Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kitty Hawk, NC

“Learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician. After you know what to look for you see things that you did not notice when you did not know exactly what to look for.” – Orville Wright

Everyone knows that the Wright Brothers made the first successful airplane flight but few know the true extent of their fascinating story. It began when the boys were 11 years old and their father returned from a business trip with a gift for the boys: a small toy Pénaud Flying Model.

The boys were fascinated right from the start. As is common with boys of that age, they played with the toy a few hours before breaking it. Unlike many children, instead of throwing it aside and taking up a new toy, the boys repaired the model.

Some time later they broke it again. And repaired it again. And again. And again. In all, they are said to have repaired the model dozens of times. Eventually, they began making improvements to it. They made larger versions. They began playing with the propeller designs.

Model of Wright Brothers Plane

Model of Wright Brothers Plane

This, of course, didn’t lead immediately to the development of their now famous airplane, but it did touch off a fascination with the wonders of flight. It was also one of the earliest demonstrations of their bent toward engineering.

The Wright Brothers were meticulous researchers and experimenters. They studied all the literature of their day that had been published on the subject of aeronautics. Based on what they learned of wing design theories of the time, they began to build gliders. The gliders were a miserable failure.

Reasoning that it was the theories themselves which were flawed and not their application of them, the brothers returned to their research and began studying all that was known of birds. They uncovered several crucial differences between bird flight and what was believed about glider flight at that time.

The brothers took their ideas one step further, inventing and building the world’s first wind tunnel. In their wind tunnel, the brothers could build scale models of wings, aerofoils and gliders. Here, they measured characteristics such as lift and drag.

In all, the brothers tested more than 200 different wing designs. They kept meticulous notes and tables on each. This enabled them, in 1901, to build a glider far superior to any others known at the time. By the end of 1902, the Wright Brothers held every world record there was for gliding. They held records for distance, altitude, glider speed, wind speed, duration aloft, acrobatics, controlled landing and countless others.

On the surface, it seemed a simple matter to just add a motor and turn their magnificent glider into a powered airplane.

Automobile manufacturers of the day would have been all too happy to sell the brothers just an engine used to power one of their automobiles. The problem was that typical engines of that era weighed approximately 800 pounds and generated just eight horsepower.

The brothers turned to the head machinist at their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. They challenged him to come up with a better design. He did. The motor that Charles Taylor built weighed less than 200 pounds and had 12 horsepower.

Initially, the brothers thought of using boat propellers to power their new plane but quickly realized that such propellers could not provide sufficient thrust. Returning to their wind tunnel, it didn’t take long for them to discover that the best propeller was little more than a wing turned on its end and given a slight twist. The hand-made wooden propellers the brothers developed are actually only about 5% less efficient than the most modern propellers in use on airplanes today.

They flipped a coin to determine who would get to fly first.

World famous photo of the Wright Brothers' first flight. 1903

Both Wright Brothers were known to be avid photographers. Their hobby helped in documenting their history-making march toward flight.
On December 17, 1903, because both brothers would be engaged in getting their plane off the ground, they enlisted a bystander to photograph the attempt. As one brother oversaw readying of the plane, the other meticulously set up the camera and gave the impromptu photographer a quick lesson in how to take the picture.
In the jubilant celebration that followed that first flight, the photographer honestly could not remember whether or not he’d snapped the shutter. It wasn’t until 12 days later, after they had returned to Ohio and developed the film in their lab at home that the brothers found they had a perfectly exposed and almost perfectly composed picture which would ultimately be seen throughout the world by countless generations.

Wilbur won. Thinking he would “aid” their craft in getting off the ground, Wilbur overcompensated with the controls. The plane went almost straight up. Another overcompensation brought it straight down to a crash landing. Repairs would take several days and it would be December 17th before Orville got his chance to try.

Learning from his brother’s earlier experience, Orville was a bit more subtle with the controls. That first flight lasted all of 12 seconds. Still, it was enough to make history. A heavier-than-air craft had taken off under its own power, traveled 120 feet in a controlled manner, then made a controlled landing.

A second flight with Wilbur at the controls also lasted about 12 seconds but went 175 feet. Orville piloted the third flight 200 feet and stayed aloft 15 seconds.

The brothers had set a goal of 300 feet. They reasoned a flight of that distance could not be written off by the press as merely gliding.

Continuing with their pattern of alternating turns at the controls, Wilbur took the plane up for its fourth flight. He was up 59 seconds and took the plane 852 feet, shattering all their expectations.

Excited, the brothers quickly set a new goal. After breaking for lunch, they would ready the plane for Orville to fly it a full four miles to the town of Kitty Hawk, where they would make their triumphant announcement at having achieved flight.

In their excitement at the morning’s accomplishments and their rush to get in from the unforgiving 23 degree winds, they did not tie down the plane. A midday gust of December wind picked up their craft and tossed it like a toy. The plane was irreparably damaged.

Sixty-six years later, in homage to the wonderful accomplishment which made not only airplane flight but later also space flight possible, as he took his historic first steps on the moon, Neil Armstrong carried in his pocket a sliver of wood and a scrap of fabric from that original Wright Brothers Flyer.


Memorial Marker

Stone marking where the first flight took place.

The site selection for both the glider and airplane experiments wasn’t made by chance. Around 1899, when preparing for the first full-scale glider experiments, the brothers wrote to the National Weather Service to ask for a list of places with the most sustained winds. Number six on that list not only had the specific type and speed of winds they needed, but had all the other important characteristics they sought as well: undeveloped areas, no trees, no rocks, lots of soft sand, gentle rolling hills and it was out of the eye of the press who might be tempted to report on any failed experiments.

Even in 1899 there was already a town established at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The actual flight experiments took place about four miles to the south in a then-undeveloped area known as Kill Devil Hills.

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