Although the first actual flight of an aeroplane was made by the Wrights on December 17th 1903, it is necessary, in considering the progress of design between that period and the present day, to go back to the earlier days of their experiments with 'gliders,' which show the alterations in design made by them in their step-bystep progress to a flying machine proper, and give a clear idea of the stage at which they had arrived in the art of aeroplane design at the time of their first flights.

They started by carefully surveying the work of previous experimenters, such as Lilienthal and Chanute, and from the lesson of some of the failures of these pioneers evolved certain new principles which were embodied in their first glider, built in 1900. In the first place, instead of relying upon the shifting of the operator's body to obtain balance, which had proved too slow to be reliable, they fitted in front of the main supporting surfaces what we now call an 'elevator,' which could be flexed, to control the longitudinal balance, from where the operator lay prone upon the main supporting surfaces. The second main innovation which they incorporated in this first glider, and the principle of which is still used in every aeroplane in existence, was the attainment of lateral balance by warping the extremities of the main planes. The effect of warping or pulling down the extremity of the wing on one side was to increase its lift and so cause that side to rise. In the first two gliders this control was also used for steering to right and left. Both these methods of control were novel for other than model work, as previous experimenters, such as Lilienthal and Pilcher, had relied entirely upon moving the legs or shifting the position of the body to control the longitudinal and lateral motions of their gliders. For the main supporting surfaces of the glider the biplane system of Chanute's gliders was adopted with certain modifications, while the curve of the wings was founded upon the calculations of Lilienthal as to wind pressure and consequent lift of the plane.

This first glider was tested on the Kill Devil Hill sand-hills in North Carolina in the summer of 1900 and proved at any rate the correctness of the principles of the front elevator and warping wings, though its designers were puzzled by the fact that the lift was less than they expected; whilst the 'drag'(as we call it), or resistance, was also considerably lower than their predictions. The 1901 machine was, in consequence, nearly doubled in area - the lifting surface being increased from 165 to 308 square feet - the first trial taking place on July 27th, 1901, again at Kill Devil Hill. It immediately appeared that something was wrong, as the machine dived straight to the ground, and it was only after the operator's position had been moved nearly a foot back from what had been calculated as the correct position that the machine would glide - and even then the elevator had to be used far more strongly than in the previous year's glider. After a good deal of thought the apparent solution of the trouble was finally found.

This consisted in the fact that with curved surfaces, while at large angles the centre of pressure moves forward as the angle decreases, when a certain limit of angle is reached it travels suddenly backwards and causes the machine to dive. The Wrights had known of this tendency from Lilienthal's researches, but had imagined that the phenomenon would disappear if they used a fairly lightly cambered - or curved - surface with a very abrupt curve at the front. Having discovered what appeared to be the cause they surmounted the difficulty by 'trussing down' the camber of the wings, with the result that they at once got back to the old conditions of the previous year and could control the machine readily with small movements of the elevator, even being able to follow undulations in the ground. They still found, however, that the lift was not as great as it should have been; while the drag remained, as in the previous glider, surprisingly small. This threw doubt on previous figures as to wind resistance and pressure on curved surfaces; but at the same time confirmed (and this was a most important result) Lilienthal's previously questioned theory that at small angles the pressure on a curved surface instead of being normal, or at right angles to, the chord is in fact inclined in front of the perpendicular. The result of this is that the pressure actually tends to draw the machine forward into the wind - hence the small amount of drag, which had puzzled Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Another lesson which was learnt from these first two years of experiment, was that where, as in a biplane, two surfaces are superposed one above the other, each of them has somewhat less lift than it would have if used alone. The experimenters were also still in doubt as to the efficiency of the warping method of controlling the lateral balance as it gave rise to certain phenomena which puzzled them, the machine turning towards the wing having the greater angle, which seemed also to touch the ground first, contrary to their expectations. Accordingly, on returning to Dayton towards the end of 1901, they set themselves to solve the various problems which had appeared and started on a lengthy series of experiments to check the previous figures as to wind resistance and lift of curved surfaces, besides setting themselves to grapple with the difficulty of lateral control. They accordingly constructed for themselves at their home in Dayton a wind tunnel 16 inches square by 6 feet long in which they measured the lift and 'drag' of more than two hundred miniature wings. In the course of these tests they for the first time produced comparative results of the lift of oblong and square surfaces, with the result that they re-discovered the importance of 'aspect ratio' - the ratio of length to breadth of planes. As a result, in the next year's glider the aspect ration of the wings was increased from the three to one of the earliest model to about six to one, which is approximately the same as that used in the machines of to-day. Further than that, they discussed the question of lateral stability, and came to the conclusion that the cause of the trouble was that the effect of warping down one wing was to increase the resistance of, and consequently slow down, that wing to such an extent that its lift was reduced sufficiently to wipe out the anticipated increase in lift resulting from the warping. From this they deduced that if the speed of the warped wing could be controlled the advantage of increasing the angle by warping could be utilised as they originally intended. They therefore decided to fit a vertical fin at the rear which, if the machine attempted to turn, would be exposed more and more to the wind and so stop the turning motion by offering increased resistance.

