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Were the Wright Brothers the first to fly?

Wilbur and Orville Wright weren’t just lucky to make the first flight. They played with flying paper models in their youth, and by 1901 they had made hundreds of wind tunnel tests. In 1902, their glider was the biggest flying machine ever built. Orville Wright wrote, “We now hold all the records! The largest machine…the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind!”

They called on the machine making skills of Charles E. Taylor, and by February 1903 they had an engine. By June, they had built a propeller. They headed for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in September to build their Flyer. 

On Monday 13 December 1903, a toss of a coin gave Wilbur the honor of making the first flight. The engine and propeller powered the plane, the Flyer lifted off but immediately sank down, slightly damaged.

First flight?
By Friday 17 December 1903, the Flyer was fixed, and at 10h35, Orville made the first powered flight. It lasted 12 seconds. Wilbur made the second flight, which lasted less than a second longer than the first. Orville took the 3rd flight, covering 60 metres (200 ft) in 15 seconds. At noon, Wilbur made the fourth flight on that blustery day. The Flyer covered 255,6 metres (852 ft) in 59 seconds. He landed safely, but a sudden gust of wind sent the plane tumbling, breaking the wings and damaging the motor. There would be no more flights in 1903.

There were 5 men to witness the Wright Brothers’ flights. Orville even set up a camera so that a Mr Daniels could take photographs. But there were no newspaper men. In the Spring of 1904, they built a new plane and invited the press. The weather was not quite right, but since the reporters were there, they tried anyway. The plane failed to lift off. The Wright Brothers didn’t make the papers. They did fly again but spent the rest of their lives fighting about their patent and died without knowing the world finally recognized their work. In 1914, the Franklin Institute became the first scientific institution to recognize the Wright Brothers’ achievement.

Orville Wright's first flightOrville Wright makes first flight of the Flyer – picture taken by Mr Daniels

But were the Wright Brothers really the first to fly?

By the time the Wright brothers got their flyer up in the air, flying was a hobby for New Zealand farmer Richard Pearse. Working single-handedly in his barn, he designed and built his own engine and flying machine. Datings suggest that Pearse made his first flight in March 1902. His remarkable success remained unknown until fairly recently.

Gustave A. Whitehead's monoplane

But there is an account of an even earlier flight…

“Two years, four months and three days before the successful flights of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, a birdlike monoplane took to the air at early dawn on August 14, 1901, near Bridgeport, Connecticut, carrying its inventor and builder, Gustave Whitehead, a distance of approximately
a half mile.” – Megan Adam, descendant of Gustave A. Whitehead.

Although there are no blueprints of Whitehead’s craft, evidence is mounting that Whitehead might indeed have been the first to have taken to the sky in a machine-powered aircraft.

Gustave A. Whitehead's monoplane Gustave A. Whitehead’s monoplane

Other first flight claims

John Springfellow and John Henson’s steam-powered flyer of 1848.

A South African named John Goodman Houshold is said to have made his first flight in 1870.

Shivkur Bapuji Talpade’s Marutsakthi aircraft of 1895.

The early flights (1898 to 1905) made by Alberto Santos Dumont.

Factoids

By 1901, the Wright Brothers had the best collection of lift data in the world, some based on the pioneering work on gliding made by George Cayley.

On 23 March 1903, they applied for a patent for their new invention. This allowed them to request a fee for using their design. Other aviators were furious and refused to pay.

It is thought that Charles W. Furras, mechanic for the Wright Brothers, became the first airplane passenger when Wilbur gave him a 29 second ride in 1908. The brothers also took passengers on demonstration flights when they spent a year in Europe in an attempt to sell their patent.

A Boeing 747 is 70 metres (232 ft) long, 19 metres (63 ft) high and needs a runway of 3,2 km (10,500 ft). It weighs a massive 394 625 kg (870,000 pounds) at takeoff. How does it stay in the air?

First to fly around the world

Also see First Flight – with photographs

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  • David Roman Jr

    Talpade – The Indian Sanskrit scholar who built and flew a mercury engine aircraft in 1895, 8 years before the Wright brothers!

    Shivkar Bapuji Talpade, flew an unmanned aircraft, eight years before the Wright
    brothers demonstrated on December 17th 1903 that it was possible for a
    ‘manned heavier than air machine to fly’. But, in 1895, eight years
    earlier, the Sanskrit scholar Shivkar Bapuji Talpade had designed a
    basic aircraft called Marutsakthi (meaning Power of Air) based on Vedic
    technology documented in ancient Sanskrit manuscripts. His demonstration
    flight took place before a large audience in the Chowpathy beach of
    Bombay. The importance of the Wright brothers lies in the fact, that it
    was a manned flight for a distance of 120 feet and Orville Wright became
    the first man to fly. But Talpade’s unmanned aircraft flew to a height
    of 1500 feet before crashing down and the historian Evan Koshtka, has
    described Talpade as the ‘first creator of an aircraft’.

    This
    historic day in 1895 (unfortunately the actual date is not mentioned in
    the Kesari newspaper of Pune which covered the event) was witnessed by
    the famous Indian judge/ nationalist/ Mahadeva Govin-da Ranade and H H
    Sayaji Rao Gaekwad.

    It
    is important to note that Talpade was no scientist, just a sanskrit
    scholar who had built his aircraft entirely from the rich treasury of
    India’s Vedas.

    Shivkar
    Bapuji Talpade was born in 1864 in the locality of Chirabazar at
    Dukkarwadi in Bombay. He was a scholar of Sanskrit and from his young
    age was attracted by the Vaimanika Sastra (Aeronautical Science)
    expounded by the great Indian sage Maharishi Bhardwaja.

    Surprisingly
    according to the bi-monthly Ancient Skies published in USA, the
    aircraft engines being developed for future use by NASA also uses
    mercury bombardment units powered by Solar cells! Interestingly, the
    impulse is generated in seven stages. The mercury propellant is first
    vapourised fed into the thruster discharge chamber ionised converted
    into plasma by a combination with electrons broke down electrically and
    then accelerated through small openings in a screen to pass out of the
    engine at velocities between 1200 to 3000 kilometres per minute! But so
    far NASA has been able to produce an experimental basis only a one pound
    of thrust by its scientists a power derivation virtually useless. But
    over 100 years ago Talpade was able to use his knowledge of Vaimanika
    Shastra to produce sufficient thrust to lift his aircraft 1500 feet into
    the air!

    Maharaja
    Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda was a great supporter of the Sciences in
    India, and was willing to help Talpade with funds to build his aircraft
    and the mercury engines.

    But
    the success of an Indian scientist was not liked by the Imperial
    rulers. Warned by the British Government the Maharaja of Baroda stopped
    helping Talpade.

    Talpade
    passed away in 1916 unhonoured, in his own country. It is said that the
    remains of the Marutsakthi (the aircraft Tapade built) were ‘sold’ to a
    British company by Talpade’s relatives.