Did the Wright Brothers Really Have the First Flight?

From what I’ve heard it was the Wrights’ third plane that was the real precursor to modern aviation. Their first two planes were more like prototypes that were good for tests and demonstrations (and priority claims) but had some dead-end technology.

Who’s this Octave Chanute guy?

Wealthy engineer, patron of aviation experimenters (and a bit of one himself, including the truss-bridge biplane design the Wrights and others used), publicizer, organizer and clearinghouse of information, introducer of potential collaborators, informal instructor of the engineering method to those who were receptive. Became close personal friend of the Wrights while supporting their efforts, but got shut out after they succeeded.


The Wrights invented the wind-tunnel and used it to find that what everyone thought about how wings fly was incorrect. They did wing cross-section tests to see what flew and how - despite being bicycle mechanics, not aeronautical engineers or physicists.

The Wrights applied what they learned to create the first workable aircraft.

They invented (and patented) wing warping, where the controls bent the outer trailing end of the wing to change it’s lift; this is the key to their stbility. Earlier glider experimenters, like Lillenthal, used hang gliders and shifting body weight - but scaled up to hold the engines of the day, I think that meant that weight shifting was not sufficient to control the craft.

Curtis was the one, I think, who devised ailerons as a challenge to wing-warping. Since the Wrights mentioned ailerons n their patent, he tried tricks like separate aileron winglets between the two wings. (See this: http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Wright_Bros/Patent_Battles/WR12.htm ) After years of expensive litigation and tricks, the government forced manufaturers to settle the battle.

Meanwhile, European experimenters were way ahead of the Americans since they could ignore the litigation. Americans still had the Jenny and other flying rail machines while the various air groups in WWI were flying full-body aircraft, enclosed cockpits and multi-engines.

So the patent system put the USA behind for years; and only stopped becaue of WWI.

They were probably the first to build one in the US but the wind tunnel was being used in Europe prior to theirs. As far as being aeronautical engineers, they were every bit that.

Pearse is reported to have actually flown for significant distance at some point before the Wrights- I’ve heard something around a mile or so; but at any rate it was definitely an actual “flight” and not a Ground-Effect Hop - and to have made at least one actual turn whilst doing so.

I genuinely believe Pearse made the first powered, controlled flight in a heavier-than-air craft. Having said that, I believe he also realised that he was basically a Gentleman Farmer in South Canterbury (Rural South Island of New Zealand) with a lot of spare time on his hands and a knack for tinkering, and had no practical way of exploiting or capitalising upon his discovery/invention, and thus bowed out to let the people who’d done their homework (ie, the Wrights, Curtiss, et al) develop the whole “air-craft” thing properly. It’s a very Turn-Of-The-Century-New Zealand attitude, combined with the thought that, sadly, poor Pearse may not have been playing with a full deck as it was; he ended his days in a mental hospital.

I find it difficult to call Pearce’s machine an airplane. It did not rely on a lifting surface and was not controllable as such. Any attempt to fly level or point it down and it becomes lawn furniture. It’s quite a remarkable achievement. Even more so given his background. It was technically heavier than air, and it did get off the ground but it was not controllable in any aerodynamic sense.

In retrospect to the idea of reproducing it in full scale (very dangerous to fly) it would be an easy project for the radio controlled plane folks.

What I always find interesting in these threads- and this isn’t the first that we’ve had on the subject- is that whenever someone comes in and points out that the Wrights weren’t the first people to get an aeroplane aloft, the “Well, the other planes didn’t have ailerons or good controls or [some other trivial criteria]!” argument is brought out to try and disqualify the other contenders. Pearse’s aircraft had ailerons and could could be steered via banking.

No-one is for a moment arguing that the Wrights didn’t achieve something special, and that their aircraft was generally well-designed, and that they were the ones who were best positioned to take what they’d discovered and run with it.

But the fact is that the first Wright flights were basically short hops in a straight line (around 200 yards being the longest, I think) and if that’s good enough to qualify as the “first flight” of a heavier-than-air craft, Pearse beat the Wrights to it by six months.

I’m not attacking you, personally, Magiver, of course- it’s just an attitude I see expressed a lot on the internet that I really think needs to be dispelled.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t asked Sir Peter Jackson about it, actually- that’s right up his alley and he’s got the readies to do it, too.

Well, not ailerons. they were air deflectors but they weren’t changing the lift characteristics which is what an aileron does. Pearson’s machine didn’t have a wing. He was able to steer it according to the reports.

The wrights were not only true aeronautic engineers they also established flight testing procedures that are still used today. That did everything incrementally until the airplane did what they expected it to do.

I understand the argument for the first heavier than air machine but… it’s not an airplane in the technical sense. It got off the ground but it had to have hung off the prop. It was literally a flying barn door. Maybe a fluid dynamics engineer can better answer the question. If a non-lifting surface is propelled through the air fast enough with an elevator does it produce lift or is it deflecting air under it? This is how I envision his machine.

