Have you ever traveled in an airplane? Imagine if you had to make that same trip in a car. It would have taken a lot longer, right? Even just a hundred years ago most people didn’t have access to airplanes. They had to use horses, trains, or sometimes cars to get around, but for most people getting from here to there in a plane was still a thing of the future.
Did you know around 100,000 flights happen every day! And around 6 million people fly every day! Those are huge numbers! Aircraft have revolutionized travel across the world. I remember the last flight I went on, and in just a few hours I had gone from Arizona all the way down to Costa Rica. It still blows my mind to think about it! I can still picture my kids’ faces the first time they’ve had the chance to fly. They are nervous when we take off, but then they smile after we are in the air and look out the window at the ground as it grows smaller and smaller below. And then I imagine what the world would be like without airplanes. It makes me very grateful that some very determined people dedicated their lives to figuring out the miracle of flight.
In this episode, we are going to talk about two brothers who invented the first airplane and took humans to the sky — Wilbur and Orville Wright, also known as the Wright Brothers.
Interestingly, in 1891, the different brothers were putting the final touches on their 15 meters long-winged Glider in Germany.
One brother was named Otto Lilienthal. He was attracted to the sky when he first saw a bird on the shores of the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. Otto’s brother, Gustav Lilienthal’s heart, was on the ground, but his mind was in the sky. Both brothers were engineers and had a strong desire to fly.
Climbing on a high hill, Otto Lilienthal hung himself under the Glider and ran into the wind. Four seconds later, he was floating in the air. He was flying! Little did he know, his glider flight would go down in history as the first recorded year someone flew.
News of these thrilling experiments made it into the newspapers of Europe and America. In those times, the question, “Can a human fly like a bird?” was a matter of great discussion.
Two American brothers, Orville and Wilbur, the Wright brothers, heard about the news of the first glider flight and were very interested. At the time the Wright Brothers were running a bicycle repair shop in Dayton, USA.
One day, Orville Wright fell ill and was still bedridden in the morning. Sunday’s newspaper came with front-page news titled “Glider had suddenly crashed in a strong wind, killing Otto Lilienthal.”
Orville was sad to hear about the inventor who had first flown the glider. Wilbur Wright, three years older than Orville, was also shocked. The hard work and sacrifices of the other brothers in Germany inspired and challenged the Wright Brothers to create their own airplane.
The Wright brothers didn’t want to make any hasty efforts. First, Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington asking for materials on aeronautics and mechanics. The institute was collecting research papers as well as books on scientific experiments taking place around the world.
The Smithsonian Institution replied positively. The natural wind that can lift an aerial vehicle can only be found on the coast, so the Wright Brothers left Ohio and moved to the coastal state of North Carolina in 1900, where they camped on a hilly shore called Kitty Hawk.
The Wright Brothers set up a Glider-making workshop there. Next to it, they even built a small house with all basic furnishing. This extended plan was not a hobby; their plan was to stay at the testing ground until they had achieved their goal.
Can you believe that the world’s first self-powered aircraft – which they called Flyer-1, was built in less than two months!? Today, if we looked at the Flyer-1 design, it looked like a dragonfly and was a pretty fragile plane — which means it could break easily. But you can’t help but admire Orville and Wilbur Wright’s intellect and talent after learning about the technology they designed in the Flyer-1’s structure.
The main component of the Flyer-1 was its engine. Since The Wright Brothers couldn’t find the right automobile engine for the Flyer-1, they decided to build a new one. Orville and Wilbur used a four-cylinder gasoline engine after considering the aircraft’s size, weight, and dimension. The Flyer-1 engine weighed 178-pound with 12 horsepower.
After examining several types of wood, Wilbur and Orville decided to use giant Spruce wood for the Flyer-1. The wood was pretty light yet strong. After forming a skeleton-like framework, they covered it tightly with a muslin cloth.
Can you believe that the Flayer-1 had no spark plug, cockpit, no carburetor to pour gasoline into the engine, and no water pump for cooling? Probably, the biggest shocker is that the plane had no wheels!! But Flayer-1 had one thing, that was the genius of two brothers. They overcame every challenge with brilliancy and common sense.
For example, to make up for the lack of wheels, Wright Brothers set up a four-piece wooden plank in a row like a train track. They made a dolly and set the plane on it. The idea was that when the dolly carrying the plane runs on the 18-meter long track, the dolly stays on the ground while the plane shoots into the sky.
After much effort and preparation, the day for realizing the beautiful and thrilling dream came on December 14, 1903. Kitty Hawk Beach in the state of North Carolina was the stage for a dramatic and historic event.
To decide who would fly it first, Orville Wright tossed a coin and Wilbur won. But when the plane’s 12-horsepower engine sped off, Wilbur got too excited and raised the elevator too high, and the lift factor suddenly disappeared. Flyer-1 fell on the ground with some damage. It took them three more days to repair Flyer-1.
On December 17, the two brothers returned to the seashore. The weather was pleasant. Exactly, at 10.35 a.m., Orville raced down the rail and held his breath as suddenly, Flyer-1 took off and flew through the air! The Age of Flight had begun!
Orville flew 120 feet for 12 seconds. The history of the world would never be the same!
Orville and Wilbur Wright were happy to have completed the unfinished work of Otto Lilienthal and to have made the impossible possible with their intelligence. Little did they know that their invention of Flyer-1 would someday lead to huge passenger jets, military aircraft, and all of the other amazing aircraft we know today.
Surprisingly, the flight that took place in Kitty Hawk wasn’t really recognized in the United States. People couldn’t really accept and believe it. So Wilbur Wright went to France the following year and held an air show there. He flew the aircraft at an altitude of 300 feet.
In 1904, Wilbur Wright flew the modified version of Flyer-1 a distance of 2.7 miles. Wilbur proved that planes can be used for travel.
Then in 1908, Wilbur took his friend Charles William Furnas on the plane’s back seat and started the experimental journey. The successful flight made Charles William Furnas the first airplane passenger in the world.
The journey was short, but the era of air travel really began when Wilbur covered the distance of 41 miles in France a few months later.
After returning to America, he got even more attention when he flew for crowds in New York. People saw it and finally believed human flight could happen.
Since The Wright Brothers’ time, aircraft were created that were bigger and faster and soon could hold many people and fly across the ocean. Aircraft was in the major world wars and in the case of World War II, major battles were won or lost based on airpower. Air travel eventually led to the building of rockets, and Neal Armstrong was a pilot before he went to the moon. Today jets can fly at the speed of sound and even some passenger jets like the Concorde can fly over 1,000 miles per hour and travel from New York to London (across the Atlantic Ocean) in less than an hour.
Thinking about these advances makes me grateful for bright people like Orville and Wilbur Wright who learned all they could, then put their smarts to work and stuck with their work until they built the first basic airplane. Next time you’re flying on a plane thinking about people like Otto Lilienthal and The Wright Brothers and all of the engineers and pilots who have come after them. Be sure to check out our episodes about Bessie Coleman, Amelia Earhart and Neal Armstrong, all pilots.