How the inspirational Wright Brothers took the first powered flight – and how it changed everything (1903)

How the Wright Brothers took the first powered flight (1)

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In the annals of aviation history, two names stand out dramatically — like soaring aircraft in a blue sky: the Wright brothers. These pioneering siblings, Wilbur and Orville, were the dynamic duo who took humanity’s dream of flight from mere fantasy to tangible reality.

With their ingenious minds and indomitable spirit, they defied gravity and paved the way for modern aviation. Prepare to journey back in time as we uncover the fascinating tale of the Wright brothers and their remarkable contribution to the world of flight.

Making history: Orville & Wilbur Wright’s 12-second flight ushered in the space age (from 1973)

Pensacola News Journal (Pensacola, Florida) Dec 18, 1973

It took only 12 seconds and covered 120 feet, but Orville Wright’s first flight ushered in an age that made the moon as reachable as sailing ships once made America.

Five men watched as the product of two bicycle repairmen’s imagination rose from the sand dunes of North Carolina and fluttered through the cold December air on man’s first powered flight. The date was December 17, 1903. The place was Kill Devil Hill, a 90-foot mound of sand located four miles south of Kitty Hawk, on North Carolina’s outer banks.

Orville and Wilbur Wright made four powered flights that day. The longest, made by Wilbur, lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet.

Entry from December 17 1903 - Orville Wright's diary

There were no reporters present, and most newspapers who heard of the flight refused to believe it. Only one newspaper — the Norfolk, Virginia, Virginian Pilot — headlined the story on its front page.

The Wright brothers gave their version of the event 20 days later in a dispatch from their homes in Dayton, Ohio. They acknowledged the weather was not perfect for their first flights — the wind was estimated at 25 miles per hour — but added “We were determined before returning home to know whether the machine possesses sufficient power to fly, sufficient capacity of control in winds as well as in calm air.

“When these points had been definitely established, we, at once, packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last.” The first flying machine was named the Kitty Hawk. A biplane with a wingspan of 30 feet, it row is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Alexander Graham Bell: Flight is a fact (1896)

The Wright brothers continued their experiments and, in 1909, one of their planes passed its flight tests and became the first military aircraft in the world. That plane was accepted by the Army after Orville flew it over Ft. Myer, Virginia, near Washington, for one hour, 12 minutes and 40 seconds. The plane passed its speed test by flying to nearby Alexandria, and back at an average speed of 42.6 miles per hour.

From those beginnings came planes that stretch farther than the Wright Brothers’ first plane flew on its maiden flight. Airline passengers have increased from the one aboard the Kitty Hawk to more than 200 million in the U.S. alone this year.

U.S. scheduled airlines will fly more than 2.4 billion miles this year. Private and military aircraft will add to that total. The aerospace industry has grown into a complex that employs nearly a million people and has total sales of almost $25 billion a year.

Orville Wright lived to see his invention grow into a giant industry. Wilbur died in 1912 — 36 years before his brother

Man's first flight - December 17 1903 - Kitty Hawk - Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers take flight:  Sand and wind and sea and shackles broken

By Bob Barnet – The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana) April 15, 1973

It was the morning of December 17, 1903, and Wilbur Wright was awakened by the first glimmer of daylight and numbing cold.

He noted glumly that the wind again had blown sand through the cracks in the log and cast-iron shanty. It coated floor and furniture and there was sand on his blanket. Because he was at heart a cheerful man, he told himself that at least the wind was blowing. It had been too calm for the flight the day before.

His brother Orville heard him stirring about, and while Wilbur swept up the sand, Orville fried bacon and eggs and made coffee.

They walked outside after breakfast and looked across the desolate sand-flat. The wind was slashing out of the north at a speed their instruments told them was 22 miles an hour. It was a little high, but acceptable. There were patches of icy water in the sand hollows.

TO THE SOUTH reared the big dunes that gave the place the name Kill Devil Hills. It was a grim sort of morning, but there was work to be done and the cruel winter of the North Carolina Outer Banks was not far off.

