The scientific tourist #46 — another step toward human flight

This week’s image is of a reproduction of a Wright brothers’ aircraft in San Diego’s Air and Space Museum:

1902 Wright Glider

It probably looks familiar to you, if you remember a bit of history. But did you notice what’s “missing?”

Give the image a good look-over, I don’t mind waiting for you…

Found it yet?

If you’re like most people, you may not have noticed that this craft has neither an engine nor propellers — it’s a glider! Of course, other than that, it looks much like a smaller copy of the 1903 “Wright Flyer” aircraft that would earn them a spot in history for the first powered heavier-than-air flight. But this craft has historical significance beyond just that — the 1902 Wright glider was the world’s first fully-controllable glider. Unlike previous experimenters’ craft that relied on the pilot’s shifting body weight for control, this glider used mechanically-driven control surfaces to steer it.

In sharp contrast to other aircraft pioneers, the Wright brothers built a series of unmanned gliders of increasing size before they actually got in one themselves. This allowed them to work out problems as they scaled their craft up, without risking their lives in the process (possibly with Lilienthal in mind). This approach also allowed them to integrate results from their wind-tunnel testing into their rapidly-evolving aircraft design.

The 1903 glider was the third, and last, in the Wright brothers’ series of large gliders. Built to work out control problems the Wrights had seen with their previous craft, this glider was flown between 700 and 1000 times at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the fall of 1902. Experience they gained in these flights led directly to the first powered flights a year later.

Sadly, when the Wrights returned home to Ohio in 1903, they took their 1903 flyer with them, but left the 1902 glider in a shed at Kitty Hawk. Sometime between 1903 and 1908, the shed and glider were destroyed by coastal storms — not a scrap of the original glider survives today.

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