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The Wright Brothers
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The Wrights Write Home - (1) The Flight Forebears - (2) Research and Experiment - (3) Kitty Hawk - (4) First Flight - (5) Flight's Future - Learn More

First Flight

Orville in his diary, December 17, 1903

After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. . . . On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. . . . Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks.  I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult. . . .  As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground.  A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight.  Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped.) . . .

After repairs, at 20 min. after 11 o’clock Will made the second trial.  The course was about like mine, up and down but a little longer over the ground though about the same in time.  Dist. not measured but about 175 ft. . .

At about 20 minutes till 12 o’clock I made the third trial.  When out about the same distance as Will’s, I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and sidled the machine off to the right in a lively manner.  I immediately turned the rudder to bring the machine down and then worked the [wing-warping] control.  Much to our surprise, on reaching the ground the left wing struck first, showing the lateral control of this machine much more effective than on any of our former ones.  At the time of its sidling it had raised to a height of probably 12 to 14 feet.

At just 12 o’clock Will started on the fourth and last trip.  The machine started off with its ups and downs as it had before, but by the time he had gone over three or four hundred feet he had it under much better control, and was traveling on a fairly even course.  It proceeded in this manner till it reached a small hummock out about 800 feet from the starting ways, when it began its pitching again and suddenly darted into the ground.  The front rudder frame was badly broken up, but the main frame suffered none at all.  The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds.

A written statement by the Wright brothers to the Associated Press, January 5, 1904

It had not been our intention to make any detailed public statement concerning the private trials of our power “Flyer” on the 17th of December last; but since the contents of a private telegram, announcing to our folks at home the success of our trials, was dishonestly communicated to the newspapermen at the Norfolk office, and led to the imposition upon the public, by persons who never saw the “Flyer” or its flights, of a fictitious story incorrect in almost every detail; and since this story together with several pretended interviews or statements, which were fakes pure and simple, have been very widely disseminated, we feel impelled to make some correction.  The real facts were as follows:

On the morning of December 17th, between the hours of 10:30 o’clock and noon, four flights were made, two by Orville Wright, two by Wilbur Wright.  The starts were all made from a point on the level sand about two hundred feet west of our camp, which is located a quarter of a mile north of the Kill Devil sand hill, in Dare County, North Carolina.  The wind at the time of the flights had a velocity of 27 miles an hour at ten o’clock, and 24 miles an hour at noon, as recorded by the anemometer at the Kitty Hawk Weather Bureau Station.  The anemometer is thirty feet from the ground.  Our own measurements, made with a hand anemometer at a height of four feet from the ground, showed a velocity of about 22 miles when the first flight was made, and 20 ½ miles at the time of the last one.  The flights were directly against the wind.  Each time the machine started from the level ground by its own power alone with no assistance from gravity, or any other source whatever.  After a run of about 40 feet along a monorail track, which held the machine eight inches from the ground, it rose from the track and under the direction of the operator climbed upward on an inclined course till a height of eight or ten feet from the ground was reached, after which the course was kept as near horizontal as the wind gusts and the limited skill of the operator would permit.  Into the teeth of a December gale the “Flyer” made its way forward with a speed of ten miles an hour over the ground and thirty to thirty-five miles an hour through the air.  It had previously been decided that for reasons of personal safety these first trials should be made as close to the ground as possible.  The height chosen was scarcely sufficient for maneuvering in so gusty a wind and with no previous acquaintance with the conduct of the machine and its controlling mechanisms.  Consequently the first flight was short.  The succeeding flights rapidly increased in length and at the fourth trial a flight of fifty-nine seconds was made, in which time the machine flew a little more than a half mile through the air, and a distance of 852 feet over the ground.  The landing was due to a slight error of judgment on the part of the aviator.  After passing over a little hummock of sand, in attempting to bring the machine down to the desired height, the operator turned the rudder too far; and the machine turned downward more quickly than had been expected.  The reverse movement of the rudder was a fraction of a second too late to prevent the machine from touching the ground and thus ending the flight.  The whole occurrence occupied little, if any, more than once second of time.

Orville in Boy’s Life, September 1914, as told to Leslie W. Quirk

[I]t was getting late now, and we decided to postpone further trials until the next day.  The wind had quieted, but it was very cold.  In fact, it had been necessary for us to warm ourselves between each flight.  Now we carried the machine back to a point near the camp, and stepped back to discuss what had happened.

My brother and I were not excited nor particularly exultant.  We had been the first to fly successfully with a machine driven by an engine, but we had expected to be the first.  We had known, down in our hearts, that the machine would fly just as it did.  The proof was not astonishing to us.  We were simply glad, that’s all. . . .

And then, quite without warning, a puff of wind caught the forward part of the machine and began to tip it.  We all rushed forward, but only Daniels was at the front.  He caught the plane and clung desperately to it, as though thoroughly aware as were we of the danger of an upset of the frail thing of rods and wings.  Upward and upward it lifted, with Daniels clinging to the plane to ballast it.  Then, with a convulsive shudder, it tipped backward, dashing the man in against the engine, in a great tangle of cloth and wood and metal.  As it turned over, I caught a last glimpse of his legs kicking frantically over the plane’s edge.  I’ll confess I never expected to see him alive again.

But he did not even break a bone, although he was bruised from head to foot.  When the machine had been pinned down at last, it was almost a complete wreck, necessitating many new parts and days and days of rebuilding.  Winter was fairly on top of us, with Christmas only a few days off.  We could do no more experimenting that year.

After all, though, it did not matter much.  We could build better and stronger and more confidently another year.  And we could go back home to Dayton and dream of time and distance and altitude records, and of machines for two or more passengers, and of the practical value of the heavier-than-air machine.  For we had accomplished the ambition that stirred us as boys.  We had learned to fly.

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