Following years of trials using gliders, Orville and Wilbur Wright finally made the first mechanically-propelled heavier-than-air flights on December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, U.S.A. The Wright brothers made two flights each from level ground into a freezing headwind gusting to 27 miles per hour (43 km/h). The first flight, by Orville at 10:35 am, of 120 feet (37 meters) in 12 seconds, at a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour (10.9 km/h) over the ground, was recorded in a famous photograph. The next two flights covered approximately 175 and 200 feet (53 and 61 meters ), by Wilbur and Orville respectively. Their altitude was about 10 feet (3.0 m) above the ground. The achievement is annually observed in the United States each December 17 as Wright Brothers Day and elsewhere in the Americas and various territories of the U.S. as Pan American Aviation Day.
The aircraft used for these first historic flights is known as the Wright Flyer, often retrospectively referred to as Flyer I or 1903 Flyer. Today, the airplane is exhibited in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. The U.S. Smithsonian Institution describes the aircraft as “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard”. The flight of Flyer I marks the beginning of the “pioneer era” of aviation. The Flyer was based on the Wrights’ experience testing gliders at Kitty Hawk between 1900 and 1902. Their last glider, the 1902 Glider, led directly to the design of the Flyer.
The Wrights built the aircraft in 1903 using giant spruce wood as their construction material. The wings were designed with a 1-in-20 camber. Since they could not find a suitable automobile engine for the task, they commissioned their employee Charlie Taylor to build a new design from scratch, effectively a crude gasoline engine. A sprocket chain drive, borrowing from bicycle technology, powered the twin propellers, which were also made by hand.
The Flyer was a canard biplane configuration. As with the gliders, the pilot flew lying on his stomach on the lower wing with his head toward the front of the craft in an effort to reduce drag. He steered by moving a cradle attached to his hips. The cradle pulled wires which warped the wings and turned the rudder simultaneously. The Flyer‘s “runway” was a track of 2x4s stood on their narrow edge, which the brothers nicknamed the “Junction Railroad”. The craft was conceived as a control-canard, as the Wrights were more concerned with control than stability. However, it was found to be so highly unstable that it was barely controllable. Following the first flight, ballast was added to the nose to move the center of gravity forward and reduce pitch instability.
Upon returning to Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wrights completed assembly of the Flyer while practicing on the 1902 Glider from the previous season. On December 14, 1903, they felt ready for their first attempt at powered flight. With the help of men from the nearby government life-saving station, the Wrights moved the Flyer and its launching rail to the incline of a nearby sand dune, Big Kill Devil Hill, intending to make a gravity-assisted takeoff. The brothers tossed a coin to decide who would get the first chance at piloting, and Wilbur won. The airplane left the rail, but Wilbur pulled up too sharply, stalled, and came down in about three seconds with minor damage.
Repairs after the abortive first flight took three days. When they were ready again on December 17, the wind was averaging more than 20 miles per hour, so the brothers laid the launching rail on level ground, pointed into the wind, near their camp. This time the wind, instead of an inclined launch, helped provide the necessary airspeed for takeoff. Because Wilbur had already had the first chance, Orville took his turn at the controls. His first flight lasted 12 seconds for a total distance of 120 feet (36.5 meters) — shorter than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, as noted by observers in the 2003 commemoration of the first flight.
Taking turns, the Wrights made four brief, low-altitude flights that day. The flight paths were all essentially straight; turns were not attempted. Each flight ended in a bumpy and unintended “landing”. The last flight, by Wilbur, was 852 feet (260 meters) in 59 seconds, much longer than each of the three previous flights of 120, 175 and 200 feet. The landing broke the front elevator supports, which the Wrights hoped to repair for a possible four-mile (6 kilometer) flight to Kitty Hawk village.
The following is Orville Wright’s account of the final flight of the day:
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; 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
Five people witnessed the flights: Adam Etheridge, John T. Daniels (who snapped the famous “first flight” photo using Orville’s pre-positioned camera) and Will Dough, all of the U.S. government coastal lifesaving crew; area businessman W.C. Brinkley; and Johnny Moore, a teenaged boy who lived in the area. After the men hauled the Flyer back from its fourth flight, a powerful gust of wind flipped it over several times, despite the crew’s attempt to hold it down. Severely damaged, the airplane never flew again.
The Wrights sent a telegram about the flights to their father, requesting that he “inform press.” However, the Dayton Journal refused to publish the story, saying the flights were too short to be important. Meanwhile, against the brothers’ wishes, a telegraph operator leaked their message to a Virginia newspaper, which concocted a highly inaccurate news article that was reprinted the next day in several newspapers elsewhere, including Dayton. The Wrights issued their own factual statement to the press in January. Nevertheless, the flights did not create public excitement — if people even knew about them — and the news soon faded. In Paris, however, Aero Club of France members, already stimulated by Chanute’s reports of Wright gliding successes, took the news more seriously and increased their efforts to catch up to the brothers.
