Inventing the Airplane

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  Inventing the    
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Eyes on the Skies 

An Inkling    
of an Idea

 A Warped    

Kitty Hawk 

Off on an    

Not within a    
Thousand years 

Kitty Hawk    
In A Box 

Wagging Its Tail 


The French    

The Darkest Hour 

December 17 1903 


A Little    
More OOmph 

A Practical    
Flying Machine 

Wright Timeline 


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nvention is where poetry and engineering come together. It is a creative endeavor where the heart beats faster with each intuitive leap, yet success is measured by the stern, unforgiving ruler of the Scientific Method. It’s not a predictable process; you never march a straight path to your goal. Instead, you crisscross the same ground over and over again as you search for the answer that you’re sure is there somewhere. Every successful invention is the result of false starts, dead ends, disappointments, self-doubt, perseverance, and the elation that comes when your faith in yourself is at last rewarded.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the tale of the invention of the airplane.

It was one of the most perplexing and dangerous research projects ever attempted, and it came within a hair’s breadth of death and disaster many times. The Wright brothers built seven flying machines in their quest for a practical aircraft, each a test bed for untried theories and assumptions. When they guessed wrong, they crashed -- and the Wrights crashed each one of their aircraft more than once. However, knowing what doesn’t work points the way to what does. After each failure, they rebuilt and modified their aircraft, incorporating what they had learned in the new design. In less than a decade they taught themselves to fly.


  • 1896   The Wright brothers read news stories of glider pilot Lilienthal's death. They surmise it was caused back lack of control and begin to think about a control system for an aircraft.
  • 1899 to 1899   The Wrights read everything they can find on aviation and aeronautics.
  • 1899  Wilbur is twisting a long, slender box in his hands when an idea hits him for an aircraft control system. By warping the wings, he could control roll, banking an aircraft left and right. The brothers test the concept with a kite and it works like gangbusters.
  • Spring 1900 to Summer 1900   Wilbur looks around for a place to test a glider. He settles on Kitty Hawk, North Carolina because the high winds will help launch a glider and the soft sands will cushion a rough landing.
  • Fall 1900    The Wrights build their first glider with wing warping controls and fly it a Kitty Hawk. It does not produce the desired lift, but the controls work well and they are encouraged enough to try again.
  • Summer 1901   The second glider is a disappointment. The controls do not work as well as the first glider, and it produces no more lift. They contemplate giving up their flying experiments.
  • Fall 1901 to Spring 1902   After a speech that Wilbur gives to the Western Society of Engineers is well-received, he and Orville decide to carry on. They test over 200 wings shapes in a wind tunnel to find which ones produce the most lift. The brothers build a new glider based on the results.
  • Fall 1902   The Wright's third glider produces the expected lift, but is still hard to control in a turn. They decided to make the tail movable, and this cures the problem. They make flight after flight, gliding over 600 feet. They begin to plan a powered machine.
  • Winter 1902 to Summer 1903   The Wright contact engine manufacturers and look for literature on designing propellers, but to no avail. They decide to make their own engine and they invent a method to design efficient propellers.
  • Spring 1903   Octave Chanute tells the Aero-Club de France about the Wright's experiments, and the members begin to copy Wright gliders in an attempt to beat them into the air with a practical airplane.
  • Fall 1903 to Winter 1903   The Wrights construct their first powered flyer at Kitty Hawk while making practice flights in their 1902 glider. They have trouble with the propeller shafts, requiring two trips back to Dayton to repair them. They aren't ready to test the Flyer until mid-December.
  • December 17, 1903   The Wrights make the first sustained, controlled, powered flights in an airplane, the Flyer 1, covering up to 852 feet and staying in the air for up to 59 seconds. After four flights, the aircraft is overturned by a gust of wind and destroyed.
  • Spring 1904 to Summer 1904  The Wrights build the Flyer II, a copy of the Flyer 1. They resume test flight at Huffman Prairie, a field near Dayton, Ohio, but find their new machine has too little power to make more than brief hops.
  • Fall 1904  The Wright build a catapult system to sling their underpowered Flyer 2 into the air. It works well, and they begin to make progress again. Although they find the Flyer 2 difficult to control, on September 20 they fly the first complete circle in an aircraft.
  • 1905  The Wright completely rebuild their aircraft, salvaging only the engine, propellers, and hardware. The new Flyer III is much easier to control, and the Wrights begin to stay in the air for longer and longer periods of time. On October 5, Wilbur flies for 39 minutes, covering over 24 miles and running the gas tank dry. The Flyer 3 is the world's first practical airplane.

Note: You may also want to consult the Wright Timeline.

Wilbur built this kite in 1899 to test his theory that he could roll an aircraft by twisting its wings.

The Wright brothers built their first manned glider in 1900 and tested it at Kitty Hawk, NC. It did not fly well.

The Wrights' second glider, built in 1901, flew no better than the first.

After testing over 200 wing shapes in a homemade wind tunnel, the Wrights built their third glider in 1903 and found that it flew reasonably well.

In 1903, the Wright built a powered aircraft and made the first sustained, controlled powered flights.

In 1904, they began to perfect their aircraft at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, OH.

By 1905, they had arrived at what they considered a practical flying machine.

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The Wright Story/Inventing the Airplane

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers
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