Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Pilot the 1903 Flyer


Wright Brothers homepage

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers flew their "Flyer" four times, with their longest flight lasting 59 seconds and covering 852 feet.

With these flights, they became the first to successfully pilot a power-driven, heavier-than-air machine.

Labeled diagram of Wright flyer
bicycle wheel hub elevator instruments elevator control hip cradle wing warping rudder popellers engine gas tank water reservoir

Hip cradle
Closeup of hip cradle The Wrights steered their 1903 Flyer with a hip cradle, which the pilot controlled by sliding his hips from side to side. The cradle was connected to the plane's wingtips with wires. Moving the cradle caused the wings to twist, which in turn caused the plane to "roll" (bank). The cradle was also connected to the rudder, which controlled the plane's "yaw" (rotation around a vertical axis).

Back to top


Elevator control
Elevator control closeup This lever, operated by the pilot's left hand, was connected by a pulley system to the plane's elevator. With this control the pilot could adjust the tilt of the elevator and alter the plane's "pitch," or its nose-up/nose-down orientation relative to level ground.

Back to top


Wing warping
To assist in making a turn, the Wrights realized that the plane would have to bank, or lean, in the direction of the turn (just as a bicyclist needs to lean when making a turn). To achieve this ability, they developed the idea of twisting the entire wing, or wing warping. The twisting caused one end of the wing to have more lift and the other end to have less lift.

To produce the same effect, modern planes use ailerons, movable surfaces located near the wingtips.

Back to top


Elevator
The elevator controlled "pitch," or the plane's nose-up/nose-down orientation relative to level ground. The Wrights placed the elevator at the front of the plane because they believed it prevented the plane from falling into a nose-dive and potentially crashing when the plane stalled. They also found the forward position of the elevator useful in giving a visual indication of the plane's attitude, or position relative to level ground.

In a modern plane the elevator is typically located in the tail section.

Back to top


Rudder
With an earlier glider, banking a turn would sometimes cause the aircraft to spin out of control. To prevent this, the Wrights added a fixed tail to their 1902 glider and then altered it into a movable rudder in the same year. The rudder in that altered glider and in the 1903 Flyer was controlled by the hip cradle. The combined movement of the twisting wings and of the movable rudder allowed the aircraft to bank and turn.

Just as with the 1903 Flyer, the rudder in a modern plane is located in the tail section.

Back to top


Engine
Since there were no internal combustion engines available that fit the specialized needs of an aircraft, the Wright brothers made one of their own. With the help of machinist Charlie Taylor they built a four-cylinder, gasoline-powered engine that delivered 12 horsepower and weighed 170 pounds.

The engine's only control was a fuel valve, which was connected to a stick within easy reach of the pilot. Once the engine was started and running smoothly, the valve was used only to stop the engine.

Back to top


Water Reservoir
A long, narrow water tank was attached to a front strut near the pilot. Water from the tank flowed into the engine and absorbed heat from the area surrounding the cylinders, keeping the engine from overheating. Cool water from the tank flowed into the engine as the water in the engine evaporated.

Back to top


Gas tank
Located on a front strut, the fuel tank held about one and a half quarts of gasoline. The fuel, which was fed to the engine by gravity, passed through a valve located near the engine.

Although the valve controlled the flow of gasoline to the engine, the engine ran at only one speed. The valve was adjusted before takeoff only to get the engine running as smoothly as possible.

Back to top


Propellers
The Wright brothers designed and made their own propellers, aided by the use of their own wind tunnel (which they also designed and built themselves). The propellers worked as rotating wings; their spinning motion produced a horizontal lift, or "thrust," that pushed the plane through the air.

Made of two layers of spruce, the propellers spun in opposite directions to cancel out the torque forces they produced. Without this canceling effect, the plane would have tended to rotate in a direction opposite that of the rotating propellers.

Back to top


Instruments
The 1903 Flyer had three instruments on board: a stopwatch to time the length of flights, a "Veedor" engine-revolutions counter to measure engine rpms, and an anemometer to measure distance.

Back to top


Bicycle wheel hub
Used for taking off, the hub of a bicycle wheel attached to the skids guided the plane down a narrow, 60-foot wooden rail. The plane rested on a dolly; the dolly remained behind when the plane took off.

The aircraft landed on its skids.

Back to top





Wright Brothers' Flying Machine
The Unlikely Inventors

The Unlikely Inventors
Tom Crouch on why the Wright brothers succeeded where so many others failed.

The First Reporter

The First Reporter
Amazingly, initial coverage of the Wrights' earliest flights appeared in a beekeeping journal.

Pilot the 1903 Flyer

Pilot the 1903 Flyer
In this interactive, see how the Wright brothers solved the problem of steering.

Getting Airborne

Getting Airborne
and Wing Designs

See how a plane achieves enough lift to take off and how airfoil shapes affect the way a plane flies.

Building Wright Replicas

Building Wright Replicas
View a collection of photos taken during the reconstruction of original Wright brothers aircraft.



Send Feedback Image Credits
   
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site