Case Study

Wright Brothers Case Study

Wright Brothers

The Wright brothers took a systems engineering approach to something that, at least superficially, appeared to be relatively simple – after all birds, insects, and mammals were all doing it – and concluded that they needed to develop a systematic, bottom-up, sub-system based, solution to the challenge. Plenty of their peers – typically more well-funded – were trying a top-down design-build-test-iterate approach and failing – often spectacularly.

Orville and Wilbur Wright realized that there was a better way – break the problem down into its primary components: lift; control; and propulsion; and solve them independently. They researched extensively, consulted the current experts, designed, built and tested experimental apparatus and gathered data. They made numerous trips to Kitty Hawk and other venues to perform sub-system tests. While they appeared to be going slowly, they were actually building the solid analytical and empirical background and knowledge-base that they needed to integrate the solution.

By the time they went to Kitty Hawk in December 1903 they were confident – enough so to predict success before the historic flight.


Manned, heavier than air, controlled flight.

Wright brothers plane


  • Divide challenge into logical subsystems
  • Identify key knowledge gaps
  • Close knowledge gaps with data
  • Perform analysis or experiments on components and subsystems
  • Test at the system level to confirm performance… not the time to find basic problems


Confidence in the outcome because there was good foundational knowledge and understanding.

Wright brothers plane- Lift, Thrust, Drag, Weight

Key Takeaways

Integrate known sub-systems into a complex system. Success assured”.

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