The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in Art & History

The Wright Flyer

Wright Flyer AN0231034

The Wright Flyer was the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft. It was designed and built by the Wright brothers and they flew it four times in 1903. The flight of this plane marks the beginning of the “pioneer era” of aviation.

The Flyer was based on the Wrights’ experiments in testing gliders at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, US between 1900 and 1902. The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville built the aircraft in 1903 using giant spruce wood. They design a new engine, effectively a crude gasoline engine. A sprocket chain drive, borrowing from bicycle technology, powered the twin propellers, which were also made by hand.

The Flyer was a biplane and the pilot flew lying on his stomach on the lower wing. He steered by moving a cradle attached to his hips. The Flyer was highly unstable and barely controllable. However, on December 14, 1903, they felt ready for their first attempt at powered flight. On first attempt, they used an inclined launch and Wilbur pulled up too sharply, stalled, and came down in about three seconds with minor damage. Three days later on the 17th, after repairs, the wind was averaging more than 20 mph, so the brothers laid the launching rail on level ground, pointed into the wind. This time the wind helped provide the necessary airspeed for take-off. The first flight lasted 12 seconds for a total distance of 120 ft (36.5 m).

First flight2

Seconds into the first airplane flight, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; December 17, 1903

Taking turns, the brothers made four short, low-level flights that day. The flight paths were all straight as turns were not attempted. The last flight was 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds, much longer than each of the previous flights.

Soon after these historic flights, a heavy wind picked up the Flyer and it tumbled, damaging it beyond repair. It was never flown again. Today, the Wright Flyer is exhibited in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

WrightFlyerfront

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                 The Wright Flyer
  • Name:              Flyer I or 1903 Flyer
  • Role:                 First airplane
  • Produced:       1903
  • Owner:             Wright Brothers
  • Museum:         National Air and Space Museum

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“Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so we could discover them!” Orville Wright

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Photo Credit: 1) By Alan D R Brown [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By John T. Daniels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) 350z33 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons