Flight of 1900 Wright Glider

The 1900 glider was the Wrights’ first piloted aircraft.

First flight-tested at Kitty Hawk in the fall of that year, it incorporated the wire-braced biplane structure and wing-warping control system they developed with their 1899 kite.

Wingspan: 5.2 m (17 ft)
Wing Area: 15 sq m (165 sq ft)
Length: 3.4 m (11 ft 2 in)
Height: 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in)
Weight: 24 kg (52 lb)

The Wrights had to reduce the glider’s planned 200-square-foot wing area to 165 square feet because of a problem with finding the right wood for the wing spars. Unable to locate 18-foot lengths of spruce, they had to settle for 16-foot pieces of pine, a less-resilient wood. This change resulted in both a smaller lifting surface and a slightly weaker structure.

The wing ribs were cut from ash strips and steam-bent to a camber of 1 in 23 (the height of the airfoil’s curve was 1/23rd the width of the wing).

A single layer of French sateen fabric covered the framework. The wing ribs and spars slipped into pockets sewn to the underside of the covering. The wooden structure was not rigidly fastened together; it simply “floated” inside the pockets.

Making the fabric, an integral part of the structure, eliminated the need for internal bracing, which saved weight and made the glider more resilient in a hard landing. The Wrights applied the fabric to the framework with the direction of the weave on the bias (at a 45-degree angle), which enhanced the ability of the wing to warp, while still adding stiffness to the structure.

The Wright brothers’ flight-testing program was a key to their success. Extensive trials of their gliders not only provided valuable performance data, which was folded back into the evolving design, but also helped Wilbur and Orville develop piloting skills.

Before making free glides, the Wrights always tested their gliders by flying them as kites. Kiting provided valuable information on lift and drag, and enabled them to get a feel for the controls. The first year they built a tower with a rope-and-pulley suspension device to test the glider, but it didn’t prove useful and they soon returned to kiting.

The pilot lay prone on the lower wing to limit drag. The foot-operated crossbar mounted behind him warped the wings for lateral balance, turning the glider. The horizontal hand levers in front of him flexed the forward elevator up and down, controlling pitch.

These are two of the three surviving photos of the 1900 Wright Glider. In one the glider appears behind William Tate’s nephew Tom, who proudly displays his catch. The other shows the glider after a gust of wind had picked up the unattended craft and smashed it into the sand. The brothers repaired it and continued their flight testing.

The 1900 Wright Glider was the brothers' first to be capable of carrying a man. Its overall structure was based on Octave Chanute's two-surface glider of 1896. Its wing airfoil was derived from Otto Lilienthal's published tables of aerodynamic lift. The glider was designed with wing warping capability for full-size testing of the concept first tried on the 1899 Wright Kite.

The glider was first flown as an unmanned kite on October 5, 1900 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Next, Wilbur rode as pilot while men on the ground held tether ropes attached to the airborne craft. Subsequently, Wilbur made about a dozen free flights on a single day, concluding the season's test efforts. The brothers abandoned the glider and it eventually disappeared in the region's severe storms.