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The Wright Brothers Make the First Flight

At Kitty Hawk, North Carolina


Picture of Orville and Wilbur Wright, also known as the Wright Brothers.

Orville Wright (1871-1948) and his brother Wilbur Wright (1867-1912)

(Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
At 10:35 a.m. on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright flew the Flyer for 12 seconds over 120 feet of ground. This flight, conducted on Kill Devil Hill just outside of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was the very first flight by a manned, controlled, heavier-than-air aircraft that flew under it's own power. In other words, it was the first flight of an airplane.

Who Were the Wright Brothers?

Wilbur Wright (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948) were brothers who ran both a printing shop and a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. The skills they learned from working on printing presses and bicycles were invaluable in trying to design and build a working airplane.

Although the brothers' interest in flight had stemmed from a small helicopter toy from their childhood, they didn't begin experimenting with aeronautics until 1899, when Wilbur was 32 and Orville was 28.

Wilbur and Orville began by studying aeronautical books, then talked with civil engineers, and then began to build kites.

Wing Warping

Wilbur and Orville Wright studied the designs and accomplishments of other experimenters but soon realized that no one had yet found a way to control aircraft while in the air. By studiously observing birds in flight, the Wright brothers came up with the concept of wing warping.

Wing warping allowed the pilot to control the roll of the plane (horizontal movement) by raising or lowering flaps located along the plane's wingtips. For instance, by raising up one flap and lowering the other, the plane would then begin to bank (turn).

The Wright brothers tested their ideas using kites and then, in 1900, built their first glider.

Testing at Kitty Hawk

Needing a place that had regular winds, hills, and sand (to provide a soft landing), the Wright brothers selected Kitty Hawk in North Carolina to conduct their tests.

Wilbur and Orville Wright took their glider into the Kill Devil Hills, located just south of Kitty Hawk and flew it. However, the glider did not do as well as they had hoped. In 1901, they built another glider and tested it, but it too did not work well.

Realizing that the problem was in the experimental data they had used from others, they decided to conduct their own experiments. To do so, they went back to Dayton, Ohio and built a small wind tunnel.

With the information gained from their own experiments in the wind tunnel, Wilbur and Orville built another glider in 1902. This one, when tested, did exactly what the Wrights expected. Wilbur and Orville Wright had successfully solved the problem of control in flight.

Next they needed to build an aircraft that had both control and motorized power.

The Wright Brothers Build the Flyer

Since no manufacturers were willing to build an engine to the Wrights' specifications, Wilbur and Orville decided to build one themselves. Somewhat haphazardly, they managed to put together a 4-cylinder, 12 horsepower, gasoline engine that weighed less than 200 pounds.

When the engine was completed, Wilbur and Orville placed this into their newly built, 21-foot long, spruce-and-ash framed Flyer. With the finished product weighing 600 pounds, the Wright brothers hoped that the motor would be strong enough to lift the plane.

It was time to test their new controlled, motorized aircraft.

The December 14, 1903 Test

Wilbur and Orville Wright traveled to Kitty Hawk in September 1903. Technical difficulties and weather problems delayed the first test until December 14, 1903.

Wilbur and Orville flipped a coin to see who would get to make the first test flight and Wilbur won. However, there wasn't enough wind that day, so the Wright brothers took the Flyer up to a hill and flew it. Although it did take flight, it crashed at the end and needed a couple of days to repair.

Nothing definitive was gained from this flight since the Flyer had taken off from a hill.

The First Flight at Kitty Hawk

On December 17, 1903, the Flyer was fixed and ready to go. The weather was cold and windy, with winds reported around 20 to 27 miles per hour.

The brothers tried to wait until the weather improved but by 10 a.m. it had not, so they decided to try a flight anyway.

The two brothers, plus several helpers, set up the 60-foot monorail track that helped keep the Flyer in line for lift-off. Then Orville clambered on board for it was his turn to be pilot.

The biplane, which had a 40-foot 4-inch wingspan, was ready to go. At 10:35 a.m. the Flyer started off with Orville as pilot. Wilbur ran alongside holding onto one wing to help stabilize the plane. Around 40 feet along the track, the Flyer took flight, staying in the air for 12 seconds and traveling 120 feet from liftoff.

They had done it. They had made the very first flight with a manned, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.

Three More Flights That Day

The men were excited about their triumph but they were not done for the day. They went back inside to warm up by a fire and then went back outside for three more flights.

The fourth and final flight proved their best. During that last flight, Wilbur piloted the Flyer for 59 seconds over 852 feet.

After the fourth test flight, a strong gust of wind blew the Flyer over, making it tumble and breaking it so severely that it would be months before the Wrights could make another flight.

Over the next several years, the Wright Brothers would continue perfecting their airplane designs but would suffer a major setback in 1908 when they were involved in the first fatal airplane crash.

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