1902 Glider Flies Again

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Celebration Activities

The 1902 Wright Glider flew again during the first several days of October 2002. It was 100 years ago that the final configuration of the glider flew the first fully

controlled flight October 8, 1902. It was the critical event that opened the door to man’s ability to fly.

The glider was designed to provide 3-axis control – pitch, roll, and yaw that makes it possible for a pilot to steer an airplane in the direction desired. The ingenious

control system became the basis for the patent granted to the Wright Brothers in 1906.

This time four experienced military pilots flew the glider. Nick Engler invited them. He is the director of the educational nonprofit, Dayton, Ohio based Wright Brothers

Aeroplane Co. Engler built the 112-pound ash and spruce replica glider and organized the event that took place at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. The park is located four

miles south of the Wright Brothers Memorial Park, NC where the actual event originally occurred.

I watched Navy LT. CDR Klas Ohman, an F-18 pilot from the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier and Army Captain Tanya Markow, an Army Apache pilot, do their stuff.

Making the transition from flying modern airplanes to the Wright glider was not an easy task. The controls are entirely different and an unsteady wind added to their

difficulty. Early on, they couldn’t get off the ground and when they did, they had several crash landings that necessitated repairs to the elevator.

On one occasion, a helper who was steadying a wing on launch, wrenched his back and required an ambulance trip to the hospital. On another occasion, the glider

was flipped over by the crosswind. Fortunately, the pilot emerged unhurt.

It wasn’t long before they got the hang of it, enabling them to fly more than 100 flights over a period of five days. Some flights were as long as 200 feet.

It brought home realistically the challenge the Wright Brothers experienced. The brothers flew the glider some 600 times in its final configuration in 1902 and another

1,000 times in 1903. On October 23, 1902, Wilbur flew a record 622.5 feet in 26 seconds.

The Wrights made their third trip to Kitty Hawk in 1902, arriving August 28th.

As a result of their wind tunnel tests, their new glider had a wing span ten feet longer (32 feet) than the previous year’s glider and the cord was two feet shorter (5

foot). The camber of the wings on the 17-foot glider was set at 1:20, providing excellent lift.

A tail was added for the first time as a means to prevent the spins that had occurred the previous year. The tail consisted of two rigidly mounted vertical fins.

They soon found out that the spin problem had not gone away. Orville found out the hard way when on one of his glides, he crashed into a sand dune, demolishing the

glider but somehow emerging unharmed.

At first they blamed it on pilot error. But every so often no matter how careful they were when attempting a turn, the low wing would drop even lower and the glider

would slide into an uncontrolled spinning fall. They gave it the name of “well digging.”

They then turned to the design of the glider. They decided to focus on the tail. They removed one of the two fins, but it made no difference.

Orville solved the problem one night while lying awake in bed after drinking too much coffee. He reasoned that the fixed tail fin was the problem.

In a turn the glider began to fall off to one side because the air pressure on that side of the tail increased. This sets off a sequence of events. The higher wings in the

banking turn increased in speed, resulting in increased lift. The corresponding lower wings slowed down and lost lift.

The pilot would try to counteract the increasing spin by applying positive warp to the lower wings. But this only increased the drag, further slowing the lower wings,

losing more lift. The effect was that the glider corkscrewed around the lower wing as it fell until the wingtip dug into the sand.

On the morning of October 3, Orville suggested to Wilbur that they convert the vertical tail from a fixed vane to a steerable rudder. Orville reasoned that by turning the

rudder in synchronization with warping the wings, the pilot would recover lateral balance and prevent “well digging.”

Wilbur bought the idea and added an improvement. He proposed connecting the rudder wires with those of wing warping so that the operator could control both with a

single movement.

It worked! All of the essentials of the Wright control system were now complete.

Orville wrote home: “Day before yesterday we had a wind of 16 meters per second, or 30-mph, and glided in it without any trouble. That was the highest wind any

gliding machine was ever in, so that now we hold all the records.”

Wilbur once said that the biggest obstacle to human flight was the inability to control a machine in the air. “When this one feature has been worked out, the age of

flying machines will have arrived.” He was prescient; the three-axis control system the brothers conceived is used today in all airplanes, including the space shuttle.

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