HOW POWERED FLIGHT WORKS (Illustration) American History Famous Historical Events Famous People Film Social Studies STEM Biographies Aviation & Space Exploration

The Wright Brothers used a 12-horsepower engine for their first powered flight. This image depicts the actual engine. NASA tells us it had the equivalent power of "two hand-propelled lawn mower engines." Image online, courtesy NASA.


For the next two years, Will and Orville used their bike shop as an invention center. Using a bike as their first testing device, they performed airfoil experiments.

Pedaling their contraption as fast as they could was exhausting, so the brothers invented a wind tunnel into which they placed two homemade devices - one to test lift and the other to test drag. The blower fan, which was driven by an overhead belt, created winds up to 35 miles per hour.

Writing down all their observations on strips of wallpaper, they ultimately compiled their findings into a notebook. Among other important conclusions, the brothers determined the commonly accepted coefficient of lift was too high. They also found a wing produced more lift if it had the shape of a parabola.

Using the data from all their experiments, the brothers built a reworked glider in 1902. It was the first aircraft which solved the fundamental problems of flight: lift and three-axis (referred to as pitch, roll, and yaw) control. (Be sure to see NASA’s animations linked in this paragraph.)

Once the brothers were able to achieve sustained and controlled flight, based on their calculations and field tests, they constructed a larger version of their 1902 glider. They called it the Flyer. Today, most folks know it as Flyer 1 or the Kitty Hawk.

But Flyer 1 would be an airplane, not a glider. Will and Orville needed to figure out how to use a propeller in the air. Although they looked at shipbuilding literature, it didn't help them. There was no theory of propulsion. At the time, no one truly understood a propeller is nothing more than a wing, rotating on its axis, which lifts the plane forward.

Reasoning through this fundamental tenet of self-propelled flight, the brothers were ready to build their power source. It was a 4-cylinder, 12-horsepower gas engine they built with the help of their mechanic, Charlie Taylor. (Be sure to follow the links in this paragraph to view NASA-created animations depicting how Flyer’s engine actually worked.)

Will and Orville had been in a race to see who could develop the first heavier-than-air powered flying machine. Samuel Langley, the distinguished secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, had developed an Aerodrome. When it crashed on launch, Langley left future experiments to the Wright brothers.

Langley wasn't the only competition the brothers faced, however. They had to press forward.

It was time for another trip to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hill.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Aug 01, 2008

Updated Last Revision: Apr 30, 2019

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"HOW POWERED FLIGHT WORKS" AwesomeStories.com. Aug 01, 2008. Feb 22, 2020.
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