Some things never change. Despite the 100 years that separates the 1902 Wright Glider from the 2002 Grob, they both use the same simple instrument to gauge the relative wind a piece of string, called a "yaw string.". The string is taped to the canopy of the Grob and tied to the forward rail of the Wright glider.

The 1902 Wright Glider on the sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nags Head, NC. The park is just a few miles south of Kill Devil Hills on the Outerbanks. The dunes are less than half the size of those that Orville and Wilbur flew from, but they are nonetheless the largest undeveloped stretch of dunes remaining in this area.

The 1902 glider prepared for flight. Note the horns of the cradle are wrapped with foam. Not exactly historically correct, but much appreciated by our pilots. If you suffer through a hard landing without it, the hardwood cradle badly bruises your hips.

We went to Jockey' s Ridge to celebrate the Centennial of Controlled Flight. The Wright brothers first flew with three-axis control (roll, pitch, and yaw) on October 8, 1902 after modifying their glider to make the rudder movable.

Carrying the glider up the dunes. With us on this expedition were four military pilots and test pilots used to flying much faster aircraft.

We began our test flights the same way the Wrights began -- we kited the glider to measure its performance.

To get ready to fly, the pilot stands in the cockpit space while the "launchers" pick the glider up. Once off the sand, it immediately begins to fly in the wind. The pilot is Major Dawne Dunlap USAF, an F-15 test pilot.

The pilot climbs into the cockpit and the launchers adjust the angle of attack so the wings best supports the added weight. The pilot is Captain Tanya Markow, US Army, who is more at home in an Apache helicopter.

The launchers begin to run the glider into the wind. The pilot is WBAC member Dudley Mead, an accomplished hang glider pilot.

As the launchers run the glider into the wind, the pilot adjusts the elevator so the nose of the aircraft is neither rising or falling. The pilot is Lt. Commander Klaus Ohman, US Navy and an F-16 test pilot.

When the pilot feels in control, he calls to the launchers to "Release!" Lt. Commander Klaus Ohman, pilot.

Immediately after release, you must point the nose down and hug the slope of the dune to gain speed. If you raise the nose too soon, the glider stalls and settles into the sand, as it is about to do here for Capt. Jim Alexander, USAF. Jim flies the MC-130 Shadow.

Keep the elevator neutral and the speed builds rapidly as the glider coasts downhill. Lt. Commander Klaus Ohman, pilot.

Once you have a little speed, you can trade it for altitude. Capt. Tanya Markow, pilot.

Passing overhead. Capt. Jim Alexander, pilot.

Still on his way up maximum altitude was 15 to 20 feet. Capt. Jim Alexander, pilot.

Reaching the bottom of the dune, you raise the nose ever so slightly to stretch your glide as you lose altitude. Lt. Commander Klaus Ohman, pilot.

While you're in the air, you must keep the wings level and the nose into the wind. If a wing dips, you must immediately raise it or the glider will turn at an angle to the winds. Dudley Mead, pilot.

The left wing has dipped and Capt. Alexander has thrown his hips to the right, moving the hip cradle and warping the wings so the left wing produces more lift than the right.

A low wing is especially dangerous close to the ground. Here Major Dawne Dunlap comes in for a landing with the right wing too low.

And here Major Dunlap catches the left wing in the sand. The glider will pivot on its left wing tip and slam the pilot into the dune.

Ideally, the glider should touch the sand with the wings level and the nose level with the tail. Here the nose is a little low, but Dudley Mead still pulled off a good landing.

Capt. Jim Alexander did not on this run. The nose and the left wing were a little low and both caught in the sand, pitching Capt. Alexander out of the cockpit.

Although it appears fragile, the 1902 glider is survived most of these hard landings without a scratch. Occasionally something would break, but we could patch the glider within minutes.

Lt. Commander Klaus Ohman makes a perfect landing or about as perfect as you can get in the 1902 Wright Glider. The wings, nose, and tail are dead level, allowing you to scrape your belly in the sand.

The flights go by so fast, it's hard to learn while you're in the air. Sometimes after a landing good or bad it helps to review the flight for a moment. Lt. Commander Klaus Ohman, pilot.

Time to go. The flight crew carries the 1902 Wright Glider back to our tent/hangar.

Sunset at Jockey's Ridge.

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