On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made history in their Kitty Hawk Flyer with the first powered flight. Wilbur and Orville had just become the first true airplane pilots.
The first of four flights that day lasted just 12 seconds and traveled only 180 feet, but it proved that human flight was possible. Their final flight of the day bested their first try by traveling 852 ft. in 59 seconds.
Just after the fourth and final flight, the Kitty Hawk Flyer was blown over by the wind while parked. It was severely damaged and would never again take flight.
The strides the Wright brothers made in just one day of flight were astonishing. They knew they had accomplished something very special that day. They had unlocked the mystery of powered flight.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were pioneers who pushed the limits of what was known. This monumental achievement set in motion a series of events which led to further innovation in the aviation industry. An age of powered, human flight had begun.
Less than 60 years after Orville flew the Flyer at Kitty Hawk, Neil Armstrong planted his footprint on the surface of the Moon.
Within one century of powered flight, we have accomplished much. During that time, humans built the first fighter jets, the first commercial aircraft, even a reusable plane-like shuttle orbiter to carry astronauts off-planet and into space.
In honor of their groundbreaking achievement, we are highlighting eight lesser-known fun facts about the Wright brothers and their first flight.
- Before flying planes, the Wright brothers owned a local newspaper called the West Side News, with Wilbur serving as editor and Orville as publisher. They later opened a bicycle repair shop which also sold their own designs.
- The brothers’ interest in flight was sparked by a model helicopter toy their father, Milton Wright, brought back for them from a trip to the West Coast in 1878. The small rubber band–powered toy helicopter was designed by French aviation pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. His 1871 model airplane, which he called the Planophore, was the first aerodynamically stable flying model.
- Wilbur and Orville chose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, as the location of the first flight because it was known for having constant strong winds. They had previously used the beach to accomplish more than 700 flights with their glider in 1902.
- The engine they built to power their plane’s two propellers boasted 12 horsepower. The first steam engine was patented and designed by Thomas Savery in 1698, but since then, engine design had proliferated. The internal combustion engine went through many variations over the next 100 years before the Wright Bros. tried to create one that had at least eight horsepower and weighed less than 200 lbs. Parts for an aluminum alloy engine were cast at Buckeye Iron and Brass Works, their mechanic Charlie Taylor built the new design. Having no throttle, the motor only ran at full speed, tuned with a lever that adjusted the camshaft timing. This engine ran all four flights on Dec. 17 before being damaged when the plane was knocked over by the wind.
- The Kitty Hawk Flyer ended up 125 pounds heavier than expected. However, everything worked out because the propellers ended up providing 50 percent greater thrust than expected.
- Just days before the “first flight”, on Dec. 14th, 1903, the Wright brothers attempted flight. The Flyer was airborne for 3.5 seconds before it “smashed into the sand”. The Flyer wound up slightly damaged, so the Wright brothers postponed the first flight to make the necessary repairs. How did the brothers decide who would fly the Flyer first? They tossed a coin. Wilbur won. However, it would be Orville to earn the distinction of piloting the “first flight” after the Flyer was damaged on Dec. 14.
- Surprisingly, the first flight didn’t garner much media attention. Although the brothers notified the press, the event was only covered by one local journal. At the time, many in the press did not believe the brothers’ claims.
- A telegraph sent from the Wright brothers to their father shortly after their successful flights misspelled Orville’s name and incorrectly lists the duration of the flight as 57 seconds.