On December 17, 1903, a wood and cloth biplane, representing four years of intense research by Wilbur and Orville Wright, took off from the dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with Orville at the controls—thereby making history's first controlled, sustained, and powered flight. For the centennial of this great event, NOVA presents a dramatic investigation of the Wrights' amazing achievement.
To bring the Wrights' technological genius to life, this program features authentic replicas of their brilliantly conceived craft, as shown in thrilling test flights. The climax is the construction and maiden flight of a replica Wright 1911 Model B, the pinnacle of the brothers' accomplishments and the world's first practical passenger-carrying flying machine, with all the essential technical features of today's aircraft. Commissioned exclusively for the program, the Model B is the handiwork of Ken Hyde, a retired airline pilot and nationally recognized restorer of historic aircraft.
Also participating in the program are some of the world's foremost Wright experts, including Tom Crouch, Senior Curator of the Aeronautics Division at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and author of The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (see our interview); and John D. Anderson, Jr., Curator of Aerodynamics at NASM and author of leading books on aeronautical engineering.
The NOVA team's stunning replicas of Wright machines recreate the exact designs and materials used by the brothers—a considerable challenge since the two were notoriously secretive and destroyed most of their plans. Even so, Hyde and fellow Wright enthusiast Rick Young were able to glean most of the brothers' secrets from old photographs, family letters, purchase records, and vintage aircraft in museums. For the Model B, Hyde was even given access to an original Wright engine, which he then painstakingly restored.
In recreating the Wrights' journey of discovery, Hyde and Young start where the brothers did: with gliders for testing the efficiency of wing shapes to produce lift, along with a three-axis control system to keep the plane balanced in flight. One of the brothers' key insights was to attack each of the three problems of flight separately: lift, control, and propulsion. Only after they had solved the first two with a series of increasingly more sophisticated gliders did they set about creating a propulsion system, using innovative wooden propellers and a lightweight, home-built gasoline engine.
Even after their successful flight of December 17, 1903, the brothers knew they had just begun, and devoted the rest of the decade to honing and perfecting their invention to make it practical. By 1910 they had the Model B, an airplane that was modified to make the first air crossing of the continental U.S. in 1911. Wright-trained pilot Cal Rodgers was at the controls for that flight, which took 49 days and was punctuated by numerous stops and crash landings.
Since then, aviation has advanced by astonishing leaps and bounds. It has been seven decades since a wood, wire, and cloth Wright machine took to the skies with its distinctive warping wings and dual-chain driven propellers—that is, until now. This program shows that the Wright technology is still an impressive, awe-inspiring sight.