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Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Wright Brothers Take Flight, December 17, 1903

Today in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful flight of their new airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although the flight only lasted 12 seconds and flew only 120 feet, it ushered in the age of flight.

At first glance, the Wright brothers don’t quite seem to be the inventor type. But anyone making that assumption would be wrong. They ran a bicycle repair shop (which they opened in 1892), but they also built and worked on printing presses. There were few things mechanical that the brothers could not fix or even make better.

The Wrights had a great interest in gliders. Many experimenters all over the world had built and flown (with varying degrees of success) gliders, but problems persisted. The big challenge was controlling a craft once it was airborne. Until this vexing problem could be solved, powered flight by a heavier-than-air plane would remain a fantasy.

The brothers chose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina instead of their hometown of Dayton, Ohio because Kitty Hawk offered steady winds year-round and many sand dunes to cushion a hard landing. They first visited the site in 1900 with an early glider design that faired poorly. They returned in 1901 with a more successful design. Still not happy with their product, they built a wind tunnel at home and tested more than 200 designs. When they again traveled to Kitty Hawk in 1902 with yet another glider, they made hundreds of successful flights and solved the problem of control by installing a moving rudder steering system. Finally, they were ready to add an engine.

Not happy with any of the engines currently in production, the Wrights designed a 12-horsepower model with the help of machinist Charles Taylor. Instead of mounting the engine to one of their gliders, they built an entirely new aircraft, then took it apart for the trip to Kitty Hawk. They arrived in the village in the fall of 1903 and, after putting their plane back together, tested the engine and steering mechanism. Their first attempt at flight came on December 14th, but the engine stalled on takeoff and the plane sustained some damage (although Orville, who was at the controls, was unharmed). They fixed the damage in three days and were ready to try again on the morning of December 17th.

Besides the Wrights, only five other human beings witnessed the event that morning. The craft used a monorail to keep it steady on the ground until it developed enough speed for takeoff. The first flight of 120 feet probably seemed anti-climactic to the onlookers, but history was being made. Orville and Wilbur flew three more flights that day, alternating turns behind the controls. The last flight covered 852 and lasted nearly one minute.

Aviation fired the world’s imagination in a very short time. In 1909, the US Army purchased a plane from the Wrights, the first of many they would buy from the newly-formed Wright Company. Only two decades would pass before commercial aviation came into being. Thirty-five years after that, human beings were traveling into space.

Unfortunately, Wilbur Wright did not live to see his invention become commonplace; he died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville lived until 1948, long enough to witness the dawn of the jet age.

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