The 1901 Wright Glider

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he 1901 glider was larger, more sophisticated, and better engineered than their first flying machine -- or so the Wright brothers hoped. It had almost twice as much wing surface to increase lift, a deeper camber, curved front skids, a raised elevator, "belly" skids, a control system with more mechanical advantage to make it more effective, and other improvements. Unfortunately, it wasn't half the flying machine the Wright brothers hoped it would be.  It still did not produce enough lift to suit them. And the wide wings and the deep camber made the controls less effective than on the 1900 glider. The Wrights trussed the wings to reduce the depth of the camber and some of the control effectiveness returned, but it still was a poor performer by any aerodynamic standard.

What was more frustrating is that the Wright brothers put everything they knew into building this glider. In many ways, it encompassed the sum total of nineteenth aeronautical wisdom, and still it was not enough to produce a decent glider. The Wrights had no idea what else they might do. The left Kitty Hawk early, completely stymied. On the trip home, Wilbur remarked to Orville that man might still fly, "but it won't be in our lifetimes, not in a thousand years."

We built this replica f the 1901 Wright Glider to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1901gliding experiments. These may not seem like much to celebrate as this is perhaps the Wright brothers least successful flying machine.  But true scientific achievement is rarely built on success alone. Science is a way to learn from both success and failure -- both play an essential role in the advancement of knowledge. The 1901 Wright Glider, as unsuccessful as it may have been, was an important step in the invention of the airplane for the simple reason that it helped the brothers define what it was that they didn't yet know.

Kiting the 1901 Wright Glider for the PBS film, Kitty Hawk: A Journey of Invention.

Launching the 1901 Wright Glider.

The 1901 Wright Glider in flight.

Carrying the 1901 Wright Glider up the sand dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park in North Carolina.
The 1901 Glider replica as it appears looking at it diagonally from the left and front. It is the most complex and the worst flying of the three experimental gliders .

The glider from the side like the 1900 glider before it, the rear spar is on top of the ribs instead of under them. Again, the Wrights were thinking to keep the underside of the wing smooth to generate maximum lift.

The glider diagonally from the left rear. As in 1900, the rear spar acts as a spoiler and reduces the lift. This may account for some of the discrepancy between the lift they calculated and the lift they actually measured.

The glider straight on from the rear. The Wrights continued to use the same rigging system they had the year before. By tensioning just four wires on the airplane, they could tune all the flying and landing wires.

Another diagonal view – that's our "hangar" in the background. Actually, it's a large tent that the rangers at Jockeys Ridge State Park gave us permission to erect, and then kindly helped us carry the poles and tarps back into the dunes. Many thanks!

The 1901 glider from the right side. The wide wings give the glider a low "aspect ratio" – the wingspan divided by the chord is just 3.1. After their wind tunnel tests, the Wrights would learn that a low aspect ratio is inefficient. The 1902 glider would have an aspect ratio of 6.4.

The glider seen from the right front, at a diagonal. Note that it has no tail. At this point, the Wrights still think they can control a glider with elevator and wing warping only. When they try to turn this glider in flight, they'll have their first brush with "adverse yaw" – the glider will yaw in the opposite direction of the roll.

The glider from the front. All those wires – rigging and trussing – create an enormous amount of drag in the air. That's another reason this machine is such a poor flier.

The 1901 glider seen from the bottom, held by David Thompson, an Orville Wright look-alike.  Compare this to a photo taken a century earlier by clicking HERE.

Another view of the bottom of the glider as it's being kited. And yes, the sky really is that blue on a good day at Kitty Hawk.

A view of the cockpit. You rest your belly on the "belly bar" (spanning the highest point in the camber), grasp the elevator control bar with your hands and place your feet against the kickbar.

This is what it looks like as you step into the cockpit. To control the glider, you twist the elevator control bar up to go down and down to go up. This kickbar is a little better – kick right to roll right and left to roll left.

A close-up of the cockpit, showing the skids and the extremely high arc of the wings. The ribs on either side of the pilot remain at a 1:12 camber; they cannot be flattened with the trussing.

The Wrights raised the elevator off the sand on this model. The 1900 glider elevator tends to dig into the sand when you land.

The kickbar controls the wing warping. The trailing end of the bar slides against a metal strip under the rear spar. This keeps the pivot from twisting up and forward as it does on the 1900 glider.

Click on the photo to download a video that allows you to "spin" the glider so you can see it from all sides. You must have a "Quicktime" plug-in.

In addition to the regular landing and flying wires, the wings are trussed to reduce the camber from 1/12 to 1/20. The Wrights found the the deeper camber created control problems.

To correct the problem, they attached a third or "middle" spar to the lower wing, just behind the peak of the camber. They attached four short "truss posts" to the middle spar.

Then they ran wires from the front spar to the rear spar over the tops of the posts. When they tightened these wires, the posts pushed down on the middle spar and the spar depressed the ribs, reducing the camber.

Then the Wrights ran cord from the tops of the posts to the top ribs. When they tightened these cords, they pulled the ribs down, flattening them to the same degree as the bottom ribs.

Before we left Dayton, we noticed a strange feature of the elevator control design. The elevator will lock in a neutral position if you attempt to turn the nose of the glider down. This may explain one of the most frightening accidents Wilbur had when flying this glider.

 The first time in the air in 1901, Wilbur could not turn the nose of the glider down and the wind carried him higher and higher until he stalled. To prevent this from happening to us, we installed to short wooden "stops" to prevent the controls from locking.

The 1900, 1901, and 1903 Wright gliders from the front.

The gliders from the side.

And from the rear. We made this line-up to compare the gliders and see first-hand the evolution of the Wright brothers' aeronautical science and engineering.

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