History of the Airplane

The dream of flying is as old as mankind itself. However, the concept of the airplane has only been around for two centuries. Before that time, men and women tried to navigate the air by imitating the birds. They built machines with flapping wings called ornithopters. On the surface, it seemed like a good plan. After all, there are plenty of birds in the air to show that the concept does work. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
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An ornithopter -- it's every bit as impractical as it looks.
The trouble is, it works better at bird-scale than it does at the much larger scale needed to lift both a man and a machine off the ground. So folks began to look for other ways to fly. Beginning in 1783, a few aeronauts made daring, uncontrolled flights in lighter-than-air balloons, but this was hardly a practical way to fly. There was no way to get from here to there unless the wind was blowing in the desired direction. Montgolfier.JPG (7209 bytes)
An early balloon.
It wasn’t until the turn of the nineteenth century that an English baronet from the gloomy moors of Yorkshire conceived a flying machine with fixed wings, a propulsion system, and movable control surfaces. This was the fundamental concept of the airplane. Sir George Cayley also built the first true airplane — a kite mounted on a stick with a movable tail. It was crude, but it proved his idea worked, and from that first humble glider evolved the amazing machines that have taken us to the edge of space at speeds faster than sound.

This wing of the museum focuses on the history of the airplane, from its conception in 1799 to our hopes for its future. Because we are a museum of early aviation, we don’t spend a great deal of time on those years after Orville Wright closed the doors of the Wright Company in 1916. We concentrate on the development of the airplane before World War I, when flying machines were odd contraptions of stick, cloth, and wire; engines were temperamental and untrustworthy; and pilots were never quite sure whether they’d be able to coax their machine into the air or bring it down in one piece.

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Sir George Cayley's 1799 design for an airplane -- fixed wings for lift, a movable tail for control, and rows of "flappers" beneath the

Orville and Wilbur Wright

After studying Lilienthal and Cayley, the Wright brothers flew their first gliders in 1899. In 1900 they went to Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina to pursue the glider experiments. Orville and Wilbur became master glider builders and experts on wing aerodynamics through numerous experiments in a wind tunnel. Through their wind tunnel test, they found an error in Otto Lilienthal's lift formulas. They also discovered that the symmetrical curve of Lilenthal's wing was unstable and improved it by placing the apex of the curve about 1/4 distance back from the leading edge.

While unpowered gliding had been accomplished previously, the Wright brothers took it a step further and desired to build a glider with an engine. They contacted several of the automobile manufacturers to see if they would build them an 8-horsepower motor that weighed less than 200 lbs. Unfortunately for the Wright brothers, none of the automobile companies had time for a special project that would provide no profit.

After being turned down by the automobile industry, the brothers had no choice but to build their own engine. They asked their bicycle mechanic, Charles E. Taylor, for assistance. Charles was operating the Wright's bicycle shop in Dayton Ohio while the brothers were experimenting in North Carolina. In just six weeks, Taylor had completed their 12 horsepower engine with four cylinders, a 4" bore, and a stroke length of 4". The engine weighed 162 pounds. During the first two attempts to test the engine with the propeller attached, the shaft of the propeller broke due to engine vibration. Orville solved the problem by using stronger materials in the propeller.

1903 First Flight

After four years of experimenting with gliding and wind tunnels, the two mounted the engine upon the specially designed glider that would later become known as the 'Wright Flyer'. On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted a 12 second powered flight while covering a distance of 120 feet (33.6 meters). Wilbur took the controls for the second flight and flew for about 175 feet (53 meters). For the third flight, Orville piloted the aircraft for 200 feet (61 meters). Alternating turns, Wilbur was back in the cockpit and flew for 800 feet (244 meters) when the frame began bucking which caused the aircraft to plummet to the ground. Total distance covered in the fourth flight was 852 feet (260 meters) in 59 seconds. The unexpected plunge damaged the front rudder and shut down flight operations for the day. These flights are disputably known as the first heavier-than-air flights to demonstrate controlled sustained manned powered flight.

The Wright Brothers were exponential in bringing attention to aviation by their numerous public displays of powered gliding. Over the years, the Wright brothers had more than 700 successful flights to their credit in the United States and Europe. The success enjoyed by the Wright brothers was largely attributed to their master mechanic abilities and their attention to detail. Most of their mechanical abilities were gained from the jointly owned bicycle shop that they operated in Dayton, Ohio before becoming glider architects.

Orville Wright (b1871-d1948)

Wilbur Wright (b1867-d1912)
Photo Credits: NASA Langley Research Center