As any paper airplane pilot knows, getting into the air and staying up in the air are two different things. An out-of-control, unstable paper airplane quickly ends up on the floor—no matter how powerfully you threw it. Controlling an airplane was the problem yet to be solved in the late 1890s. Many of the inventors racing to be the first to build a powered flying machine didn’t understand that controlling an airplane is different from controlling other vehicles of the time. But the Wright Brothers did.
Unlike a car or boat, an airplane moves in three directions: pitch, yaw, and roll. Stable flight takes correctly controlling all three.
When you steer a boat, you move a rudder to go left or right. This is yaw. Turn a rudder on its side and you get an elevator, which controls a submarine as it dives and surfaces. This is pitch. Airplanes also have elevators and rudders. But flying takes more than up-down and right-left control. An airplane also tilts side to side, in a motion called roll. Think of a jet tilting its wings as it changes direction. Or a little kid zooming around with tilted arms spread wide.
Controlling the roll of an airplane was the secret to stable, sustained flight. And this is where the Wright Brothers had an edge. They built bicycles. A bicycle is an unstable vehicle when it isn’t moving. In fact, it falls over. A moving bicycle is much easier to balance than a stopped one. And steering a moving bicycle is more than just turning the handlebars right or left. The rider must lean into turns, tilting his body to keep balanced. Sound familiar? It’s the same kind of motion as roll.
Orville and Wilbur Wright knew about roll and worked on a way to control it even while experimenting with gliders. They controlled roll through wing-warping, a system of cables attached to the wings that twisted their shape, like twisting an empty aluminum foil box. The pilot controlled which way the wings warped by moving his hips as he lay on the airplane in a kind of cradle. Soon ailerons, those flaps on the backside of airplane wings, became the controller of roll. But the brothers of the Wright Cycle Company figured it out—and flew—first.
If you look at pitch, roll and yaw together you can see that each type of motion helps control the direction and level of the plane when it is flying. The ailerons raise and lower the wings. The pilot controls the roll of the plane by raising one aileron or the other with a control wheel. The rudder works to control the yaw of the plane. Pressing the right rudder pedal moves the rudder to the right. This yaws the aircraft to the right. Used together, the rudder and the ailerons are used to turn the plane. The elevators which are on the tail section are used to control the pitch of the plane. Lowering the elevators makes the plane nose go down and allows the plane to go down. By raising the elevators the pilot can make the plane go up.
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers. The machine traveled 120 ft (36.6 m) in 12 seconds. Orville Wright was at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with his hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur Wright ran alongside to balance the machine. Library of Congress
Mary Kay Carson's The Wright Brothers for Kids: How They Invented the Airplane, 21 Activities Exploring the Science and History of Flight tells the amazing true story of how two bicycle-making brothers from Ohio, with no more than high-school educations, accomplished a feat on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, that forever changed the world.
MLA 8 Citation
Carson, Mary Kay. "How Did Building Bikes Help the Wright Brothers Invent the
Airplane?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Mar. 2018,
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