13 May 2016

The Birth of Motorised Flight

The Wright Brothers National Memorial

No cockpits yet
Capturing history
Full sized replica at the spot where they took off
The only monument to be erected when the people were still alive

This is where the Wright Brother’s came to test out their gliders and Flyer.

It all started when their father brought home a rubber band operated helicopter when they were very young which they played with it until it broke. So they rebuilt it, but made a bigger one, then a bigger one. Their interest in flight had begun. Orville & Wilbur were the two older brothers in the family of five children, who became inseparable.

The local helpers

There were many people trying to achieve motorized flight around the world at the time, but no-one had succeeded. They thought they had as good a chance as anyone else.

I better take one just in case you miss it

Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina fit the criteria they needed for testing their theories – wind for lift, sand dunes for soft landings and isolation – so they could work undisturbed. They came to Kill Devil Hills every September and October. By working on each other’s strengths and weaknesses they conquered powered flight in just four years. During the rest of the year they worked in their bicycle shop back in Ohio, which funded all their work. Gathering research from the Smithsonian helped them understand aerodynamics.

Wilbur had the idea of warping the wings, so that he could rotate the wings and stabilize the flight.

They built a 17-foot glider with an unusual forward elevator. The total time in the air was 10 seconds

They expanded the wing span to 22 feet but the machine was still unpredictable. When they realised they had been using incorrect data, they produced their own.

They increased the wings to 32-feet and added vertical tails to counteract adverse yaw. After Wilbur thought to link the tail movement to the warping mechanism, the Glider could be tuned and stabilized smoothly. They saw that control and stability were related and that a plane turned by rolling. After six hundred more glides, they were satisfied that they had the first working airplane.

The four flights on Dec 17, 1903

Unable to find a lightweight commercial engine, they produced their own. Due to repairs on the engine, they stayed longer than their usual two months as they were determined to make it work. On December 14, Wilbur won the coin toss to test their first plane, but he over steered with the elevator after leaving the launching rail. The Flyer climbed too steeply, stalled and dove into the sand. Three days later after some repairs, Orville took it up. Again the Flyer was uncontrollable, pitching up and down as he overcompensated the controls. Orville managed to keep it aloft until it hit the sand, about 120 feet from the rail. On Wilbur’s second flight he managed to reach a height of 852 feet and keep going for 59 seconds.

*The above timeline was taken from the National Parks brochure

A replica, the real one is at the Smithsonian

The National Memorial for the Wright Brothers in Kill Devil Hills is a museum that has indoor and outdoor exhibits. The hills out the back are now covered in grass but were once all sand. Wilbur called it the Sahara, as there were endless sand dunes to the sea. A memorial stands atop the largest hill. A life-sized replica of the Flyer with the brothers, the photographer and the local helpers, who were needed to push the Flyer is on the other side. You can actually drive around but we walked and got rained on. It wasn't supposed to rain for another three hours. The sheds where they worked and lived in during their time here are next to the museum, as are the distance markers of the four flights they made on December 17, 1903. 

The Ranger explains how the wings move

What I found the most enjoyable though, was the Ranger talk. A very enthusiastic lady told us their story and showed us how the wings moved, how the brothers steered the plane by moving their bodies, left and right, which warped the wings and moved the rudder.

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