The First To Fly


Again Orville’s diary preserves the flavor of the historic occasion:

“After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind … was blowing … 27 miles [per hour] according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels [from the Kill Devil Hill Life Saving Station] took a picture just as it left the tracks. I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus [it] had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for .the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped).…”

Then it was Wilbur’s turn again. Orville continues his narrative:

“After repairs, at 20 min. after 11 o’clock Will made the second trial. The course was like mine, up and down but a little longer over the ground though about the same in time. Dist. not measured but about 175 ft. Wind speed not quite so strong. With the aid of the station men present, we picked the machine up and carried it back to the starting ways. At about 20 minutes till 12 o’clock I made the third trial. When out about the same distance as Will’s, I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and sidled the machine off to the right in a lively manner. I immediately turned the rudder to bring the machine down and then worked the end control. Much to our surprise, on reaching the ground the left wing struck first, showing the lateral control of this machine much more effective than on any of our former ones. At the time of its sidling it had raised to a height of probably 12 to 14 feet.”

The third flight was a short hop by Orville. The fourth and last flight, made by Wilbur, was the most spectacular and satisfying of all. Again Orville describes it in his diary:

“At just 12 o’clock Will started on the fourth and last trip. The machine started off with its ups and downs as it had done before, but by the time he had gone over three or four hundred feet he had it under much” better control, and was traveling on a fairly even course. It proceeded in this manner till it reached a small hummock out about 800 feet from the starting ways, when it began its pitching again and suddenly darted into the ground. The front rudder frame was badly broken up, but the main frame suffered none at all. The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds. The engine turns was 1071, but this included several seconds while on the starting ways and probably about half a second after landing. The jar of landing set the watch on the machine back so that we have no exact record for the 1071 turns. Will took a picture of my third flight just before the gust struck the machine. The machine left the ways successfully at every trial, and the tail was never caught by the truck as we had feared.

“After removing the front rudder, we carried the machine back to camp. We set the machine down a few feet west of the building and while standing about discussing the last flight, a sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it. Will who was near one end ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized the spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us. Mr. Daniels, having had no experience in handling a machine of this kind, hung onto it from the inside, and as a result was knocked down and turned over and over with it as it went. His escape was miraculous as he was in with the engine and chains. The engine legs were all broken off, the chain guides badly bent, a number of uprights and nearly all the rear ends of the ribs were broken. One spar only was broken.”

The historic first successful airplane was never to fly again. The brothers packed it up and brought it back to Dayton with them as they hurried home for Christmas. It was later reassembled and exhibited a couple of times in New York and once at M.I.T. For many years it languished in a shed at Dayton; then, in 1928 it was sent to the Science Museum in London after the Smithsonian Institution refused to recognize it as the first successful airplane, giving Langley’s machine that honor. In 1942, after many years of controversy, the Smithsonian belatedly reversed its position, and Orville Wright asked the Science Museum to return the aircraft to the United States when it would be safe to do so after the war. After Orville Wright’s death in January, 1948, the 1903 machine came back from twenty years’ exile. It was refurbished and placed on exhibit on December 17, 1948, the forty-fifth anniversary of its first flight.