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The Wright stuff 

How the impossible happened

Page 3 of 4

Yaw and pitch were generally understood. Yaw was controlled by a rudder. Pitch was controlled by an "elevator," tilting up or down to raise or lower the nose. But controlling roll was a big challenge.

Other aviation pioneers were seeking automatic control of all three motions. Langley, using models without pilots, needed automatic stabilization. Alphonse Penaud, who had designed the helicopter toy the Wrights received from their father, had proposed stabilizing rolls by tilting wings upward at the ends. That way, if a plane tipped, the end of the low wing would become level and provide more lift, while the upper wing would lose some lift and drift back down.

Wilbur, however, wanted a pilot to be able to intentionally lean into a tighter turn.

But how to do that with wings instead of handlebars?

The Wrights adapted Penaud's idea of angling the wings, but with, literally, a twist. They designed a helix of wires hooked to a steering mechanism to make the tips twist in unison but in opposite directions, one up, one down. They tried it out on a biplane kite they built, with sticks to control the wings. It worked. They could make the kite dive, climb and roll pretty much as they desired.

By the end of August 1899, they were ready to build a man-carrying kite.

But first, they'd have to spend the fall and winter building next spring's supply of Wright bicycles.

To Kitty Hawk
A Smithsonian scientist in 1896 had described the bicycle as "one of the world's great inventions." The big-wheel version came into being in 1878. In 1887, the "safety" bicycle, with two equal-sized wheels, made bicycles accessible to the masses. By 1895 America was building 1.2 million bicycles a year.

Orville and Wilbur had bikes. Orville was a racer, and Wilbur liked rides on country roads. As guys who had built their own printing press and ran a print shop, they were besieged by acquaintances needing bike repairs. They opened the Wright Cycle Exchange in December 1892. To get an edge on the growing competition, they decided to build their own bikes, not just sell what others built.

But the Wrights could not fly a manned kite in Dayton, Ohio. They needed strong, steady winds that could keep a tethered kite-glider in the air for sustained periods while they tested the controls. They wanted to avoid urban areas, for reasons of safety and secrecy. From the Monthly Weather Review, they learned that the sixth-highest average wind was at a place called Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Wilbur set out by train. In Elizabeth City, he scouted around for three days until he found someone to take him across Albemarle Sound to the Outer Banks. Orville arrived two weeks later. To measure the effects of their designs, they had only a hand-held anemometer from the local weather station to measure wind speed and a fish scale to measure the pull of the tethered glider.

They flew, crashed, repaired broken parts, tinkered. They would run down the hill pulling the "kite" ropes, and Wilbur would jump on. On Oct. 19, he made repeated glides of perhaps 15 seconds and could bring the glider back to a landing in almost exactly the same location each time.

On Oct. 23, 1900, with winter coming, they headed home to Dayton, ecstatic.

The Wrights spent the winter reworking the design. In June 1901, they turned supervision of the bike shop over to their longtime friend and employee Charlie Taylor and set out for Kitty Hawk once more.

But this time, nothing worked: their "wing warping system," their new approach to the controls, even their new wing design. In August they gave up and went home.

They had been relying on others' calculations of the effect of wing shapes and angles. Those were wrong. Wilbur and Orville built a 6-foot-long wind tunnel and, using models of perhaps 150 airfoil designs, measured for themselves. By December, they had a new design.

Returning to Kitty Hawk in the summer of 1902 the Wrights took a biplane glider with a fixed double-rudder and less boxy wing designs. Before, Wilbur had done all the flying. Now he was shouting instructions up to Orville. The glider performed well, but it still skidded in turns. On Sept. 23, Orville stalled and crashed.

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