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Early History of the Airplane, The

Some Aeronautical Experiments

By Wilbur Wright

THE difficulties which obstruct the pathway to success in flying machine construction are of three general classes: (1) Those which relate to the construction of the sustaining wings. (2) Those which relate to the generation and application of the power required to drive the machine through the air. (3) Those relating to the balancing and steering of the machine after it is actually in flight. Of these difficulties two are already to a certain extent solved. Men already know how to construct wings or aeroplanes which, when driven through air at sufficient speed, will not only sustain the weight of the wings themselves, but also that of the engine, and of the engineer as well. Men also know how to build engines and screws of sufficient lightness and power to drive these planes at sustaining speed. As long ago as 1893 a machine weighing 8,000 lbs. demonstrated its power both to lift itself from the ground and to maintain a speed of from 30 to 40 miles per hour; but it came to grief in an accidental free flight, owing to the inability of the operators to balance and steer it properly. This inability to balance and steer still confronts students of the flying problem, although nearly ten years have passed. When this one feature has been worked out the age of flying machines will have arrived, for all other difficulties are of minor importance.

The person who merely watches the flight of a bird gathers the impression that the bird has nothing to think of but the flapping of its wings. As a matter of fact, this is a very small part of its mental labour. Even to mention all the things the bird must constantly keep in mind in order to fly securely through the air would take a very considerable treatise. If I take a piece of paper, and after placing it parallel with the ground, quickly let it fall, it will not settle steadily down as a staid, sensible piece of paper ought to do, but it insists on contravening every recognized rule of decorum, turning over and darting hither and thither in the most erratic manner, much after the style of an untrained horse. Yet this is the style of steed that men must learn to manage before flying can become an everyday sport. The bird has learned this art of equilibrium, and learned it so thoroughly that its skill is not apparent to our sight. We only learn to appreciate it when we try to imitate it. Now, there are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse: one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast awhile, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.


My own active interest in aeronautical problems dates back to the death of Lilienthal in 1896. The brief notice of his death which appeared in the telegraphic news at that time aroused a passive interest which had existed from my childhood, and led me to take down from the shelves of our home library a book on “Animal Mechanism,” by Prof. Marey, which I had already read several times. From this I was led to read more modern works, and as my brother soon became equally interested with myself, we soon passed from the reading to the thinking, and finally to the working stage. It seemed to us that the main reason why the problem had remained so long unsolved was that no one had been able to obtain any adequate practice. We figured that Lilienthal in five years of time had spent only about five hours in actual gliding through the air. The wonder was not that he had done so little, but that he had accomplished so much. It would not be considered at all safe for a bicycle rider to attempt to ride through a crowded city street after only five hours’ practice, spread out in bits of ten seconds each over a period of five years; yet Lilienthal with this brief practice was remarkably successful in meeting the fluctuations and eddies of wind gusts. We thought that if some method could be found by which it would be possible to practice by the hour instead of by the second there would be hope of advancing the solution of a very difficult problem. It seemed feasible to do this by building a machine which would be sustained at a speed of 18 miles per hour, and then finding a locality where winds of this velocity were common. With these conditions a rope attached to the machine to keep it from floating backward would answer very nearly the same purpose as a propeller driven by a motor, and it would be possible to practice by the hour, and without any serious danger, as it would not be necessary to rise far from the ground, and the machine would not have any forward motion at all. We found, according to the accepted tables of air pressures on curved surfaces, that a machine spreading 200 square feet of wing surface would be sufficient for our purpose, and that places could easily be found along the Atlantic coast where winds of 16 to 25 miles were not at all uncommon. When the winds were low it was our plan to glide from the tops of sand hills, and when they were sufficiently strong to use a rope for our motor and fly over one spot. Our next work was to draw up the plan for a suitable machine. After much study we finally concluded that tails were a source of trouble rather than of assistance, and therefore we decided to dispense with them altogether. It seemed reasonable that if the body of the operator could be placed in a horizontal position instead of the upright, as in the machines of Lilienthal, Pilcher and Chanute, the wind resistance could be very materially reduced, since only one square foot instead of five would be exposed. As a full half-horse-power could be saved by this change, we arranged to try at least the horizontal position. Then the method of control used by Lilienthal, which consisted in shifting the body, did not seem quite as quick or effective as the case required; so, after long study, we contrived a system consisting of two large surfaces on the Chanute double-deck plan, and a smaller surface placed a short distance in front of the main surfaces in such a position that the action of the wind upon it would counterbalance the effect of the travel of the center of pressure on the main surfaces. Thus changes in the direction and velocity of the wind would have little disturbing effect, and the operator would be required to attend only to the steering of the machine, which was to be effected by curving the forward surface up or down. The lateral equilibrium and the steering to right or left was to be attained by a peculiar torsion of the main surfaces, which was equivalent to presenting one end of the wings at a greater angle than the other. In the main frame a few changes were also made in the details of construction and trussing employed by Mr. Chanute. The most important of these were: (1) The moving of the forward main cross-piece of the frame to the extreme front edge; (2) the encasing in the cloth of all cross-pieces and ribs of the surfaces; (3) a rearrangement of the wires used in trussing the two surfaces together, which rendered it possible to tighten all the wires by simply shortening two of them.

