First airplane flies - HISTORY
Year
1903

First airplane flies

Near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright make the first successful flight in history of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft. Orville piloted the gasoline-powered, propeller-driven biplane, which stayed aloft for 12 seconds and covered 120 feet on its inaugural flight.

Orville and Wilbur Wright grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and developed an interest in aviation after learning of the glider flights of the German engineer Otto Lilienthal in the 1890s. Unlike their older brothers, Orville and Wilbur did not attend college, but they possessed extraordinary technical ability and a sophisticated approach to solving problems in mechanical design. They built printing presses and in 1892 opened a bicycle sales and repair shop. Soon, they were building their own bicycles, and this experience, combined with profits from their various businesses, allowed them to pursue actively their dream of building the world’s first airplane.

After exhaustively researching other engineers’ efforts to build a heavier-than-air, controlled aircraft, the Wright brothers wrote the U.S. Weather Bureau inquiring about a suitable place to conduct glider tests. They settled on Kitty Hawk, an isolated village on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, which offered steady winds and sand dunes from which to glide and land softly. Their first glider, tested in 1900, performed poorly, but a new design, tested in 1901, was more successful. Later that year, they built a wind tunnel where they tested nearly 200 wings and airframes of different shapes and designs. The brothers’ systematic experimentations paid off–they flew hundreds of successful flights in their 1902 glider at Kill Devils Hills near Kitty Hawk. Their biplane glider featured a steering system, based on a movable rudder, that solved the problem of controlled flight. They were now ready for powered flight.

In Dayton, they designed a 12-horsepower internal combustion engine with the assistance of machinist Charles Taylor and built a new aircraft to house it. They transported their aircraft in pieces to Kitty Hawk in the autumn of 1903, assembled it, made a few further tests, and on December 14 Orville made the first attempt at powered flight. The engine stalled during take-off and the plane was damaged, and they spent three days repairing it. Then at 10:35 a.m. on December 17, in front of five witnesses, the aircraft ran down a monorail track and into the air, staying aloft for 12 seconds and flying 120 feet. The modern aviation age was born. Three more tests were made that day, with Wilbur and Orville alternately flying the airplane. Wilbur flew the last flight, covering 852 feet in 59 seconds.

During the next few years, the Wright brothers further developed their airplanes but kept a low profile about their successes in order to secure patents and contracts for their flying machines. By 1905, their aircraft could perform complex maneuvers and remain aloft for up to 39 minutes at a time. In 1908, they traveled to France and made their first public flights, arousing widespread public excitement. In 1909, the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps purchased a specially constructed plane, and the brothers founded the Wright Company to build and market their aircraft. Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912; Orville lived until 1948.

The historic Wright brothers’ aircraft of 1903 is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

“Squeaky” Fromme sentenced to life

A federal jury in Sacramento, California, sentences Lynette Alice Fromme, also known as “Squeaky” Fromme, to life in prison for her attempted assassination of President Gerald R. Ford.On September 5, a Secret Service agent wrested a semi-automatic .45-caliber pistol from Fromme, ...read more

Ford Madox Ford is born

Ford Madox Ford, a writer, editor, and member of the so-called Lost Generation who served on the Western Front during the Great War, is born Ford Hermann Hueffer on this day in 1873. Hueffer (he would change his name to Ford Madox Ford in 1919) had already published his first ...read more

Cambodian forces under heavy pressure

Cambodian government positions in Prak Ham, 40 miles north of Phnom Penh, and the 4,000-man base at Taing Kauk are the targets of continuous heavy bombardment by communist forces.The communist Khmer Rouge and their North Vietnamese allies were trying to encircle the capital ...read more

Terrell Owens makes record-breaking 20 catches

On December 17, 2000, during a 17-0 victory by the San Francisco 49ers over the Chicago Bears, San Francisco’s wide receiver Terrell Owens sets a new league record of 20 catches in a single game.Drafted by the 49ers in the third round of the 1996 NFL draft, Owens was thrilled to ...read more

“Silver Dollar” Tabor born in Denver

On this day, Rosemary “Silver Dollar” Tabor, the second daughter of Horace and Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor, is born. The Tabors were one of Colorado’s wealthiest families of the time.Silver’s mother, Elizabeth Doe, came west from Wisconsin with her husband, Harvey, in 1877; the ...read more

A federal court puts its stamp on hip-hop

Gilbert O'Sullivan, an Irishman who favored bowl haircuts, suspenders and pants that ended at the knee is mainly remembered as the "one-hit wonder" behind the melancholy early 1970s hit "Alone Again, Naturally." But on December 17, 1991, he earned a larger place in music history ...read more

A Christmas Carol is published

On this day in 1843, Charles Dickens’ classic story “A Christmas Carol” is published.Dickens was born in 1812 and attended school in Portsmouth. His father, a clerk in the navy pay office, was thrown into debtors’ prison in 1824, and 12-year-old Charles was sent to work in a ...read more

Circus catches fire in Brazil

On this day in 1961, a fire at a circus in Brazil kills more than 300 people and severely burns hundreds more. The cause of the fire was never conclusively determined but it may have been the result of sparks from a train passing nearby.Christmas week was just beginning, the ...read more

“Operation Iceman” nabs the culprit

Richard Kuklinski, a suspect in several murders, is arrested by undercover agents at a truck stop off the New Jersey Turnpike, marking the culmination of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ “Operation Iceman.” Kuklinski had sealed his fate when he showed operative ...read more

Grant expels the Jews from his department

On this day in 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant lashes out at at Jewish cotton speculators, who he believed were the driving force behind the black market for cotton, and issues an order expellingall Jewish people from his military district, which encompassed parts of ...read more