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getting ready for first flight
Getting ready for the first flight, Dec. 17, 1903. From a diorama in the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center.

December 17, 1903: The Day Man First Flew

Thursday, December 17 dawned, and was to go down in history as a day when a great engineering feat was accomplished. It was a cold day with winds of 22 to 27 miles an hour blowing from the north. Puddles of water near the camp were covered with ice. The Wrights waited indoors, hoping the winds would diminish. But they continued brisk, and at 10 in the morning the brothers decided to attempt a flight, fully realizing the difficulties and dangers of flying a relatively untried machine in so high a wind.

In strong winds, hills were not needed to launch the machine since the force of the winds would enable the machine to take off on the short starting track from level ground. Indeed, the winds were almost too gusty to launch the machine at all that day, but the brothers estimated that the added dangers while in flight would be compensated in part by the slower speed in landing caused by flying into stiff winds. As a safety precaution, they decided to fly as close to the ground as possible. They were superb flyers, courageous, but never foolhardy.

A signal was again displayed to notify the men at the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station that further trials were intended. They took the machine out of the hanger, and laid the 60-foot starting track in a south-to-north direction on a smooth stretch of level ground less than 100 feet west of the hanger and more than 1,000 feet north of Kill Devil Hill. They chose this location for the trials because the ground had recently been covered with water, and because it was so level that little preparation was necessary to lay the track. Both the starting track and the machine resting on the truck faced directly into the north wind. The restraining wire was attached from the truck to the south end of the track.

Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station
Crew members of the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station, about 1900. In 1903, lifesavers from this station witnessed the attempt on December 14 and saw the successful flights of December 17.

Before the brothers were quite ready to fly the machine, John T. Daniels, Willie S. Dough, and Adam D. Etheridge, personnel from the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station, arrived to see the trials; with them came William C. Brinkley of Manteo, and John T. Moore, a boy from Nags Head. The right to the first trial belonged to Orville; Wilbur had used his turn in the unsuccessful attempt on December 14. Orville put his camera on a tripod before climbing aboard the machine, and told Daniels to press the button when the machine had risen directly in front of the camera.

After running the engine and propellers a few minutes, the take off attempt was ready. At 10:35 a.m., Orville lay prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle that operated the control mechanisms. He released the restraining wire and the machine started down the 60-foot track, traveling slowly into the headwind at about 7 or 8 miles an hour—so slow that Wilbur was able to run along side holding the right wing to balance the machine on the track. After a run of 40 feet on the track, the machine took off. When the airplane had risen about 2 feet above ground, Daniels snapped the famous photograph of the conquest of the air. The plane then climbed 10 feet into the sky, while Orville struggled with the controlling mechanisms to keep it from rising too high in such an irregular, gusty wind.

first flight
The first flight.

Orville sought to fly a level flight course, though buffeted by the strong headwind. However, when turning the rudder up or down, the plane turned too far either way and flew an erratic up-and-down course, first quickly rising about 10 feet, then suddenly darting close to the ground. The first successful flight ended with a sudden dart to the ground after having flown 120 feet from the take-off point in 12 seconds time at a groundspeed of 6.8 miles an hour and an airspeed of 30 miles an hour. In the words of Orville Wright:

This flight lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.

Orville found that the new, almost untried, controlling mechanisms operated more powerfully than the previous controls he had used in gliders. He also learned that the front rudder was balanced too near the center. Because of its tendency to turn itself when started, the unfamiliar powered machine's front rudder turned more than was necessary.

The airplane had been slightly damaged on landing. Quick repairs were made. With the help of the onlookers, the machine was brought back to the track and prepared for a second flight. Wilbur took his turn at 11:20 a.m., and flew about 175 feet in about 12 seconds. He also flew an up-and-down course, similar to the first flight, while operating the unfamiliar controls. The speed over the ground during the second flight was slightly faster than that of the first flight because the winds were diminishing. The airplane was carried back to the starting track and prepared for a third flight.

third flight
Third flight of Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright at the controls. No photograph was taken of the day's second flight, in which Wilbur Wright was operator.