With these plans we proceeded in the summer of 1900 to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a little settlement located on the strip of land that separates Albemarle Sound from the Atlantic Ocean. Owing to the impossibility of obtaining suitable material for a 200-square-foot machine, we were compelled to make it only 165 square feet in area, which, according to the Lilienthal tables, would be supported at an angle of three degrees in a wind of about 21 miles per hour. On the very day that the machine was completed the wind blew from 25 to 30 miles per hour, and we took it out for a trial as a kite. We found that while it was supported with a man on it in a wind of about 25 miles, its angle was much nearer 20 degrees than three degrees. Even in gusts of 30 miles the angle of incidence did not get as low as three degrees, although the wind at this speed has more than twice the lifting power of a 21-mile wind. As winds of 30 miles per hour are not plentiful on clear days, it was at once evident that our plan of practicing by the hour, day after day, would have to be postponed. Our system of twisting the surfaces to regulate the lateral balance was tried and found to be much more effective than shifting the operator’s body. On subsequent days, when the wind was too light to support the machine with a man on it, we tested it as a kite, working the rudders by cords reaching to the ground. The results were very satisfactory, yet we were well aware that this method of testing is never wholly convincing until the results are confirmed by actual gliding experience.

We then turned our attention to making a series of actual measurements of the lift and drift of the machine under various loads. So far as we were aware, this had never previously been done with any full-size machine. The results obtained were most astonishing, for it appeared that the total horizontal pull of the machine, while sustaining a weight of 52 lbs., was only 8.5 lbs., which was less than had previously been estimated for head resistance of the framing alone. Making allowance for the weight carried, it appeared that the head resistance of the framing was but little more than 50 per cent. of the amount which Mr. Chanute had estimated as the head resistance of the framing of his machine. On the other hand, it appeared sadly deficient in lifting power as compared with the calculated lift of curved surfaces of its size. This deficiency we supposed might be due to one or more of the following causes:—(1) That the depth of the curvature of our surfaces was insufficient, being only about one in 22, instead of one in 12. (2) That the cloth used in our wings was not sufficiently air-tight. (3) That the Lilienthal tables might themselves be somewhat in error. We decided to arrange our machine for the following year so that the depth of the curvature of its surfaces could be varied at will and its covering air-proofed.

