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First Flight

Chronicles
Writer
Jamal Raslan
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How the world first gained its wings.

Wright brothers National Memorial, sculpture of the Wright brothers' first flight airplane.

The 20th century was a watershed in human civilization. Collectively all around the world, our vision and desire to elevate human life has led to breakthrough upon breakthrough in various fields of science and technology. The aeroplane - and flight - is one of those breakthroughs. If the Wright brothers did not passionately take after the pioneers that inspired them and pursued their dream of human flight relentlessly over 120 years ago, the world as we know it may have been different. Isn’t it a wonder, how we managed to accomplish the feat of flying? Convenient and efficient, we are able to overcome geographical boundaries to reach destinations hundreds and thousands of miles away safely.

Learning to fly the Wright way
Three of Alphonse Pénaud's flying models. Top to bottom: the Hèlicoptère, the Planophore and the flapping wing Mechanical Bird.
Three of Alphonse Pénaud's flying models. Top to bottom: the Hèlicoptère, the Planophore and the flapping wing Mechanical Bird.

Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright were fixated with flight from a very young age. Their father had gifted them a toy helicopter during their childhood that they played with until it broke, after which they built their own version. This toy, based on an invention by French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Penaud, was credited as the spark of the brothers’ interest in flying.

However, as the brothers attended high school and started focusing on newspaper publishing, their interest in aerodynamics waned. That is, until 1896, which proved to be an important year. Samuel Langley successfully flew an unmanned steam-powered fixed wing model aircraft, Octave Chanute along with a few others tested various types of gliders at Lake Michigan and German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal - The Flying Man - died when his glider plunged. These events led to the brothers developing a serious interest in flight research.

Otto Lilienthal - The Flying Man (L). Otto Lilienthal performing one of his gliding experiments (R).
Otto Lilienthal - The Flying Man (L). Otto Lilienthal performing one of his gliding experiments (R).
Orville Wright (L). Wilbur Wright (R)
Orville Wright (L). Wilbur Wright (R)

Wilbur and Orville were particularly inspired by Lilienthal - they agreed to his approach of mastering the art of controlled flight before attempting motor-driven flight. To them, this was the most important of the 3-part “flying problem”; wings and engines were the other two parts which they felt were already being addressed at the time. They believed that a reliable method of pilot control was the key to a safe - and successful - flight.

For seven years after Lilienthal’s death, the brothers poured everything they had and knew about aerodynamics into understanding and developing flight control. Their work was at the forefront of breaking the puzzle of flight dynamics. They achieved this with the elegantly ingenious concept of wing- warping, where the structure of the wing itself was manipulated, either twisted or warped, to respond to wind and airflow during flight. They designed gliders to test these findings, learning about wing profiles, aircraft sizing, lift and drag. They applied knowledge from their bicycle business - which they had set up to fund their flight research - and even created wind tunnels for testing. They developed rudders to help them perfect their three-axis flight control system.

The Wrights were consistently improving their gliders before adding engines. At left, 1901 glider flown by Wilbur (left) and Orville; 1902 glider flown by Wilbur (right) and Dan Tate, their helper (R).
The Wrights were consistently improving their gliders before adding engines. At left, 1901 glider flown by Wilbur (left) and Orville; 1902 glider flown by Wilbur (right) and Dan Tate, their helper (R).

All this came to a successful conclusion in 1903. After adding an engine and propeller for propulsion, The Wright Flyer finally took flight on a cold 17 December morning at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville lifted off and flew for 120 feet before coming down in a thud. Even though it lasted only 12 seconds, it was the 12 seconds that changed human history forever.

Taking Off
Orville demonstrating the flyer to the U.S. Army, Fort Myer, Virginia September 1908. Photo: by C.H. Claudy.
Orville demonstrating the flyer to the U.S. Army, Fort Myer, Virginia September 1908. Photo: by C.H. Claudy.

The Wright Brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer in 1903. In 1904, the Wright Flyer II made longer-running and more aerodynamic flights. Then, in 1905, the Wright Flyer III became the first truly practical fixed-wing aircraft, establishing the Wrights as the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.

The following decade saw The Wright Brothers going around the world making flight demonstrations. Countries, royalties and celebrities clamoured to watch them. Aviation then became a serious interest around the globe, with governments and corporations pouring resources to develop the first airplanes.

Success did not come easy for the Wright brothers, however. They were involved in tense legal battles with the Smithsonian Institution for the credit of making the first flight; with fellow aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss over a patent dispute; and other legal battles that curtailed further development and research. Despite being the country that invented powered flight, America entered World War I in 1917 in foreign- made aircrafts with no planes of their own. This prompted future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to form a patent pool between airplane makers to use their technologies between themselves to bring the patent war to a long overdue conclusion.

During World War I, planes proved a critical success in logistics, moving supplies and soldiers from one location to another. More money went into developing airplanes, and World War II saw the first jet- powered airplanes bringing the battle into the air on both sides, winning the war for the Allies.

1930s German poster advertising a weekly airmail service from Deutsche Lufthansa, Syndicato Condor and Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei
1930s German poster advertising a weekly airmail service from Deutsche Lufthansa, Syndicato Condor and Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei

After the world wars, things took a more commercial turn as the world began to recover. Passenger planes were developed, and airlines became a thing. But rivalry and competition were still prominent, with the Space Race and Cold War driving research and development of highly advanced air vehicles and devices. In the meantime, the world became connected and businesses grew global due to the much- improved travel time. Before long, the world became the one we know today. Wilbur and Orville didn’t just open the door to a world where man flew higher and faster than birds - they literally flew through it, showing us how to overcome nature and our limitations to navigate the winds and soar through the skies.

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