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First Powered Aircraft Flight

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer, designed and built by Orville and Wilbur Wright, was first flown in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright brothers had previously designed and tested gliders, by the Wright Flyer was the first powered aircraft to successfully be flown. Made out of Sitka spruce wood, a custom engine, and two handmade propellers, the pilot of the plan would lie on the bottom wing and steer the craft with a cradle attached to his hips. The plane was launched using a track, called the “Junction Railroad” by the brothers, made of 2x4s.

On December 14, 1903, the brothers had attempted to launch the plane with Wilbur piloting, but the plane’s trajectory was too steep, so it stalled. This attempt caused minor damage to the Wright Flyer. After repairing the plane, Orville took off for the first successful flight on December 17th. The flight lasted 12 seconds and the plane travelled only 120 ft. Over the course of the day, the Wright brothers flew the plane 4 times, with Wilbur having the longest flight at 59 seconds and 852 feet. This flight broke part of the plane, but the brothers hoped to fix it so they could make a longer flight. However, a strong gust of wind picked the plane up, tossed it around, and left it damaged beyond repair.  

While the Wright Flyer was never flown again, its success allowed the brothers to improve on their plane design. In 1905, the Wright brothers developed the Wright Flyer III, in which Wilbur sustained a 39 minute 24 mile flight. Today, the Wright Flyer is featured in “The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age,” a special exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the plane’s flight, in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  

Items in Our Collection:

To conquer the air: the Wright Brothers and the great race for flight by James Tobin

The Wright brothers: heirs to Prometheus by Richard Hallion; Roger E Bilstein; et al

Wind and sand: the story of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk by Lyanne Wescott; Paula Degen