If you ask us, OBX Airplanes is very lucky. Every day we get to fly over the location where the first
controlled flights of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft took place. Every day that we fly over the
Wright Brothers National Memorial we are reminded of how aviation as we know it began. When we fly
over the monument in one of our Cessna aircraft or our Waco biplane, we can’t help but think about
how far we have come in just over a century.
The previous OBX Airplanes blog touched on the Wright Brothers National Memorial and on the first
flights that Wilbur and Orville made on December 17 th , 1903. The next blogs will take a more detailed
look at how the Wright brothers developed and accomplished their dream of flying.
Early Career: Newspapers and Bicycles
Neither Wilbur nor his younger brother Orville graduated from high school. After he had completed four
years of high school, but before he could receive his diploma, Wilbur’s family moved suddenly from
Richmond, Indiana to Dayton, Ohio. Moves of this nature were not unusual for the Wright Brothers. As a
bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, their father Milton moved his family two dozen
times before settling finally in Dayton in 1884.
In 1889 Orville, having already designed and built a printing press with his brother’s help, dropped out of
school and opened his own printing business. Soon Wilbur would join his brother’s print shop. In March
of that year they began a weekly newspaper called the West Side News. Orville acted as publisher,
Wilbur as editor. In April 1890 they converted the paper into a daily called The Evening Item. It lasted
only four months. They turned their attention to commercial printing after the failure of their daily
newspaper, but this too would prove short lived.
In December 1892 the Wright brothers opened a bicycle repair, rental and retail shop called the Wright
Cycle Exchange (later the Wright Cycle Company). The company would grow and transition to six
different locations in Dayton. By 1896 Wilbur and Orville were manufacturing and selling bicycles of
their own design. The success of their bicycle business allowed them to focus energy and money on their
true passion: aviation
Experimenting with Airfoils
The Wright brothers’ interest aviation began in 1878 when their father brought them home a toy
helicopter. The toy was made of paper, bamboo and cork. It used a rubber band to twirl the rotor. The
boys played with the toy helicopter until it broke, and then they built their own.
Even as they grew older, the Wright brothers held on to their childhood curiosity and enthusiasm. At the
bicycle shop, the brothers were becoming more and more absorbed with aviation. Wilbur wrote to the
Smithsonian to request information and publications about aeronautics. Then the brothers began
playing with airfoils. They attached a third wheel horizontally above the front wheel of one of their St.
Claire bicycles (which they had designed and manufactured). This third wheel acted as a platform on
which to mount airfoils. They could then ride the bike with the airfoil situated just in front of the handle
bars. This allowed them to literally feel how the air flowed over and around the foil and to see how the
foil would respond.
The next step was to build a six-foot wind tunnel on the second floor of their bicycle shop. Between
October and December of 1901, they tested over 200 different shapes of scale-model wings. These
tests, according to Wright brothers’ biographer Fred Howard, "were the most crucial and fruitful
aeronautical experiments ever conducted in so short a time with so few materials and at so little expense." The experiments would certainly pay off down the road…
Check out the next OBX Airplanes blog to learn how the Wright brothers went from experimenting with
a wind tunnel in a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio to flying gliders off sand dunes in Kitty Hawk, North
A Wright Cycle Company Bicycle at the National Air and Space Museum
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As a Certified Flight Instructor on the Outer Banks of North Carolina I am pleased to say that when you fly with me you will be sure to have fun, be safe and learn to fly!