In 1904, the Wrights continued refining their designs and piloting techniques. They decided to avoid the expense of travel and bringing supplies to the Outer Banks and set up an airfield at Huffman Prairie, a cow pasture eight miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Dayton. Major progress toward their goal to obtain fully controlled flight was achieved 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 kilometer) nonstop circling flight on October 5. While the 1903 Flyer was clearly a historically important test vehicle, its hallowed status in the American imagination has obscured the role of its two successors in the continuing development that led to the Wrights’ mastery of controlled powered flight in 1905.
After a single statement to the press in January 1904 and a failed public demonstration in May, the Wright Brothers did not publicize their efforts, and other aviators who were working on the problem of flight (notably Alberto Santos-Dumont) were thought by the press to have preceded them by many years. Indeed, several short heavier-than-air powered flights had been made by other aviators before 1903, leading to controversy about precedence. The Wrights, however, claimed to be the first of these which was “properly controlled”.
The issue of control was correctly seen as critical by the Wrights, and they acquired a wide American patent intended to give them ownership of basic aerodynamic control, despite the brothers’ (and others in pioneer aviation circles) likely complete lack of knowledge of the aforementioned British technology patent from 1868. This was fought in both American and European courts. European designers, however, were little affected by the litigation and continued their own development. The legal fight in the U.S., however, had a crushing effect on the nascent American aircraft industry, and by the time of World War I, the U.S. had no suitable military aircraft and had to purchase French and British models.
The Wright Brothers returned home to Dayton for Christmas after the flights of the Flyer. While they had abandoned their other gliders, they realized the historical significance of the Flyer. They shipped the heavily damaged craft back to Dayton, where it remained stored in crates behind a Wright Company shed for \nine years. The Great Dayton Flood of March 1913 covered the airplane in mud and water for 11 days.
Charlie Taylor relates in a 1948 article that the Flyer nearly got disposed of by the Wrights themselves. In early 1912 Roy Knabenshue, The Wrights Exhibition team manager, had a conversation with Wilbur and asked Wilbur what they planned to do with the Flyer. Wilbur said they most likely will burn it, as they had the 1904 machine. According to Taylor, Knabenshue talked Wilbur out of disposing of the machine for historical purposes.
In 1910, the Wrights first made attempts to exhibit the Flyer in the Smithsonian Institution but talks fell through with the ensuing lawsuits against Glenn Curtiss and the Flyer may have been needed as repeated evidence in court cases. In 1916, as the patent fights were ending, Orville brought the aircraft out of storage and prepared it for display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Wilbur had died in 1912.) He replaced parts of the wing covering, the props, and the engine’s crankcase, crankshaft, and flywheel. The crankcase, crankshaft and flywheel of the original engine had been sent to the Aero Club of America in New York for an exhibit in 1906 and were never returned to the Wrights. The replacement crankcase, crankshaft and flywheel came from the experimental engine Charlie Taylor had built in 1904 and used for testing in the bicycle shop. A replica crankcase of the Flyer is on display at the visitor center at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
The Smithsonian Institution, and primarily its then-secretary Charles Walcott, refused to give credit to the Wright Brothers for the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft. Instead, they honored the former Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley, whose 1903 tests of his own Aerodrome on the Potomac were not successful. Walcott was a friend of Langley and wanted to see Langley’s place in aviation history restored. In 1914, Glenn Curtiss had recently exhausted the appeal process in a patent infringement legal battle with the Wrights. Curtiss sought to prove Langley’s machine, which failed piloted tests nine days before the Wrights successful flight in 1903, capable of controlled, piloted flight in an attempt to invalidate the Wright’s wide sweeping patents.
The Aerodrome was removed from exhibit at the Smithsonian and prepared for flight at Keuka Lake, New York. Curtis called the preparations “restoration” claiming that the only addition to the design was pontoons to support testing on the lake but critics including patent attorney Griffith Brewer called them alterations of the original design. Curtiss flew the modified Aerodrome hopping a few feet off the surface of the lake few no more than 5 seconds at at time.
Between 1916 and 1928, the Flyer was prepared and assembled for exhibition under the supervision of Orville by Wright Company mechanic Jim Jacobs several times. It was briefly exhibited at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916, the New York Aero Shows in 1917 and 1919, a Society of Automotive Engineers meeting in Dayton, Ohio in 1918, and the National Air Races in Dayton in 1924.
In 1925, Orville attempted to persuade the Smithsonian to recognize his and Wilbur’s accomplishment by offering to send the Flyer to the Science Museum in London. This action did not have its intended effect, and the airplane went on display in the London museum in 1928. It remained there in “the place of honour”, except during World War II when it was moved to an underground storage facility 100 miles (160 kilometers) from London, near the village of Corsham.
