The Wright Brothers Make the First Flight

At Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

The very first motorized, control flight.
Wilbur and Orville Wright and the first powered flight, North Carolina, December 17 1903. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/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 its 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. Next, they built 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

The Wrights needed an engine that would be powerful enough to lift a plane from the ground, but not weigh it down significantly. After contacting a number of engine manufacturers and not finding any engines light enough for their task, the Wrights realized that in order to get an engine with the specifications they needed, they must design and build their own.

While the Wilbur and Orville Wright designed the engine, it was the clever and able Charlie Taylor, a machinist who worked with the Wright brothers in their bicycle shop, who built it -- carefully crafting each individual, unique piece.

With little experience working with engines, the three men managed to put together a 4-cylinder, 8 horsepower, gasoline engine that weighed 152 pounds in just six weeks. However, after some testing, the engine block cracked. It took another two months to make a new one, but this time, the engine had a whopping 12 horsepower.

Another engineering struggle was determining the shape and size of the propellers. Orville and Wilbur would constantly discuss the intricacies of their engineering problems. Although they hoped to find solutions in nautical engineering books, they ultimately discovered their own answers through trial, error, and lots of discussion.

When the engine was completed and the two propellers created, Wilbur and Orville placed these into their newly built, 21-foot long, spruce-and-ash framed Flyer.

With the finished product weighing 605 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 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. Since Wilbur had won the coin toss on December 14, it was Orville's turn to pilot. Orville clambered onto the Flyer, laying flat on his tummy on the middle of the bottom wing.

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 and Wilbur rrunning along the right side, holding onto the lower 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 never be flown again. 

After Kitty Hawk

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. In this crash, Orville Wright was severely injured but passenger Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge died.

Four years later, having recently returned from a six-month trip to Europe for business, Wilbur Wright became ill with typhoid fever. Wilbur never recovered, passing away on May 30, 1912 at the age of 45.

Orville Wright continued to fly for the next six years, making daring stunts and setting speed records, stopping only when aches left over from his 1908 crash would no longer let him fly.

Over the next three decades, Orville kept busy continuing scientific research, making public appearances, and battling lawsuits.

He lived long enough to witness the historic flights of great aviators such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart as well as recognize the important roles that planes played in World War I and World War II.

On January 30, 1948, Orville Wright died at age 77 of a massive heart attack.