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Inventions That Fueled the First Flight

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The first successful flight of a gas-powered, propeller-driven biplane was accomplished by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903. That plane can still be seen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Many other engineers had tried their hands at flying, but the Wright brother's plane was different because it was heavier than air and able to be steered. These features set it apart from previous flying apparatus, like gliders. In order for the Wright brothers to get their plane off the ground, they had to first solve multiple problems. Each problem needed a revolutionary solution. This led them to create techniques and equipment that have advanced physics and aerodynamics just as much as the plane that made them famous.

Wind Tunnel

The Wright brothers needed a way to study how different wing materials and shapes were affected by forces, like air. They calculated the equations but needed a way to test their accuracy. So in October of 1901, the Wright brothers built a wind tunnel. Wind tunnels had previously been used by engineers, but the instruments the brothers designed and built to measure lift and drag made it special. They were able to study how forces like lift, balance and drag affect an object. These principles led to discoveries in fluid dynamic scale and aerodynamics.

The wind tunnel they used, and the equations they were able to test, were instrumental in designing the plane that flew on the beach at Kitty Hawk in 1903. It is amazing to think of all the knowledge they obtained from such a simple piece of equipment. The tunnel was a simple wooden box elevated by four legs and about seven feet long. The top of the box had a clear window for them to observe the forces acting on their test objects. On one end of the box, they hooked a fan belt to an engine with one horsepower. This produced 30 mph wind inside the tunnel. They tested between 100 and 200 models with different techniques and observed all of the design variables. If it wasn't for this important work, the brothers would probably not have made that historic flight in 1903.

Steering System
By 1901, many other people were trying to accomplish flight. The Wright Brothers never claimed to be the first to fly, but they were the first to effectively maneuver while in flight. Using their wind tunnel, they designed a control system for aircraft and the techniques to navigate it. Without the ability to navigate, any hope of safe flight is lost. Planes would lose any practical purpose like transportation of people and goods.

When beginning to explore how to maneuver in the sky, the brothers first looked to the water. They observed that forces working on a boat in the ocean are similar to the forces working on an object flying in the sky. In the water, a wave could cause the boat to rock from side to side or roll. If the wave came from behind, then the boat would pitch forward and backward. Currents could also force the boat to spin in place or yaw right and left. By studying how boats control roll, pitch and yaw, the Wright brothers were able to design methods to control how a plane moves in the sky.

Engine
The Wright brothers designed a 12 horsepower combustion engine to fly their plane. This engine was different than other engines in two ways. First, they used an aluminum crankcase. This was the first time aluminum was used for aircraft and is now a staple in airplane manufacturing. The material is ideal because it is light, strong and resistant to corrosion. The engine was also unique because it didn't have a carburetor, fuel pump or spark plugs. Instead, they used gravity, natural airflow and heat to keep the engine running. To get it started, the spark was produced using two batteries and a coil on the ground.

With limited supplies and no formal education, Orville and Wilbur Wright systematically tackled every obstacle they faced. Each solution they discovered has been used and furthered by the inventors after them. Their many innovations cemented their place in history as true visionaries.

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