The First Flight

On December 17, 1903, at 10:35AM, the Wright Brothers achieved their dream. It was a bitterly cold, windy Friday, but the desire to fly, and a stove inside their camp building, kept them warm. Orville flew first that morning and later wrote about that "first flight."

"The course of the flight up and down was exceedingly erratic, partly due to the irregularity of the air, and partly to lack of experience in handling this machine. The control of the front rudder was difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center. This gave it a tendency to turn itself when started; so that it turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about ten feet, and then as suddenly dart for the ground. A sudden dart when a little over a hundred feet from the point at which it rose into air, ended the flight. As the velocity of the wind was over the ground against this wind ten feet per second, the speed of the machine relative to the air was over 45 feet per second, and the length of the flight was equivalent to a flight of 540-feet made in calm air. This flight lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started."

Wilbur was ready for his turn, but the cold weather drove them all inside first. After a twenty minute rest, the brothers and their guests were ready to fly again. The second flight was much like the first.

"The course of this flight was much like that of the first, very much up and down. The speed over the ground was somewhat faster than that of the first flight, due to the lesser wind. The duration of the flight was less than a second longer than the first, but the distance covered was about seventy-five feet greater."

Orville wanted another chance, and so, just an hour after the very first flight, he tried again. This third flight was a bit more dangerous.

"This one was steadier than the first one an hour before. I was proceeding along pretty well when a sudden gust from the right lifted the machine up twelve to fifteen feet and turned it up sidewise in an alarming manner. It began a lively sidling off to the left. I warped the wings to try to recover the lateral balance and reach the ground as quickly as possible. The lateral control was more effective than I had imagined and before I reached the ground the right wing was lower than the left and struck first. The time of this flight was fifteen seconds and the distance over the ground a little over 200 feet."

Now Wilbur wanted another chance, too. At just about noon, Wilbur made the fourth, and final, flight of that day.

"The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course of the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of the its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured and found to be 852 feet; the time of the flight 59 seconds."

And what a day it was! On that blustery December day, the world was made a little smaller. Two young men had forever changed the boundaries of human life. No longer would humankind envy the birds for their wings.

Unfortunately, mankind would have to wait a little longer. After Wilbur landed safely, a sudden gust of wind took the plane and sent it tumbling. The men rushed to save it, but were unable. The wings were broken, the motor damaged, and the chain guides were bent. They knew right away that there would be no more flights in 1903.

Ten years later, Orville reflected on the events of December 17, 1903. He used the word "audacity," which means courage or boldness, when he thought back on that first flight.

"...I would hardly think today of making my first flight on a strange machine in a twenty-seven mile wind, even if I knew that the machine had already been flown and was safe. After these years of experience I look with amazement upon our audacity in attempting flights with a new and untried machine under such circumstances. Yet faith in our calculations and the design of the first machine, based upon our tables of air pressures, secured by months of careful laboratory work, and confidence in our system of control developed by three years of actual experiences in balancing gliders in the air had convinced us that the machine was capable of lifting and maintaining itself in the air, and that, with a little practice, it could be safely flown."

Audacity, indeed. Throughout history, great scientists and inventors have always shown a little boldness. The courage to think outside of the lines and to imagine the future makes "first flights" possible.

Related Links