Wednesday, December 17, 2014

First Flight Day: December 17, 1903

The 27-mph wind was harder than they would have liked, since their predicted cruising speed was only 30-35 mph. The headwind would slow their ground speed to a crawl, but they proceeded anyway. With a sheet, they signaled the volunteers from the nearby lifesaving station that they were about to try again. 

Now it was Orville's turn. Remembering Wilbur's experience, he positioned himself and tested the controls. The stick that moved the horizontal elevator controlled climb and descent. The cradle that he swung with his hips warped the wings and swung the vertical tails, which in combination turned the machine. A lever controlled the gas flow and airspeed recorder. The controls were simple and few, but Orville knew it would take all his finesse to handle the new and heavier aircraft. At 10:35, he released the restraining wire. The flyer moved down the rail as Wilbur steadied the wings. Just as Orville left the ground, John Daniels from the lifesaving station snapped the shutter on a preset camera, capturing the historic image of the airborne aircraft with Wilbur running alongside. 

The Wright Flyer begins its first successful flight, December 17, 1903

Again, the flyer was unruly, pitching up and down as Orville overcompensated with the controls. But he kept it aloft until it hit the sand about 120 feet from the rail. Into the 27-mph wind, the ground speed had been 6.8 mph, for a total airspeed of 34 mph. The brothers took turns flying three more times that day, getting a feel for the controls and increasing their distance with each flight. Wilbur's second flight - the fourth and last of the day – was an impressive 852 feet in 59 seconds.

This was the real thing, transcending the powered hops and glides others had achieved. The Wright machine had flown.

Monuments spanning the 120 feet of  the first flight

For comprehensive information on this historic event visit the National Park Services Wright Brothers National Memorial web page.


1903 photograph, unrestored version: Library of Congress

Monuments photo; text: National Park Service, Wright Brothers National Memorial

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