First Flight

Breaking Barriers to Higher Heights

Breaking Barriers: First Flight

Research and Hypothesizing

"We knew that the Smithsonian Institution had been interested in some work on the problem of flight and, accordingly, on the 30th of May 1899, my brother Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian inquiring about publications on the subject."

~ Wilbur Wright

"Letter to the Smithsonian." 1899. Smithsonian Institution.

"Dear Sirs:

I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats after the style of Cayley's and Penaud's machines. My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable... I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my might to help  the future worker who will attain final success..."
~ Wilbur Wright

The works and experimentations of Cayley, among others, greatly contributed to the Wrights’ success. ​​​​​​Through research, the brothers reasoned that the mystery of flight lied in wing shape, power and propulsion, and controlling the plane's motion.

Conducting Experiements

The Wright brothers built a wind tunnel and model wings to test wing behavior in a flight environment. Through this, they calculated the minimum wing size necessary for lift, the power their engine would need to produce, and evaluated propeller performance.

"Wright Wind Tunnel Test Wing Shapes."​​​​ Smithsonian Institution.

"Henry Ford's Reproduction of the Wright's 1901 Wind Tunnel." 1919. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University.

Drawing Conclusions

The brothers believed the plane required three axes of motion. An elevator controls the pitch axis, lowering or increasing altitude. A vertical rudder at the aircraft's rear controls the yaw axis, steering it left or right. They created the concept of wing warping to control the roll axis, the plane's ability to rotate, after observing flying buzzards curving their wings for balance.

"Three Axes of Motion." Smithsonian Institution.

"A Wright Glider." Smithsonian Institution.

Applying New Knowledge for Flight

Previous powered aircrafts failed because

powerful engines were too heavy.

However, the development of the internal-

combustion engine allowed the brothers

to make a lightweight gasoline engine

powerful enough to propel the plane.

"Front View of Wright 1903 Engine." 1928. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University.

Before they could start testing, the brothers needed a location with conducive flight conditions:

"I chose Kitty Hawk because it seemed the place which most clearly met the required conditions…At Kitty Hawk, which is on the narrow bar separating the Sound from the Ocean, there are neither hills nor trees, so that it offers a safe place for practice. Also, the wind there is stronger than any place near home and is almost constant."

~ Wilbur Wright

They also flew at Kill Devil Hills, located four miles south, which provided massive sand dunes to glide from and cushion crashes. There, on December 14, 1903, Wilbur made the first attempt at flying but crashed. After repairs, Orville made the second flight attempt on December 17, 1903. The 1903 Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air aircraft to attain controlled flight with a pilot aboard, flying 121 feet in 12 seconds. Afterward, the brothers alternated piloting. Wilbur flew the longest flight that day: 853 feet in 59 seconds.

"The 1903 Wright Flyer." NASA. 2009.

"1903 Wright Flyer First Flight, Kitty Hawk, N.C." 1903. Smithsonian Institution.