The Wright brothers designed, built and flew a series of three manned gliders in 1900–1902 as they worked towards achieving powered flight. They also made preliminary tests with a kite in 1899. In 1911 Orville conducted tests with a much more sophisticated glider. Neither the kite nor any of the gliders was preserved, but replicas of all have been built.
The 1899 kite, which Wilbur flew near his home in Dayton, Ohio had a wingspan of only 5 feet (1.5 m). This pine wood and shellacked craft, although too small to carry a pilot, tested the concept of wing-warping for roll control that would prove essential to the brothers' solving the problem of controlled flight. The Wrights burned the craft along with other trash in 1905.
The 1900 Wright Glider was the brothers' first to be capable of carrying a human. 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 when they broke camp on 23 October, and it eventually disappeared in the region's severe storms. The fabric covering of the wing components were given to the wife of helper Bill Tate, whose family Wilbur first stayed with at Kitty Hawk in 1900. Mrs. Tate allegedly used the material to make dresses for her daughters.
The 1901 Wright Glider was the second of the brothers' experimental gliders. They tested it over the Kill Devil Hills, four miles south of Kitty Hawk. The glider was similar to the 1900 version, but had larger wings. It first flew on July 27, 1901, and was retired on August 17. During this time it made between 50 and 100 free flights, in addition to tethered flights as a kite.
The wing ribs flexed under the weight of the pilot, distorting the airfoil shapes of the wings. The brothers fixed the trouble, but the wings still produced much less lift than expected, and wing-warping sometimes made the glider turn opposite the intended direction. After testing concluded, the brothers stored the glider in their camp shed. The shed and glider were badly damaged later by windstorms. The wing uprights were salvaged for the 1902 Glider, but the rest was abandoned.
As a result of lift and "drift" (drag) measurements taken with the tethered glider, the brothers concluded that Lilienthal's data were inaccurate. Upon returning to Dayton, they designed and built a small wind tunnel to collect their own data.
The 1902 Wright Glider was the third free-flight glider built by the brothers. This was their first glider to incorporate yaw control by use of a rear rudder, and its design led directly to the powered 1903 Wright Flyer.
The brothers designed the 1902 glider during the winter of 1901/02. The wing design was based on data from extensive tests of miniature airfoils in their homemade wind tunnel. They built the components of the glider in Dayton and completed assembly at their Kill Devil Hills camp in September 1902. Flights took place between 19 September and 24 October. The new rear rudder improved turning control, but several times the pilot was unable to stop turning and collided with the ground. The brothers decided to make the rear rudder steerable to solve the problem. With this modification, they achieved true control and made between 700 and 1000 glides (as estimated by the brothers, who did not keep detailed records). The longest glide was measured and timed at 622.5 ft (189.7 m) in 26 seconds.
In September 1903 they brought the 1902 glider out of storage and made over 200 glides to hone their piloting skills while preparing the powered Flyer. One of their photographs shows they installed a second vertical fin as part of the steerable rear rudder, matching the original design and also that of the powered Flyer's twin rear rudder. The glider was last flown in November 1903. After their successful powered flights, they put the glider back in storage at camp before returning home for Christmas. When they next visited Kitty Hawk in 1908 to test their improved Flyer III, Outer Banks weather had taken its toll: the storage shed and glider inside were wrecked.
Today a salvaged piece of wingtip from the 1902 Glider is preserved at the National Air and Space Museum a few feet from the 1903 Wright Flyer.
In 1911 Orville Wright returned to the Kill Devil Hills with a new glider, accompanied by his English friend Alec Ogilvie. Orville intended to test an automatic control system on the glider, but did not because of the presence of reporters (he eventually perfected the system in a powered airplane in 1913). The glider had what is now considered a 'conventional tailplane' rather than the front mounted elevator. The pilot also was seated with hand controls, rather than lying prone in a cradle, as with the original gliders. In a 65 km/h (40 mph) wind on October 24, 1911, Orville soared above Kill Devil Hill for 9 minutes 45 seconds, breaking the brothers' previous record of 1 minute 12 seconds set in 1903 with the 1902 glider. The new record stood for ten years until broken in Germany.
A number of replicas of the gliders exist. Wright brothers historian Rick Young of Richmond, Virginia has built 9 accurate working replicas of all of the Wright gliders and the 1903 Flyer. Young's 1902 gliders have appeared in numerous films and television documentaries, including a 1986 IMAX film On the Wing. One of his 1902 replicas is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Wright Brothers gallery. The Virginia Aviation Museum at Richmond International Airport is home to the Wright 1899 Kite, the 1900, 1901 and 1902 gliders and the 1903 Flyer, all built by Young. In 2011, Young researched and built a Wright 1911 glider replica that was displayed during the Soaring 100 event at the Wright Brothers National Monument to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Orville Wright's record-setting glide.
A replica of the 1902 glider is on display at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park in Dayton Ohio.
A team led by Nick Engler of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company has also built replicas of all three gliders.
A replica of the 1911 glider was built by Ernest Schweizer for the 75th anniversary of Orville's soaring flight. It has hung in the National Soaring Museum, Elmira NY since 1986.
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