They ran up the flag that was the signal to the Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station a mile away, and soon three sturdy men from the station came to help. They were accompanied by another man and a boy named John T. Moore, who lived in nearby Nag’s Head.

From a hangar alongside their living quarters, the Wright brothers and their friends brought out a strange biplane with its tail in front and two propellers mounted behind the wings.

The machine was placed on a truck rail 60 feet long made of planks set edge-wise in the sand and covered with iron strips. It faced into the bitter north wind and was restrained by a ground wire attached to the tail.

Orville Wright

THE WRIGHT brothers were careful men, and their years of experimenting with gliders had taught them that the foolhardy do not live long. They decided that the machine, if it left the ground, was to be kept as low as possible to avoid buffeting by the wind.

It was Orville’s turn as pilot. Wilbur had won the coin toss on Dec. 14, when too-calm winds caused the brothers to try a downhill run from the north face of Kill Devil Hill in an attempt to make their craft airborne. It had flown for three and one-half seconds for Wilbur but stalled and plopped into the sand at the base of the hill. It was ruled an unsuccessful at-tempt because the plane landed at a point lower than its takeoff point.

It was Dec. 17 now, and there was enough wind for a flight attempt from level ground. Orville Wright placed his camera on a tripod in front of the machine and slightly out of the line of flight. He told John D. Daniels, one of the men from the lifesaving station, to press the button as the machine arose.

THE ENGINE was started and the two propellers were allowed to spin for a few minutes. At 10:35 a.m. Orville Wright climbed into the craft and lay face down in a cradle on the lower wing. The cradle enabled him to operate the control mechanism with his hips.

The restraining wire was released and the airplane lurched forward, moving so slowly that Wilbur was able to run alongside and steady the right wing. The machine rose into the air after a run of 40 feet on the truck rail. When it was two feet off the ground Daniels snapped a picture that was to become famous.

The plane climbed to a height of 10 feet while Orville struggled with the controls in an effort to correct a tendency of the craft to dart toward the ground. The flight ended when the plane struck the sand after having flown 120 feet in 12 seconds.

First power plane - 1903 at Kitty Hawk - Wright Bros

ORVILLE WRIGHT later wrote of the flight: “It was the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed for-ward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.”

The story starts April 16, 1867, when a stork that had encountered no flight problems whatsoever delivered a male child to the Henry County, Ind., farmhouse occupied by Rev. and Mrs. Milton Wright.

The elder Wright later was to become a bishop in the church of the United Brethren in Christ. The mother, Susan Koerner Wright, had been a school-teacher, as had her husband. The family moved from Indiana to Dayton. Ohio, and Orville Wright was born there in 1871. Always close, the brothers throughout their lives were good friends and congenial business associates.

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THE FAMILY lived in west Dayton, and in 1888, the brothers had a try at the newspaper publishing business with a paper they called the West Side News. Four years later, they opened a bicycle repair shop at 1127 W. Third St. in Dayton, and it was the bicycle shop, in which bicycles of good quality later were manufactured and sold, that enabled the Wrights to put together the savings that made their experiments with aircraft possible.

They developed an early interest in aviation, and it is quite possible that the seed was planted when the good Bishop Wright gave each of his sons a toy helicopter in their pre-teen years. They corresponded with early pioneers of flight, notably Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute, and it was hardly surprising that they built a small glider in 1899 and tested it as a kite.

Wright Bros third test glider 1902

IN THE AUTUMN of 1900, at Chanute’s written suggestion, they went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Chanute had pointed out that the sandy flats of the Outer Banks offered good winds, soft sand for landing, and sand dune hills for glider experimenting.

When they went back to the North Carolina flats in 1901, they took along a glider that had been tested in their homemade wind tunnel. The Wright brothers, now glider experts, made more than 1,000 glider flights in the Kill Devil Hills area in 1902, one of them a record journey of 627-1/2 feet in 26 seconds into a 35-mile-an-hour wind.