As a result of this laboratory research work the third Wright glider, which was taken to Kill Devil Hill in September, 1902, was far more efficient aerodynamically than either of its two predecessors, and was fitted with a fixed vertical fin at the rear in addition to the movable elevator in front. According to Mr Griffith Brewer,[*] this third glider contained 305 square feet of surface; though there may possibly be a mistake here, as he states[**] the surface of the previous year's glider to have been only 290 square feet, whereas Wilbur Wright himself[***] states it to have been 308 square feet. The matter is not, perhaps, save historically, of much importance, except that the gliders are believed to have been progressively larger, and therefore if we accept Wilbur Wright's own figure of the surface of the second glider, the third must have had a greater area than that given by Mr Griffith Brewer. Unfortunately, no evidence of the Wright Brothers themselves on this point is available.

[*] Fourth Wilbur Wright Memorial Lecture, Aeronautical Journal, Vol. XX, No. 79, page 75.

[**] Ibid. page 73.

[***] Ibid. pp. 91 and 102.

The first glide of the 1902, season was made on September 17th of that year, and the new machine at once showed itself an improvement on its predecessors, though subsequent trials showed that the difficulty of lateral balance had not been entirely overcome. It was decided, therefore, to turn the vertical fin at the rear into a rudder by making it movable. At the same time it was realised that there was a definite relation between lateral balance and directional control, and the rudder controls and wing-warping wires were accordingly connected This ended the pioneer gliding experiments of Wilbur and Orville Wright - though further glides were made in subsequent years - as the following year, 1903, saw the first power-driven machine leave the ground.

To recapitulate - in the course of these original experiments the Wrights confirmed Lilienthal's theory of the reversal of the centre of pressure on cambered surfaces at small angles of incidence: they confirmed the importance of high aspect ratio in respect to lift: they had evolved new and more accurate tables of lift and pressure on cambered surfaces: they were the first to use a movable horizontal elevator for controlling height: they were the first to adjust the wings to different angles of incidence to maintain lateral balance: and they were the first to use the movable rudder and adjustable wings in combination.

They now considered that they had gone far enough to justify them in building a power-driven 'flier,' as they called their first aeroplane. They could find no suitable engine and so proceeded to build for themselves an internal combustion engine, which was designed to give 8 horse-power, but when completed actually developed about 12-15 horse-power and weighed 240 lbs. The complete machine weighed about 750 lbs. Further details of the first Wright aeroplane are difficult to obtain, and even those here given should be received with some caution. The first flight was made on December 17th 1903, and lasted 12 seconds. Others followed immediately, and the fourth lasted 59 seconds, a distance of 852 feet being covered against a 20-mile wind.