Our attention was next turned to gliding, but no hill suitable for the purpose could be found near our camp at Kitty Hawk. This compelled us to take the machine to a point four miles south, where the Kill Devil sand hill rises from the flat sand to a height of more than 100 feet. Its main slope is toward the northeast, and has an inclination of 10 degrees. On the day of our arrival the wind blew about 25 miles an hour, and as we had had no experience at all in gliding, we deemed it unsafe to attempt to leave the ground. But on the day following, the wind having subsided to 14 miles per hour, we made about a dozen glides. It had been the original intention that the operator should run with the machine to obtain initial velocity, and assume the horizontal position only after the machine was in free flight. When it came time to land he was to resume the upright position and alight on his feet, after the style of previous gliding experiments. But in actual trial we found it much better to employ the help of two assistants in starting, which the peculiar form of our machine enabled us readily to do; and in landing we found that it was entirely practicable to land while still reclining in a horizontal position upon the machine. Although the landings were made while moving at speeds of more than 20 miles an hour, neither machine nor operator suffered any injury. The slope of the hill was 9.5 deg., or a drop of one foot in six. We found that after attaining a speed of about 25 to 30 miles with reference to the wind, or 10 to 15 miles over the ground, the machine not only glided parallel to the slope of the hill, but greatly increased its speed, thus indicating its ability to glide on a somewhat less angle than 9.5 deg., when we should feel it safe to rise higher from the surface. The control of the machine proved even better than we had dared to expect, responding quickly to the slightest motion of the rudder. With these glides our experiments for the year 1900 closed. Although the hours and hours of practice we had hoped to obtain finally dwindled down to about two minutes, we were very much pleased with the general results of the trip, for, setting out as we did with almost revolutionary theories on many points and an entirely untried form of machine, we considered it quite a point to be able to return without having our pet theories completely knocked on the head by the hard logic of experience, and our own brains dashed out in the bargain. Everything seemed to us to confirm the correctness of our original opinions—(1) that practice is the key to the secret of flying; (2) that it is practicable to assume the horizontal position; (3) that a smaller surface set at a negative angle in front of the main bearing surfaces, or wings, will largely counteract the effect of the fore-and-aft travel of the center of pressure; (4) that steering up and down can be attained with a rudder without moving the position of the operator’s body; (5) that twisting the wings so as to present their ends to the wind at different angles is a more prompt and efficient way of maintaining lateral equilibrium than that employed in shifting the body of the operator of the machine.

When the time came to design our new machine for 1901 we decided to make it exactly like the previous machine in theory and method of operation. But as the former machine was not able to support the weight of the operator when flown as a kite, except in very high winds and at very large angles of incidence, we decided to increase its lifting power. Accordingly, the curvature of the surfaces was increased to one in 12, to conform to the shape on which Lilienthal’s table was based, and to be on the safe side we decided also to increase the area of the machine from 165 square feet to 308 square feet, although so large a machine had never before been deemed controllable. The Lilienthal machine had an area of 151 square feet; that of Pilcher, 165 square feet; and the Chanute double-decker, 134 square feet. As our system of control consisted in a manipulation of the surfaces themselves instead of shifting the operator’s body, we hoped that the new machine would be controllable, notwithstanding its great size. According to calculations, it would obtain support in a wind of 17 miles per hour with an angle of incidence of only three degrees.

Our experience of the previous year having shown the necessity of a suitable building for housing the machine, we erected a cheap frame building, 16 feet wide, 25 feet long, and 7 feet high at the eaves. As our machine was 22 feet wide, 14 feet long (including the rudder), and about 6 feet high, it was not necessary to take the machine apart in any way in order to house it. Both ends of the building, except the gable parts, were made into doors which hinged above, so that when opened they formed an awning at each end and left an entrance the full width of the building. We went into camp about the middle of July, and were soon joined by Mr. E. C. Huffaker, of Tennessee, an experienced aeronautical investigator in the employ of Mr. Chanute, by whom his services were kindly loaned, and by Dr. A. G. Spratt, of Pennsylvania, a young man who has made some valuable investigations of the properties of variously curved surfaces and the travel of the center of pressure thereon. Early in August Mr. Chanute came down from Chicago to witness our experiments, and spent a week in camp with us. These gentlemen, with my brother and myself, formed our camping party, but in addition we had in many of our experiments the valuable assistance of Mr. W. J. Tate and Mr. Dan Tate, of Kitty Hawk.


It had been our intention when building the machine to do most of the experimenting in the following manner:—When the wind blew 17 miles an hour, or more, we would attach a rope to the machine and let it rise as a kite with the operator upon it. When it should reach a proper height the operator would cast off the rope and glide down to the ground just as from the top of a hill. In this way we would be saved the trouble of carrying the machine uphill after each glide, and could make at least 10 glides in the time required for one in the other way. But when we came to try it we found that a wind of 17 miles, as measured by Richards’ anemometer, instead of sustaining the machine with its operator, a total weight of 240 lbs., at an angle of incidence of three degrees, in reality would not sustain the machine alone—100 lbs.—at this angle. Its lifting capacity seemed scarcely one-third of the calculated amount. In order to make sure that this was not due to the porosity of the cloth, we constructed two small experimental surfaces of equal size, one of which was air-proofed and the other left in its natural state; but we could detect no difference in their lifting powers. For a time we were led to suspect that the lift of curved surfaces little exceeded that of planes of the same size, but further investigation and experiment led to the opinion that (1) the anemometer used by us over-recorded the true velocity of the wind by nearly 15 per cent.; (2) that the well-known Smeaton coefficient of .005 V2 for the wind pressure at 90 degrees is probably too great by at least 20 per cent.; (3) that Lilienthal’s estimate that the pressure on a curved surface having an angle of incidence of three degrees equals .545 of the pressure at 90 degrees is too large, being nearly 50 per cent. greater than very recent experiments of our own with a special pressure testing machine indicate; (4) that the superposition of the surfaces somewhat reduced the lift per square foot, as compared with a single surface of equal area.

