Otto Lilienthal was a German pioneer of aviation who became known as the “flying man.” He was the first person to make well-documented, repeated, successful flights with gliders. Photographs of his attempts were published worldwide, sparking a fever over the possibility of powered flight in many, including Orville and Wilber Wright.
Capitalizing on the national bicycle craze, the Wright brothers had opened a repair and sales shop, and eventually began manufacturing their own brand. Wilbur, particularly, toiled day and night at the bike shop over the possibility of building a flying machine, and the brothers began putting the money from their successful business into a research project.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, the Wright Brothers, the invention that would change the way we travel, and the National Memorial that bears their name.
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Wright Brothers National Memorial – NPS Website
Otto Lilienthal was a German pioneer of aviation who became known as the “flying man”. He was the first person to make well-documented, repeated, successful flights with gliders. Photographs of his attempts were published worldwide, sparking a fever over the possibility of powered flight in many. In 1896, his glider stalled and he was unable to regain control. Falling from about 50 feet, he broke his neck and died.
Lilienthal’s flights caught the imagination of Orville and Wilber Wright. Capitalizing on the national bicycle craze, the brothers had opened a repair and sales shop, and eventually began manufacturing their own brand. Wilbur, particularly, toiled day and night at the bike shop over the possibility, and the brothers began putting the money from their successful business into a research project.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, the Wright Brothers, the invention that would change the way we travel, and the National Memorial that bears their name.
Here’s Abigail Trabue.
For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.-Wilbur Wright
After reading practically all available documentation on flight and experiments in human flight, the Wright brothers were certain that the solutions to lift and propulsion existed, and needed only refining. Otto Lillenthal’s thorough data was particularly useful. But no one had yet achieved lateral control.
The conventional wisdom was that control should be inherent to the machine. The Wright brothers rejected this idea. They wanted control to depend on the pilot, like a bicycle being balanced by the rider. Sparked by his observation of birds and the idle twisting of a box, Wilbur developed the notion of adjustable warping of the wings to rotate them and stabilize flight. While in Dayton, they tested wing-warping on a 5-foot biplane kite.
With the success of their kite, however, the brothers soon realized that weather conditions in Dayton were not suitable for extensive flying experiments. They wrote the National Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., requesting a list of places on the east coast where the winds were constant. They chose Kitty Hawk, the 6th windiest location, not only for the steady wind, but also for the soft sand, high dunes, and isolation. In 1900, they began their journey to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a journey that would forever change the world.
Confident their design was sound, the Wrights built a 17-foot glider with a unique forward elevator and a wing design based on Lilienthal’s successful gliders. They arrived at Kitty Hawk in October hoping to gain flying experience, but the wings generated less lift than expected, and they flew the glider primarily as a kite, working the control surfaces from the ground and collecting data they could use to make their own scientific tables. It was essential to gather data with a passenger on board, so local resident Tom Tate was given some exhilarating rides while the brothers controlled it from the ground. They also flew the glider with bags of sand and chains. To calculate the combined forces of lift and drag on the glider they put a scale, similar to a produce scale, on the glider’s line. They measured the wind speed by calculating the angle of the kite line to the horizontal. They determined that the lift produced was just two-thirds that which Lilenthal had documented.
Finally they were ready to try free gliding. Wilbur did a dozen free flights for a total of two minutes. After spending two weeks in Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1900, they went home somewhat discouraged, but convinced they had achieved lateral and longitudinal control.
The next year, the Wrights sharpened their focus. Trying to overcome the lift problem, they increased the camber – or wig curve – of their next glider. They also lengthened its wingspan to 22 feet, its wing area to 290 square feet, and its weight to 98 pounds, making it the largest glider anyone had attempted to fly. But at their new Kill Devil Hills camp, lift was still only a third of that predicted by the data upon which the wing design was based. And the glider pitched wildly, repeatedly climbing into stalls, which was, Orville stated in a letter to his sister Katharine, “precisely the fix Lilienthal got into when he was killed.”
