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Orville & Wilbur Wright


Orville and Wilbur Wright were members of a family of seven. Their father was a Christian minister. Wilbur was born in Richmond , Indiana , in 1867.  Orville was born in Dayton , Ohio , in 1871.  When the boys were eleven and seven, respectively, their father gave them a toy helicopter, which significantly impacted the rest of the lives.  They spent countless hours flying the helicopter, studying the flight and reading flight-related books and articles.  They were specifically impressed with the works of early flight researchers, Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute.

After high school, the brothers built a printing shop and also created a bicycle business to take advantage of the nationwide interest in cycling.  With the passage of time, their interest in flight became even more intense and they began construction of a glider.  The brothers decided to build a biplane (two wings) and they used a box-kite design because of its strength.  They decided on their wing design by observing seagulls and other birds as they twisted, or “warped,” their wings making them turn in flight.  The brothers also knew that a steady flow of wind was necessary for testing their aircraft.  So they moved their testing facility to the desolate beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near the little town of Kitty Hawk .

During the winter of 1902, they built a wind tunnel to test airfoils.  They also developed a new set of mathematical tables for lift, after consulting with Octave Chanute.  By warping the wings, adding a rudder and using a forward-mounted elevator, in other words, controlling the three axes of the airplane, they had overcome the most difficult phase of their design work.  When they returned to the Kitty Hawk test site, their newly redesigned and most successful glider flew 622 feet.

In March of 1903, the brothers applied for a flight-control system patent.  They were confident that an engine was all they needed to sustain flight.  At the time, lightweight, powerful engines were almost impossible to find.  So Wilbur and Orville decided to build their own.  With help of C.E. Taylor, they built a lightweight, four-cylinder engine that produced 12 horsepower.  They also designed a suitable propeller and, of course, everything had to be thoroughly tested.

Finally on December 17, 1903, Orville climbed onto the lower wing of the new biplane and with full throttle, and a wind of 24 miles per hour, launched from a rail (the plane had no wheels!) into the air for a flight of 12 seconds.  He flew at an altitude of 12 feet and went forward 120 feet before settling back to earth.  Five witnesses observed the aircraft in flight.  It was the first controlled, sustained and powered flight in history. 

Younger youth.  Today, Wilbur and Orville Wright are revered as the founders of powered flight.  This was no easy task, and many considered it impossible at the time.  Even though their early experimentation was trial and error guess work, they never lost heart or became discouraged.  They studied carefully what little was actually known about flight, and they applied it to their test models.  They continued until they achieved success, which was followed by still more and greater successes, in turn.  They had no time for alcohol or drugs to “drown their sorrows” over occasional problems and failures; they knew better, and they excelled in their work to leave a lasting mark on aviation history. The Wright Brothers will forever be remembered for their significant accomplishment.  We should remember as well that they were successful because they chose not to indulge in abuse of drugs.  Instead, they lived by the standard, “Drug-free!  Way to be!”

Older youth.   Manned powered flight was until that time, nothing more than a fantasy, believed impossible by most.  Powered flight was for birds, argued critics and pundits alike, and the Wright Brothers received more than their share of criticism and ridicule.  That did not discourage them in the least.  Certainly by today’s standards that first airplane was incredibly crude and simple, not to mention dangerous.  Even so, they persevered and succeeded finally in proving that powered flight was indeed possible.  The US Army was especially impressed and soon ordered planes from the Wright Brothers to fly and evaluate for military purposes.  Those planes were flown at Maxwell Field in Montgomery , Alabama .  The first groundwork was being laid for the eventual creation of the United States Air Force!  But what might have happened if the Wright Brothers had instead begun listening to their critics?  Had they decided that manned powered flight was actually impossible, or had they decided to “drown their sorrows” by getting drunk on alcoholic beverages, they likely would never had succeeded, and this wonderful discovery would have instead been made by someone else, perhaps delaying flight development by several years.  But they stayed with their idea, and their name will remain famous forever.  The Wright Brothers appreciated the importance of remaining drug-free.  Way to be!

We applaud these aerospace pioneers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, for launching mankind into the exploration of flight and eventually space.  From skills they learned in a humble bicycle shop, these two great Americans changed the course of history at the beginning of the 20th century.


This curriculum is sponsored by the Drug Demand Reduction
Program of the Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

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