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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Pioneer Profile(s)

    Orville and Wilbur Wright

    Orville-Wright   Wilbur-Wright   Wilbur: born near Millville IN, 16 April 1867. Died 30 May 1912.
    Orville: born in Dayton OH, 19 August 1871. Died 30 January 1948.

    On 17 December 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright realized one of mankind's earliest dreams – they flew! Although balloons and gliders existed, the Wrights made the world's first successful sustained and controlled flight of a man-operated, motor-driven aircraft.

    Sons of a clergyman, their mechanical abilities surfaced at an early age, and

    they shared similar interests, becoming inseparable. Neither one ever married. The brothers opened a bicycle shop in 1892 and were soon manufacturing their own wheeled creations.Even as youngsters they were fascinated with flight, playing with kites and a toy helicopter. The glider flights of Otto Lilienthal attracted their interest, as well as experiments by Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley. By observing how buzzards maintained balance while soaring, wilbur was first to realize that an airplane had to operate on three axes to fly successfully.

    In 1900 they built their first of several gliders, a biplane that soared for 300'. In 1901, using aerodynamics tables compiled by Langley and Lilienthal, they constructed new wings for a larger glider. however, its flight was marginal, so they challenged the accuracy of the tables by analyzing 200 model wings in a small, home-made wind tunnel. the tables proved to be wrong, and the Wrights painstakingly computed new ones. Using this information, their 1902 glider had almost double the efficiency of their previous ones, and at Kitty Hawk that year made more than 1,000 flights.
    By the end of 1902 they were ready to begin work on a powered machine. With their mechanic, Charles Taylor, they designed and built an engine with the necessary lightness and power-12hp at 1200 rpm, weighing 170 pounds -- and hand-carved two efficient propellers. in 1903, with a strong wind at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights tested the flyer. Orville, as pilot, lay alongside the motor on the lower wing while his brother steadied the craft at one wingtip. After a 40' run the plane became airborne, and in the 12 seconds before it touched the ground it flew for 120'. Wilbur later piloted the longest flight of that day, 852' in 59 seconds.
    Returning to Ohio, the brothers began experimenting with new planes and motors and flew an improved Flyer II at Huffman Prairie near Dayton in 1904. In 1905, the Flyer III became the world's first practical airplane, one that could turn, bank, fly figure-eights, and remain airborne for more than half an hour. Yet they attracted little attention. After more than 200 flights in 1904 and 1905, a patent was granted for the airplane on 22 May 1906, but it was not until 1908 that they began to receive credit and attention for their invention. Submitting a bid to the Army for a military flying machine, Orville brought a Flyer to Fort Myers, Virginia in 1908, passed the trials and won a contract for the world's first military airplane. Later that year, his plane crashed after a propeller failure, seriously injuring him and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge.

    Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville continued flying actively until 1915, when he sold his interest in the Wright Company, then retired to serve on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and for years argued with officials of the Smithsonian Institution over whether the Wrights or Langley had built the first successful plane. Angry about their championing Langley's "swan dive" as an actual first flight, he loaned Flyer I to London's Kensington Museum in 1928. In 1942, Smithsonian officials made a public apology, but it wasn't until after Orville died that Flyer I was finally returned for permanent display at what is now the National Air and Space Museum.

    Visit the United States Profile for more information on American pioneers.

    Provided to the AIAA for the purpose of its Evolution of Flight Campaign.

    Biography Courtesy of AeroFiles