Get Your Wings

On the centennial of first flight, rediscover the remarkable achievements of the Wright Brothers.

It’s no surprise that 21st century travelers take flying for granted. In recent decades, intercontinental non-stop jet service, supersonic flight and even space travel has become so routine that it only warrants attention when there’s a catastrophic accident. In fact, great aeronautical achievements have become so commonplace it’s sometimes hard to remember that the first successful manned flight—achieved by Wilbur and Orville Wright at what is now Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina—took place just 100 years ago.

At first glance, the Wright Brothers were unlikely aviation pioneers. In the 1890s they were respectable small business owners, operating a thriving chain of bicycle shops in Dayton, Ohio. Despite their success, both were restless and keen on doing something more. Wilbur (1867-1912) was the quiet dreamer, the one who initially came up with the idea of trying to build a functional airplane. Orville (1871-1948) was the outgoing one, a flashy dresser, who bought into his older brother’s grand vision.

After four-and-a-half years of extensive research and experiments, the Wright Brothers made manned flight a reality on December 17, 1903. At 10:35 that morning, Orville positioned himself at the controls of their homemade “Flyer” and released the restraining mechanism. Although the craft stayed aloft for a mere 12 seconds and traveled just 120 feet in the air (less than the length of a modern-day jetliner), it marked the first time a powered, heavier-than-air machine took off, flew under control and landed at a comparable elevation. The Wrights went on to make three more flights that day—taking turns piloting the machine, as was their custom—with their final effort covering 852 feet. Ironically, an accident on the ground ensured that their first airplane would never fly again. Minutes after their fourth landing a strong gust of wind flipped the craft over, causing irreparable damage.

Birds Of A Different Feather
The Wright Brothers’ fascination with flying can be traced back to childhood, when their father, Bishop Milton Wright, brought home a small toy flying machine powered by a twisted rubber band—a patented invention of Frenchman Alphonse Pénaud (1850-80). “Eventually that toy would go the way most toys go—they broke it,” says Darrell Collins, a U.S. Ranger and Wright Brothers historian who has spent the last decade working at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills. “But instead of throwing it away they repaired it and started to reproduce it themselves. They learned that the bigger they built that toy the worse it would fly,” advises Collins. It was an important lesson that other early aviation pioneers would have to learn the hard way.

By the mid-1890s, the Wrights were becoming bored with bicycles and found themselves intrigued by the accidental death of Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), a German aeronaut whose experiments with gliders made him famous throughout the world. In 1896, Lilienthal was killed in a gliding mishap, inspiring the Wright Brothers to investigate why the celebrated aviator suddenly lost control of his craft and suffered a fatal crash. They discovered that Lilienthal’s control was limited to shifting his body weight back and forth, a steering method that also led to the death of aeronaut Perry S. Pilcher in a remarkably similar accident. “By the turn of the century, Wilbur and Orville realized that that method of control carried a 100 percent fatality rate,” says Collins. “They understood that you couldn’t just build a glider and hope to control it by throwing your body weight back and forth.”

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