For millennia, people have been fascinated by the concept of human flight. From the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus to the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, aviation was perceived as an ambitious, yet highly unrealistic, goal to attain. While advances in aeronautics manifested over time (such as the invention of the hot air balloon in 1783), powered flight remained elusive to humankind into the early 20th century. That is, until two brothers from Ohio—Orville and Wilbur Wright—decided to try their luck in conquering the airways.
Wilbur (b. April 16, 1867) and Orville (b. August 19, 1871) were the sons of Susan and Milton Wright, two of seven children born of the couple. The boys spent most of their childhood growing up in Dayton, Ohio, though the Wright family moved around a considerable amount due to Milton’s work as a bishop. Before getting involved in aviation, the brothers owned and operated a printing business and a bicycle shop.
The brothers were captivated by science and technology from a young age and both had a particular affinity for aviation. Their greatest influence in the ever-evolving field was German aeronaut Otto Lilienthal. Between 1891 and 1896, Lilienthal made over 2,000 successful glider flights and compiled scores of data relating to aerodynamics and physical properties of aircraft. Tragically, he was killed in a gliding accident on August 9, 1896. The Wright brothers would later recall that Lilienthal’s death peaked their interest in flight and aeronautic research.
Orville and Wilbur used their aforementioned bicycle shop to fund their experiments and their associated mechanical skills to construct aircraft. They were able to develop balance and propulsion systems using bicycle mechanisms and built glider prototypes out of the lightweight, sturdy materials used to assemble bicycles.
In order to make a successful flight, the brothers had to construct a machine that had wings for lift, an engine for power, and control systems for balance and steer. While most aeronautical inventors of the day focused on power generation for takeoff, the Wright brothers focused on control. Establishing competency behind the control mechanisms would not only sustain flight once achieved, but also reduce the risk of accidents. The mounting number of deaths resulting from failed flight attempts in the late 1800s only reinforced that notion.
The brothers studied contemporary aerodynamic research and observed birds in flight to gain more knowledge on control mechanisms. During their observations, they noticed that birds twisted their wings to make banking turns instead of rotating about a single vertical axis (called yaw). The brothers called this phenomenon “wing-warping.” In 1899, they tested this concept with kites and discovered that wing manipulation did indeed allow for greater steadiness and control.
Before advancing to manned experiments, the Wright brothers needed to find a place with optimal gliding conditions…someplace with few obstructions, strong and steady winds, silty soil for soft landings, and isolation. They contacted the U.S. Weather Bureau for potential locations. After calculating logistics, they decided on Kitty Hawk, North Carolina as their ideal location. Kitty Hawk was a small fishing village of 60 people and only accessible by boat at the time.
Wilbur arrived in Kitty Hawk on September 11, 1900. Orville arrived shortly after on September 28. They set up camp at the base of Big Kill Devil Hill—a monstrous sand dune that towers over the flat and sandy landscape. The brothers were only there together in Kitty Hawk for a month, but successfully flew their kites a dozen times. The kites they glided were biplane (two decks of wings), 17 feet long, and weighed 52 pounds. Each flight covered a length between 300 and 400 feet. While their glider experienced complications with lift and control, the brothers felt like they were on the right track.
Orville and Wilbur left Kitty Hawk on October 28 and did not return until the following summer. They constructed a bigger (and supposedly better) glider that spanned 22 feet in length and weighed 98 pounds. This 1901 glider also featured an elevator, which adjusted the pitch (up/down) of its nose, in an effort to address the lift and control issues the previous model exhibited. However, complications still arose. In one instance, on August 9, 1901, Wilbur crashed the glider and broke several ribs. The lack of improvement and frustrating results were discouraging for the brothers, especially Wilbur, who remarked “[m]an will not fly for a thousand years.”
Shortly after his departure from Kitty Hawk, Wilbur received an invitation from the Western Society of Engineers to speak about aviation at their upcoming convention that September. He originally wanted to decline the invitation—still disheartened from the 1901 glider trials—but reluctantly decides to go thanks to some considerable persuasion from his sister, Katharine. While attending the conference, Wilbur realizes that he and Orville know more about aeronautics than anyone else, as the topics he discussed in his speech flew over the audience’s heads (pun intended). This bolstered the Wright brothers’ confidence and rejuvenated their desire to achieve flight.
The brothers decided to recalculate Lilienthal’s data tables on lift and drag coefficients later that October. They created a six-foot wind tunnel in their bike shop and attached it to a 1 horsepower engine, which generated wind speeds of 20-30 mph. They proceeded to test dozens of miniature wings made of bike spokes and scrap metal and found Lilienthal’s data to be flawed. Lilienthal calculated Smeaton’s coefficient (the density of air) to be 0.005, but the Wright brothers concluded it was closer to 0.0033. The higher number exaggerated the expected lift.
With the new data, the Wright brothers constructed a new glider and returned to Kitty Hawk the following year. The 1902 glider was 32 feet long, 112 pounds, and featured a mobile vertical rudder attached to the pilot’s hip cradle. The brothers made over 1000 successful glides with this model—the longest of which was 622.5 feet—and achieved full control of the aircraft. They filed a patent for their glider design in March 1903.
