On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane 20 feet above a wind-swept beach in North Carolina. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. This event would change modern transportation forever. The 1903 Wright Flyer made four flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, the best covering 852 feet in 59 seconds. It was the first heavier-than-air, powered aircraft to make a sustained, controlled flight with a pilot aboard. The Wrights used their proven canard biplane configuration, which was rooted in their initial 1899 kite design. Key to the Flyer’s success was its three-axis control system, which featured wing warping for lateral balance, a moveable rudder, and an elevator for pitch control. The right wing was four inches longer than the left to compensate for the engine being heavier than and mounted to the right of the pilot. The wings were rigged with a slight droop to reduce the effects of crosswinds.
The brothers’ fundamental breakthrough was their invention of three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. This method became standard and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds. From the beginning of their aeronautical work, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control as the key to solving “the flying problem”. This approach differed significantly from other experimenters of the time who put more emphasis on developing powerful engines.
Using a small homebuilt wind, the Wrights also collected more accurate data than any before, enabling them to design and build wings and propellers that were more efficient than any before Their first U.S. patent, 821,393, did not claim invention of a flying machine, but rather, the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine’s surfaces. They gained the mechanical skills essential for their success by working for years in their shop with printing presses, bicycles, motors, and other machinery. Their work with bicycles in particular influenced their belief that an unstable vehicle like a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. From 1900 until their first powered flights in late 1903, they conducted extensive glider tests that also developed their skills as pilots.
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