They reverted to the earlier camber measurements, and achieved longitudinal control and eventually glided 335 feet. But the machine was still unpredictable. When the pilot raised the left wing to initiate the expected right turn, the machine instead tended to slip to the left and spin into the ground—they dubbed this effect “well-digging.” Flight experts of the time visited the camp assuring the brothers they had achieved results that were the best ever obtained. They had also achieved the distance record for gliding. However, the failure with the wing-warping, and the realization that their work had relied on false data, brought them to the point of quitting—Wilbur expressed to Orville, that “Not within a thousand years would man ever fly.”
But instead, they rejected what they knew from Lilienthal, returned home to Dayton, built a wind tunnel, and produced their own data to build another machine.
The 1902 machine embodied the Wrights’ exhaustive research. They gave it efficient 32-foot wings and added vertical tails to counteract adverse yaw. The pilot moved a hip cradle to warp the wings. Some 400 glides proved the design workable, but still flawed. Still, sometimes, when the pilot tried to raise the lowered wing to come out of a turn, the machine instead slid sideways toward the wing and spun into the ground. Orville suggested a movable tail to counteract this tendency. After Wilbur thought to link the tail movement to the warping mechanism, the plane could be turned and stabilized smoothly. The Wrights discovered that control and stability were related, that a plane turned by rolling.
If others had thought about steering at all, it was by boat rudder – a marine analogy unworkable in the air. Everything was related. The elevator produces pitch – or up-down movement of the nose. Wing-warping produced roll, and the rudder produced yaw, or right and left movement of the nose, for directional control. These movements in combination turn the aircraft. Six hundred more glides that year satisfied the Wright brothers that they had built the first working airplane. In 1903, they would prove it.
The Wrights had been laboring in relative obscurity, while the flight experiments of Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institution were followed in the press and underwritten by the War Department. Langley was making headway on stability and control as well, yet, as others before him, had failed to achieve powered flight. Previous theories required a brute machine to send a hapless passenger through the air. The Wrights knew it was all at the hands of a pilot. The problems of flight could not be solved from the ground. In Wilbur’s words, “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.” With over a thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill, the Wrights made themselves the first true pilots. These flying skills were a crucial component of their invention. Before they ever attempted powered flight, the Wright brothers were masters of the air.
While home in Dayton, they prepared for their next trip to Kitty Hawk. Their glider experiments on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, though frustrating at times, had led them down the path of discovery. Through those experiments, they had solved the problem of sustained lift and, most importantly, they could now control an aircraft while in flight. The brothers felt they were now ready to truly fly. But first, the Wrights had to power their aircraft. Gasoline engine technology had recently advanced to where its use in airplanes was feasible. Unable to find a suitable lightweight commercial engine, the brothers designed their own, and had Charles Taylor, a machinist that worked at their bicycle shop, build it for them. It was cruder and less powerful than Samuel Langley’s, but the Wrights understood that relatively little power was needed with efficient lifting surfaces and propellers. Such propellers were not available, however. And the only data to design one came from marine propellers, which the Wrights decided was irrelevant. Using their air tunnel data, they designed the first efficient airplane propeller, one of their most original and purely scientific achievements.
There was still a lot of work to be done. Their flyer was heavier than they thought. It had a 40-foot 4-inch wingspan with a 510-square-foot wing area, and by itself weighed 605 pounds. That weight was nearly five times more than the weight of their 1902 glider. They didn’t know if the engine would be powerful enough to lift the plane off the ground. The brothers and their assistants could not set the new machine in motion while keeping the wings steady anymore. Wheels would not have worked well either because of the sand. The brothers designed a new way to get the plane up to the needed speed to fly. It would ride down a 60-foot wooden monorail on a dolley.
They returned to the Outer Banks on September 26, 1903. Once the camp buildings were reconstructed to provide more suitable living space and house the flyer, they got to work. First, they did some experimenting with the old glider. They added a twin-vaned rudder that was joined with the wing-warping system, and made about 200 glides to practice their flying skills while putting together and ground testing their new flyer. They achieved a gliding record of more than 610 feet, with the longest time in the air of 1 minute 12 seconds.
