December 17, 2009

First Successful Airplane Flight – 1903

On this day in 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. In other words, he and his brother Wilbur had invented and built the world's first successful airplane!

This plane, the Wright Flyer I, is now on display in the Smithsonian.

The first flight, which occurred near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, covered 120 feet (37 meters) and only lasted 12 seconds. Wilbur, on the last flight of the same day, piloted the plane 852 feet (260 meters) on a flight that lasted 59 seconds.

Of course, this much-lauded successful Flyer was one of a series
of inventions by the Wright brothers, both before and after December 17, 1903. The Wrights had opened and run a printing business and a bicycle repair shop, and they had begun to manufacture their own brand of bike.

Beginning their efforts in human flight in 1899, they built and tested kites and gliders before moving onto powered flight. They innovated with anhedral (drooping) wings and adopted others' successful ideas, such as double-decker gliders and wings that curve on top. They designed and carved their own propellers, and they used their shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, to build a lightweight aluminum engine.

After they “flew into history” with their first successful flights, the Wright brothers continued to improve their planes and obtained patents for their ideas. Two of their first improvements were a passenger seat and fixed wings. Eventually, the Wright brothers began to manufacture airplanes, arranged exhibitions, and trained pilots.

Did you know...?

The Wright brothers' Flyer cost about $1,000 to build. At the same time that the brothers were building and testing their designs, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley was spending $50,000 to conquer human flight on behalf of the U.S. Army. In the late 1890s, Langley's machines did some successful unmanned flights, and he moved onto a full-scale vehicle capable of carrying a pilot.

Called the Aerodrome and piloted by Charles M. Manly, Langley's airplane was launched
by catapult on October 7, 1903, but it crashed into the Potomac River just seconds after it was launched. (The pilot was not hurt.) Langley repaired his aircraft and tried again on December 8, 1903—just nine days before the Wright brothers' successful test! Of course, once again the Aerodrome crashed in seconds. (Again, the pilot was unharmed.)

Although Langley had spent 50 times the money spent by the Wright brothers, and although his engine was four times more powerful than theirs, Langley hadn't tested the airframe's strength adequately and hadn't thought through the problem of control.

After the Wright brothers' success, Langley made no further tests. He became a bit of a laughing stock in the newspapers and Congress.

Explore some more at this virtual museum.

Here is an interesting video about the Wright brothers' firs
t successful flight. Boy, that's the best video by a seven year old I've ever seen! (Her daddy is credited with helping. I think he provided quite a lot of help.)

Make paper airplanes and experiment with lift and wing shape. Try the ideas here.

Here is an old fashioned plane to color.

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