The Wright brothers’ first airplane flight on Dec. 17, 1903, lasted just 12 seconds and news of the feat made it into only four newspapers the next morning. Yet, the pioneering, 120-foot (37 meters) flight in a fragile airplane over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, had an enormous impact on the entire world.
Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright did not invent flight, but their craftsmanship skills helped them form the early 20th-century equivalent of a startup. Their invention of the Flyer, which was the first crewed, powered, heavier-than-air and (to some degree) controlled-flight aircraft, brought people and ideas together like never before. In just a few decades, their ideas led to the creation of new aircraft in warfare, assisted with the spread of goods and people for globalization, and led to spaceflight — including putting the first people on the moon, in 1969.
Interest in aeronautics exploded during the 19th century, as the technical how-to finally caught up with humanity’s centuries-old interest in flight. Before airplanes, people flew in balloons, airships and gliders — but never in something heavier than air. Several scientists tested gliders throughout the 1800s, filling data tables with information about lift and drag, but no gliders ran on power other than that provided by the wind. A steam-powered airship built by Henri Giffard flew successfully in 1852.
Step 1 for the Wright brothers was to do a literature search on the state of aeronautical knowledge at the time. In 1899, Wilbur wrote this letter to the Smithsonian Institution, requesting copies of all the past research done:
I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my might to help on the future worker who will attain final success.”
The brothers studied the hang-gliding flights of Otto Lilienthal and work done by Sir Georg Cayley, the founder of aerodynamics. The Wrights picked the brain of Octave Chanute, an engineer who had worked to invent an airplane and the author of the book “Progress in Flying Machines” (Dover Publications, 1894).
With the profits earned at their bike store, Wilbur (the visionary) and Orville (the engineer) set to work on a flying machine. The brothers started by building kites based on the flight mechanics of birds they had observed, then moved on to manned gliders. [Airplanes of Tomorrow, NASA’s Vision of Future Air Travel]
The first flight
Four years after Wilbur’s humble letter, the Wrights were ready to test an aircraft powered by an engine and propeller. The biplane design was based on Chanute’s biplane glider, and the engine was assembled by Charles Taylor, a mechanic in the Wright’s bike shop.
On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville climbed into the primitive cockpit. The Flyer lifted from the level ground of Kitty Hawk into the air and flew for 12 seconds before landing with a thud 120 feet (37 m) away. Kitty Hawk was chosen for its consistent winds, which were good for testing kites and gliders and also for taking off with an underpowered airplane. While strong wind gusts could be dangerous, a good, consistent headwind allowed a plane to take off when its own power might not get it off the ground in windless conditions.
The brothers made four flights that day, the last one flying 852 feet (260 m) in distance and staying aloft almost a minute, launching the world into the aviation age for good.
(Image credit: NASA)
From Kitty Hawk to outer space
When news about their feat at Kitty Hawk reached the news wires, competitive inventors attempted their own flying machines in cornfields around the world.
It was the U.S. government that encouraged the first mass manufacturing of the airplane, seeing the potential of a powerful weapon and reconnaissance vehicle. When World War I broke out in 1914, there was a new type of battlefield: the sky. Airplane technology sped up dramatically during the war and was a pillar of the wartime economy.
By the 1930s, the U.S. had four airlines delivering millions of passengers (limited mostly to the upper class) to points across the country, across the Atlantic Ocean and, by the end of the decade, across the Pacific. With the dawn of commercial air service, the world opened up in a new way, allowing people to visit places they’d only read about in books.
Aviation greatly affected the outcome of World War II, too, and war equally affected aviation. Airplanes carried paratroopers across the English Channel and dropped the first atomic bomb. By the end of the war, the manufacturing of planes had helped to put the United States at the forefront of all the world’s postwar economies, where it remained until the 1970s.
The birth of the jet age in the 1950s, American astronauts’ first steps on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and even the dreams of space-tourist companies like Virgin Galactic and the self-landing rockets of SpaceX all have their scientific roots in the field of Kitty Hawk. [Amazing X-Planes from the X-1 to XV-15]
A Wright Flyer is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. In 2003, a replica Wright Flyer attempted the same flight at Kitty Hawk on the 100th anniversary of the Wrights’ achievement, but it fell into a mud puddle. Conditions were quite calm that day, and Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which helped build the replica, told Wired, “Well, if this were easy, I guess everyone would do it.”
Another challenge in creating a replica was that the Wright brothers kept the original plans secret, and the famed Wright Flyer was wrecked shortly after its fourth flight, by a gust of wind. While Orville rebuilt the Flyer for display, it’s unclear if parts of the Flyer were recycled into other planes, according to the EAA Aviation Museum.