This page shows a computer drawing of the Wright brothers’ 1903 aircraft. This machine was the first piloted aircraft that was heavier than air, self-propelled and maneuverable. It was, in short, the first airplane. The forces acting on this aircraft are identical to the forces which act on any modern aircraft. The various parts of the aircraft were designed and perfected by three years of flight testing unpowered aircraft as kites and gliders, and from wind tunnel testing. One of the major breakthroughs of the Wright brothers was the ability to control and maneuver their aircraft. An aircraft must be controlled about three principal axes; an up and down movement of the nose, which is called pitch, a side to side movement of the nose, which is called yaw, and an up and down movement of the wing tips, which is called roll. The Wright’s used an all-moving elevator at the front of the aircraft to control pitch. From the glider flights of 1901, the Wright’s identified the need for a rudder at the rear of the aircraft to control yaw and to allow coordinated turns. Roll control was provided by wing warping which is twisting the wing tips to increase or decrease lift on the outer sections of the wing.
The brothers began large scale testing of their ideas with a combination kite and glider in 1900. The ideas tested on this aircraft were further refined on the glider of 1901. These early aircraft uncovered problems in the application of aerodynamic data which led to wind tunnel testing by the Wrights in 1901. Based on the wind tunnel data, the 1902 glider design proved highly successful. The 1903 design was based on the 1902 glider.
Please note: the simulation below is best viewed on a desktop computer. It may take a few minutes for the simulation to load.
Enhancements of the Aircraft
The 1903 aircraft was similar to the 1902 craft, but now with a longer forty foot wing span, a six foot chord, five feet between the wings, and twin rudders and elevators. The biggest difference between the 1902 and 1903 was the addition of the propulsion system. The aircraft used twin pusher propellers located behind the wings and made to rotate in opposite directions so that the rotational forces would cancel out. The Wright brothers were the first to recognize that an aircraft propeller acted like a rotating wing. They designed and made their own propellers based on their wind tunnel experiments. To turn the propellers, the brothers needed a gas engine. Since no one could provide them with a light enough motor of adequate horsepower, they built their own four-cylinder motor that put out 12 horsepower. For comparisons, a modern lawn mower engine can easily produce 6 horse power! The motor was placed on the lower wing next to the pilot and was connected to the propellers with bicycle chains. A small gasoline tank was mounted on one of the wing struts. With the pilot and motor, the 1903 craft weighed a little over seven hundred pounds. This aircraft was first successfully flown on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on flights of just over 100 feet to over 800 feet.
Each of the four flights was marked by an instability in pitch; the nose, and consequently the entire aircraft, would slowly bounce up and down. On the last flight, hard contact with the ground broke the front elevator support and ended the season’s flying. The brothers were encouraged, but realized that there was still more work to do before a truly operational aircraft could be developed. They continued to perfect their design through 1904 and 1905.
To celebrate the Centennial of Flight in 2003, several people around the country have built replicas of the Wright 1903 flyer. The students of the Orono Middle School from Orono, Maine, built a scale model of the aircraft which has been flown to the International Space Station where it was used in several educational broadcasts during the summer and fall of 2003.