At 11:40 a.m., Orville made the third flight, flying a steadier course than that of the two previous flights. All was going nicely when a sudden gust of wind from the side lifted the airplane higher by 12 to 15 feet, turning it sidewise in an alarming manner. With the plane flying sidewise, Orville warped the wingtips to recover lateral balance, and pointed the plane down to land as quickly as possible. The new lateral control was more effective than he had expected. The plane not only leveled off, but the wing that had been high dropped more than he had intended, and it struck the ground shortly before the plane landed. The third flight was about 200 feet in about 15 seconds.

fourth flight
End of fourth and longest flight of Dec. 17, 1903. Distance: 852 feet; time: 59 seconds.

Wilbur started on the fourth flight at noon. He flew the first few hundred feet on an up-and-down course similar to the first two flights. But after flying 300 feet from the take-off point, the airplane was brought under control. The plane flew a fairly even course for an additional 500 feet, with little undulation to disturb its level flight. While in flight about 800 feet from the take-off point, the airplane commenced pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The fourth flight measured 852 feet over the ground; the time in the air was 59 seconds.

The four successful flights made on December 17 were short because the Wrights, not desiring to fly a new machine at much height in strong winds, sometimes found it impossible to correct the up-and-down motion of the airplane before it struck the ground. Wilbur remarked:

Those who understand the real significance of the conditions under which we worked will be surprised rather at the length than the shortness of the flights made with an unfamiliar machine after less than one minute's practice. The machine possesses greater capacity of being controlled than any of our former machines.

last flight
Close-up of 1903 machine at end of last flight, rudder frame broken in landing.Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution.

They carried the airplane back to camp and set it up a few feet west of the hangar. While the Wrights and onlookers were discussing the flights, a sudden gust of wind struck the plane and turned it over a number of times, damaging it badly. The airplane could not be repaired in time for any more flights that year; indeed, it was never flown again. Daniels gained the dubious honor of becoming the first airplane casualty when he was slightly scratched and bruised while caught inside the machine between the wings in an attempt to stop the plane as it rolled over. Subsequent events were vivid in Daniels' mind while reminiscing of his "first—and God help me—my last flight." He relates:

I found myself caught in them wires and the machine blowing across the beach heading for the ocean, landing first on one end and then on the other, rolling over and over, and me getting more tangled up in it all the time. I tell you, I was plumb scared. When the thing did stop for half a second I nearly broke up every wire and upright getting out of it.

Orville Wright wired his father to announce the successful flights of Dec. 17, 1905.

Orville made this matter-of-fact entry in his diary: "After dinner we went to Kitty Hawk to send off telegram to M. W. While there we called on Capt. and Mrs. Hobbs, Dr. Cogswell and the station men." Toward evening that day Bishop Milton Wright in Dayton received the telegram from his sons:

Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty-one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty-one miles longest 57 seconds inform press home Christmas. Orevelle Wright.

In the transmission of the telegram, 57 seconds was incorrectly given for the 59-second record flight, and Orville's name was misspelled. The Norfolk telegraph operator leaked the news to a local paper, the Virginian-Pilot. The resulting story produced a series of false reports as to the length and duration of the December 17 flights. Practically none of the information contained in the telegram was used, except that the Wrights had flown.

The Bishop gave out a biographical note:

Wilbur is 36, Orville 32, and they are as inseparable as twins. For several years they have read up on aeronautics as a physician would read his books, and they have studied, discussed, and experimented together. Natural workmen, they have invented, constructed, and operated their gliders, and finally their 'Wright Flyer,' jointly, all at their own personal expense. About equal credit is due each.

The world took little note of the Wrights' tremendous achievement and years passed before its full significance was realized. After reading the Wrights' telegram, the Associated Press representative in Dayton remarked, "Fifty-seven seconds, hey? If it had been fifty-seven minutes then it might have been a news item." Three years after the first flight an editorial appeared in the December 15, 1906, issue of the Scientific American, which included the following:

In all the history of invention, there is probably no parallel to the unostentatious manner in which the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio, ushered into the world their epoch-making invention of the first successful aeroplane flying-machine.




Orville Wright's showing Dec. 17, 1903 entry. This account is the only contemporary written record of these momentous flights.


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