After finalizing the plane’s design, the brothers shifted their focus to an engine, the source of thrust for takeoff. Their plane would only be capable of lift off if the engine was under 200 pounds, at least 8 horsepower, and had minimal vibration. No automobile or machinery company would fill their order, so the brothers recruited their bicycle mechanic, Charles E. Taylor, to take on the task. Although Taylor had no experience working with engines, he applied his mechanical knowledge and assembled an aluminum-cast, 170-pound, 12 horsepower engine in May 1903.
The Wright brothers constructed their plane in Dayton and shipped it to Kitty Hawk in pieces where it was reassembled. This model, named The Flyer, was 40 feet long, 605 pounds, and featured a three-axis control system—a rudder in the back to control yaw (side-to-side), an elevator that controlled pitch, and a hip cradle that allowed wing warp (banking).
The brothers’ first attempt to fly came on December 14, 1903. They tossed a coin to see who would perform the first trial. Wilbur won. They push the plane up to the top of Big Kill Devil Hill and ignite the engine. Wilbur steers the aircraft down the hill, but pulls up too quickly and immediately stalls out. The plane crashes back to the sand, causing minor damage to the elevator. It would take three days to repair.
On December 17, 1903, with a headwind of 27 mph and a wind chill below zero, the Wright brothers make their second attempt at flight. This time, it was Orville’s turn to man the machine. Instead of starting at the top of Big Kill Devil Hill like last time, the brothers attached the plane to a sixty-foot launch rail at the base of the hill.
At 10:35 a.m., the brothers pulled down the propellers in unison and ignited the engine. Orville hopped into the craft while Wilbur ran alongside to keep it steady. After traveling forty feet down the launch rail, the plane lifts off the ground and flies 120 feet in 12 seconds. Mankind’s first free, controlled, and sustained flight in a power-driven, heavier-than-air machine had been achieved.
The brothers flew their plane a total of four times on that historic day, with each launch outdistancing the last. Wilbur manned flight two at 11:20 a.m. and flew 175 feet in 12 seconds. Orville took flight three and traveled 200 feet in 15 seconds. Wilbur flew the fourth and final flight at noon, covering 852 feet in 59 seconds. Before they could perform a fifth flight, a gust of wind flipped The Flyer over and damaged the frame beyond repair.
Surprisingly, there was little public excitement over the feat. In fact, the Wrights were met with profound skepticism. The Dayton Journal refused to publish their accomplishment, citing that the flights were “too short.” Virginia newspaper editors who caught wind of the Wright brothers’ achievement exaggerated the story, saying they flew for miles. However, their attempts at fabrication still yielded little interest.
Following the successful Kitty Hawk flights, the brothers returned home to Dayton and continued to work on and improve their planes. The constructed the Flyer II, which flew 1300 feet and made the world’s first circular flight on September 20, 1904. By 1905, the brothers built a model that could fly over 24 miles.
The Wright brothers made no flights in 1906 and 1907 as they tried to sell their inventions to U.S. and foreign governments. In 1908, the brothers decided to demonstrate their Flyers to prospective buyers in Le Mans and Paris, France, and Washington D.C. Their flights wowed audiences and their endeavors garnered international acclaim.
On September 17, 1908, Orville conducted a demonstration of the brothers’ Model A Flyer in Fort Myer, Virginia. He had Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge fly as passenger. When the pair reached an altitude of 100 feet, one of the propellers split and shattered and caused the vessel to careen into the ground. Orville suffered a broken left leg, several broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, and a dislocated hip. Selfridge suffered a fractured skull and later died of his injuries in an Army hospital, making him the first airplane casualty.
In 1909, the Wright brothers were honored for their achievements in aviation by President William Howard Taft. That same year, they founded the Wright Company and the Wright Brothers’ Flying School at Huffman Prairie. The brothers would continue to make flights over the next few years, but spent the majority of their time focusing on entrepreneurial and administrative interests.
On one of his return trips from Europe, Wilbur contracted typhoid fever and never fully recovered. He died on May 30, 1912. Orville succeeded Wilbur as president of their company and sold it in 1915. He would serve on numerous aviation and advisory boards until his death on January 30, 1948.
Kitty Hawk and the entire Outer Banks region has changed considerably since the days of the Wright brothers. Fortunately, the National Park Service has taken great efforts to preserve the land surrounding Big Kill Devil Hill, allowing tourists to explore the historic grounds of first flight. General admission to the park is $10.
Once inside the park, I suggest stopping off at the Visitor Center first. There, you can learn more about the lives of the Wright brothers, the designs of their aircraft, and see a reproduction model of their 1903 Flyer. Afterwards, you can take a footpath down to the reconstructed camp, workshop buildings, and flight markers. The First Flight Boulder, the largest of the markers, was commemorated on the 25th anniversary of the first flight and marks the approximate point of takeoff. The ceremony attracted over 3,000 people from 40 countries.
To the left of the First Flight Boulder is the domineering Wright Brothers Monument perched upon Big Kill Devil Hill. This 60-foot monument honors the Wright Brothers and the thousands of glider experiments they performed on the hill.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial Park is an incredible destination to visit. There are no words to describe how significant this site is in the course of human history. Kitty Hawk marks the place where the mankind changed forever, where the Wright brothers attained the impossible and taught the world how to fly.
For more information on the Wright Brothers, check out the National Park website and the Smithsonian's online exhibit!
Visit the Library of Congress website to view primary documents about the Wright brothers and their achievements!