On This Day

wright brothers flight, wright brothers first flight, first flight
Associated Press
Orville Wright is at the controls of the “Wright Flyer” as his brother Wilbur looks on during the plane’s first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Dec. 17, 1903.

On This Day: Wright Brothers Take to the Air at Kitty Hawk

December 17, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took turns at the helm of their revolutionary aircraft in the first of four sustained manned flights, an event that launched the aviation era.

The Wright Brothers’ First Flight

Ready with their muslin and softwood contraption, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright stood poised along the sandy, barren shores of Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903. A bitter wind blew off the Atlantic Ocean as the Wright brothers decided on a coin toss who would be the first to try out the world’s first motorized aircraft.

Chance chose Wilbur to embark on the world’s first manned, motor-powered flight, in which he cruised only a few feet from the ground.
Orville then took the helm, managing to remain airborne for 12 seconds and travel 120 feet. They each had one more flight before a rough landing broke the front of the plane and temporarily ended their experiments.

Following in the footsteps of early aviation innovators, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Turkish scientist Hezarfen and balloonists Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, the Wright brothers inaugurated what would become known as the “Aviation Age.”

Seven years after that maiden flight, famed journalist Kate Carew asked the Wright brothers whether they felt frightened while in the air. Wilbur responded, “No more than on the water. There are not so many rocks up in the air, and there’s certainly no more danger.”

Key Players: Orville and Wilbur Wright

Wilbur Wright was born on April 16, 1867, in Dayton, Ohio, and his brother Orville was born four years later on Aug. 19. The middle siblings out of seven, they enjoyed tinkering with their toys, which gave them an early fascination with mechanics.

They later opened a publishing house, but their true passion seemed to lie in buying and repairing bicycles. After the death of the famous German glider pilot Otto Lilienthal, the brothers became enthralled with the idea of flight. Wilbur read nearly all that had been written on aeronautical research, deducting that the three key elements of a flying machine were wings, a power lift and control.

In May 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote what the Library of Congress calls “one of the most remarkable letters in the history of science” to Octave Chanute, an internationally renowned aeronautical engineer.

“For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man,” he began. “My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life.”

This sparked a decade of correspondence between the Wright brothers and Chanute, who continued to advise the duo until his death. A copy of the original letter can be seen online at the Library of Congress.

Historical Context: The Early Innovators

Turkish scientist Hezarfen is reputedly the first person to fly. In 1683, he used artificial wings to glide from Europe to Asia across the Bosphorus in Istanbul—a feat that would not be repeated until some two centuries later. The now defunct Hezarfen Airport in the western outskirts of Istanbul is named in his honor.

Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier
In the mid-1770s, French brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier noticed while working in their father’s paper factory that sheets of paper would rise in the updrafts of smokestacks. Intrigued, they conducted experiments. They did not initially realize that warm air rises, however, instead believing that the levitating silk bags used in the trials were filled with “previously undiscovered Montgolfier gas.”

They continued to experiment, constructing one large balloon held together with buttons. After a successful demonstration in their hometown on June 5, 1783, they were quickly summoned to Paris to talk about their new invention at the Academy of Sciences.

Legacy of the Wright Brothers

The Wright brothers’ flight ushered in a new era of travel and created an international revolution. “The Wrights created one of the greatest cultural forces since the development of writing,” writes Bill Gates Time, “for their invention effectively became the World Wide Web of that era, bringing people, languages, ideas and values together.”

This great era of aviation was made possible by two self-taught engineers; “the genius of Leonardo da Vinci imagined a flying machine, but it took the methodical application of science by these two American bicycle mechanics to create it,” says Gates.

“There is something quintessentially American about Orville and Wilbur Wright's historic achievement,” says the Centennial of Flight Commission. “Their intense preoccupation with their airplane was fueled not by economic necessity … but mostly from their imaginative determination to cross one of the last technological barriers to human flight—stability in the air.”

Reference: Wright Brothers Documents, Artifacts and Photos

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, the U.S. government founded the Centennial of Flight Commission. Its online presence carries a compendium of facts and pictures of key moments in flight, including the invasion of Normandy during World War II and the launch of commercial aviation. 

The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress contains more than 49,000 digital images of the Wright brothers’ diaries, notebooks, drawings and other documents. American Memory highlights some of the LOC’s holdings.

The National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution is now home to the original Wright Flyer. Its Web site has interactive timelines of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s life, the development of the first airplane and the early years of aviation. The site also includes experiments, songs from the early 20th century about flight and a feature on the restoration of the Wright Flyer.

NASA’s “Re-Living the Wright Way” site features information, online simulations and lesson plans about the Wright brothers’ life and work.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines