Did the Wright Brothers Really Have the First Flight?

Reading this thread, I was reminded by something I’d heard as a kid: that airplane technology was being worked upon in numerous countries, and that it’s dubious that Orville and Wilbur were indeed the first humans to achieve heavier-than-air human flight.

What’s the Straight Dope?

The usual claim is that the Wright Brothers achieved the first powered, heaver-than-air, controlled flight of a manned vehicle. In other words, they were first to make a machine that is recognizably like a modern airplane, as opposed to a balloon or a glider.

A lot of people were trying. Apparently Maxim beat the Wright Bro’s to untethered powered flight, although accidentally, in a steam-powered plane:


There’s a fairly high likelihood that New Zealander Richard Pearse (The historic figure, not the SDMB poster!) beat them to it.

The Wright Brothers were the first to construct and fly a 3 axis controlled heavier than air machine.

By the time the Wright Brothers flew, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had flown several of his namesake airships and was close to initiating the first commercial flights. Others had flown steerable lighter-than-air craft as well, notably Alberto Santos-Dumont. And several people had flown gliders, balloons, etc.

The key point is that the Wrights developed the first airplane in the modern sense – completely steerable, powered by a gasoline engine, to achieve sustained controlled powered manned flight by a heavier-than-air craft. Pearse came close but did not have adequate steering controls; if one omits ‘fully controlled’ from the definition, he would be the actual first to fly.

For an analogy, lots of people had crossed the Atlantic to America before Columbus, but it is with his voyages that ongoing crossings and colonization of America begins. Likewise, while nothing should detract from the real achievements of the other pioneering flyers, modern aviation traces its development back to the Wrights, not to Pearse, von Zeppelin, Maxim, etc.

I love early aviation stuff and would love to see this up close. I’m surprised nobody has attempted to reproduce the vehicle and test it. the engine looks simple enough for a machinist to duplicate. It’s clearly a powered kite since it doesn’t have an airfoil wing but it’s very intriguing. Without a lifting wing it would have to fly at a considerable angle to fly level and give the in-wing ailerons enough air for them to act on.

I believe MOTAT (The Museum Of Transport And Technology) in Auckland built a replica of his plane and the engine around 2002 or 2003 that did manage to get airborne- not for very long, but then again, the Wright’s first flight was shorter than the overall length of a modern Boeing 747 too.

The Wright Brothers managed to launch a engine-equipped glider with a catapult, published this news in a beekeeping magazine then, got an overly broad patent and proceeded to sue everyone claiming they had a patent on the airplane.

Glenn Hammond Curtiss built airplanes, including the Junebug, the first airplane that managed to take off from a stand-still and steer around a predetermined course in front of the public. For his trouble, he was sued into bankruptcy several times by the Wrights. But, along the way, he managed a huge number of firsts - first flight longer than a kilometer, flying 150 miles from Albany to NYC, inventing landing gear, inventing the seaplane, built the NC4 - the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic…

And those weasel-dicks the Wright Brothers get the fame.

According to this site he invented the variable pitch air-screw. I would so love to see a running model of this. with the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers plane there were many built-from scratch versions flying and it was so much fun to talk to the builders and see how it was done. There are so many small details I got to see.

Glenn Curtiss wasn’t a scientist and really didn’t understand aerodynamics. He was a great engine builder who operated by trial and error. If it went up it was an airplane, if not he tried something else. The Wrights could articulate exactly why their machines worked and were first with 3 axis control.

Curtiss’s best early contribution was probably the ported step which allowed sea planes to get off the water.

There was no end of backyard tinkerers who achieved some kind of short, straight-ahead hop in ground effect, by applying enough power to an angled surface. Each of them has its proponents, generally among their fellow citizens of whatever nation. Do any of them count as flying?

The Wrights were the first to accomplish controlled turns in three axes, the first to understand how a propeller had to work, and the first to systematically apply an engineering approach to the problem. Later development is traceable primarily to their work, not to Ader’s or Santos-Dumont’s or even Pearse’s.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet in this thread (apologies if I missed it), is the Wright Brothers built the first heavier-than-air craft that could be depended upon to get up in the air. It was reusable, and it worked every time. It wasn’t just one lucky flight.

There’s an objection, raised reliably by Santos-Dumont’s Brazilian claque, about the Wrights’ use of a catapult in 1903. But they took off under their own power starting in 1904.

IMO the brothers knew their stuff overall as good or better than anybody else at the time.

OTOH IMO what is typically considered their first “real” flight kinda falls short (heh) of actual flying. Make the flight short enough and put enough energy in the catapulting and a rock with an engine attached can “fly”. Their slightly later flights where they could actually stay airborn for decent periods of time that had nothing to do with the initial catapult phase were the REAL flights.

Or in other words, their first “official” flight was IMO more of a “we are damn close, it looks like its controllable…woooo hooo baby” than “gentlemen, we have a workable flying machine”.

Also, there were probably others in the field that knew a bit more about this or that or were better at the building/construction of this or that or were more mechanically clever about this or that. What the Wrights had was they pretty much saw the WHOLE picture, had no fatal flaws or gapping holes of knowledge in what they were trying to accomplish, and worked methodically and intelligently to get ALL these details down to the point that AS A WHOLE the thing could fly.

There is a reason for the old saying that “an airplane is a collection of engineering compromises flying together in close formation”.

Oh yeah. I loved that recent GE commercial where the Wright brothers had a GE jet engine strapped on their plane for a public demonstration.

IOW, their flights later that same day.:wink: Wilbur was up for 15 minutes on the last one.

No question, that’s what mattered… What isn’t known is how much of that they owe to Octave Chanute’s engineering advice and support, something they conveniently forgot about when they got their patents.

Yes :slight_smile: I never understood why they made a big deal of that “first flight” that was :dubious: worthy when later stuff could be considered the real deal IMO.

My understanding of this is that they did not use a catapult at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but used one at Huffman Prairie in 1904. By that time they were working hard on longer flights and improved controls, and didn’t want to be hindered by occasional failures to take off.

The Wrights did not use a catapult in those flights in 1903. The confusion comes partially from their use of a launch rail, a way to give them more traction in the bad soil, not at all the same thing, and the fact that a catapult was used in the 1904 trials, as Crotalus said.

American Heritage Invention & Technology magazine has its archives back through 1985 available online and that site should be bookmarked by anyone with an interest in this stuff.

Check The Wright Brothers: How They Flew, by Richard P. Hallion for an excellent popular account of their technology.

Hallion states explicitly that the short flight on December 12 was not considered by them to be the “first flight.” They didn’t claim that until December 17, when they did four flights in one morning, the longest being 57 seconds. The length, control, and repeatability of the flights gives them ample claim to the title.

Oh, right, in 1903 they used a launch rail but not a catapult. You can see it here. Instead, they had someone on each wingtip giving the Flyer a push.

They wouldn’t have needed even that much if they just bought a decent motorcycle engine (from Glenn Curtiss? :slight_smile: ) instead of making their own crappy one.