By Scott Imlay
Director of Research | Tecplot, Inc.
Orville Wright, the younger of the two brothers who built and flew the first airplane, was born on this day in 1871. Almost 140 years later, his legacy continues to grow, benefiting more walks of modern life than you might imagine.
When I was 10 years old, I read my first book about the Wright brothers. It was one of dozens of young-adult books that my mother had left in my bedroom, hoping I would develop an interest in reading. It worked, and what I learned was fascinating.
In building the first airplane, the Wright brothers:
- Built the first wind tunnel to develop new wing section shapes
- Developed the modern 3-axis aerodynamic control system
- Designed and built their own light-weight gasoline engine
- And much more
In other words, the brothers not only invented the first powered heavier-than-air airplane, they also founded many of the aeronautical sciences required to make it a success.
The Wright brothers accomplished this using incremental experimentation. They understood that previous attempts at heavier than air flight had failed, primarily because the aircraft were not fully controllable. They also realized there were two aspects of successfully controlling an airplane: aircraft design and pilot skill. Finally, they knew that flight was very dangerous, and that a certain number of crashes were likely. They choose to address the controllability problem with gliders before adding the complexity of an engine. They also selected a site, Kitty Hawk, NC, where the terrain was hilly and the winds were consistent. If winds were light, they could launch at the top of the hill and glide to the bottom without ever being far from the ground. If the winds were stronger, they could stake their glider to the ground and fly it like a kite.
The Wright brothers’ first glider was tested at Kitty Hawk in 1900. They made about a dozen free flights before the glider was destroyed in a crash. This glider had controls for two of the three axes: elevator for pitch control and “wing warp” for roll control. The rudder for yaw control was added later after analyzing the cause of crashes. Over the next three years (1900-1903) they made over a thousand glider flights, refining their control system and honing their pilot skills. Only after they felt they had good control of the glider did they build their first powered aircraft.
Like thousands of other fledgling pilots and aeronautical engineers, I was inspired by the Wright brothers’ story. As a faint shadow to their great achievements, I started by flying gliders, moved on to powered flight, and eventually earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering. At each step of the way, I became more impressed by the magnitude of their accomplishments.
Orville Wright died in 1948, having lived long enough to witness the enormous contribution of his invention to modern society.
Thank you Orville, and Happy Birthday!