12/17/1903: The Wright Brothers’ First Sustained Powered Flight

12/17/1903: The Wright Brothers’ First Sustained Powered Flight

DALLAS — Today in Aviation, the Wright brothers made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer in 1903. The flights took place 4 miles (6 km) south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright Flyer (often referred to retrospectively as Flyer I or Flyer 1903).

The Wright Flyer was based on the brothers’ experience testing gliders at Kitty Hawk from 1901 to 1902. The brothers’ last glider became the base for the Wright Flyer concept.

The Wright brothers, Wilbur (L) and Orville (R). Photo: Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

The Flyer

In 1903, the Wrights designed the Flyer using giant spruce wood as their building material of choice. They built the wings with a camber that was 1-in-20. To power the Flyer, the brothers commissioned their employee Charlie Taylor to create a new design from scratch, essentially a rudimentary 12-horsepower (9-kilowatt) gasoline engine, since they could not find an acceptable automobile engine for the job.

Borrowing from bicycle technology, a sprocket chain drive powered the hand-made twin propellers. One drive chain was crossed over so that the propellers rotated in opposite directions to eliminate the possibility of torque effects impacting the aircraft’s handling.

In an attempt to decrease drag, the Flyer pilot flew lying on his stomach on the lower wing with his head towards the front of the plane. By shifting a cradle attached to his hips, the pilot could steer the aircraft. The cradle pulled wires, warped the wings, and simultaneously turned the rudder.

In terms of its configuration, the Flyer was a biplane canard. In aeronautical terms, canard (French for duck) is a type of fixed-wing aircraft in which the tailplane is in front of the main lifting surfaces rather than behind them as in traditional aircraft, or when there is an additional small set of wings in front of the main fixed wings. The term “canard” may describe the aircraft, the wing configuration, or the foreplane.

On returning to Kitty Hawk in 1903, while training on the 1902 Glider from the previous season, the Wrights completed the assembly of the Flyer and were ready to test it out. 

One of the brother’s gliders was launched at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on October 10, 1902. Photo: Great Images in NASA Description, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Flight

The Wrights decided to go ahead with their first attempt at achieving powered flight on December 14, 1903. On that morning, the brothers pushed the Flyer and its launching rail to the incline of a nearby dune, Big Kill Devil Hill, with the aid of men from the nearby government life-saving station. At this point, the brothers tossed a coin to see who would get the first chance to pilot the Flyer. Wilbur won, and he was ready to make the gravity-assisted takeoff. 

The aircraft left the rail. Wilbur pulled up too sharply, stalled, and after 3 1/2 seconds, the Flyer came down, suffering minor damage.

After the abortive first flight and repairs that took three days, on December 17, the wind averaged more than 20 miles per hour (32 km/h), and the Wrights were ready to take the Flyer to the skies. The brothers laid the launch rail on level land, pointing it at the wind. On this day, there was no need for an inclined launch. The wind generated the requisite airspeed for takeoff. Orville took his turn at the controls. He was about to make history.

For a total distance of 120 feet (37 m), his first flight lasted 12 seconds. Taking turns, the brothers made four short low-altitude flights that day. The flight paths were all basically straight; there were no attempts to turn the aircraft. The last flight, performed by Wilbur, flew 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds, much longer than any previous flights of 120, 175, and 200 feet. Each flight ended in a bumpy and unintended ‘landing’ (37, 53, and 61 m).

That landing broke the support for the Flyer’s front elevator, which the Wrights hoped to restore for a potential four-mile (6 km) flight to the village of Kitty Hawk. Soon after, the Flyer was picked up by a strong gust, which tumbled it end-over-end and destroyed it beyond any hope. The Wright Flyer never flew again.

In 1904, the Wrights began improving their designs and piloting techniques to achieve fully controlled flight. With a new flyer in 1904 and even more decisively in 1905 with a third flyer, in which Wilbur made a 39-minute, 24-mile (39 km) non-stop circular flight on October 5, substantial progress towards this goal was achieved.

By 1905, with the Wright Flyer II, the brothers had designed their flying machine to make longer-running and more aerodynamic flights, followed by the Wright Flyer III, the first efficient fixed-wing aircraft.

Six years after the first flight, the US Army purchased the Wright Military Flyer for US$30,000. Photo: Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.


The Wright brothers would be the first to achieve powered heavier-than-air flight with their Flyer aircraft series. Some of the theoretical achievements the Wrights used for the series were influential for aviation advancement. 

The Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible. In addition, the pioneering use of “roll control” by twisting the wings to adjust the wingtip angle to the airstream led directly to the more practical use by imitators such as Curtiss and Farman in their ailerons. 

Furthermore, Wright’s original idea of synchronized, coordinated roll and yaw control (rear rudder deflection), which they discovered in 1902, refined in 1903–1905, and patented in 1906, represents the solution for controlled flight and is used on virtually every fixed-wing aircraft today.

The Wright Brothers did not publicize their efforts, giving only a single declaration to the press in January 1904 and a failed public demonstration in May of that same year. The press initially believed other aviators worldwide working on achieving human flight to have preceded the Wright brothers by several years.

However, on August 8, 1908, the Wright brothers were accepted as pioneers after their demonstration flight in France and received extensive media attention. In the years leading up to the Wright Flyer milestone, many aviators, such as Alberto Santos-Dumont, had the clout, the money, and the best teams available to develop their solutions to the problem of flight. The media followed them everywhere.

As Simon Sinek points out, the 30-year-old Wright brothers, on the other hand, had no money, just a bunch of friends who believed, as they did, in the power of human flight and how it would change the world. The media followed them nowhere. They would become the poster child of what American innovation is, and the Wright Flyer flight would mark the beginning of the “pioneer era” in aviation.

1903 Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. Photo: Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

The Wright Flyer is displayed in Washington, DC, at the National Air and Space Museum. The US Smithsonian Institution describes the aircraft as “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.”

Featured Image: Orville Wright is the pilot Wright flyer, while Wilbur Wright runs alongside. Photo: Daniels John T, Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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