By Wenbo Duan and Gang Zhao,
PhD candidates at Polytechnique Montreal
For several centuries, people dreamed of flying freely in the sky. In the early 20th Century the Wright brothers invented the world’s the first practical airplane which deeply influenced the lifestyle of people by breaking the traditional concept of distance.
The year 1896 was eventful for the Wright brothers. The newspapers were filled with accounts of flying machines. Wilbur and Orville noticed that all these primitive aircraft lacked suitable controls. They began to wonder how a pilot might balance an aircraft in the air, just as a cyclist balances his bicycle on the road.
In 1899, Wilbur devised a simple system that twisted or "warped" the wings of a biplane, causing it to roll right or left. They tested this system in a kite, then a series of gliders. They made their first test flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the shores of the Atlantic where the strong winds helped to launch the gliders and the soft sands helped to cushion the fall when they crashed.
Their first two gliders, flown in 1900 and 1901, failed to perform as the Wrights had hoped. The gliders did not provide enough lift nor were they fully controllable. So during the winter of 1901-1902 Wilbur and Orville built a wind tunnel and conducted experiments to determine the best wing shape for an aeroplane. This enabled them to build a glider with sufficient lift, and concentrate on the problem of control. Toward the end of the 1902 flying season, their third glider became the first fully controllable aircraft, with roll, pitch, and yaw controls.
During the winter of 1902-1903, with the help of their mechanic, Charlie Taylor, the Wrights designed and built a gasoline engine light enough and powerful enough to propel an aeroplane. They also designed the first true aeroplane propellers and built a new powered aircraft.
Back in Kitty Hawk, they suddenly found themselves in a race. Samuel P. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, had also built a powered aircraft, patterned after a small, unmanned "aerodrome" he had flown successfully in 1896. To add to their frustrations, the Wrights were delayed by problems with their propeller shafts and the weather, giving Langley time to test his aircraft twice in late 1903. Both attempts failed miserably, however, and Langley left the field to the Wrights. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first sustained, controlled flights in a powered aircraft.
Back in Dayton, Ohio, the brothers found they had much to do to perfect their invention. While the 1903 Wright Flyer did indeed fly, it was underpowered and difficult to control. They established the world's first test flight facilities at Huffman Prairie, northeast of Dayton. For two years they made flight after flight, fine tuning the controls, engine, propellers, and configuration of their airplane. At first, they could only fly in a straight line for less than a minute. By the end of 1905, they were flying figure-eight's over Huffman Prairie, staying aloft for over half an hour, or until their fuel ran out. The 1905 Wright Flyer was the world's first practical airplane.