Wright Brothers 1902 glider as a kite

THEY WERE READY for powered flight in 1903, but discovered that available engines did not fit their needs. They built a new engine, and designed and built new propellers.

The engine weighed 200 pounds and developed 11.81 horsepower. The biplane in which it was to be mounted had a wingspan of 40 feet, four inches; was 21 feet, one inch in length; eight feet, two inches high; and weighed 605 pounds.

The engine turned 1,800 revolutions per minute but had at least one flaw. After a few minutes, its valves became red hot. Power transmission from the single engine to the two propellers was accomplished by means of two chains that passed through rubber tubes and across two bicycle sprockets.

There were four flights on that first day of man’s conquest of the air, two by each brother. Wilbur took his first turn at 11:20 a.m. and flew 175 feet in 12 seconds. He also experienced trouble with the unfamiliar controls, but the brothers were learning now, and on the third flight at 11:40 am, Orville flew the biplane 200 feet in 15 seconds.

Wilbur and Orville Wright - The Wright Brothers

WILBUR STARTED the fourth flight at noon and it was a handsome effort. The plane flew 852 feet before sudden pitching caused it to strike the ground. The plane was in the air 59 seconds.

The plane was carried back to camp and while the brothers and their friends gleefully talked of their success, a sudden gust picked up the aircraft and tumbled it over and over. John D. Daniels became the first casualty of powered flight. He was scratched and bruised when he attempted to halt the flight of the wind-blown machine and was caught inside.

“I found myself caught in them wires and the machine blowing across the beach and heading for the ocean,” Daniels recalled later. “It was rolling over and over, landing first on one end and then on the other and me getting more tangled up all the time. When the thing stopped for half a second, I nearly broke every wire getting out!”

THE WRIGHT BROTHERS sent a telegram to their father in Dayton that evening, and a telegraph operator in Norfolk leaked the story to the local Virginian-Pilot, which carried a small report. It is doubtful that the bachelor brothers even read the story.

Wilbur was 36 years old, Orville 32. Amazingly, the world took little note of the Wrights’ accomplishment.

Three years later, an editorial writer for the Scientific American magazine noted: “In all the history of aviation, there is probably no parallel to the unostentatious manner in which the Wright brothers ushered into the world their epoch-making invention of the first aeroplane flying machine.”

The Wright brothers made more than 100 flights back in Dayton, one of 24-1/2 miles in 38 minutes, three seconds.

The United States Army turned down the Wrights’ first offers to share their patents, making no investigation of any kind. In February, 1908, the Army closed a contract for a single plane.

Wright Bros patent from 1906 for their Flying Machine

The French, with war clouds on the horizon, were more practical. Three weeks later, they contracted with the Wright brothers to form a syndicate for the manufacture of planes.

Thirteen years after the flight at Kill Devil Hills, French and English and German flyers were locked in deadly dogfights high above France.

THE WRIGHT Brothers National Memorial marks the place at which mankind caused a dream of the ancients to come true. The tourist drives eastward on U.S. 64 until it ends at U.S. 158 at Nags Head, N.C., then drives north five miles along the giant dunes that keep back the Atlantic.

The village of Kill Devil Hills is there, and six miles to the north is the village of Kitty Hawk. There is a Visitors Center and the Weights’ living quarters and hangar have been reconstructed. The skid rail is there, and signs mark the distances of the first four flights.

Kill Devil Hill, a 91-foot-high dune a quarter of a mile to the south, is crowned by a triangular pylon 60 feet high, made of gray granite from Mt. Airy, N.C. and dedicated in 1932. Its sides ornamented with outspread wings in bas-relief, the pylon gives to the eye the impression of a gigantic bird about to hurtle into space.

Now and then, a giant jet plane passes overhead, and the white vapor trails gleam against the blue sky. The planes are so high that it is impossible to hear the sound of their passing.