All I could find was an https://www.fiddlersgreen.net/models/Aircraft/Pearse-FlyingMachine.html"]electric version. I’m actually more impressed with Pearce’s efforts because he had no background at all but managed to construct something using a minimalist technique. If he had understood what a lifting surface was I think he would have quickly discovered what was what and extended the tail out further. DONE.

The variable prop is driving me nuts. I really want to see that.

No-one is really arguing that the Wrights didn’t invent the aeroplane. What’s being argued is that at least one other person was able to intentionally fly- with some degree of control- a heavier than air craft before them. The OP is “Did The Wright Brothers Really Have The First Flight”, and the answer to that is unequivocally “No”, but with the addendum that “But they did invent the aeroplane and establish the groundwork for modern aviation as we know it.”

From a technical standpoint, Pearse’s plane wasn’t much- but it was heavier than air, it did fly, and it did so before the Wright Brothers. And it flew further than the Wright’s first flights, too. The point I’m making is you don’t get to disqualify someone from the “First To Fly A Heavier Than Air Craft” distinction just because they didn’t go about in the “right” way that their competitors did.

Have you seen Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines at all? There’s at least one plane there that’s very similar to Pearse’s design, albeit with a proper wing, rudders, and ailerons.

Now, it’d be a fun “What-if?” to imagine how Pearse’s plane would have developed if A) Someone from the University of Canterbury had seen it and said “Hang on, he’s definitely onto something here!” and B) If Pearse had the opportunity to develop it properly.

An inclined plane is a lifting surface! A symmetrical aerofoil section is not an inherent lifting surface and needs to be inclined to generate lift, but it was still good enough for the P51 Mustang.

The flying school bus model you linked to wouldn’t have had to hang off its prop if its planar wings had been inclined to the axis of thrust. Planar wings are draggy, but they work. Where do you think the name “airplane” comes from?

Not an answer to the OP, but for a list of flight pioneers before the Wrights, this site is hard to beat:


The P-51 had a laminar flow wing. It was not zero camber but I see your point about being inclined to the axis of thrust. Pearce’s machine did not have any inclination.

I’ve always been under the impression that the Mustang wing was symmetrical in cross section, i.e. it was zero camber and would be the same if you turned it upside down. So it wouldn’t generate any lift at all at zero “angle of attack”. See pages 6 and 7 of this pdf:

and wikipedia here: Camber (aerodynamics) - Wikipedia

To be honest, the sketch on page 7 of my cite above doesn’t look entirely symmetrical, but the description on page 6 states the wing was symmetrical. Not sure now.

I can’t find a cite either way about Pearse’s plane having any built-in angle of attack. It seems odd to me if it didn’t, since Cayley had worked out the need for angle of attack and published his work almost a hundred years earlier. Then again, Cayley also described cambered wings. Maybe Pearse really did start from scratch!

Given where he was living, I’d say he probably did.

I very much doubt it did any signifcant “hanging” from the prop"

Thats what helicopters do and look at how many years it took before powerplants were powerful enough for helicopters to be workable. And look at the massive size of the rotors on a a helicopter compared to a propellor.

The Pearse aircraft may have been getting a small percentage of lift directly from the prop thrust vector, but thats about it (and so what even if it did?). The power plants of the day were just not even close to powerful enough to make it major factor IMO.

The point is that you need a very generous interpretation of “flight” to award the prize to anyone else. What definition do you have to use to make it be Pearse, and not Ader or Mozhaisky?

Did you realize how many non-flying “joke” designs the producers salted in with the reproductions and real aircraft? Look for the wires and the slightly-unfocused backgrounds. I especially enjoy the “Little Tiddler”, btw.

The wind tunnel is another idea that had to have been passed on to the Wrights by Chanute.

First, Wilbur Wright WAS a genius but he wasn’t the ONLY genius working on the problems of flight. Other people had achieved short flights of one kind or another before the Wrights.

So, did the Wrights make the first flight? No. Did they “invent the airplane”? Well, yes and no.

The plural word “problems” of flight is key, because there are multiple steps involved in building a functioning flying machine. And Wilbur Wright, beilliant though he was, certainly didn’t make the imporant discoveries or build the relevant parts all by himself!

Did Wright discover the principles of flight? No- they’d been well known for a long time before he started working, and lots of people had built working gliders long before he came along.

Did he invent the airplane engine? No- there were plenty of suitable engines on the market long before he came along.

Wright was “merely” the first person to put all the technologies together to build a flying machine that was fully functional. That was no small task… though it’s fair to assume that SOMEONE would have figured out how to do it before long, had Wilbur Wright gotten fed up and quit.

I would recommend “Visions of a Flying Machine” by Peter L. Jakab (Smithsonian Institute Press) to help understand just what the Wrights contributed.
Much is made, in a negative way, about the fact that they were ‘mere bicycle mechanics’.
Their familiarity with bicycles helped them come to terms with controlling an inherently unstable device. They understood that an aircraft needed to be controlled in all three axes and became accomplished pilots when others had only a vague idea about control.

Well crap, I can’t find the reference I had and I’ve worked most of the way through my history button. For all practical purposes it was close if it wasn’t a zero camber and I acknowledge the concept of an angled wing to the centerline of thrust.