A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries
photo Wright brothers fly first motorized plane

Photo: Wright Brothers' first flight

Orville and Wilbur Wright were inspired by Otto Lilienthal, a German glider pioneer. Though he crashed to his death in 1896, the Wrights were obsessed the technical problems involved in flight. They approached the issue methodically, working out ways to control a glider's tendency to pitch up and down, roll side to side, or yaw left and right. By the third glider they built, they had solved most of these problems of steering and stability.

To make a self-powered airplane, they needed to develop a very light gasoline engine and an appropriate propellor. By December 1903, their first airplane (Flyer I, later renamed Kitty Hawk)was ready to test. It had a 12.3 meter (40 1/2 feet) wingspan, was 6.4 meters (21 feet) long, and weighed about 274 kilos (605 pounds) without the pilot. It was powered by the Wrights' home-made 12 horsepower gasoline engine. The Wrights returned to the site at Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where they had tested their gliders. Their selection of this spot was based on national weather records which showed it to have consistently favorable conditions.

The first day's attempt was unsuccessful, but in a few days, Orville flew the plane 37 meters (120 feet), which took 12 seconds. They made several more flights that day, the longest being 260 meters (852 feet) in 59 seconds. The Wrights' press release sent out the following month was largely ignored. Many people just didn't believe it, though there were five witnesses to their first flights. A report did appear in the March 1904 issue of Popular Science Monthly, but the first report of a firsthand sighting of the Wrights' plane was in the January 1905 issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture.

Orville sent Flyer I to the Science Museum in London in 1928. Twenty years later the Science Museum returned the plane to the U.S., and it is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Orville later wrote of that first motorized flight:

With all the knowledge and skill acquired in thousands of flights in the last ten years, I would hardly think today of making my first flight on a strange machine in a 27 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.

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