On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane 20 feet above a wind-swept beach in North Carolina. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet.
Three more flights were made that day with Orville’s brother Wilbur piloting the record flight lasting 59 seconds over a distance of 852 feet.
The Wright brothers documented much of their early progress in photographs made on glass negatives. The Library of Congress holds many of these historic images, some of which are presented below.
Since 1899, Wilbur and Orville Wright had been scientifically experimenting with the concepts of flight. They labored in relative obscurity, while the experiments of Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian were followed in the press and underwritten by the War Department.
Yet Langley, like others before him, had failed to achieve powered flight. They relied on brute power to keep their theoretically stable machines aloft, sending along a hapless passenger and hoping for the best.
It was the Wrights’ genius and vision to see that humans would have to fly their machines, that the problems of flight could not be solved from the ground. In Wilbur’s words, “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.”
With over a thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill, the Wrights made themselves the first true pilots. These flying skills were a crucial component of their invention. Before they ever attempted powered flight, the Wright brothers were masters of the air.
Their glider experiments on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, though frustrating at times, had led them down the path of discovery.
Through those experiments, they had solved the problem of sustained lift, and more importantly, they could now control an aircraft while in flight. The brothers felt they were now ready to truly fly. But first, the Wrights had to power their aircraft.
Gasoline engine technology had recently advanced to where its use in airplanes was feasible. Unable to find a suitable lightweight commercial engine, the brothers designed their own.
It was cruder and less powerful than Samuel Langley’s, but the Wrights understood that relatively little power was needed with efficient lifting surfaces and propellers.
Such propellers were not available, however. Scant relevant data could be derived from marine propeller theory. Using their air tunnel data, they designed the first efficient airplane propeller, one of their most original and purely scientific achievements.
Returning to their camp at the Kill Devil Hills, they mounted the engine on the new 40-foot, 605-pound Flyer with double tails and elevators.
The engine drove two pusher propellers with chains, one crossed to make the props rotate in opposite directions to counteract a twisting tendency in flight. A balky engine and broken propeller shaft slowed them, until they were finally ready on December 14th.
In order to decide who would fly first, the brother tossed a coin. Wilbur won the coin toss, but lost his chance to be the first to fly when he oversteered with the elevator after leaving the launching rail.
The flyer, climbed too steeply, stalled, and dove into the sand. The first flight would have to wait on repairs.
Three days later, they were ready for the second attempt. The 27-mph wind was harder than they would have liked, since their predicted cruising speed was only 30-35 mph.
The headwind would slow their groundspeed to a crawl, but they proceeded anyway. With a sheet, they signaled the volunteers from the nearby lifesaving station that they were about to try again. Now it was Orville’s turn.
Remembering Wilbur’s experience, he positioned himself and tested the controls. The stick that moved the horizontal elevator controlled climb and descent.
The cradle that he swung with his hips warped the wings and swung the vertical tails, which in combination turned the machine.
A lever controlled the gas flow and airspeed recorder. The controls were simple and few, but Orville knew it would take all his finesse to handle the new and heavier aircraft.
At 10:35, he released the restraining wire. The flyer moved down the rail as Wilbur steadied the wings. Just as Orville left the ground, John Daniels from the lifesaving station snapped the shutter on a preset camera, capturing the historic image of the airborne aircraft with Wilbur running alongside.
Again, the flyer was unruly, pitching up and down as Orville overcompensated with the controls. But he kept it aloft until it hit the sand about 120 feet from the rail.
Into the 27-mph wind, the groundspeed had been 6.8 mph, for a total airspeed of 34 mph. The brothers took turns flying three more times that day, getting a feel for the controls and increasing their distance with each flight. Wilbur’s second flight – the fourth and last of the day – was an impressive 852 feet in 59 seconds.
This was the real thing, transcending the powered hops and glides others had achieved. The Wright machine had flown.
But it would not fly again; after the last flight it was caught by a gust of wind, rolled over, and damaged beyond easy repair.
With their flying season over, the Wrights sent their father a matter-of-fact telegram reporting the modest numbers behind their epochal achievement.
(Photo credit: Library of Congress / NPS.gov).