It was cold and windy on Dec. 17, 1903 on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. In a scant 12-second flight, Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved a dream with the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft, marking the start of the aviation and aerospace industry (Fig. 1).
The Wright brothers gained an understanding of flight through scientific research that previous aviation endeavours lacked. Their efforts have been covered in a wide range of sources, but one of the best is On Great White Wings: The Wright Brothers and the Race for Flight by Fred Culick and Spencer Dunmore (Hyperion/Madison Press Book). Culick and Dunmore show how Orville and Wilbur developed their own wind tunnel and engine to test and drive the first manned aircraft.
In 1905, the Wright brothers offered their invention to the U.S. Army. Amazingly, it was rejected without any consideration. Then, they didn't gain a patent on their newly developed technology until 1906. One key aspect of their patent was the wing warping technology, which controlled the direction of flight by twisting the shape of the wings.
Patent troubles arose between the Wrights and a growing number of aviators and aviation companies. One key figure in this aviation development and controversy was Glenn Curtiss. He was president of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, which became the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world during World War I. Eventually, it merged with Wright Aeronautical to form Curtiss-Wright Corp.
Another name that appeared early in aviation history was William Boeing, founder of the Boeing Company. Boeing's original aircraft was a pontoon biplane. Boeing has since become the largest supplier of commercial and military aircraft. It has created such legends as the B-52 Stratofortress and the Model 707-120, the first of the 700 series airliners.
The Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) X-45C is one of the company's latest creations (Fig. 2). Designed to meet the needs of the Navy and Air Force, the aircraft is being developed by the Boeing Phantom Works. The X-45C will be able to hande a large payload, including two 2000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs).
The X-45C's ties with history are quite interesting. Curtiss-Wright is developing the weapons hoist for the unmanned combat air system. "Unmanned aircraft represent a revolutionary new weapon system, one that will continue to be fully integrated into all of the military's other systems and gain in their importance and utilization," explained George Yohrling, president of Curtiss-Wright Controls.
Boeing, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, and the Air Force Research Laboratory recently collaborated on the Active Aeroelastic Wing (AAW), which advances the Wright brothers' wing warping technology. It was tested using a modified Navy F/A-18A.
As part of the 100th-year celebration, the Air Force Research Lab sponsored the Century of Flight competition. Five high school students with outstanding science fair projects showing clear aerospace application were selected to participate in the 100th Anniversary of Powered Flight Celebration at Dayton, Ohio, this summer (Fig. 3).
The Wright brothers started a revolution that continues today. They also brought a level of engineering expertise that all designers, young and old, can learn from and appreciate.
Air Force Research Lab