This is the untold story behind the world’s first successful flight test in history.

Commercial air travel is now possible thanks to the Wright brothers. If you remember your history lessons very well, it happened in 1903, when Oliver and Wilbur Wright demonstrated for the first time in recorded history: a flying machine that carried a man by its own power and landed in one piece. Great achievements take time; and like they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day in as much as the first flight in history wasn’t the first attempt, either. Dear friends, this is the Wright story of the first successful flight in history (pun intended).

Once Upon A Wright Flight

The history of aerial navigation had been a huge deal throughout the course of generations. The Wright brothers, as a matter of fact, were not the first to envision an air-powered craft in flight. In a 1908 essay for The Century Magazine, they recounted:

“Late in the autumn of 1878, our father came into the house one evening with some object partly concealed in his hands, and before we could see what it was, he tossed it into the air. Instead of falling to the floor, as we expected, it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor. It was a little toy, known to scientists as a “hélicoptère,” … A toy so delicate lasted only a short time in the hands of small boys, but its memory was abiding.”

Several years later, the Wright brothers began building their own versions of these hélicoptères. They had the dream of making such a device fly in air, but later realized that for such a feat to be possible, they’d have to build a craft eight times that power of the small crafts. They were finally discouraged, and returned to kite-flying, a sport to which they were regarded as experts. But eventually, they had to give up this fascinating sport as the boys came of age.

In the summer of 1896, when the news of the sad death of German aviator Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal reached the United States, the Wright brothers then gave more attention to the subject of the flying problem. They later studied the works of precursors who made efforts of inventing a flying machine; such as ‘Progress in Flying Machines’ by Octave Chanute‘Experiments in Aerodynamics’ by Samuel Pierpont Langley, and the ‘Aeronautical Annuals’ with several pamphlets published by the Smithsonian Institution — especially articles by Lilienthal and extracts from ‘Empire of the Air’ by Louis Pierre Mouillard.

“The larger works gave us a good understanding of the nature of the flying problem,” the brothers wrote, “and the difficulties in past attempts to solve it, while Mouillard and Lilienthal, the great missionaries of the flying cause, infected us with their own unquenchable enthusiasm, and transformed idle curiosity into the active zeal of workers.”

A Ton Of Failures Makes One Success

In those days, there were two schools of thought in the field of aviation: The first gave attention to the power of the flight, by Langley and Sir Hiram Maxim; the second gave attention to the soaring flight, by Lilienthal, Mouillard, and Chanute. The Wright brothers thought the failure of the latter was partly from their impractical tactic of mounting delicate and costly machinery on wings which no one knew how to manage.

And partly, undoubtedly, the enthusiasm of soaring flight that was mainly characterized by sailing through the air on fixed wings, deriving power from the wind. Both the brothers and their precursors failed in countless attempts. To keep a flyer in balanced in air seems simple at first thought if you’ve ever flown a kite, but in practice, its a force to reckon with. Most experiments at the time place the center of gravity far below the wings, thinking that the weight would naturally remain at the lowest point.

That’s true for a pendulum in free swing, it tends to seek the lowest point, but it’s oscillation is what’s unstable. In theory, this automatic system in practice has two serious defects: first, it tends to keep the machine oscillating; and, second, its usefulness was restricted to calm air, the brothers explained.

The Wright brothers were right indeed (pun intended), so they built a craft from Lilienthal’s design. It was curved from front to rear like the segment of a parabola. It required a sufficient lifting capacity of 24 kilometer winds (15 mile winds), and increased the surface area of the wings to 94 square meters (308 square feet) — and was meant to fly as a kite. No wonder. Unfortunately, this experiment was unsuccessful yet again.

“Upon trial, however, the lifting capacity again fell very far short of calculation,” the brothers wrote, “so that the idea of securing practice while flying as a kite, had to be abandoned. Mr. Chanute, who witnessed the experiments, told us that the trouble was not due to poor construction of the machine. We saw only one other explanation — that the tables of air-pressures in general use were incorrect.”

The Historic First Wright Flight

In order to make history, the Wright brothers needed a perfect site for their aviation experiments. This required a place with regular winds over 24 kilometers per hour (15 miles per hour), gentle hills for glider launching, a sandy surface for soft landings, and a remote location to avoid the public. In a letter addressed to Wilbur Wright by Bill Tate, he encouraged the brothers that Kill Devil Hills — a remote location just outskirts of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — was ideal for their test flights.

“If you decide to try your machine here & come,” Tate wrote, “I will take pleasure in doing all I can for your convenience & success & pleasure, & I assure you, you will find a hospitable people when you come among us.”

In October 1900, the brothers began their active experiments at Kitty Hawk. Their flying machine was designed to be flown as a kite, though with a man on board, and needed about … to … kilometer winds (15 to 20 mile winds) for proper take off and landing. But, upon trial, it was found that much stronger winds were required to lift it, they stated. There were no suitable winds to test the new balancing system with a man on board, so they operated the levers remotely.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers’ first flight of a powered-machine with a man on board, made headlines. A general invitation was sent to people who were living within 10 kilometers (five to six miles) away from the site. But it seems no one was interested to risk seeing another so-called “flying machine” not fly amid the frigid weather.

In their own words, the Wright brothers wrote:

“The first flight lasted only twelve seconds, a flight very modest compared with that of birds, 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 free flight, had sailed forward on a level course without reduction of speed, and had finally landed without being wrecked.”

This was witnessed by only five people beside the Wright brothers. The second and third flights lasted a bit longer. The fourth flight lasting 59 seconds which covered a distance of 260 meters (852 miles) against 32 kilometer winds (20 mile winds). And this is the story of how man was able to fly.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Tue, Apr 23, 2019.

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