Today In History: Wright Brothers Fly First Airplane

Today In History |

December 17, 1903

Today in 1903, the Wright Brothers made history's first flight in a manmade aircraft. The flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina only lasted for twelve seconds, but it changed the world forever.


The Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were innovative, mechanically talented men who were largely self-taught. They never went to college, getting their start building printing presses and then running a bicycle shop. The skills they learned in bicycles would translate directly into the construction of the world's first airplane, then a far-fetched dream.

The Wrights were transfixed by the idea of succeeding where previous engineers had failed. They produced their first glider prototype in 1900, which failed its test run at Kitty Hawk, which would later be the site of their historic success. Another model they made the following year was much more successful than the first. This was followed by a period of intensive research and design, in which they tested about two hundred different airframe and wing configurations before settling on the biplane design.

They produced a glider version of their biplane, that saw hundreds of test flights. Unlike other gliders, it featured an adjustable rudder that allowed control of flight direction.


The task was now to design a version of the biplane that featured an engine. They were helped by a machinist named Charles Taylor, who built them a twelve-horsepower engine to be mounted on a new biplane frame. In 1903, it was ready for its first test. They brought the plane and the engine to Kitty Hawk dismantled. Early trials were bad portents.

Orville Wright attempted the first flight on December 14. The plane was badly damaged when the engine stalled before the plane became airborne. After three days of repairs, it was ready for another test. This one would be more successful.

On December 17, with five people watching, the Wrights' airplane took to the skies for twelve seconds, traveling 120 feet and altering the course of transportation. Elated, the Wrights took turns flying the plane three more times. The last flight saw Wilbur stay airborne for 59 seconds.

Their achievement did not actually make headlines. They kept their breakthrough under wraps until they had patents and contracts in place. They also continued to refine the design. Two years later, they set a new record of 39 minutes.

The world learned about their accomplishments in 1908, during an exhibition in France. The next year, after a huge upswell of public enthusiasm for airplanes, the U.S. Army bought a plane from the Wrights. The same year, the brothers founded the Wright Company. Wilbur died in 1912, and Orville in 1948.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.