On this day in 1905, Wilbur Wright makes a record-setting airplane flight. His Flyer III would stay in the air for more than 38 minutes. The 24-mile flight was the longest one yet.
Perhaps most importantly to Wilbur and his brother Orville, the flight proved their Flyer III to be a “practical” airplane—the first aircraft to make such a demonstration.
As with any great entrepreneurs, the Wright brothers’ story is one of hard work, success—and failure. Naturally, those early failures proved critical in making the later successes possible.
The Flyer III flight came less than two years after the Wright brothers’ famous first flight at Kitty Hawk. That first flight had stayed in the air for all of 12 seconds! But on the fourth and final try for the day, Wilbur kept the plane airborne for just under a minute.
The day started well, but it ended on a bit of a sour note. After Wilbur’s last flight, the plane was caught and wrecked in a sudden gust of wind. It was just the first of many trials that the Wright brothers would face during the course of the next two years.
And yet they persevered.
In the months that followed, the Wright brothers built a new plane (Flyer II) and found a new location for their trial runs. But nothing seemed to be going right. The plane’s tail got smashed. A wing hit the ground during take-off. Rudders and propellers broke. Orville was injured during a crash.
Meanwhile, the media either misreported what the Wright brothers were doing—or else they were completely uninterested! One publisher later remembered reports that an “airship had been in the air . . . but our news staff would not believe the stories. Nor did they ever take the pains to go out to see.”
Others sometimes seemed just as disinterested. “History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home,” their nephew later wrote, “but the making was so obscured by the commonplace that I did not recognize it until many years later.”
In the midst of disappointment, the Wright brothers still experienced incremental successes. In September 1904, for example, Wilbur flew their plane in a complete circle. In October, a British agent inquired about the possibility of purchasing Flyer II. The Wrights preferred to give the U.S. government first dibs, but the U.S. declined. A “practical operation” was needed before it could commit to such a purchase.
That “practical” aircraft would come the following year, in the form of Flyer III.
Flyer III was sturdier than its predecessors, and it had a more powerful engine. Moreover, an early crash in July 1905 prompted Wilbur and Orville to redesign portions of the aircraft. The design changes worked wonders, and Flyer III immediately performed better. The small crashes that had plagued Flyer II went away, and the Wrights were able to consistently land their aircraft without damaging it. Finally, on October 5, 1905, Wilbur kept the plane in the air for just over 38 minutes. He landed only because he was running low on fuel.
The Wrights had persevered through hardship, learned from their mistakes, and kept their eyes on their goal, even when the rest of the world could not understand what they were doing. They reaped benefits during their lifetime, of course, but they also left a permanent mark on the world.
They were Americans doing what Americans do best: Imagining, creating, believing, persevering, and overcoming! Inspirational.
David McCullough: The Wright Brothers (2015)
Fred C. Kelly, The Wright Brothers: A Biography (1989)
Fred Howard, Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers (2011)
Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (1989)