Humanities › History & Culture History of Flight: The Wright Brothers Invention of the First Powered, Piloted Airplane Share Flipboard Email Print The Wright Brothers attempt to fly. Library of Congress History & Culture Inventions Famous Inventors Famous Inventions Patents & Trademarks Invention Timelines Computers & The Internet American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Mary Bellis Inventions Expert Mary Bellis covered inventions and inventors for ThoughtCo for 18 years. She is known for her independent films and documentaries, including one about Alexander Graham Bell. our editorial process Mary Bellis Updated July 03, 2019 In 1899, after Wilbur Wright had written a letter of request to the Smithsonian Institution for information about flight experiments, the Wright Brothers 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. Wing warping is a method of arching the wingtips slightly to control the aircraft's rolling motion and balance. Lessons From Birdwatching 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. The Gliders Experiments 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. So 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. 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. In their disappointment, they predicted that man will probably not fly in their lifetime. 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 decided to build a wind tunnel to test a variety of wing shapes and their effect on lift. Based upon these tests, the inventors had a greater understanding of how an airfoil (wing) works and could calculate with greater accuracy how well a particular wing design would fly. They planned to design a new glider with a 32-foot wingspan and a tail to help stabilize it. The Flyer 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 First Manned Flight The Wright brothers built a movable track to help launch the Flyer. This downhill track would help the aircraft gain enough airspeed to fly. 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. This was the first successful powered and piloted flight in history. In 1904, the first flight lasting more than five minutes took place on November 9th. The Flyer II was flown by Wilbur Wright. In 1908, passenger flight took a turn for the worse when the first fatal air crash occurred on September 17. Orville Wright was piloting the plane. Orville Wright survived the crash, but his passenger, Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, did not. The Wright Brothers had been allowing passengers to fly with them since May 14, 1908. In 1909, the U.S. Government bought its first airplane, a Wright Brothers biplane, on July 30. The airplane sold for $25,000 plus a bonus of $5,000 because it exceeded 40 mph. Wright Brothers - Vin Fiz First Armed Airplane On July 18, 1914, an Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (part of the Army) was established. Its flying unit contained airplanes made by the Wright Brothers as well as some made by their chief competitor, Glenn Curtiss. Patent Suit Although Glenn 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.