The Wright Brothers: First Aeronautical Engineers and Test Pilots

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Culick, F. E. C. (2003)
  • Publisher: AIAA
  • Subject: Caltech Library Services

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.
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