Before December 17, 1903, the closest thing to flying that human beings had experienced was hot air balloons. The biggest problem with hot air balloons is that they are extremely dependent on the winds. A person can’t control the direction it flies. It just goes with the winds.
Kind of like sailing, but without the ability to navigate with the help of water currents and tides.
But a couple of bicycle salesmen came into the picture to change that. Enter Orville and Wilbur Wright.
That’s right, if you follow my writing, you may have noticed I skipped my normal Monday post in favor of waiting for the 117th anniversary of the first flight.
After this week, I’ll get back to normal. But I really wanted to do my best to honor this incredible moment.
I’m by no means a historical expert on flying. The only thing is that I have become a complete and total aviation nerd since I realized how much I love it. I’ve been living on aviation social media profiles, as well as reading tons of aviation books, watching aviation movies, TV shows, and YouTube channels.
One of those books was a very interesting biography of the Wright Brothers by David McCullough called…well…The Wright Brothers.
That being said, I want to do my best to pay homage to the fathers of modern aviation. The problem is doing that in a post short enough to keep people interested. I mean, literal books have been written for the duo. In fact, books have been written on each brother individually!
But I’ll do my best.
The Wright Brothers
The first of the brothers was Wilbur. Born near Millville, Indiana in 1967.
A few years later, in 1971, Orville was born in Dayton, Ohio.
Their father was a bishop, so they moved quite a bit before settling back down in Dayton in 1884. Their fascination for flying really began when their father once brought home a toy helicopter for his boys. The helicopter was based on a design by the French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Penaud. This really began the boys’ desire to learn to fly.
Neither brother graduated high school, but both were extremely intelligent.
Wilbur was expected to graduate, but the move back to Dayton made that impossible. He had an accident while playing hockey in 1885 where he got hit in the face with a hockey stick. It knocked out his front teeth, but the injury proved to be more mental than just that. He became pretty reclusive and stayed home. His plan to attend Yale stunted and he took care of his terminally ill mother. He spent a lot of his free time reading and helping his father when he could, picking up a deeper understanding of theology and philosophy. Ultimately, he despised his lack of true ambition but did nothing to change that.
Orville, on the flip side, was extremely ambitious. He quit high school after his junior year to start a printing business in 1889. This came with the help of Wilbur to build his own printing press. After a bit, Wilbur joined on in the printing business. Together they started a weekly paper called West Side News, primarily covering the goings-on of things in Dayton. In 1890, the brothers changed to a daily paper and called it The Evening Item. It only survived for 4 months though. After this failed paper, they transitioned to commercial printing.
A fun fact is that one of their customers was their friend and future famed black pioneering poet and writer Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
The brothers really found their stride though when they took advantage of the bicycle craze that was going across the world. In 1892, the brothers started their own bicycle sales and repair shop called Wright Cycle Exchange, which later changed to Wright Cycle Company. They started selling their own bicycle brand in 1896.
This bike shop is what funded their aviation fascination. It’s what made flying in a manned, heavier-than-air aircraft possible.
The First Flight
1896 was already a big year for the Wright Brothers because of their own bike brand taking off, but there were also 3 big events that happened in aviation that reminded the Wright Brothers of their love of flight.
First: Samuel Langley, the Secretary for the Smithsonian Institution, has a successful unmanned flight by a steam-powered fixed-wing aircraft. Second: Octave Chanute, a prominent aviation figure, brought together several people to Lake Michigan to test gliders. Third: Otto Lilienthal died when his glider dove down and crashed.
The Wright Brothers dove in deep in 1896. They requested information from the Smithsonian Institution about aeronautics. They studied the theories and concepts of Langley, Lilienthal, Chanute, Sir George Cayley, and Leonardo da Vinci.
This helped the Wright Brothers make astounding leaps in aviation. They developed a lift equation to help calculate safe flight.
But all their work really came to fruition when in 1903, the Wright Brothers added an engine to their flying. The brothers developed a motor that utilized parts from their bicycle shop.
Everything came together in December of 1903 when they built their first powered aircraft known as The Wright Flyer. The Wright Brothers made their way to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The area has the perfect weather conditions and was isolated enough to make sure it would limit potential injuries and casualties in the event of a failed flight.
They started their test flights first on December 14th. The Wright Brothers had to find a foolproof way to decide who would go down in history as the first person to fly an airplane, so they left it to chance. Wilbur won the coin toss but oversteered and crashed immediately after takeoff. It caused some damages which had to be repaired before retrying.
The repairs finished and the second test flight took place on December 17th. There was a strong 27-mile per hour headwind. This is much stronger than the Wright Brothers wanted because they expected to only have a max trust of 30-35 miles per hour. That meant they would only be able to max out at about 8 miles per hour ground speed.
Nonetheless, they had to take to the skies.
Orville recognized his brother’s mistake and made sure to double-check the controls before taking off. They set the Wright Flyer up on the track used to guarantee a smooth takeoff and started it up. The restraining rope was released, the Flyer sped down the rail and took to the skies. Orville used all his skill and knowledge to maintain flight, though rough and jerky in the strong winds. Wilbur excitedly ran as close as possible to keep up with the aircraft. The excitement wiped out the fear of a crash and the necessity of having help close at hand.
The first flight was officially made by Orville when he flew at 10:35 AM EST for 12 seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet. The next flights increased distance to about 175 and 200 feet respectively. The Wright Brothers only maxed out at about 10 feet, but this was miles ahead of anyone else in the field of aviation and has led to us being able to take an airline airplane to 30,000 feet in the air for hours at a time like it’s no big deal.