Airplane only ten years old (1918)

The Aspermont Star (Aspermont, Texas) June 13, 1918

Just a decade has passed since flying machine was regarded as wonder of world

One night just ten years ago, D Bruce Salley, Norfolk (Va.) newspaper reporter, entered the office of the United States weather bureau at Maneo, NC, and wrote a brief dispatch which he handed to A W Drinkwater, the officer then in charge, with instructions to duplicate it to a dozen metropolitan dallies in the East which he had designated in the upper left hand corner of the sheet.

The dispatch tersely stated that Wilbur and Orville Wright had flown that afternoon 1,000 odd feet in a heavier-than-air machine propelled by an engine and offered to send the full story on a telegraphic order.

Next morning, the world at large was given an accurate account of the Wrights’ epoch-making performance. Their machine — the construction of which was known only to themselves and the few life savers on the North Carolina banks who had aided them lug the big canvas and wooden bird up Kill Devil hill — had soared off into space, had proceeded in a straight line a fifth of a mile and had dropped gently to the sand with neither itself nor its inventors any the worse for the experience.

The news, utterly discredited by many scientists and taken with a grain of salt by the public generally, was flashed the length and breadth of the world. The performance was considered incredible.

Wilbur Wright airplane (early) (2)

Contrast in today’s news

Tomorrow’s newspapers will tell of bombing airplanes dropping tons of deadly explosives on the lines of the allies and the central powers in Europe, of myriads of scouting machines circling thousands of feet in the air above these lines and of huge passenger biplanes and monoplanes passing from point to point at speeds of from 100 miles an hour upward. These items will be read casually and with little particular interest because they are common, everyday occurrences.

War declared: American newspaper headlines from the very start of WWI in 1914

A day or so before Salley filed in the Manteo office the dispatch which electrified the world, word had been received in several metropolitan newspaper offices that the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio, had gone to Kitty Hawk, NC, where they had appeared in 1903, and were again conducting experiments with a glider, as an airplane without motive power is called.

Watched flights from tree

As the Wright brothers had obtained some success in glider building, and as rumor credited them with having constructed an airplane engine capable of lifting the glider from the ground and propelling it through the air, several New York newspapers had dispatched staff representatives to the banks. They were at this moment groping their way to this isolated corner of the world, 50 odd miles from the railroad and accessible only by motor boat from Elizabeth City, NC.

Salley, who had “covered” the banks whenever shipwrecks worthwhile occurred there, had received more accurate advance information concerning the Wrights’ experiments than had the metropolitan newspaper editors, and had dropped down to Manteo, on the Island of Roanoke, some days previous.

Each morning thereafter he had made the ten-mile trip across Pamlico Sound to Kitty Hawk, and from a crotch in a forest tree on the edge of the desert-like banks, had observed activities about the Wright hangar with the aid of a powerful pair of field glasses. His perch also commanded an excellent view of the ocean side of Kill Devil hill, largest of all the giant dunes, up the side of which had been constructed a 300-foot railway.

Twice each day, the Wright brothers, assisted by the life savers, all of whom had been sworn to secrecy, started the glider down the incline, elevated the plane and shot into the air, to deep gracefully upon the earth after short flights measured in time by seconds.

An accurate description of the contrivance in which the Wright brothers flew was impossible, as no close view of it could be obtained even by an adroit and resourceful reporter. So determined were the inventors to guard their craft with secrecy that they announced they would pack up their machine and return to Dayton the instant they learned they were spied upon. It was no part of Salley’s plan to spoil a good story.

Wilbur Wright airplane (early).

First long flight made

The afternoon of May 6 was cloudy, with a tendency toward rain. The wind was northeast and blowing 14 miles an hour. Ordinarily, the Wright brothers would not fly in this sort of weather.

Nevertheless, the machine was brought from the hangar and started. The glasses showed that it was not only equipped with a gas engine, but that it carried seats for two and had a pair of propellers. The group of life savers prevented a clear view of the start, but a moment later, the reporter did see the machine take the air, head directly for the ocean and land a thousand feet distant, apparently under full control of the pilot.

At dusk, no more flights having been attempted, the reporter made his way back to Manteo, well aware that he had a story of worldwide interest, but depressed by the knowledge that the facts would be generally discredited.

