December 17th, 1903 – The Flight of the Wright Brothers

Today-In-History

The first controlled powered heavier-than-air flight was made by the Wright brothers in their Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17th, 1903.

WrightFlyer4thFlight

The Flyer was based on the Wrights’ experience testing gliders at Kitty Hawk between 1900 and 1902. Their last glider, the 1902 Glider, led directly to the design of the Flyer.

Wright_brothers_patent_plans_1908 680The Wrights built the aircraft in 1903 using giant spruce wood as their construction material. The wings were designed with a 1-in-20 camber. Since they could not find a suitable automobile engine for the task, they commissioned their employee Charlie Taylor to build a new design from scratch, effectively a crude gasoline engine. A sprocket chain drive, borrowing from bicycle technology, powered the twin propellers, which were also made by hand.

The Flyer was a canard biplane configuration. As with the gliders, the pilot flew lying on his stomach on the lower wing with his head toward the front of the craft in an effort to reduce drag. He steered by moving a cradle attached to his hips. The cradle pulled wires which warped the wings and turned the rudder simultaneously.

The Flyer’s “runway” was a track of 2x4s stood on their narrow edge, which the brothers nicknamed the “Junction Railroad”.

Wright Flyer 680Upon returning to Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wrights completed assembly of the Flyer while practicing on the 1902 Glider from the previous season. On December 14th, 1903, they felt ready for their first attempt at powered flight. With the help of men from the nearby government life-saving station, the Wrights moved the Flyer and its launching rail to the incline of a nearby sand dune, Big Kill Devil Hill, intending to make a gravity-assisted takeoff. The brothers tossed a coin to decide who would get the first chance at piloting, and Wilbur won. The airplane left the rail, but Wilbur pulled up too sharply, stalled, and came down in about three seconds with minor damage.

Repairs after the abortive first flight took three days. When they were ready again on December 17th, the wind was averaging more than 20 mph, so the brothers laid the launching rail on level ground, pointed into the wind, near their camp. This time the wind, instead of an inclined launch, helped provide the necessary airspeed for takeoff. Because Wilbur already had the first chance, Orville took his turn at the controls. His first flight lasted 12 seconds for a total distance of 120 ft (36.5 m) – shorter than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, as noted by observers in the 2003 commemoration of the first flight.

Orville_Wright&flyer1909 680

Taking turns, the Wrights made four brief, low-altitude flights that day. The flight paths were all essentially straight; turns were not attempted. Each flight ended in a bumpy and unintended “landing”. The last flight, by Wilbur, was 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds, much longer than each of the three previous flights of 120, 175 and 200 feet. The landing broke the front elevator supports, which the Wrights hoped to repair for a possible four-mile (6 km) flight to Kitty Hawk village. Soon after, a heavy gust picked up the Flyer and tumbled it end over end, damaging it beyond any hope of quick repair. It was never flown again.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

One Response to “December 17th, 1903 – The Flight of the Wright Brothers

  • Wrong wrong wrong. Gustav Whitehead flew in 1901. The Wrights Family Trust made a deal with the Smithsonian, that if the museum got the Wrights’ plane, the Smithsonian is banned from ever mentioning Mr. Whitehead and how the Writes were second.

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