1902 Wright Glider

The 1902 Wright Glider was the plane with which the Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved controlled flight.


Orville and Wilbur Wright were an exceptional team whose invention of the aircraft came about through a series of painstakingly detailed engineering tests and data collection. The Wrights departed entirely from the usual strategy involved in the earliest days of flight. Instead of taking an unproven aircraft to the top of a cliff or tower and jumping off, they decided instead to study the mechanics of flight to determine what was actually required in order to safely control an aircraft.

Preferring to remain just a few meters above the ground during their test flights, the Wrights realized that control was the key to successful flight and set about mastering that challenge in a series of incremental steps involving two earlier gliders, the first built in 1900 and the second in 1901. These carefully planned steps culminated in the much improved 1902 Glider, with which Wilbur and Orville finally achieved control of an aircraft through all three axes of its motion.

1902 Wright Glider in level flight

Wilbur Wright gliding in level flight in 1902 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Using a series of wires connected to a device operated by the pilot’s hips, the wings of the glider flex (or warp) in order to alter the lift forces that act on the wings and provide the ability to bank left and right. The front-mounted elevator, connected by bicycle chains to the pilot's hands, provided control around the pitch axis, allowing the aircraft nose to be pointed upward or downward as required to retain control during flight. Finally and perhaps most ingeniously, the rudder, connected to the hip-operated wing warping mechanism, assured that the nose of the aircraft turned into the direction of flight, thereby preventing a sideways slippage that, on trial flights, led to instability and loss of control.

Some scholars agree that the 1902 Glider was the most revolutionary aircraft ever created and the real embodiment of the genius of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Although the addition of a power plant to their 1903 Flyer resulted in their famous first flight, some scholars regard that improvement as a noteworthy addition to something that was truly a work of genius – the 1902 Glider.

The Science Center's Wright Glider

1902 Wright Glider on display at the Science Center

A full-scale flying replica of the 1902 Wright Glider on display at the Science Center

The California Science Center’s 1902 Wright Glider is a full-scale flying replica of the glider in which Orville and Wilbur Wright mastered the control of an aircraft in flight. The glider was originally built in 1971 by Robert Q. Riley and flown that year at Lake El Mirage, California, a dry lake bed about 80 miles north of Los Angeles. Riley took the glider through four test flights until, on the last flight, a sudden stall from 20 feet altitude brought the test to an abrupt conclusion.

Riley, later president and owner of Robert Q. Riley Enterprises, Scottsdale, Arizona, donated the glider to the California Science Center (formerly the California Museum of Science and Industry) in 1976. It was then featured in the June 1977 issue of Mechanix Illustrated. In October 2001 the glider was disassembled and transported to Scottsdale, Arizona for fabric recovering and full restoration. Destroyed by fire in January 2002, the entire aircraft was rebuilt from scratch and returned to the Science Center in November 2003 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered flight. During the rebuild of the glider, Riley made a number of significant changes in the method of assembly and elevator control, making the current replica a faithful reproduction of the Wright Brothers’ original design. The glider bears a small plaque in memory of Debra Lynn Kaiser, who was a member of the Scottsdale restoration team.