Human World

The Wright brothers succeeded 120 years ago

A flimsy-looking biplane in flight about a yard above flat sandy ground, with a man running beside it.
One of the world’s most famous photographs serves to commemorate the Wright brothers’ airplane on its 1st powered flight on December 17, 1903. Image via John T. Daniels/ Wikipedia (public domain).

First successful flight on December 17, 1903

On this date, 120 years ago, two Ohio brothers – Wilbur and Orville Wright – made the first bonafide, manned, controlled, heavier-than-air flight. It was the first airplane, and it took off at 10:35 a.m. with Orville Wright on board as pilot. He flew their vehicle, called the Flyer, for 12 seconds over 40 yards (about 37 meters) of sandy ground just outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright brothers succeeded where numerous other talented visionaries failed.

Two years later, the Wrights wrote in a patent application that their airplane design:

… provide[s] means for guiding the machine both vertically and horizontally … combining lightness, strength, convenience of construction, and certain other advantages.

Black and white portraits of 2 men in suits, one with a big mustache and the other balding.
The Wright brothers, Orville (left) and Wilbur (right), taken in 1905. Wilbur was about four years older than Orville. Image via Wikipedia (public domain).

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The story of the Wright brothers

Were the Wright brothers destined for the skies? It’s known that their father gave them a rubber-band-powered flying toy when they were still children. The toy was made of cork and bamboo with a paper body.

By 1899 – when Wilbur was 33 years old and Orville was 28 – the brothers were already learning everything they could about the science of aeronautics and the history of attempted human flight. Their first airplanes were gliders, which they tested on the long, isolated beaches of Kitty Hawk.

By 1902, they had built a glider that could be manned and controlled by a human pilot. It held a world record for gliding over 200 yards (about 183 meters).

Their first powered aircraft had a little over a 40-foot (12-meter) wingspan, weighed 750 lbs (340 kg), and had a 12-horsepower engine.

That first flight in December 1903 marked the beginning of a new era of global travel and interrelatedness.

By the time they received their patent for their airplane in 1906, several other aviators of the day claimed to have been the first to use the Wrights’ method of turning the airplane by warping or twisting the wings. But this part of the design, too, was included in the Wrights’ patent. In 2013, a story came to light about another would-be aviator, Gustave Whitehead, whose first flight supposedly beat the Wright brothers by two years. Thus far, that story has not been supported and is not accepted by aviation scholars.

Bottom line: The Wright brothers flew their first airplane for 12 seconds over 40 yards (about 37 meters) of sandy ground just outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

Read more: Bumpy flight? Here’s how clouds affect air travel

December 17, 2023
Human World

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