5 min readApr 19, 2021


Photo by Vadim Sadovski on Unsplash

How did we start flying?

If you have to track human beings’ progress, you can look no further than aeroplanes. In early times, man building iron tools was big progress; In present times, aeroplanes show how far human beings have come-developed. The Wright Brothers invented the first heavier than air flying the machine. But as an aircraft fan, I decided to research more into what it took for the Wright Brothers to build the first successful aircraft. Of course, it would be wrong to forget the work of other inventors who were working on inventing the aircraft. The Wright Brothers could not have achieved what they did without taking a cue from the work of inventors before them.

Nature is a great teacher, but you must open your mind to learn from it. Birds had inspired humans to create a machine that could make it possible for humans to fly. The early design of flying machines was based on the flapping movement of birds’ wings-ornithopters. The flapping motion was thought to be the only way to generate lift and forward motion in the nascent days of building a flying machine.

In the 16th, 17th, 18th Century the study of forces exerted by the air on the body-aka aerodynamics sped up the progress in building a flyable machine. George Cayley’s, an English Baronet, work proved to be seminal in the building of aeroplanes. He connected the theory and engineering research and collected important data relating to the aerodynamics of aircraft’s wings. He was first to propose that for a machine to fly, the machine must have a separate system for lift, moving forward and control. It proved prescient.

Also, he was the first experimenter to work on a fixed-wing aeroplane. He closely observed birds’ wings and inferred that birds get a greater lift because of their arch-shaped wings. The curved surface produces lower pressure on top of the wings allowing the bird to get a greater lift when compared to a flat surface. He extended this finding that a long and narrow wing is more suitable for flying than a short and broad one. Technically, that’s called high aspect ratio wing.

Aspect ratio= wing length/ wing width

In the 1870s, German engineer Otto Lilienthal studied the wing design in a detailed way. His extensive measurements of the forces acting on curved wings at different angles helped the future experimenters greatly. The future inventors used these bits of data to measure their wing performance.

Wilbur Wright, the older Wright Brother, had grouped the problems that one would find when working on inventing the flying machine. He observed these problems while he did some aeronautical experiments over the last two years. He grouped the problems into three.

1. Those which relate to the construction of the sustaining wings

2. Those which relate to the generation and application of the power required to drive the machine through the air

3. Those relating to the balancing and steering of the machine after it is actually in flight

In the early days of the Wright Brothers’ experiments, they felt little need to work on the aeroplane’s wings. Before starting with their experiments, the Wright Brothers had studied earlier work in their field. As a result, the Brothers’ remarked: “Men already know how to construct wings…” But they were proved wrong. Once they started with their trails, they realized the need to improve the wing design. In November 1901, the Wright brothers built a wind tunnel to experiment with wing design. They could calculate values of drag and lift for the aircraft wings at the various angle of attack. Further, they could study the effect of air on wings with various aspect ratios, tip shape, and other wings design. These tests ended up in Wright Brother’s creating a glider that was closer than any previous machine that could fly.

The aeroplane needed an engine to push itself forward. And it wasn’t the two P&W or Rolls Royce engines that you see today. The Automobile industry developed lighter and powerful engines that Wright Brothers thought were just what they needed for their aircraft. They knew that an internal combustion engine could power the aircraft. After three years of experiments and all those data from the wind tunnel, the Wright Brothers knew what type of engine they wanted. They employed Charles Taylor, a machinist at their bicycle shop, to build a 4-cylinder engine with a cast aluminium block, weighing 90 Kg and producing 12.5 Hp.

Balancing and Steering the machine: the problem of control

Photo by Alicia Steels on Unsplash

An aeroplane can move on three axes of motion. Three axes are:

Wings can roll left or right, move from side to side

The nose can pitch up and down

The nose can yaw side to side. This, along with roll, can be used to turn the aircraft left or right.

Controlling the roll was the biggest challenge. Inventors before Wright Brothers couldn’t find a way to control the roll or side to side movement. Most early inventors thought it was humanly impossible to control the aeroplane on all its three axes of motion. They looked for some inherent stability rather than an active control system. And this is precisely what Wright Brothers changed- an active control system. The active control system could control the aeroplanes’ motion on all three axes and at any time during the flight. For this, the Wright Brothers invented wing warping. The Wright Brother got this idea when he was in his bike shop and came across a box. He twisted the box and noticed that while the shape of the box changed, the structure of the box was rigid. He used this idea to make the wings flexible. They thrusted the wings with wire at the centre for rigidity, but in the outer section, they didn’t put cross bracing near the wingtips so that wingtips could move.

The wingtips were connected by wires that led to a foot pedal; the wires pulled on the wingtip, and the shape of the outer wing changed. The change in shape caused one wing to have a sharper angle of attack and one side to have a lesser angle of attack. So, the side with the sharper angle of attack generated more lift than the other side; therefore, the aeroplane turned to the side of wings that had a lesser lift. And this is how Wright Brothers were able to build a flyable machine-fully controllable aeroplane.

Learnings from Wright Brothers

You need to be mindful of your environment. The Wright Brother was able to apply what he observed at his bike shop to the experiments.

Learning can come from anywhere; You need to have an open and active mind for it

Persistence. The Wright Brothers’ achievement was not overnight as with any success that comes

Keep yourself updated with what is happening in your work area and in the work area connected to your primary work area. The Wright Brothers were aware that they need help from the automobile industry for the aeroplanes’ engine.




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