North Carolina

The Wright Brothers' Make the First Powered Flight

December 17, 1903-The Wright brothers were dressed in coats and ties at Kill Devil Hills on that December morning-a touch of private ceremony for an event that would alter the world. The pools around their camp were icing up, and the break in the weather might be their last chance of the season.

The wind was a brisk 21 miles per hour out of the northeast. At 10:35 A.M., Orville boarded the craft and started the engine. Wilbur ran alongside the plane as it began to slowly roll down the track into the wind, holding the wing tip for balance. And then, in Orville's words, the plane "lifted from the track just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks."

The flight lasted only 12 seconds, and the distance of the flight was less than the length of an airliner. But for the first time, a manned, heavier-than-air machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started.

The brothers were ecstatic. That day, they piloted three more flights, with the last and longest being 852 feet in 59 seconds. But as they readied the plane for a fifth run, a gust of wind caught the wings and flipped the aircraft end over end. The 1903 flying season was over.

First Powered Flight
The first powered flight on December 17, 1903. Orville Wright is piloting the Wright 1903 Flyer while Wilber Wright runs and watches the takeoff.
Western Union Telegraph
The telegraph home dispatched from Kitty Hawk
Orville Wright at Kill Devil Camp
Orville at Kill Devil Hills Camp in 1903

 

Aviation Firsts Logo

That afternoon, after eating lunch, the brothers hiked some four miles over to the Kitty Hawk weather station and sent their now-famous telegraph message.

The telegraph was dispatched from Kitty Hawk. This, along with the isolation of the area and the unusual names themselves, led to the subsequent confusion as to where the first flight actually occurred.

The Wrights would make several more successful flights back home in Ohio, but the world was slow to give them the credit they deserved for their achievement. But 30 years later, when the cornerstone of the great monument that now crowns big Kill Devil Hill was laid, Orville Wright was present to claim the Wright Brothers' place in history.

It was the Wrights' genius to see that the problems of flight could not be solved from the ground. In Wilbur's words, "It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill." With over a thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill, the Wrights had made themselves the first true pilots. These flying skills were a crucial component of their invention. Before they ever attempted powered flight, the Wright brothers were masters of the air.