By the beginning of November, the brothers had the flyer mostly ready and began trying out the engine and transmission. During one of the trials, the vibration from the engine caused damage to the propellers. The propellers were sent to Dayton to be fixed, but not long after they were returned to Kitty Hawk, a propeller shaft was fractured again, forcing Orville to return to Dayton, where he had new ones created using solid spring steel. By the time they had the new propellers back in Kitty Hawk, it was December 11. The new propellers were installed, but another accident occurred. They tested the flyer on the wooden monorail track, but the rudder was damaged in the process, necessitating more repairs. They then used a 50-pound container of sand to see if the flyer was able to attain enough lift and, with a favorable response, they were ready to attempt powered flight.
They mounted the engine on the new Flyer with double tails and elevators. The engine drove two pusher propellers with chains, one crossed to make the props rotate in opposite directions to counteract a twisting tendency in flight. A stubborn engine and broken propeller shaft slowed them yet again, until they were finally ready on December 14th. A coin toss determined which brother would fly first. Wilbur won the toss, but lost his chance to be the first to fly when he oversteered with the elevator after leaving the launching rail. The flyer climbed too steeply, stalled, and dove into the sand. The first flight would have to wait on yet more repairs.
On December 17, 1903, the flyer was repaired again, and the Wright brothers felt they were ready once again to attempt manned, powered, controlled flight. With winter weather firmly setting in, this may have been one of the last chances of the season for the brothers to succeed. They were dressed in coats and ties. The 27-mph wind was harder than they would have liked, since their predicted cruising speed was only 30-35 mph. The headwind would slow their ground speed to a crawl, but they proceeded anyway. Waving a bed sheet, they signaled the volunteers from the nearby lifesaving station that they were about to try again.
Words were impossible over the engine’s roar, so the brothers shook hands and Orville positioned himself on the flyer. Remembering Wilbur’s failed attempt, he situated himself firmly and tested the controls. The stick that moved the horizontal elevator controlled climb and descent. The cradle that he manipulated with his hips warped the wings and swung the vertical tails, which in combination turned the machine. A lever controlled the gas flow and airspeed recorder. The controls were simple and few, but Orville knew it would take all his finesse to handle the new and heavier aircraft.
At 10:35am, he released the restraining wire. The flyer moved down the rail as Wilbur steadied the wings. Just as Orville left the ground, John Daniels, a member of the lifesaving station, snapped the shutter on a preset camera, capturing the iconic image of the airborne aircraft with Wilbur running alongside. Again the flyer was unruly, pitching up and down as Orville overcompensated with the controls. But he kept it aloft until it hit the sand about 120 feet from the rail. Into the 27-mph wind, the groundspeed had been 6.8 mph, for a total airspeed of 34 mph. The flight lasted only 12 seconds, and the distance covered was less than the total length of a modern passenger airliner. But for the first time, a manned, heavier-than-air machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started. The brothers took turns flying three more times that day, getting a feel for the controls and increasing their distance with each flight. Wilbur’s second flight – the fourth and last of the day – was an impressive 852 feet in 59 seconds.
An enormous advancement had been made, transcending the powered hops and glides others had attempted. The Wright machine had truly flown. But it would not fly again; after the last flight it was caught by a gust of wind, rolled over, and damaged. With their flying season over, the Wright brothers sent their father a matter-of-fact telegram reporting the modest numbers behind their remarkable achievement.
“Success four flights this morning all against twenty one mile wind. Started from level with engine power alone. Average speed through air thirty-one miles. Longest 57 seconds. Inform press. Home Christmas”
The Wright Brothers spent the following years perfecting their invention, proving its legitimacy to skeptics, and going into business making airplanes for the US and France.
Wright Brothers National Memorial is located in the heart of the Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands in eastern North Carolina. The memorial is located in the town of Kill Devil Hills, NC and is open every day of the year except December 25. You can visit the flight line – the spot where the Wright brothers first took flight and the locations where they landed. See the reconstructed camp buildings, and visit the nation’s commemorative monument to the Wright brothers’ world-changing achievement.
This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.
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