The World's First Flights [The Literary Digest, 3 August 1912]
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The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were American aviation pioneers who invented the world's first successful airplane. The Wright brothers were two of seven children born to Milton Wright (1828–1917), a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, of English and Dutch ancestry, and Susan Catherine Koerner (1831–1889), of German and Swiss ancestry. Milton Wright's mother, Catherine Reeder, was descended from the progenitor of the Vanderbilt family and the Huguenot Gano family of New Rochelle, New York. Wright brothers gained the mechanical skills essential to their success by working for years in their Dayton, Ohio-based shop with printing presses, bicycles, motors, and other machinery. Their work with bicycles influenced their belief that an unstable vehicle such as a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. In 1900 the brothers went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to begin their manned gliding experiments. The spot also gave them privacy from reporters. They flew the glider for a few days in the early autumn of 1900. Most of their kite tests were unpiloted, with sandbags or chains and even a local boy as ballast. In the first tests, probably on October 3, Wilbur was aboard while the glider flew as a kite not far above the ground with men below holding tether ropes. Wilbur made about a dozen free glides on only a single day, October 20. In 1901 they built a glider with a much larger wing and made dozens of flights in July and August for distances of 50 to 400 ft. The glider, however, delivered two major disappointments. On the trip home Wilbur remarked to Orville that man would not fly in a thousand years. To overcome the problems, they built a six-foot (1.8m) wind tunnel in their shop and between October and December 1901 conducted systematic tests on dozens of miniature wings. The tests yielded valuable data never before known so 1902 glider shown dramatic improvement in performance. The improved wing design enabled consistently longer glides led to a discovery of the true purpose of the movable vertical rudder: to aim or align the aircraft correctly during banking turns and when leveling off from turns and wind disturbances while the change in direction was done using wing-warping. From September 19 to October 24 they made between 700 and 1,000 glides, the longest lasting 26 seconds and covering 622.5 feet (189.7 m). In 1903 the brothers built the powered Wright Flyer. They used data from more wind tunnel tests to design their propellers. The finished blades were just over eight feet long, made of three laminations of glued spruce. The Wrights decided on twin "pusher" propellers (counter-rotating to cancel torque), which would act on a greater quantity of air than a single relatively slow propeller and not disturb airflow over the leading edge of the wings. The Wrights wrote to several engine manufacturers, but none could meet their need for a sufficiently lightweight powerplant. They turned to their shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, who built an engine in just six weeks in close consultation with the brothers. To keep the weight down the engine block was cast from aluminum, a rare practice at the time. The Flyer cost less than a thousand dollars, equivalent to $28,000 in 2018. Their first powered test flight happened on the 121st anniversary of the first hot air balloon test flight that the Montgolfier brothers had done, on December 14, 1782 and they finally took to the air on December 17, 1903. Five people witnessed the flights. The Wrights sent a telegram about the flights to their father, requesting that he "inform the press." However, the Dayton Journal refused to publish the story, saying the flights were too short to be important. Meanwhile, against the brothers' wishes, a telegraph operator leaked their message to a Virginia newspaper, which concocted a highly inaccurate news article that was reprinted the next day in several newspapers elsewhere, including Dayton. The Wright brothers made no flights at all in 1906 and 1907. They spent the time attempting to persuade the U.S. and European governments that they had invented the successful flying machine and were prepared to negotiate a contract to sell such machines. Facing skepticism in the French aeronautical community and outright scorn by some newspapers that called him a "bluffeur", Wilbur began official public demonstrations on August 8, 1908, at the Hunaudières horse racing track near the town of Le Mans, France. His first flight lasted only one minute 45 seconds, but his ability to effortlessly make banking turns and fly a circle amazed and stunned onlookers, including several pioneer French aviators, among them Louis Blériot. In the following days, Wilbur made a series of technically challenging flights, including figure-eights, demonstrating his skills as a pilot and the capability of his flying machine, which far surpassed those of all other pioneering aircraft and pilots of the day. The French public was thrilled by Wilbur's feats and flocked to the field by the thousands, and the Wright brothers instantly became world-famous. Orville followed his brother's success by demonstrating another nearly identical Flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia, starting on September 3, 1908. On September 9, he made the first hour-long flight, lasting 62 minutes and 15 seconds.