The Wright brothers and their first flight
The Wright brothers, Orville (August 19, 1871 – January 30, 1948) and Wilbur (April 16, 1867 – May 30, 1912), were two American brothers, inventors, and aviation pioneers who were credited with inventing and building the world’s first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903. In the two years afterward, the brothers developed their flying machine into the first practical fixed-wing aircraft. Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
Wright brothers at the Belmont Park Aviation Meet in 1910
In camp at Kill Devil Hills, they suffered weeks of delays caused by broken propeller shafts during engine tests. After the shafts were replaced (requiring two trips back to Dayton), Wilbur won a coin toss and made a three-second flight attempt on December 14, 1903, stalling after takeoff and causing minor damage to the Flyer. (Because December 13, 1903, was a Sunday, the brothers did not make any attempts that day, even though the weather was good.) In a message to their family, Wilbur referred to the trial as having “only partial success”, stating “the power is ample, and but for a trifling error due to lack of experience with this machine and this method of starting, the machine would undoubtedly have flown beautifully.” Following repairs, the Wrights finally took to the air on December 17, 1903, making two flights each from level ground into a freezing headwind gusting to 27 miles per hour (43 km/h). The first flight, by Orville, of 120 feet (37 m) in 12 seconds, at a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour (10.9 km/h) over the ground, was recorded in a famous photograph. The next two flights covered approximately 175 feet (53 m) and 200 feet (61 m), by Wilbur and Orville respectively. Their altitude was about 10 feet (3.0 m) above the ground. The following is Orville Wright’s account of the final flight of the day:
Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o’clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred ft had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two.
First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.
Five people witnessed the flights: Adam Etheridge, Johr T. Daniels (who snapped the famous “first flight” photo using Orville’s pre-positioned camera) and Will Dough, all of the U.S. government coastal lifesaving crew; area businessman W.C. Brinkley; and Johnny Moore, a teenaged boy who lived in the area. After the men hauled the Flyer back from its fourth flight, a powerful gust of wind flipped it over several times, despite the crew’s attempt to hold it down. Severely damaged, the airplane never flew again. The brothers shipped it home, and years later Orville restored it, lending it to several U.S. locations for display, then to a British museum (see Smithsonian dispute below), before it was finally installed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in 1948, its current residence.
The Wrights sent a telegram about the flights to their father, requesting that he “inform press.” However, the Dayton Journal refused to publish the story, saying the flights were too short to be important. Meanwhile, against the brothers’ wishes, a telegraph operator leaked their message to a Virginia newspaper, which concocted a highly inaccurate news article that was reprinted the next day in several newspapers elsewhere, including Dayton.
The Wrights issued their own factual statement to the press in January. Nevertheless, the flights did not create public excitement—if people even knew about them—and the news soon faded. (In Paris, however, Aero Club of France members, already stimulated by Chanute’s reports of Wright gliding successes, took the news more seriously and increased their efforts to catch up to the brothers.)
Modern analysis by Professor Fred E. C. Culick and Henry R. Jex (in 1985) has demonstrated that the 1903 Wright Flyer was so unstable as to be almost unmanageable by anyone but the Wrights, who had trained themselves in the 1902 glider.