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    107: Early Flight

Early Flight (Gallery 107)

The Early Flight exhibit is a good place to start a comprehensive tour. The room is designed to look like an early 20th-century airplane festival, promoting “the latest” in aeronautical developments. Near the entrance is a set of displays summarizing man’s fascination with flight, from birdwatching, to DaVinci’s 15th-century helicopter sketches, to the first flying gliders and full-scale, powered airplane prototypes. You’ll also find photos, models, and posters recounting the first European flight attempts, wall-size displays featuring the Wright Brothers’ and Glenn Curtiss’ aircraft innovations, and, toward the opposite end of the room, various early designs for gas-powered engines.

The aircraft displayed here surely demonstrate their builders’ technical skills and innovation in solving the problem of controlled, powered flight. The thing that amazed us was the pilots’ willingness to risk their lives strapped to wood-and-canvas contraptions that you could probably build today inside a well-stocked Home Depot.

The full-size planes on display here show how various builders approached the challenge of maneuvering an airplane once it was in flight. If you have children, point out the differences in where the engine and vertical and horizontal control surfaces are located on each plane. Aircraft on display include:

Lilienthal Hang Glider of 1894: Otto Lilienthal, a German, built and flew several unpowered gliders in the 1890’s, about a decade before the Wright Brothers’ first powered flights. The version hanging here, a Model 11, features wings curved at the top to generate lift, confirming an important theory of flight that would be used later by the Wrights. The glider was controlled by the pilot shifting his body around.

Blériot XI: Made in France, another of these single-wing airplanes was the first to cross the English Channel, in 1909. The one on display here was built in 1914 and flown extensively in South America and the U.S. Of the planes on display in this gallery, the Blériot most closely resembles the configuration of a modern propeller-driven aircraft: engine in the front, wings in the middle, and elevator/rudder in the rear.

Wright 1909 Military Flyer: This wasn’t the world’s first airplane – that’s in Gallery 209 upstairs - but this model was the first military aircraft ever purchased by the United States, and the one displayed here was flown by Orville Wright. Its major features include a “canard” elevator (at the front of the plane), two wings, and two engines “pushing” the plane from behind those wings, and a vertical rudder in the back.

Curtiss D-III Headless Pusher: The big difference between this Curtiss D-III, circa 1911, and the Blériot and Wright models is how the pilots turned the plane left and right while in the air. In the Blériot and Wright, the pilots used cables attached to the back edges of the wing to “warp” the wing’s shape, causing the plane to turn. In contrast, this Curtiss used discrete ailerons - small flaps on the far, back edges of the wings that move up and down – to turn the plane. Ailerons proved a better solution than wing warping, and are found on virtually all modern planes.

Ecker Flying Boat: Built around 1911, this plane has relatively standard control mechanisms. What’s interesting about this plane is that it was designed and built by one man (although probably modeled after an earlier Curtiss design), and it was able to take off from both land and water.

Touring Tips

The Early Flight Theater shows a newsreel-style movie about the early days of flight. At over 15 minutes’ running time, it’s not essential on any touring plan.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

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