The Wright Stuff

As each issue passes, it’s hard to narrow down which aircraft to write about next. There’s just so many with a worthy story to choose from! So many aircraft that at the dawn of their own concept, had futures that would cross-pollinate into other new designs and innovations of aircraft yet to come. Indeed, most (maybe all) aircraft are a continuation of an idea or concept of something that came before it, or at least the designers picked up on a design thread or an idea, possibly due to a new need, or perhaps in terms of WWII aircraft; a reaction to an aircraft that’s already flying. But… there has to be a first…. right?

Jamie Chalkley  |  02nd November 2023
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    Jamie Chalkley
    Jamie Chalkley

    Jamie Chalkley literally grew up around Warbirds... and crop spraying! Quite the contrast! Not content...

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    The Wright Stuff


    The first 

    We can only be talking about one aircraft when, as an aviation community, we refer to ‘the first’; so let’s look at the guys that got it right, by name and by nature! the Wright Brothers, and their Wright Flyer! 

    I guess we should start with defining what we’re looking at here; a craft capable of leaving the ground and whilst airborne could be controlled in flight. Of course, there was an evolution: from bird, to balloon, then to kite (actually the box kite inspired the idea of twin wings), to glider – the first of which left the ground almost a century before the Wright Flyer did. But it was the Wright Brothers that successfully captured the elements of powered and most importantly, ‘controlled’ flight! Meaning that the pilot (or cyclist by trade in their case) could not only soar…. but, could steer!

    On your bike! 

    The brothers were inquisitive from early on, their father; a bishop and often on the road, would send home letters from his travels and on occasions return with a toy or strange innovation found during his time away. One such gift was a rubber band-powered ‘sort of helicopter’ toy. The year was 1878 and the two boys couldn’t put it down. They tweaked and fiddled with it, actually the story goes; they broke it, but they made another. And in doing so, adapted it, understood it and continued to build their own versions of it. 

    As young adults, following a stint in the newspaper industry, the brothers caught the bicycle buzz, and started repairing and trading bicycles. By 1896, aged 25 (Orville) and 29 (Wilbur) they had a full time business on their hands, and were designing and making their own bikes to sell. The business was firmly established on the ground, but their imagination… well that was very much in the air! 

    By the turn of the 20th century, the brothers, reading of primitive flying machines in the newspapers, devised a twisted wing design which they built into a kite type of craft to trial. This allowed them to research and indeed prove that they could influence a direction of travel. They could fly a kite that turned right (in roll) and another that could turn left, and in later years this led to controlling ‘wing warping’ directly as a function of the flight control system to induce roll. 

    Through 1900 and 1901 they developed this into a rather unsuccessful series of gliders which they flew from a sandy Atlantic beach in North Carolina. This seemed the best place to try their designs for not only was there a helpful brisk Atlantic breeze, but also a nice soft (ish) sandy cushion to come to a stop on (purposefully not using the word ‘land’ on… yet!). But they couldn’t seem to get enough lift from their wings to stay airborne, nor sufficiently control their direction of flight. The trial and error nature of developing their flying machines between workshop and shoreline was also proving frustrating and time consuming, and certainly, there was the sense of a race building as more and more flying machines were being developed and reported on in the papers. So, as the dark nights of December 1901 arrived, they built and used a wind tunnel (bicycle powered and using small versions of their wings). This helped them research and develop their thinking in a much more controlled fashion (literally!). And most importantly they carefully recorded their research as they dug deep into the formula for lift (and drag) and in researching wing designs (experimenting with camber and chord length). By Autumn 1902, they had a glider that could be controlled in all three axes; pitch, roll and yaw; a huge step from using body weight and balance to try and control a flying machine. The dawn of this flight control system was really one of their most defining moments and perhaps their most significant. 

    During the winter that followed, the brothers and their bicycle mechanic friend (Charlie Taylor), built a small, lightweight, petrol engine and remembering their rubber band driven propulsion toy of some 25 years previously, they designed and made some propellers! These they hand crafted in wood themselves and because they understood properly the equations of lift and drag, they understood the need for sufficient thrust which in turn meant they could calculate a required power to weight ratio, all of which they calculated to quite incredible accuracy (it’s widely accepted they calculated the thrust of their propellors to within 1% of what they actually produced).

     Other flying machines around the world were fast capturing interest including a number of powered but unmanned aircraft, but that were surely soon to add a driver! The Wright Brothers however were struggling with driving the propellors with any reliability and the local weather wasn’t being kind on testing days. But, on 17th December 1903, from a beach near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the brothers launched and successfully flew (with some control) the Wright Flyer. The world’s first powered, controlled, manned flight aircraft! 

    Orville was the first to take the controls and at 10:35 of that cold December morning, he flew 36 meters recording a flight time of 12 seconds and a top speed 6.8 mph. The brothers made notes, shared a few discussions and took it in turns to complete several more flights. Progressing to just under 260 meters with a flight time of 59 seconds. Of great importance, the brothers made sure their flights were carefully recorded and witnessed in person by several invited onlookers.

    The Wright Flyer 

    Built using Spruce and Ash wood, and covered in muslin, the Wright Flyer was not a small aircraft; measuring some 40ft tip to tip and just over 20ft long. It was powered by a 12 horsepower engine, fed by a one gallon fuel tank. A bicycle type chain transferred power to the two ‘pusher’ counter rotating 8.5 ft propellors.

    Amazingly the right wing was 4 inches longer than the left to help laterally balance the aircraft with the engine and pilot (who flew the aircraft laying on his front so to be more streamlined!). The elevator system (which the brothers referred to as the front rudder) sat forward of the aircraft rather than behind. At the back and not far behind the pilot, was a rudder system. 

    To steer, the pilot moved a hip cradle which, via pulley wires, warped the wings to achieve movement in roll and turn the rudder. The elevator was controlled by the left hand, and the right hand… well… that just held on! The aircraft was launched from a dolly track (which used bicycle hubs in the wheels). When the engine was up to speed, the aircraft was released with a restraining wire and all being well, it would accelerate forward on the launch dolly…. and get airborne! 

    The Wright Brothers in space! 

    With much to still do, the brothers expanded their design work and by late 1905 they had progressed from straight (ish) line flying, to flying figure eight patterns and staying airborne for just under 40 minutes covering a total of distance of 39 km!

     And that really was the birth of what we think of now in terms of an aircraft. The rate of learning and development from that moment on has been a journey of amazement and would have surely exceeded the brothers’ wildest dreams. Just 66 years after their first controlled flight, Neil and Buzz made a controlled descent onto the surface of the moon! And they took a piece of that first aircraft with them. As did the Mars helicopter ‘ingenuity’. And back down here on earth pilots are flying faster than a speeding bullet and carrying hundreds of people on a single plane. Astonishing! 

    And yes – it’s debatable if the Wright Brothers were indeed actually the first pilots to fly an aircraft; it’s true that there was a lot of activity worldwide around that time, and indeed a number of claims had been made of other first flights. But, there needed to be some sort of agreement on what was and wasn’t ‘controlled flight’ and such feats needed to be properly observed and recorded officially. So, whilst it was a fast moving and perhaps a heated topic at the time, whatever the reality of some of these claims, it is more than fair to credit the Wright Brothers with having made a clear demonstration of their abilities. And to say; it was their 3-axis flight control system together with their propulsion system, that truly marked and defined the birth of the modern aircraft. And less we forget, not only was the technology of flight and advanced thinking in aerodynamics moving at an astonishing self-taught pace, there was no one around to actually show them how to fly or operate the thing! That was down to them to figure out!

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