The mid-1890s saw growing interest and excitement in the world of aviation. In Germany, Otto
Lilienthal, or the “flying man” as he was known around the world, was making repeated successful
flights with his gliders. His flights were well documented by reporters and photographers. Magazines
and newspapers world-wide published accounts and photographs of his feats. The Wright brothers saw
these articles and were encouraged by Lilienthal’s success. According to Wilbur, "Lilienthal was without
question the greatest of the precursors, and the world owes to him a great debt." Unfortunately,
Lilienthal was killed when his glider stalled and plummeted to the ground. The Wright brothers,
nevertheless, saw the potential for manned flight.
In 1896 (the same year as Otto Lilienthal’s death) Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian
Institution, successfully flew a steam-powered, fixed-wing, unmanned model aircraft. Later that same
year several aviation enthusiasts, under the guidance of Chicago engineer Octave Chanute, gathered on
the sand dunes at the shore of Lake Michigan where they tested multiple gliders. In 1899, Wilbur wrote
to the Smithsonian to request information and publications about aeronautics.
After much experimentation, first with airfoils fixed to a bicycle and then with airfoils in their custom-
made wind tunnel, the Wright brothers took the next step towards their goal of manned, powered
flight: building and flying full sized gliders.
Learning from the Birds: Wing Warping and Pilot Control
One of the factors that set the Wright brothers apart from others who were also after the dream of
manned, powered flight was their focus on pilot control. Other aviation enthusiasts were of the mindset
that attaching powerful engines to stable aircraft was the way forward, but the Wright Brothers took a
different approach. Wilbur and Orville believed that the ability of the pilot to control the aircraft and to
make subtle adjustments was paramount to the success of their aircraft. With this mindset, Wilbur and
Orville decided to master the art of flying their gliders before they moved to powered flight.
The Wright brothers believed that pilot control would ultimately lead them to solve the three-pronged
problem that they called “the flying problem.” In their minds, there was sufficient knowledge about the
other two parts of the problem, wings and engines, but the ability to actually fly the aircraft was lacking.
Glider pilots before the Wright brothers had relied on shifting their own body weight to alter the course
of their aircraft. The brothers, however, did not think this provided adequate control. Instead they
developed a system based on their observation of the flight of birds. Birds, they noticed, changed the
angle of the ends of their wings in order to bank into a turn. The problem then became ‘how to
accomplish this with a man-made wing of wood and cloth.’
One day, according to biographer James Tobin, Wilbur was idly twisting an inner-tube at the bicycle
shop while thinking of “the flying problem.” In that moment he came up with the idea of ‘wing warping,’
which the Wright brothers patented and used in their aircraft. The idea was to twist the wings so that
one end created more lift and the other less lift. The aircraft would roll laterally and turn towards the
direction of the dipping wing.
To Kitty Hawk: The Wright Brothers Take Flight
The first experiment with wing warping was conducted using a biplane kite with a five-foot wing span.
Wilbur attached four lines to the kite and was able to control the twist of the wings. His theory proved
right. He was able to cause the kite to turn using his wing warping technique.
Wilbur wrote a letter to Octave Chanute to inquire about optimal locations for glider testing. One of
Chanute’s suggestions (in addition to Florida and California) was the mid-Atlantic coast with its often-
windy conditions and sandy, soft landings. Wilbur and Orville also looked at U.S. Weather Bureau data
and decided to come to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to test their gliders.
We will continue our series on the Wright brothers in the next OBX Airplanes blog. Remember, we offer
air tours that circle the famous site of the Wright brothers’ first flights. Call us today to book a flight
around the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
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!