1903: Orville Wright successfully makes a flight in a heavier-than-air machine that takes off from level ground under its own power and is controlled during flight. He flies the first airplane.
If it seems there are a few caveats to the Wright brothers’ achievement 106 years ago, it’s because there had been several people before them who had already managed to get aloft in some sort of device, including the brothers themselves. What the Wrights did was put it all together in a way that made the airplane workable.
A lighter-than-air flight was first made in a balloon in 1783. The first time a person ever flew in a heavier-than-air device is largely accepted to be 1849.
Otto Lilienthal made numerous glider flights throughout the 1890s using a rigorous scientific method to his design and flight testing. The German pioneer used the movement of the pilot to control his gliders, similar to how hang-glider pilots control their aircraft today.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were brothers living in Dayton, Ohio. The two had started making bicycles during the 1890s and had a successful small business selling their Wright Specials for $18 each ($475 in today’s green). This experience with building light, strong machines would prove valuable in the coming years after the brothers’ interest turned to flight.
Others in the United States were also developing aircraft at the time the Wright brothers started turning their curiosity skyward. Samuel Langley had flown an unmanned steam-powered aircraft in 1896. Octave Chanute and others were flying gliders near Chicago late in the decade as well. But it wasn’t until the Wright brothers started working on the matter that the “flying problem” would finally be solved.
Beginning in 1899, the brothers designed and built a series of gliders to test their various ideas on a flying machine. They constructed a wind tunnel that allowed them to test designs without having to build a full-size model. They even built their own gasoline-powered motor for their aircraft.
But it was the idea of controlled flight that the Wright brothers recognized as the biggest challenge. The Wright brothers realized the problem wasn’t getting into the air, it was what to do once the pilot was airborne. One of the key features of the Wright brothers’ design is something they learned from watching birds.
To control their wings, birds will warp the shape of the wing. By lowering the outside tip of the left wing, for instance, a bird can cause that wing to rise and subsequently begin banking to the right. The Wright brothers would use this wing-warping technique on their early gliders, along with a rudder to facilitate the turn, and an elevator in front of the pilot to control pitch up and down.
The combination of these three control ideas would lead the brothers to the successful flight on Dec. 17, 1903.
Their aircraft design and their controls were refined during the first three years of the 20th century. Their first design was simply a kite, used to validate the overall design. They then built and flew three different gliders to further refine their aircraft design.
Attempting to fly from the sand-covered dunes of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the brothers developed an ingenious track system to help with their flight. A simple wood track was laid down on the sand, and the airplane sat on a small wheeled trolley.
Wilbur won a coin toss on Dec. 14 to make the first attempt. Unfortunately, the Flyer I only made a short hop off the track before crashing back down to the ground. Repairs were made over the next few days. In a telegram to home, Wilbur confessed to a “lack of experience with this machine and this method of starting.” But he added that the aircraft had enough power and he thought it would fly well.
With the engine running at wide open (it had only one throttle setting), the tethering rope was released, Orville rolled down the rail, lifted off the ground and completed the first-ever controlled flight of a heavier-than-air machine.
The flight lasted only 12 seconds and covered just 120 feet. The brothers went on to make four flights that day, two each. The longest was a 59-second flight made by Wilbur, covering more than 850 feet.
Unfortunately, that final flight ended with a small crash. Wilbur was fine, but the airplane needed repairs. The brothers sent a telegram home to let their family know of their progress:
Success four flights Thursday morning started from level with engine power alone…inform press home Christmas.
The brothers wanted the newspapers at home in Dayton to know about the flight first. Unfortunately, the telegram operator in North Carolina thought it would be OK to leak the story.
A largely erroneous story appeared in the Virginian-Pilot in nearby Norfolk, Virginia, the next day. The newspaper got the important part correct of the first powered, controlled flight of a heavier-than-air machine, but most of the details were off. It would publish corrections a century later on the 100th anniversary of the flight.
Other than the Virginian-Pilot and a few other mentions, the Wright brothers’ first flight went largely unreported. Orville and Wilbur packed up their machine and moved back to Dayton where they continued to refine their aircraft designs.
By 1908 the brothers would gain worldwide acclaim for their efforts and be written into history as the first to fly a controllable, heavier-than-air machine that could take off and fly under its own power.