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1905 – The First Practical Airplane

The Wrights began to build a new aircraft in May 1905, salvaging the engine, propellers, and hardware from the Flyer II. The new Flyer III was designed to overcome the problems they had encountered the year before. Both the elevator and the rudder were larger, giving the airplane better pitch and yaw control. The brothers had also encountered problems with "side slips"—the airplane tended to slide sideways in the air during a turn—so they installed semi-circular "blinkers" between the elevator surfaces to keep the airplane flying forward and gave the wings a very slight dihedral angle. They also noticed that the propellers tended to twist and flatten while they were spinning, reducing thrust. To prevent this, they attached tabs they called “little jokers” to the trailing edges of the blades.

The 1904 Wright Flyer 2 configuration was used for the early flight tests in 1905. The Wrights realized that the elevator and rudder needed to be modified to give better pitch and yaw control. They were also located too close to the wings.

The 1904 Wright Flyer 2 configuration was used for the early flight tests in 1905.
The Wrights realized that the elevator and rudder needed to be modified to give
better pitch and yaw control. They were also located too close to the wings.

The most important change was in the control system. Rather than linking it directly to the wing-warping system, they decided to give the pilot full control of the rudder. The pilot would now have two control levels—one for the elevator and one for the rudder.

Orville first flew the original Flyer III on June 23, 1905. It had a new airframe, but used the propulsion system from the Flyer II, and it was essentially the same design. It demonstrated the same marginal performance as Flyers I and II. The brothers were back in the air again in late June, but still the Flyer was less than satisfactory. They made eight flights with the new Flyer III, the longest less than 20 seconds, and every flight ending with damage to the aircraft.

On July 14, Orville smashed into the ground at more than 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour), crumpling the front elevator. The Flyer III bounced three times, throwing Orville out through the top wing. Wilbur found him dazed and confused, lying on what was left of the elevator. Orville was still in one piece, but this potentially fatal crash forced the brothers to take a long, hard look at their aircraft design.

The modified Wright Flyer 3 had a larger elevator and rudder. They were also positioned farther away from the wings. This provided better control.

The modified Wright Flyer 3 had a larger elevator and rudder.
They were also positioned farther away from the wings. This provided better control.

The Wrights made some radical changes. They almost doubled the size of the elevator, increasing its surface area from 52.7 square feet (5 square meters) to 83 square feet (7.7 square meters). They also decided that the elevator was much too close to the wings to provide effective control. They moved it about twice the distance from the leading edge of the wing—from 7.3 feet (2.2 meters) to nearly 12 feet out (3.7 meters).

Orville and Wilbur started flying again in late August. It was immediately apparent that the new, improved Flyer III was truly airworthy. In less than a week, they were flying multiple circuits around Huffman Prairie, landing without a single serious accident. On September 26, Wilbur flew for more than 18 minutes, running the gas tank dry for the first time. Orville flew 26 minutes on October 3. He broke the half-hour mark on October 4, remaining airborne for 33 minutes.

A close-up of the Flyer 3 in flight.

A close-up of the Flyer 3 in flight.

Word began to spread that something extraordinary was happening. On October 5, a small crowd of people—including Torrence Huffman and Dave Beard, the owner of the land and his neighbor—gathered to watch Wilbur and Orville fly. The first flight of the morning was short, just 40 seconds. The Flyer III rose gently into the air, made a 180-degree turn, and glided back to a safe landing. But in the afternoon, Wilbur flew 30 circuits, remained in the air for 39.5 minutes, and covered more than 24 miles (38.6 kilometers). He landed only when he ran out of gas. He had made the longest flight in history and had flown longer than the total flying time of all his flights in 1903 and 1904.

The 1905 Wright Flyer III resulted from careful, painstaking engineering. By 1905, the Wrights had solved all the problems associated with stability and control and had modified the Flyer to what they regarded as its final design. They had completely mastered the art of circling. They had made a sustained flight of more than 24 miles (38.6 kilometers), which although it lasted less than an hour, was a forerunner of longer flights to come. In short, the Flyer III was the world's first practical airplane.  The Wrights were pleased.

The 1905 Wright Flyer 3 over Huffman Prairie.

The 1905 Wright Flyer 3 over Huffman Prairie.

Once again, the newspapers began to take notice, and many rumors filtered out of Dayton. Stories appeared in the Dayton Journal, the Dayton Daily News, and the Cincinnati Post. The Wrights urged their supporter, Octave Chanute, to come to Dayton to see them fly. But when Chanute arrived on November 1, the weather had turned bad, and Chanute missed his chance.

By that time, the Wrights had decided their aircraft was not a gift to the world, but a product to be sold. They had offered to sell the Flyer III to the U.S. Secretary of War within days after their record-breaking flight, but had been turned down. Somewhat hurt by the rejection, they decided premature public exposure of the details of their airplane could jeopardize their patent rights, as well as their financial future, and they were unwilling to see that happen. No reporters were invited to view the machine, and the Wrights did not prepare any articles or papers for publication. The brothers became concerned that their plane’s configuration would be revealed and copied. They decided to stop their test flights until they had a secure patent and buyer for their aircraft. The triumphant 1905 flights would be the last they would make for nearly three years. They disassembled the Flyer on November 5, 1905, and hid the parts away until 1908.

During 1905, the brothers attempted to sell their aircraft in Europe using a rather unusual sales approach. To protect their future patent, they would not show the aircraft to a prospective buyer until a price was negotiated and paid. They guaranteed that if the plane did not fly as promised, they would release the buyer from the contract. The brothers wrote the War Office in Great Britain, but after some initial interest, Britain refused to agree to purchase anything without seeing the plane fly.

The Wrights then turned to France. There, they were met with disbelief. The French could not believe the Wright brothers could have flown almost 25 miles (40 kilometers) without it being reported in all the U.S. newspapers. They even sent envoys to Dayton, Ohio, to determine if the Wrights had indeed flown and then dismissed the positive reports they received. The French also rejected the $200,000 price as too high. At the end of 1905, no deals had been made.

In the meantime, aviation was taking hold in France. In March, Ernest Archdeacon tested his second glider at the military ground at Issy-les-Moulineaux, Paris. This was the first time an “aerodrome,” the predecessor of the airfield and airport, was used to launch and land an aircraft. In June, Lawrence Hargrave’s box-kite configuration was first incorporated in two float gliders, a Voisin-Archdeacon model and a Voisin-BlĂ©riot design. This was the start of the classic type of stable Voisin configuration, with no lateral control.

—Judy Rumerman

Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of trouble shooting and experimentation in problem solving.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.