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December 17

Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903 Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

Today in Science

Wright Brothers Day

On this day in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright recorded their first successful flight at Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, N.C. Theirs was not the first airplane, but was the first one that successfully combined a heavier-than-air, powered vehicle with a pilot aboard and with the ability to control the plane's path.

Orville (1875-1912) and Wilbur (1867-1948) became interested in flight at a young age, when their father brought home a toy rubber band-powered helicoptor. Spurred on by their mother's own mechanical tendancies, the boys (particularly Orville) were curious and good with their hands, building, tinkering, and fixing a variety of mechanical devices. Together, they founded a bicycle repair and rental shop in 1893 in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. A successful enterprise, the business expanded to bicycle manufacturing two years later and provided the money and the mechanical know-how the young men would need to begin formally experimenting with aviation.

The Wrights pored over what early flight pioneers had already attempted, paying particular attention to Sir George Cayley's scientifically structured models, Otto Lilienthal's hang gliders, and Samuel Langley's too-heavy aerodrome. They experimented with kites and with gliders, both unmanned and manned, and with a variety of wing shapes. They realized they would need to create controls for three dimensions -- roll (the plane's wings' left-and-right movement), pitch (the plane's nose's up-and-down movement), and yaw (the plane's nose's side-to-side movement).

Finding Dayton's winds inhospitable for flight attempts, the Wrights reached out to the federal government, asking for locations along the East Coast where sustained winds might be found. They settled on Kill Devil Hills (then part of Kitty Hawk), in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, because of its strong autumn winds, sparse vegetation, and flat, sandy dunes. They would visit annually between 1900 and 1903 to test increasingly more sophisticated models.

The Wright Flyer was 21 feet long with a 40-foot wingspan, weighed 605 pounds (745 pounds when manned), and had a 12-horsepower engine the brothers also designed. Their first successful flight, with Orville lying at the controls, lasted 12 seconds and roughly 120 feet. The brothers ran three more sucessful flights that day, with the final one lasting nearly a minute and 852 feet, before a gust of wind flipped the plane, damaging it beyond repair. They boxed up the parts and shipped it back to their bike shop, behind which it would sit, crated, for a decade.

They continued to improve on their designs, building and testing new flyers in 1904 and 1905 and through the early part of the 20th century.

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