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First Powered Flight

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 17 Dec

December 17th 1903  -  On a windswept beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright launched the first powered airplane into the sky. The flight lasted 12 seconds and took him 120 feet. 

The picture, left, shows the very moment the flyer took off with Wilbur, his brother, running alongside steadying the wings before take-off. John Daniels, from the life saving team, took the picture pushing the button on the pre-set camera. The plane was difficult to control, pitching up and down, before hitting the sand. The groundspeed was just 6.8mph and the combined airspeed, with wind taken into account, was 34mph.



The brothers were two of seven children born to Milton and Susan. Milton’s ancestry was English/Dutch while his wife’s was German/Swiss. His paternal history in America goes back to the seventeenth century when Samuel Wright was born. He moved to Massachusetts in 1636, 16 years after the puritan Pilgrim Fathers sailed for the New World after leaving England, a place they felt they could no longer live, in search of a land that would be more godly. Orville was quite a handful and was expelled from primary school. Neither really excelled academically. They put their interest in flight down to a present their father gave them – a toy helicopter based on the design of the French engineer Alphonse Pénaud. This was made of bamboo and paper and powered by rubber bands. After extensive playing it broke and the brothers fashioned a new one.


They dropped out of school and made a printing press. In 1889 they wrote and published a weekly journal called the West Side News. A year later this became a daily. In 1892 they launched a bicycle repair and sales shop to take advantage of the new craze in bicycles, which were seen as more practical than the penny-farthing. They then began to design and sell their own brand. This business helped them fund their interest in flight – both gliding and powered. In 1896 a series of events in America brought the idea of a powered machine closer to the public’s imagination. One of these was an attempt to fly by Samuel Langley, of the Smithsonian Institute, who was sponsored by the war department. He had no luck and was struggling to find the right balance between power and weight.


In 1902 the brothers made over 700 successful glider flights but couldn’t find an engine manufacturer that could supply them with an engine light but powerful enough. Therefore they designed and built their own along with a new propeller that made more efficient use of the power the engine provided. This was put in their own flying machine – a 40 feet, 605-pound plane with double tail and elevators – that was made at their camp in Kill Devil Hills.


On December 14th they went to Kitty Hawk, a beach chosen for its windy conditions to help give added lift.  They tossed a coin to decide who should go first and Wilbur won. Unfortunately he over steered the elevator, climbed too steeply, stalled and crashed, nose first, into the sand.


Three days later they were back. They had notified all the local press but only one reporter turned up. The winds were nearly too strong at 27mph but they continued. It was Orville’s turn. He tested the controls and at 10.35am released the restraining wire. The plane moved down the launching rail with Wilbur running alongside to stabilise the wings. The machine took off and history was made. As said previously the flight did not last long but three more flights were made that day with the brothers taking turns to pilot the machine. It was Wilbur’s second go, the fourth and final of the day, that saw the record flight – 59 seconds and 852 feet. Further attempts were planned but a gust of wind caught the contraption, rolled it over and damaged it beyond repair.


In Orville Wright’s diary he says the following, When we got up, a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north.

We got the machine out early and put out the signal for the men at the station. Before we were quite ready, John T. Daniels, W. S. Dough, A. D. Etheridge, W. C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Johnny Moore of Nags Head arrived.

After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (corrected) 27 miles according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks.

I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped). The lever for throwing off the engine was broken, and the skid under the rudder cracked. After repairs, at 20 min. after 11 o'clock Will made the second trial.

The course was about like mine, up and down but a little longer over the ground though about the same in time. Dist. not measured but about 175 ft. Wind speed not quite so strong.

With the aid of the station men present, we picked the machine up and carried it back to the starting ways. At about 20 minutes till 12 o'clock I made the third trial. When out about the same distance as Will's, I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and sidled the machine off to the right in a lively manner. I immediately turned the rudder to bring the machine down and then worked the end control. Much to our surprise, on reaching the ground the left wing struck first, showing the lateral control of this machine much more effective than on any of our former ones. At the time of its sidling it had raised to a height of probably 12 to 14 feet.

At just 12 o'clock Will started on the fourth and last trip. The machine started off with its ups and downs as it had before, but by the time he had gone over three or four hundred feet he had it under much better control, and was traveling on a fairly even course. It proceeded in this manner till it reached a small hummock out about 800 feet from the starting ways, when it began its pitching again and suddenly darted into the ground.

The front rudder frame was badly broken up, but the main frame suffered none at all. The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds. The engine turns was 1071, but this included several seconds while on the starting ways and probably about a half second after landing. The jar of landing had set the watch on machine back so that we have no exact record for the 1071 turns. Will took a picture of my third flight just before the gust struck the machine.

The machine left the ways successfully at every trial, and the tail was never caught by the truck as we had feared.


After removing the front rudder, we carried the machine back to camp. We set the machine down a few feet west of the building, and while standing about discussing the last flight, a sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it. Will who was near one end ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us. Mr. Daniels, having had no experience in handling a machine of this kind, hung on to it from the inside, and as a result was knocked down and turned over and over with it as it went. His escape was miraculous, as he was in with the engine and chains. The engine legs were all broken off, the chain guides badly bent, a number of uprights, and nearly all the rear ends of the ribs were broken. One spar only was broken.

After dinner we went to Kitty Hawk to send off telegram to M.W. While there we called on Capt. and Mrs. Hobbs, Dr. Cogswell and the station men."


The brothers shipped the plane home and Orville later repaired it and loaned it to a number of museums including the Science Museum in London in 1928. Orville refused to give it to the Smithsonian Institute because they claimed that the Wright’s machine was the second machine to achieve flight after that of Samuel Langley. Eventually the institute recognised the Wright’s plane as the first and in 1948 paid one dollar for the machine to display it under strict conditions that said, Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the 1903 Wright Aeroplane, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."


The flight didn’t cause that much excitement at the time with many of the newspapers saying that the distances covered were too short to be of interest. It wasn’t until the ideas were adapted and improved and flight became more consistent that this event was then considered to be such a crucial moment in history. That flight, however brief, on a beach in North Carolina was to have a profound effect on world history. Travel, warfare, trade and tourism were all to change completely with the advance of flight and air travel would revolutionise the way the world interacts.

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