The following year they transferred operations to a field outside Dayton, Ohio (their home), and there they flew a somewhat larger and heavier machine with which on September 20th 1904, they completed the first circle in the air. In this machine for the first time the pilot had a seat; all the previous experiments having been carried out with the operator lying prone on the lower wing. This was followed next year by another still larger machine, and on it they carried out many flights. During the course of these flights they satisfied themselves as to the cause of a phenomenon which had puzzled them during the previous year and caused them to fear that they had not solved the problem of lateral control. They found that on occasions - always when on a turn - the machine began to slide down towards the ground and that no amount of warping could stop it. Finally it was found that if the nose of the machine was tilted down a recovery could be effected; from which they concluded that what actually happened was that the machine, 'owing to the increased load caused by centrifugal force,' had insufficient power to maintain itself in the air and therefore lost speed until a point was reached at which the controls became inoperative. In other words, this was the first experience of 'stalling on a turn,' which is a danger against which all embryo pilots have to guard in the early stages of their training.

The 1905 machine was, like its predecessors, a biplane with a biplane elevator in front and a double vertical rudder in rear. The span was 40 feet, the chord of the wings being 6 feet and the gap between them about the same. The total area was about 600 square feet which supported a total weight of 925 lbs.; while the motor was 12 to 15 horse-power driving two propellers on each side behind the main planes through chains and giving the machine a speed of about 30 m.p.h. one of these chains was crossed so that the propellers revolved in opposite directions to avoid the torque which it was feared would be set up if they both revolved the same way. The machine was not fitted with a wheeled undercarriage but was carried on two skids, which also acted as outriggers to carry the elevator. Consequently, a mechanical method of launching had to be evolved and the machine received initial velocity from a rail, along which it was drawn by the impetus provided by the falling of a weight from a wooden tower or 'pylon.' As a result of this the Wright aeroplane in its original form had to be taken back to its starting rail after each flight, and could not restart from the point of alighting. Perhaps, in comparison with French machines of more or less contemporary date (evolved on independent lines in ignorance of the Americans' work), the chief feature of the Wright biplane of 1905 was that it relied entirely upon the skill of the operator for its stability; whereas in France some attempt was being made, although perhaps not very successfully, to make the machine automatically stable laterally. The performance of the Wrights in carrying a loading of some 60 lbs. per horse-power is one which should not be overlooked. The wing loading was about 1 1/2 lbs. per square foot.

About the same time that the Wrights were carrying out their power-driven experiments, a band of pioneers was quite independently beginning to approach success in France. In practically every case, however, they started from a somewhat different standpoint and took as their basic idea the cellular (or box) kite. This form of kite, consisting of two superposed surfaces connected at each end by a vertical panel or curtain of fabric, had proved extremely successful for man-carrying purposes, and, therefore, it was little wonder that several minds conceived the idea of attempting to fly by fitting a series of box-kites with an engine. The first to achieve success was M. Santos-Dumont, the famous Brazilian pioneer-designer of airships, who, on November 12th, 1906, made several flights, the last of which covered a little over 700 feet. Santos-Dumont's machine consisted essentially of two box-kites, forming the main wings, one on each side of the body, in which the pilot stood, and at the front extremity of which was another movable box-kite to act as elevator and rudder. The curtains at the ends were intended to give lateral stability, which was further ensured by setting the wings slightly inclined upwards from the centre, so that when seen from the front they formed a wide V. This feature is still to be found in many aeroplanes to-day and has come to be known as the 'dihedral.' The motor was at first of 24 horse-power, for which later a 50 horse-power Antoinette engine was substituted; whilst a three-wheeled undercarriage was provided, so that the machine could start without external mechanical aid. The machine was constructed of bamboo and steel, the weight being as low as 352 lbs. The span was 40 feet, the length being 33 feet, with a total surface of main planes of 860 square feet. It will thus be seen - for comparison with the Wright machine - that the weight per horse-power (with the 50 horse-power engine) was only 7 lbs., while the wing loading was equally low at 1/2 lb. per square foot.

