It was on a December morning in 1903 when two brothers from Dayton, Ohio flipped a coin and made their first attempt to fly. They expected that this toss of a coin would enter into history books as one of the most important winter events. This day would mark the first event in which a heavier than air vehicles would make it up the air and land back safely. On December 14 Wilbur Wright was in position between the twin propellers, bicycle chain and a 12 horsepower gasoline engine. While still tethered to the ground, on a wooden rail, the engine for the biplane spun the counter rotating propellers. When it was released, it slid on the air as the other brother tried to stabilize the wings. This was a marginal success as the crate moved about a 100 meters into the air before it finally crashed on the ground cutting short the flight. Although it lasted for only three and a half seconds on the air, this was the beginning of aero-plane revolution. The two brothers were happy with their progress as they had opened a new chapter in aviation. One of the most important factors that they noted after the flight was that there was ample power and control of the craft as they communicated back to their father. Compared to the attempts that had been made before, this was the first attempted controlled flight. (Plamara, 2003)
Attempts that had been made before
The history of flying can be traced to the 19th century efforts by a number of scientists to make a successful flight. The earliest flying efforts were recorded fro Aulus Gellius who was a Greek philosopher claimed to have designed and built an artificial flying device which was self-propelled. It is claimed to have been a bird shaped model propelled by jet steam and flown for 200 meters. There were other efforts from Ikalius and Dedilius who had apparently flown to the air using there arms as the control unit for their flights.
Before the Wright brothers made their debut, there were other trials which had apparently failed. In 1779, a 26 year old boy George Cayley had sketched what could have been considered as a familiar airplane configuration. It was a cambered wing with dihedral, vertical tail, and a horizontal tail. He had chosen an airfoil based on aerodynamically characteristics which he and his predecessor had tested with the use of a whirling arm apparatus. Cayley can therefore be attributed to have invented a dihedral which could be used in maintaining equilibrium in the roll. To his sketch, the vertical tail was meant to provide stability and could be compared to feathers on an arrow and would be used to steer serving like boat rudder. Although was half right on his counts, he failed to apply important Newton’s laws described in translational and rotational motions to his aircraft sketch. There were no mathematical calculations either and therefore there was no base for the designation of the machine. (Culick, 2001)
His work was however very useful. It was applied by French Alphonse Penaud in France who flew what can be considered as a first powered machine that actually flied. Penaud used twisted rubber strips to supply power to the propeller. Penaud also showed how the horizontal tail could be used to provide stability for the machine.
Otto Lilitenthal could be considered as an immediate predecessor of the Wright brothers. Otto was an education mechanical engineer who realized and demonstrated that in order to build a successful airplane there was need to understand how to fly. He carried out extensive tests on airfoils and he came up with the first data that could explain lift and drag for use in foils. Although Otto did not succeed in building a controlled airplane, he inspired others who continued on his work.
Octave Chanute used Otto’s work to advance the development of a flying machine. He developed the Pratt truss which was later adopted by the Wright bothers in their work. He also worked on the sounding board which was also used by the Wright in their work.
This history in the development of a flying machine illustrates a development in the powering of the aircraft but apparently there lacked control. There were contributions from Otto and Octaev on the powered flying machine but there was no one who had come up with a system of control of the aero-planes.
However there were efforts which preceded the development of controlled airplane by Wright brothers. Sir Hiram Maxim is credited with having made efforts tin the development of an aero-plane. His machine was however not considered as a true flying machine but it was just for measuring the lifting force which is generated by the different wings. There were efforts by Clement Ader who investigated bird and bat flight and consequently constructed glider models around 1872. Ader was able to fly fro 984 feet using his model although it was not controlled. (Culick, 2001)
Development of controlled airplane Wright Brothers
The end of 19th century saw an aviation industry that had so much knowledge the powering of piloted flights following the progress that had been made by contributors like Caycle, Penaud, Lilitenthal and other important figures. There was a great invention in the use of lightweight combustion engine which in a great way solved propulsion problem. However the propellers which were used at this time were below the expected standards which were achieved later.
However not may of them concentrated on the problem of what was known and what was not known. It was only the Wright brothers who recognized that there was a great problem of control of flights which was still to be solved. Lilienthal had some very successful straight glides achieved through swinging of his weight in order to achieve and maintain the flight. He did not concentrate on controllability of his flights which eventually cost his death. (Culick, 2001)
The Wright brothers started to be seriously interested in flight around 1899. They started carrying out extensive research on flights although they did not attend a successful course in aeronautics. Their main efforts were to come up with an effective system that could be used to develop a control aircraft. They were interested in solving the problem of controlled human flights.
Their research concentrated in designing, building and testing series or aircrafts which started with their 1899 kite. This as then followed by a three gliders which were successfully developed in 1900, 1901, and 1902. After their successful flight in 1902, they were assured that they were making their right progress towards the development of a controlled aircraft.
The earlier development effort had concentrated on improving the powering system of the aircrafts. Most of the flights tested before had recorded a lift off from the ground but there was no one flight which was successful controlled. They were all flying from a fixed point.
Therefore the Wright brothers concentrated on the development of engine and propellers which would be able to sustain a flight. This was important since it would give the pilot a great deal of control of the aircraft. On December 17 1903, their flight made history in the aviation world. For the first time, this marked the day when an airplane took off from the ground under its own power and moved to a point which was higher than from where it started. There were three more flights on that day which actually confirmed that the Wright brother’s machine could fly under the control of the pilot.
However there were more criticisms about the Wrights early invention. Most of their flights were certainly not controlled as they used some sort of assistance to fly. They use assistance ranging from stiff headwind, launch rails, external thrust and man other to obtain a substantial air speed that could sustain flight. However one of their flights 14-bis took off using their power in a very calm wind. This marked an important step in the growth of aviation industry. (Plamara, 2003)
Most of their predecessor had concentrated on building very stable flights and somehow large models. There was none of them who progressed with maneuverability and therefore the controllability of the flights. However there were earlier efforts by J.J. Montgomery who in 1890s had experiment with wing-warping for the control. Although his work was not published, it is known that he was killed in a plane crash due to the same problem of three axis control. (Plamara, 2003)
The efforts to develop an aircraft can be traced to the early 19th century. Since then there have been several attempts to make an aircraft. However most of the early efforts concentrated on developing a self powered aircraft, a problem which was eventually solved with the invention of internal combustion engines which were light enough to be mounted on an aircraft and provide enough power to lift it. However there were not efforts to develop three axis control and stability of the aircraft. This is perhaps what can be used to distinguish the efforts of the Wright brothers and most of their contemporaries and their predecessors. They were able to recognize the problem of stability and control. One of the factors that led to their success was that they were able to document all their efforts and test flights which provided information for the later development. The Wrights therefore recognized the problem and developed a working solution to this problem. They were really the first to sustain a controlled powered flight.
Culick, F. E. (2001): Wright Brother: First Aeronautical Engineers and test pilots. California Institute of Technology
Plamara, T. G. (2003): How the Wright Brothers invented the aero-plane. Friends Journal, Vol. 26(3): 2-6