Boeing Frontiers
February 2003
Volume 01, Issue 09
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Historical Perspective

Wright brothers: dreams into reality


Kill Devil Hill On Dec. 17, 1903, on an isolated beach near Kitty Hawk, N.C., two brothers turned the millenniums- old dream of flight into reality.

Self-proclaimed tinkerers Orville and Wilbur Wright made their living by designing, building, and repairing bicycles at their shop in Dayton, Ohio. They had only high school educations, but they proved to have enough genius, vision and natural curiosity to fulfill the age-old quest for flight in just four years.

In 1899, after reading about the gliding experiments of Germany's Otto Lilienthal, Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution asking for information concerning aviation.

"I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help the future worker who will attain final success," Wilbur wrote.

What arrived amounted to a handful of books, but it was enough to captivate the brothers with the pursuit of flight. They proceeded methodically with their experiments and investigations, and within a year they were flying gliders on the beaches near Kitty Hawk. Their gliding experiments ended with more doubts than success, leading Wilbur to say, "Nobody will fly for 50 years!"

Instead of giving up, they returned home to Dayton to build a wind tunnel in which they tested more than 150 airfoils. The wind tunnel provided the answers leading to a new wing and a new, highly successful "1902 Glider." The 1902 Glider renewed the brothers' confidence that they could build a powered aircraft.

In 1903, the Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk with a powered "Flyer" and the determination to fly. On the morning of Dec. 17, Orville climbed aboard the Flyer and took off. The flight lasted a scant 12 seconds and covered only 120 feet, but later that day Wilbur flew 852 feet in 59 seconds, proving without a doubt the Flyer worked.

Probably the most important innovation that led to the Wright brothers' success can be credited to their experience with bicycles. The brothers understood the need for lateral control and that an aircraft would have to bank into a turn, just as one must lean into a turn on a bicycle. To accomplish this the Wrights developed a mechanism of wing warping that caused the aircraft to bank, and they developed a rudder to make the aircraft turn. This concept was lost on their contemporaries.

The Wrights became obsessed with protecting wing warping and their other discoveries. The result was that for nearly five years there was little progress in aviation—illustrated by the fact that in 1908 Glen Curtiss was awarded the first U.S. record for distance by flying just one kilometer (0.62 miles), when three years earlier Wilbur had privately flown a distance of 38.62 kilometers (24 miles).

The Wrights' reticence eventually caused many to think that the brothers were frauds, and by 1908 the public outcry and offers to buy their planes finally brought the Wrights out of their isolation.

Wilbur went to Europe and thrilled crowds that included royalty from several nations.

Orville took one of their planes to Fort Myer in Virginia for flight trials to cement a contract from the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, near the end of the trials the aircraft crashed, seriously injuring Orville and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, powered flight's first fatality. A young man by the name of Donald Douglas, who saw Orville fly at Fort Myer, would go on to build one of aviation's greatest companies.

Orville soon recovered and joined Wilbur in Europe, and both returned in 1909 to a White House reception and long-overdue acclaim for their accomplishments.

The exploits of the Wright brothers made Americans hungry to see flying machines. In January 1910, the first aviation meet in America was held at Dominguez Ranch near Los Angeles. For one young man in the audience, aviation became an instant obsession. The show was a catalyst that would lead him to build his own plane and start his own airplane company.

That young man was William Edward Boeing.

Editor's note: To commemorate the 100th anniversary of flight, this year Historical Perspective will chronicle the major milestones and advances in flight as they occurred, decade by decade.


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