Wilbur Wright - Air flight - first successful airplane

Next day, half a dozen newspapermen from New York arrived at Manteo. Every one was a doubting Thomas straight from Missouri. They were all going right over to the flying fields and talk to the Wrights.

But they didn’t. For one thing, the Wright brothers weren’t talking. For another, life savers bobbed up out of nowhere when one had labored through the sand to a point a mile from the hangar.

They were acting under special instructions from Washington, which were to the effect that the inventors were not to be disturbed. The Wright brothers had the legal end of the argument, as they had borrowed the land from the life savers who owned it.

There was but one thing to do, and the reporters did it. They followed the example of Salley and climbed trees. May 11, the Wright brothers made a flight of two and seven-sixteenth miles and followed this with a flight of two and one-sixteenth miles. The longer flight was made at the rate of 46.774 miles an hour, and the shorter at 32.281.

In each instance, as in all the others, it was necessary to wheel the machine to the top of the incline railway, no method at that time being known whereby the airplanes could rise in the air from level ground.

Three-quarter left rear view of glider in flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Flights epoch-making

Both these flights were epoch-making in that the Wright brothers did not keep to a straight course. For the first time, they circled one of the dunes and also returned to the starting point after a straight flight of three-quarters of a mile. The observers commented on the skillful manner in which the big canvas bird made the curves.

The writers who covered these initial flights stuck strictly to such facts as they were able to obtain. There was no romancing, no fanciful descriptions and no haphazarding of guesses.

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Yet these plain accounts, now known to be accurate, were regarded with great suspicion when they were received in newspaper offices. The reporters were frequently cautioned to be conservative and one man was commanded by the editor of a Cleveland paper to confine himself to facts and “cut out all this wildcat stuff about two-mile flights.”

The final experiment was made May 14. At noon that day, the Wright brothers left the grounds and made a flight of eight miles, the distance being judged accurately over ground carefully measured. All previous speed records were broken, two of the eight miles being made in two minutes mid forty seconds.

Several short flights were then made, and late in the day, Wilbur Wright, with Furness, his mechanician, rose in the air to beat even the eight-mile record. At the height of twenty feet, he started up the beach in a northeasterly direction, and in the face of a twenty-mile-an-hour wind.

How the Wright Brothers took the first powered flight (2)

Machine sailed beautifully

In chronicling this flight, one of the reporters wrote: “The machine sailed along serenely under the bright blue sky like a thing endowed with life. Behind her floated a flock of gulls and crows that seemed at once amazed and jealous of this new thing of the air.

“Reaching the hills that jut out on the beach, the cruiser of the air proudly lifted her nose and, kiting upward, passed easily over the thirty-foot summit.

“She then careened on down the beach until the three-mile limit was reached, when, with another twist of the lever she described a graceful turn and began the journey back to the starting point.

“With the same ease and grace she made the return, appearing and disappearing at intervals as the sand hills intervened, and circled the hangar, swung in a half circle once more and was off again over her old tracks down across the sand dunes.

“The picture was astounding and picturesque at once. There was not a motion visible when she passed the observation point of the correspondents, and once more she lifted up and passed over the hill and out of sight. It was the last vision the correspondents had of the graceful airship. Down the home stretch between the sea and the sand hill, something gave way.

Orville Wright - Air flight - first successful airplane

The watchers heard a whirring of the machine and then all was silent. While we waited for her to reappear, word was brought that the ship had been wrecked. A wrong lever had been pulled, and her nose, instead of elevating, had turned down, and she had dived into the sand. A guy wire cut Wright on the nose, but he escaped other injury.”

The next appearance of the Wrights at Kitty Hawk was made in the fall of 1911, when Orville Wright conducted a series of experiments in a glider in the hope of perfecting a stabilizing device. No engine was used.

During one night, he remained stationary in the air 30 feet above the crest of Kill Devil Hill ten minutes and one second, thereby breaking the world’s glider record.

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