Pilot looks back to a pioneering moment in aviation history – when two American brothers tested their powered biplane on a dusty North Carolina plain


Wilbur and Orville Wright are lauded as the inventors of the first-ever successful aeroplane, the Wright Flyer.

Although this is disputed by some historians – many highly qualified and well-funded engineers were experimenting with the possibilities of flight at the same time – it is the Wright Brothers who we remember for making the first powered and controlled, heavier-than-air flights, a feat accomplished on 17 December 1903.

The brothers had been testing with gliders for several years, which they funded with the money made running a bicycle repair shop. They actually based the design of the Wright Flyer on the results of hundreds of glider test flights in the first years of the 20th century.

The Wrights built the frame, with a wingspan of 12.3 metres, from giant spruce and ash, and covered it in a muslin cloth. It was powered by a gasoline engine of their own design, capable of producing 12.5hp, but the Flyer had to be launched from a rail track first. It would then be controlled by the pilot, who lay on the lower wing in a wooden cradle and, with their hips, warped the wings to alter the pitch, roll and yaw. This was a breakthrough for steering, for which aircraft designers today still have the Wright Brothers to thank.

Kill Devil Hills, a barren land near the town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was chosen to test the Wright Flyer as it had reliable winds so they could test their kites, which allowed them to measure the lift and drag of the aerofoil sections of their designs. On the day of the flight, the wind was blowing harder than expected, but as they had called off a flight a few days earlier, the Wrights were keen to go ahead on 17 December 1903.

Orville was the pilot – chosen on the toss of a coin – so he climbed aboard the aircraft, positioned on the launch rail, and went through the final checks. He then set the Flyer into motion and took to the skies, albeit briefly.

Completed at about 10.35 am, the flight lasted just 12 seconds and brought Orville back to the ground around 36 metres away.

The time and distance weren’t the important bits – it was the fact they had completed a powered and pilot-controlled flight at all that made this a historic moment in the burgeoning age of aviation.

Thrilled with the result, the brothers set up the Flyer on the rail and went again. Taking it in turns to be the pilot, they made three further flights that day and each one was better than the last as they reached distances of 53, 61 and 260 metres. Yet before they could attempt to match the huge distance of their fourth flight, a gust of wind flipped the aircraft over, damaging it beyond repair.

Its life in the air may have been short but the Flyer, with the Wright Brothers at the controls, had flown into the history books.

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