In gliding experiments, however, the amount of lift is of less relative importance than the ratio of lift to drift, as this alone decides the angle of gliding descent. In a plane the pressure is always perpendicular to the surface, and the ratio of lift to drift is therefore the same as that of the cosine to the sine of the angle of incidence. But in curved surfaces a very remarkable situation is found. The pressure, instead of being uniformly normal to the chord of the arc, is usually inclined considerably in front of the perpendicular. The result is that the lift is greater and the drift less than if the pressure were normal. While our measurements differ considerably from those of Lilienthal, Lilienthal was the first to discover this exceedingly important fact, which is fully set forth in his book, “Bird Flight the Basis of the Flying Art,” but owing to some errors in the methods he used in making measurements, question was raised by other investigators not only as to the accuracy of his figures, but even as to the existence of any tangential force at all. Our experiments confirm the existence of this force. At Kitty Hawk we spent much time in measuring the horizontal pressure on our unloaded machine at various angles of incidence. We found that at 13 degrees the horizontal pressure was about 23 lbs. This included not only the drift proper, or horizontal component of the pressure on the side of the surface, but also the head resistance of the framing as well. The weight of the machine at the time of this test was about 108 lbs. Now, if the pressure had been normal to the chord of the surface, the drift proper would have been to the lift (108 lbs.) as the sine of 13 degrees is to the cosine of 13 degrees, or .22 × 108 / .97 = 24+ lbs.; but this slightly exceeds the total pull of 23 lbs. on our scales. Therefore, it is evident that the average pressure on the surface, instead of being normal to the chord, was so far inclined toward the front that all the head resistance of framing and wires used in the construction was more than overcome. In a wind of 14 miles per hour resistance is by no means a negligible factor, so that tangential is evidently a force of considerable value. In a higher wind, which sustained the machine at an angle of 10 degrees, the pull on the scales was 18 lbs. With the pressure normal to the chord the drift proper would have been .17 × 98 / .98 = 17 lbs., so that, although the higher wind velocity must have caused an increase in the head resistance, the tangential force still came within one pound of overcoming it. After our return from Kitty Hawk we began a series of experiments to accurately determine the amount and direction of the pressure produced on curved surfaces when acted upon by winds at the various angles from zero to 90 degrees. These experiments are not yet concluded, but in general they support Lilienthal in the claim that the curves give pressures more favorable in amount and direction than planes; but we find marked differences in the exact values, especially at angles below 10 degrees. We were unable to obtain direct measurements of the horizontal pressures of the machine with the operator on board, but by comparing the distance traveled in gliding with the vertical fall, it was easily calculated that at a speed of 24 miles per hour the total horizontal resistance of our machine when bearing the operator, amounted to 40 lbs., which is equivalent to about 21/3 horse-power. It must not be supposed, however, that a motor developing this power would be sufficient to drive a man-bearing machine. The extra weight of the motor would require either a larger machine, higher speed, or a greater angle of incidence in order to support it, and therefore more power. It is probable, however, that an engine of six horse-power, weighing 100 lbs., would answer the purpose. Such an engine is entirely practicable. Indeed, working motors of one-half this weight per horse-power (9 lbs. per horse-power) have been constructed by several different builders. Increasing the speed of our machine from 24 to 33 miles per hour reduced the total horizontal pressure from 40 to about 35 lbs. This was quite an advantage in gliding, as it made it possible to sail about 15 per cent. further with a given drop. However, it would be of little or no advantage in reducing the size of the motor in a power-driven machine, because the lessened thrust would be counterbalanced by the increased speed per minute. Some years ago Professor Langley called attention to the great economy of thrust which might be obtained by using very high speeds, and from this many were led to suppose that high speed was essential to success in a motor-driven machine. But the economy to which Professor Langley called attention was in foot-pounds per mile of travel, not in foot-pounds per minute. It is the foot-pounds per minute that fixes the size of the motor. The probability is that the first flying machines will have a relatively low speed, perhaps not much exceeding 20 miles per hour, but the problem of increasing the speed will be much simpler in some respects than that of increasing the speed of a steamboat; for, whereas in the latter case the size of the engine must increase as the cube of the speed, in the flying machine, until extremely high speeds are reached, the capacity of the motor increases in less than simple ratio; and there is even a decrease in the fuel consumption per mile of travel. In other words, to double the speed of a steamship (and the same is true of the balloon type of airship) eight times the engine and boiler capacity would be required, and four times the fuel consumption per mile of travel; while a flying machine would require engines of less than double the size, and there would be an actual decrease in the fuel consumption per mile of travel. But looking at the matter conversely, the great disadvantage of the flying machine is apparent; for in the latter no flight at all is possible unless the proportion of horse-power to flying capacity is very high; but on the other hand a steamship is a mechanical success if its ratio of horse-power to tonnage is insignificant. A flying machine that would fly at a speed of 50 miles an hour with engines of 1,000 horse-power would not be upheld by its wings at all at a speed of less than 25 miles an hour, and nothing less than 500 horse-power could drive it at this speed. But a boat which could make 40 miles per hour with engines of 1,000 horse-power would still move four miles an hour even if the engines were reduced to one horse-power. The problems of land and water travel were solved in the nineteenth century, because it was possible to begin with small achievements and gradually work up to our present success. The flying problem was left over to the twentieth century, because in this case the art must be highly developed before any flight of any considerable duration at all can be obtained.

