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Published June 2003 | Published
Journal Article Open

The Wright Brothers: First Aeronautical Engineers and Test Pilots


Sir George Cayley invented the conventional configuration of the airplane at the turn of the 19th century. Otto Lilienthal realized that building a successful aircraft meant learning how to fly; he became the first hang glider pilot and also the first flight fatality in 1896. Beginning in the late 1890s, the Wright Brothers absorbed all that was known in aeronautics before them, then added their own discoveries and developed the first successful airplane. Technically, their greatest fundamental achievement was their invention of three-axis aerodynamic control. Less obviously, their success was a consequence of style, their manner of working out their ideas and of progressing systematically to their stunning achievements. They were indeed the first aeronautical engineers, understanding as best they could all aspects of their aircraft and flying. They were thinkers, designers, constructors, analysts, and especially flight-testpilots. Their powers of observation and interpretation of the behavior of their aircraft in flight were remarkable and essential to their development of the airplane. Their work in the period 1899–1905 constitutes the first true research and development program carried out in the style of the 20th century. As the centenary of their first powered flights approaches, the Wright Brothers' magnificent achievements excite growing admiration and respect for their achievements. The broad features of their accomplishments have long been well known. Only in the past two decades has serious attention been directed to the scientific and technical content of their work, to explain the nature of the problems they faced and how they solved them. After a century's progress in aeronautics, the principles, understanding,and methods not available to the Wrights provide the basis for interpreting in modern terms the experiences that the Wrights themselves documented so meticulously in their diaries, papers, and correspondence. It is a unique opportunity in the history of technology.

Additional Information

© Copyright 2002 by F.E.C. Culick. Published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., with permission. Presented as Paper 2001-3385 at the AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE 37th Joint Propulsion Conference, Salt Lake City, UT, 8–11 July 2001; received 3 August 2002; revision received 5 December 2002; accepted for publication 9 December 2002. I am especially indebted to Henry Jex for all he has taught me about aerodynamics, flight mechanics, and control during our association for more than 20 years in the AIAA Wright Flyer Project. Only the extraordinary efforts of the members of the project, particularly Chairman Jack Cherne and Deputy Chairman Howard Marx, made possible the construction and wind-tunnel tests of the full-scale Wright Flyer in March 1999. The test results, and those obtained from tests of the subscale models, form the basis for analyzing the special flight mechanics of the 1903 Flyer. I have benefited greatly from many private discussions and from exchanges of e-mail messages with correspondents otherwise unknown to me. Figures 13–15 and 18–20 were prepared by Antonis Papachristodoulou. Portions of this paper appeared in the Proceedings of the Forty-Fifth Annual Symposium of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (September 2001). I thank Melinda Kirk for her enormous efforts preparing the final typed and formatted version of the manuscript.

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