On December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer biplane aeroplane made the first powered, sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air flights at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, U.S of A.
After weeks of delays caused by broken propeller shafts at Kill Devil Hills–two trips back to Dayton, Ohio to get replacements–Wilbur Wright won a coin toss over brother Orville for the right to fly the aircraft.
December 13 was the perfect day weather-wise for flight, but because it was a Sunday, and their Christian beliefs forbade them from working on the Lord’s Day, they waited a day.
Coincidentally, December 14 was the 121st anniversary of the Montgolfier Brothers first test flight of their balloon on December 14, 1782. You can read about that achievement HERE.
On December 14, 1903, the Wright Flyer stalled on takeoff enabling only a three-second flight attempt. The takeoff for the plane, since the bicycle builders failed to include wheels, was via a slingshot mechanism that added oomph to the aircraft’s engine to give it speed to achieve lift… so a stalled engines sucked. What sucked more, was the damage the aircraft sustained.
Wilbur believed that his flight could have easily been a success, but chalked it up to his own inexperience with flying, and with the aircraft in general. Of course, who can blame him… this was all new science.
It took the lads until Thursday, December 17, 1903 for the repairs to be completed, with the brothers making two flights each – for a total of four that day.
This time, Orville Wright took the controls… and at 10:35AM… taking off into a blustery and freezing headwind of 21 miles per hour (33.8 kilometers per hour), the Wright Flyer flew a distance of 120 feet (36.58 meters), covering it in 12 seconds, traveling through the air at a speed of 6.87 miles per hour (11.056 kilometers per hour)!
That’s it in the John T. Daniels photo at the very top, with Wilbur running alongside, as the Wright Flyer is about 3-feet (1-meter above the ground, and only about to clear the starting rail ! Magnificent!
As you can see in the photo, Orville Wright was lying on his stomach atop the biplane’s lower wing. His hips are in a ‘cradle’ device that helped him operate the wing-warping mechanism.
You can also see the starting rail in the sand, a coil box to start the engine, and wooden bench used to rest the right wing on.
What an amazing photograph. What an amazing achievement.
Just think… from being 3-feet (1-meter) above the ground in 1903, to a mere 66 years later when man took its first step onto Luna, our moon… it’s the most impressive leap in the progression of human intellectual evolution ever.
Of course, there were all those world wars, atomic obliteration(s), acts of terrorism and all that… with the wars, in particular, fast-tracking aeroplane evolution to jets, supersonic and of course space flight.
Wilbur flew next, traveling 175 feet (53.34 meters), with Orville going again traveling 200 feet (60.96 meters) – each flying about 10 feet (3 meters) above the unforgiving ground.
Here’s what Orville Wright had to say about the fourth and final flight of the day, this one piloted by Wilbur:
“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 (259.69 meters); 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.”
For all four flights that day of December 17, 1903, five people were witness… who the hell would want to leave?
- W.C. Brinkley, a local lumber merchant from Manteo, NC;
- John T. Daniels (he used a Gundlach Korona box camera that Orville Wright had pre-positioned) of the coastal guard Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station (it merged with the US Coast Guard in 1915);
- Will O. Dough of the coastal guard Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station;
- Adam D. Etheridge of the coastal guard Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station;
- Johnny Moore, 16, local teenager from Nag’s Head. NC. who was walking along the beach when he came across the Wright Brothers getting ready to test their flying machine. I’m pretty sure he should have been in school… or working.
After retrieving the aircraft, a just of wind blew the Wright Flyer end over end badly damaging the aircraft resulting in a halt to further attempts.
Below is a photograph at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina honoring the achievement, with a large memorial at the top of the hill.