However, there is another way of flying which requires no artificial motor, and many workers believe that success will first come by this road. I refer to the soaring flight, by which the machine is permanently sustained in the air by the same means that are employed by soaring birds. They spread their wings to the wind, and sail by the hour, with no perceptible exertion beyond that required to balance and steer themselves. What sustains them is not definitely known, though it is almost certain that it is a rising current of air. But whether it be a rising current or something else, it is as well able to support a flying machine as a bird, if man once learns the art of utilizing it. In gliding experiments it has long been known that the rate of vertical descent is very much retarded, and the duration of the flight greatly prolonged, if a strong wind blows up the face of the hill parallel to its surface. Our machine, when gliding in still air, has a rate of vertical descent of nearly six feet per second, while in a wind blowing 26 miles per hour up a steep hill we made glides in which the rate of descent was less than two feet per second. And during the larger part of this time, while the machine remained exactly in the rising current, there was no descent at all, but even a slight rise. If the operator had had sufficient skill to keep himself from passing beyond the rising current he would have been sustained indefinitely at a higher point than that from which he started.


In looking over our experiments of the past two years, with models and full-size machines, the following points stand out with clearness:—

  1. That the lifting power of a large machine, held stationary in a wind at a small distance from the earth, is much less than the Lilienthal table and our own laboratory experiments would lead us to expect. When the machine is moved through the air, as in gliding, the discrepancy seems much less marked.
  2. That the ratio of drift to lift in well-balanced surfaces is less at angles of incidence of five degrees to 12 degrees than at an angle of three degrees.
  3. That in arched surfaces the center of pressure at 90 degrees is near the center of the surface, but moves slowly forward as the angle becomes less, till a critical angle varying with the shape and depth of the curve is reached, after which it moves rapidly toward the rear till the angle of no lift is found.
  4. That with similar conditions large surfaces may be controlled with not much greater difficulty than small ones, if the control is effected by manipulation of the surfaces themselves, rather than by a movement of the body of the operator.
  5. That the head resistances of the framing can be brought to a point much below that usually estimated as necessary.
  6. That tails, both vertical and horizontal, may with safety be eliminated in gliding and other flying experiments.
  7. That a horizontal position of the operator’s body may be assumed without excessive danger, and thus the head resistance reduced to about one-fifth that of the upright position.
  8. That a pair of superposed, or tandem, surfaces has less lift in proportion to drift than either surface separately, even after making allowance for weight and head resistance of the connections.

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