The main features of the Santos-Dumont machine were the box-kite form of construction, with a dihedral angle on the main planes, and the forward elevator which could be moved in any direction and therefore acted in the same way as the rudder at the rear of the Wright biplane. It had a single propeller revolving in the centre behind the wings and was fitted with an undercarriage incorporated in the machine.

The other chief French experimenters at this period were the Voisin Freres, whose first two machines - identical in form - were sold to Delagrange and H. Farman, which has sometimes caused confusion, the two purchasers being credited with the design they bought. The Voisins, like the Wrights, based their designs largely on the experimental work of Lilienthal, Langley, Chanute, and others, though they also carried out tests on the lifting properties of aerofoils in a wind tunnel of their own. Their first machines, like those of Santos-Dumont, showed the effects of experimenting with box-kites, some of which they had built for M. Ernest Archdeacon in 1904. In their case the machine, which was again a biplane, had, like both the others previously mentioned, an elevator in front - though in this case of monoplane form - and, as in the Wright, a rudder was fitted in rear of the main planes. The Voisins, however, fitted a fixed biplane horizontal 'tail' - in an effort to obtain a measure of automatic longitudinal stability - between the two surfaces of which the single rudder worked. For lateral stability they depended entirely on end curtains between the upper and lower surfaces of both the main planes and biplane tail surfaces. They, like Santos-Dumont, fitted a wheeled undercarriage, so that the machine was self-contained. The Voisin machine, then, was intended to be automatically stable in both senses; whereas the Wrights deliberately produced a machine which was entirely dependent upon the pilot's skill for its stability. The dimensions of the Voisin may be given for comparative purposes, and were as follows: Span 33 feet with a chord (width from back to front) of main planes of 6 1/2 feet, giving a total area of 430 square feet. The 50 horse-power Antoinette engine, which was enclosed in the body (or 'nacelle ') in the front of which the pilot sat, drove a propeller behind, revolving between the outriggers carrying the tail. The total weight, including Farman as pilot, is given as 1,540 lbs., so that the machine was much heavier than either of the others; the weight per horse-power being midway between the Santos-Dumont and the Wright at 31 lbs. per square foot, while the wing loading was considerably greater than either at 3 1/2 lbs. per square foot. The Voisin machine was experimented with by Farman and Delagrange from about June 1907 onwards, and was in the subsequent years developed by Farman; and right up to the commencement of the War upheld the principles of the box-kite method of construction for training purposes. The chief modification of the original design was the addition of flaps (or ailerons) at the rear extremities of the main planes to give lateral control, in a manner analogous to the wing-warping method invented by the Wrights, as a result of which the end curtains between the planes were abolished. An additional elevator was fitted at the rear of the fixed biplane tail, which eventually led to the discarding of the front elevator altogether. During the same period the Wright machine came into line with the others by the fitting of a wheeled undercarriage integral with the machine. A fixed horizontal tail was also added to the rear rudder, to which a movable elevator was later attached; and, finally, the front elevator was done away with. It will thus be seen that having started from the very different standpoints of automatic stability and complete control by the pilot, the Voisin (as developed in the Farman) and Wright machines, through gradual evolution finally resulted in aeroplanes of similar characteristics embodying a modicum of both features.

Before proceeding to the next stage of progress mention should be made of the experimental work of Captain Ferber in France. This officer carried out a large number of experiments with gliders contemporarily with the Wrights, adopting - like them - the Chanute biplane principle. He adopted the front elevator from the Wrights, but immediately went a step farther by also fitting a fixed tail in rear, which did not become a feature of the Wright machine until some seven or eight years later. He built and appeared to have flown a machine fitted with a motor in 1905, and was commissioned to go to America by the French War Office on a secret mission to the Wrights. Unfortunately, no complete account of his experiments appears to exist, though it can be said that his work was at least as important as that of any of the other pioneers mentioned.