The History of Airplanes and Flight

From the Wright Brothers to Virgin's SpaceShipTwo

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Orville and Wilbur Wright were the inventors of the first airplane. On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers launched the era of human flight when they successfully tested a flying vehicle that took off by its own power, flew naturally at even speeds, and descended without damage.

By definition, an airplane is simply any aircraft with a fixed wing powered by propellers or jets, which is an important thing to remember when considering the Wright brothers' invention as the father of modern airplanes. While many people are used to this form of transportation as we've seen it today, airplanes have taken many forms throughout history.

Before the Wright brothers took their first flight in 1903, other inventors had made numerous attempts to make like the birds and fly. Among these earlier efforts were contraptions such as kites, hot air balloons, airships, gliders and other types of aircraft. While some progress was made, everything changed when the Wright brothers decided to tackle the problem of manned flight.

Early Tests and Unmanned Flights

In 1899, after Wilbur Wright had written a letter of request to the Smithsonian Institution for information about flight experiments, he, along with his brother Orville Wright designed their first aircraft. It was a small, biplane glider flown as a kite to test their solution for controlling the craft by wing warping—a method of arching the wingtips slightly to control the aircraft's rolling motion and balance.

The Wright Brothers spent a great deal of time observing birds in flight. They noticed that birds soared into the wind and that the air flowing over the curved surface of their wings created lift. Birds change the shape of their wings to turn and maneuver. They believed that they could use this technique to obtain roll control by warping or changing the shape of a portion of the wing.

Over the next three years, Wilbur and his brother Orville would design a series of gliders that would be flown in both unmanned (as kites) and piloted flights. They read about the works of Cayley and Langley and the hang-gliding flights of Otto Lilienthal. They corresponded with Octave Chanute concerning some of their ideas. They recognized that control of the flying aircraft would be the most crucial and hardest problem to solve.

Following a successful glider test, the Wrights built and tested a full-size glider. They selected Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as their test site because of its wind, sand, hilly terrain and remote location. In the year 1900, the Wright brothers successfully tested their new 50-pound biplane glider with its 17-foot wingspan and wing-warping mechanism at Kitty Hawk in both unmanned and piloted flights.

Continued Testing on Manned Flights

In fact, it was the first piloted glider. Based on the results, the Wright Brothers planned to refine the controls and landing gear, and build a bigger glider.

In 1901, at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers flew the largest glider ever flown. It had a 22-foot wingspan, a weight of nearly 100 pounds and skids for landing. However, many problems occurred. The wings did not have enough lifting power, the forward elevator was not effective in controlling the pitch, and the wing-warping mechanism occasionally caused the airplane to spin out of control.

To their disappointment, the Wright Brothers predicted that man will probably not fly in their lifetime. Still, in spite of the problems with their last attempts at flight, the Wright brothers reviewed their test results and determined that the calculations they had used were not reliable. They then planned to design a new glider with a 32-foot wingspan and a tail to help stabilize it.

The First Manned Flight

In 1902, the Wright brothers flew numerous test glides using their new glider. Their studies showed that a movable tail would help balance the craft and so they connected a movable tail to the wing-warping wires to coordinate turns—with successful glides to verify their wind tunnel tests, the inventors planned to build a powered aircraft.

After months of studying how propellers work, the Wright Brothers designed a motor and a new aircraft sturdy enough to accommodate the motor's weight and vibrations. The craft weighed 700 pounds and came to be known as the Flyer.

The Wright brothers then built a movable track to help launch the Flyer by giving it enough airspeed to take off and stay afloat. After two attempts to fly this machine, one of which resulted in a minor crash, Orville Wright took the Flyer for a 12-second, sustained flight on December 17, 1903—the first successfully-powered and piloted flight in history.

As part of the Wright Brothers' systematic practice of photographing every prototype and test of their various flying machines, they had persuaded an attendant from a nearby lifesaving station to snap Orville Wright in full flight. After making two longer flights that day, Orville and Wilbur Wright sent a telegram to their father, instructing him to inform the press that manned flight had taken place. This was the birth of the first real airplane.

First Armed Flights: Another Wright Invention

The U.S. Government bought its first airplane, a Wright Brothers biplane, on July 30, 1909. The airplane sold for $25,000 plus a bonus of $5,000 because it exceeded 40 miles per hour.

In 1912, an airplane designed by the Wright brothers was armed with a machine gun and flown at an airport in College Park, Maryland as the first armed flight in the world. The airport had existed since 1909 when the Wright Brothers took their government-purchased airplane there to teach Army officers to fly.

On July 18, 1914, an Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (part of the Army) was established, and its flying unit contained airplanes made by the Wright Brothers as well as some made by their chief competitor, Glenn Curtiss.

That same year, the U.S. Court has decided in favor of the Wright Brothers in a patent suit against Glenn Curtiss. The issue concerned lateral control of aircraft, for which the Wrights maintained they held patents. Although Curtiss's invention, ailerons (French for "little wing"), was far different from the Wrights' wing-warping mechanism, the Court determined that use of lateral controls by others was "unauthorized" by patent law.

Airplane Advancements After the Wright Brothers

In 1911, the Wrights' Vin Fiz was the first airplane to cross the United States. The flight took 84 days, stopping 70 times. It crash-landed so many times that little of its original building materials were still on the plane when it arrived in California. The Vin Fiz was named after a grape soda made by the Armour Packing Company.

After the Wright Brothers, inventors continued to improve airplanes. This led to the invention of jets, which are used by both the military and commercial airlines. A jet is an airplane propelled by jet engines. Jets fly much faster than propeller-powered aircraft and at higher altitudes, some as high as 10,000 to 15,000 meters (about 33,000 to 49,000 feet). Two engineers, Frank Whittle of the United Kingdom and Hans von Ohain of Germany, are credited with the development of the jet engine during the late 1930s.

Since then, some firms have developed electric aircraft that run on electric motors rather than internal combustion engines. The electricity comes from alternative fuel sources such as fuel cells, solar cells, ultracapacitors, power beaming and batteries. While the technology is in its infancy, some production models are already on the market.

Another area of exploration is with rocket-powered aircraft. These airplanes use engines that run on rocket propellant for propulsion, allowing them to soar at higher speeds and achieve faster acceleration. For example, an early rocket-powered aircraft called the Me 163 Komet was deployed by the Germans during World War II. The Bell X-1 rocket plane was the first plane to break the sound barrier in 1947.

Currently, the North American X-15 holds the world record for the highest speed ever recorded by a manned, powered aircraft. More adventurous firms have also begun experimenting with rocket-powered propulsion such as SpaceShipOne, designed by American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Airplanes and Flight." ThoughtCo, Apr. 24, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, April 24). The History of Airplanes and Flight. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Airplanes and Flight." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).