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This Day in History: The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk

On this day in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright make the first sustained, powered flight of a heavier-than-air machine under the complete control of the pilot.

You might know the headline about their history-making flight at Kitty Hawk, but do you know the rest of their story? The Wright brothers’ story is a wonderful example of the entrepreneurial spirit that has made America great!

The brothers’ interest in aviation started early. Their father once gave them a rubber-band powered helicopter toy, and they spent hours examining it. The brothers studied its mechanics and soon figured out how to make their own copies. This method of self-study would serve them well in future years, because they never completed their formal education. As adults, they owned a bicycle and repair shop, but they used the repair rooms at the back of the shop to experiment with flight. They wrote the Smithsonian, asking for books. They observed flight in nature. For instance, they watched buzzards, which convinced them that it “is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.”

They started by making gliders. They tested and retested their gliders, slowly perfecting their ability to control and operate these machines. Soon, they decided they were ready to move on to powered flight.

At this point in aviation history, many inventors were focused on building large engines that could power through the air, basically trying to fly by brute force. The Wright brothers had different ideas. They instead focused on lighter engines that would rely on a pilot’s skill to maneuver in the air.

They took a plane to Kitty Hawk for a trial run on December 14, 1903. Wilbur was piloting that day, but the plane stalled and crashed. The brothers repaired the plane, and on December 17, it was Orville’s turn to try. Orville managed to get that plane up in the air for 12 seconds! The brothers gave the plane several more tries, taking turns on who would pilot the craft. On the fourth try, Wilbur flew the plane for just under a minute.

Orville described the final trip: “At just 12 o’clock Will started on the fourth and last trip. The machine started off with its ups and downs as it had before, but by the time he had gone over three or four hundred feet he had it under much better control, and was traveling on a fairly even course. It proceeded in this manner till it reached a small hummock out about 800 feet from the starting ways, when it began its pitching again and suddenly darted into the ground.”

The rough landing damaged the plane. Matters were complicated still further when the plane rolled over in a sudden gust of wind. No more attempts could be made that day, but the brothers had accomplished an important feat. Other inventors began working to catch up with them. In the meantime, the Wright brothers sought a patent for their work. And they conducted tests that were even more successful than those flown at Kitty Hawk. For instance, they flew the first circular route in 1904. They soon achieved a military contract to build a plane.

Wilbur once wrote that he had a “disease” because he was “afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.” But hard work and perseverance turned that “disease” into something beautiful. Orville and Wilbur turned the “impossible” into “possible.” And, today, 112 years later, the “possible,” has become normal—even boring and routine.

American ingenuity at work!

P.S. Please note that there is a competing claim to the Wright brother’s title to be the first in flight, but I am going with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on this one.

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