In 1942, the Smithsonian Institution, under a new secretary, Charles Abbot, published a list of 35 Curtiss modifications to the Aerodrome and a retraction of its long-held claims for the craft. Abbot went on to list four regrets including the role the Institution played in supporting unsuccessful defendants in patent litigation by the Wrights, misinformation about modifications made to the Aerodrome after the Wright Flyer‘s first flight and public statements attributing the “first aeroplane capable of sustained free flight with a man” to Secretary Langley. The entry in the 1942 Annual Report of Smithsonian Institution begins with the statement “It is everywhere acknowledged that the Wright brothers were the first to make sustained flights in a heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903” and closes with a promise that “Should Dr. Wright decide to deposit the plane … it would be given the highest place of honor which it is due”
The following year, Orville, after exchanging several letters with Abbott, agreed to return the Flyer to the United States. The Flyer stayed at the Science Museum until a replica could be built, based on the original. This change of heart by the Smithsonian is also mired in controversy — the airplane was sold to the Smithsonian under several contractual conditions, one of which reads:
“Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”
In 1948, the official handover of the Wright Flyer was made to the American Civil Air Attaché at a ceremony attended by representatives of the various flying organizations in the U.K. and by some British aviation pioneers such as Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe. Later in 1948, the Flyer was returned to the United States on board the RMS Mauretania. When the liner docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Paul E. Garber of the Smithsonian’s National Air Museum met the aircraft and took command of the proceedings. The rest of the journey to Washington continued on flatbed truck. While in Halifax, Garber met John A. D. McCurdy, at the time the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. McCurdy as a young man had been a member of Alexander Graham Bell’s team Aerial Experiment Association, which included Glenn Curtiss. During the stay at Halifax, Garber and McCurdy reminisced about the pioneer aviation days and the Wright Brothers. McCurdy also offered Garber any assistance he needed to get the Flyer home.
The Flyer was put on display in the Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after the aircraft’s only flights. Orville did not live to see this, as he died in January of that year. In 1976, it was moved to the Milestones of Flight Gallery of the new National Air and Space Museum. Since 2003, it has resided in a special exhibit in the museum titled “The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age”, honoring the Wright Brothers in recognition of the 100th anniversary of their first flight.
A piece of fabric and wood from the Wright Flyer was taken to the surface of the Moon by the crew of Apollo 11, the first lunar landing mission, in July 1969. This artifact is on display at the visitors center at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Separate portions of original wood and fabric were taken by North Carolina native astronaut Michael Smith aboard the space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51-L which was destroyed on liftoff. The portions of wood and fabric were recovered from the wreck of the shuttle and are on display at the North Carolina Museum of History.
In 1981, discussion began on the need to restore the Flyer from the aging it sustained after many decades on display. During the ceremonies celebrating the 78th anniversary of the first flights, Mrs. Harold S. Miller (Ivonette Wright, Lorin’s daughter), one of the Wright brothers’ nieces, presented the Museum with the original covering of one wing of the Flyer, which she had received in her inheritance from Orville. She expressed her wish to see the aircraft restored. The fabric covering on the aircraft at the time, which came from the 1927 restoration, was discolored and marked with water spots. Metal fasteners holding the wing uprights together had begun to corrode, marking the nearby fabric.
Work began in 1985. The restoration was supervised by Senior Curator Robert Mikesh and assisted by Wright Brothers expert Tom Crouch. Museum director Walter J. Boyne decided to perform the restoration in full view of the public. The wooden framework was cleaned, and corrosion on metal parts removed. The covering was the only part of the aircraft replaced. The new covering was more accurate to the original than that of the 1927 restoration. To preserve the original paint on the engine, the restorers coated it in inert wax before putting on a new coat of paint. The effects of the 1985 restoration were intended to last 75 years (to 2060) before another restoration would be required.
As the 100th anniversary on December 17, 2003 approached, the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission along with other organizations opened bids for companies to recreate the original flight. The Wright Experience, led by Ken Hyde, won the bid and painstakingly recreated reproductions of the original Flyer, plus many of the prototype gliders and kites as well as several subsequent Wright aircraft. The completed Flyer reproduction was brought to Kitty Hawk and pilot Kevin Kochersberger attempted to recreate the original flight at 10:35 AM December 17, 2003 on level ground near the bottom of Kill Devil Hill. Although the aircraft had previously made several successful test flights, sour weather, rain, and weak winds prevented a successful flight on the actual anniversary date. Hyde’s reproduction is displayed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Scott #3783 was released in a pressure-sensitive adhesive (PSA) souvenir sheet of ten stamps on May 22, 2003, in Dayton, Ohio, and Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The stamp, was designed and illustrated by McRay Magleby. The 37-cent stamp commemorates the 100th anniversary of the December 17, 1903, first powered flights by the Wright Flyer. It was printed in gravure process by Avery Dennison (AVR) located in Clinton, South Carolina, who printed 85 million copies of the stamp. The perforations are serpentine die cuts in a gauge of 11.