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Photograph of the first powered airplane flight, 1903

The first powered, controlled, sustained airplane flight in history. Orville Wright, age 32, is at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. His brother, Wilbur Wright, age 36, ran alongside to help balance the machine, having just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine.
The Wright Brothers conduct the first powered flight on December 17th, 1903.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For millennia, humans have been fascinated with the idea of creating a mechanism that would allow people to soar through the sky. From the Chinese invention of kites in 400 BC to the creation of hot air balloons in 1783, the thought of gliding through the air captured the imagination of many aspiring aviators. On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright realized these dreams when they launched the first powered flight in history. After years of doggedly attempting to create a flying machine, the Wright brothers were able to achieve what so many others before them had not.

Early dreamers initially had thought the way to human flight was to make a mechanism that mirrored the wings of birds. After decades of trying and failing, it became clear that this was not a practical way to achieve flight. It was time to get creative. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, early pioneers went through hundreds of designs, trying to create a mechanism that would propel mankind into the air. Finally, in 1804, Sir George Cayley the “Father of Aviation” was able to create a crude version of what would eventually become an airplane. However, it was not until nearly 100 years later that spectators would see the very first person take flight.

On December 17th, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright defied skeptics and launched the first airplane. This photo captures the moment when Orville Wright, age 32, became airborne and embarked on a 120-foot long journey, making him the first person in history to man a self-propelled aircraft. Powered by gasoline and controlled by a moveable rudder connected to a steering system, the biplane took flight at 10:35 a.m in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This event capped nearly three years of exhaustive testing of aircraft on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, which provided plenty of wind and soft dunes that assisted in the safe landing of the aircraft. The flight only lasted 12 seconds, but those 12 seconds would become one of the greatest feats achieved by mankind.

This event almost did not take place. Three days earlier, Wilbur Wright had attempted to fly the plane, but had lost control and damaged the wing. Luckily the damage wasn’t excessive, and they were able to repair it pretty quickly. However, another setback arose when the weather decided it did not want to cooperate. In order to launch the aircraft, they needed wind, which was one of the reasons they chose this location in North Carolina. However, after repairing the plane, the wind was nonexistent, which delayed their plans for another 24 hours. Upon waking up on December 17, Orville and Wilbur now had the opposite problem, the wind was blowing at a whopping 27 miles per hour. They were concerned that it would be difficult to control the plane with the wind blowing that hard. But eventually the desire to find out if the aircraft could work won out, and they retrieved the flyer from the hangar and put it on a monorail track. As seen in the photo, Orville laid down on the lower wings with his hips in a cradle, holding on to the controls. You can see Wilbur standing next to the pane, having just run alongside the machine and balancing it to help Orville get airborne. Wilbur looks on as he watches his brother launch into the air, perhaps thinking that they had just achieved what was once thought impossible.

This event marked the beginning of the modern aviation age, the importance of which cannot be overstated. This advancement in technology completely transformed travel in the modern era, as well as had a significant impact on how wars were fought. On that freezing cold December day, the Wright brothers marked their place in history and changed the lives of mankind forever.


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