First Flight: How Wright Brothers Changed the World

One hundred years ago today, a machine carrying a person made a brief and wobbly flight. As Wilbur Wright watched his brother Orville guide their flying machine into the air, the past and the future separated and the world started shrinking.

Thursday, December 17, 1903, dawned windy and cold on North Carolina's Outer Banks. At Kill Devil Hills, the thermometer hovered around the freezing mark, and a 25-mile-per-hour (40-kilometer-per-hour) wind blowing out of the north made it feel even colder.

Orville and Wilbur Wright had a few doubts about whether this was a good day to try to get their flying machine off the ground. They'd had one setback three days earlier when Wilbur lost control of the craft as he was trying to take off, damaging a wing.

It had taken them a day to repair the damage and get ready to try again, but on December 16 the winds had died to almost nothing and they decided to wait another 24 hours in hopes it would pick back up. Now, with the wind blowing at a strength that could cause them problems trying to control the flyer, they pondered whether to pack it in for the season and come back next year to resume their efforts.

But they didn't want to go back home to Ohio without knowing once and for all whether this design was going to work. So they decided that this day was as good as any to give it one more shot.

The Wrights hauled their wood-metal-and-muslin flyer—which resembled a box kite with propellers—out of its hangar and hoisted a red flag at their camp to signal the nearby U.S. Lifesaving Station that they'd like some help getting the flyer into position.

The modest, hardworking Midwesterners had formed a bond with the taciturn inhabitants of the remote, sparsely populated islands, and they'd had no trouble recruiting willing helpers in the years they'd been coming to the Outer Banks to develop their flyer.

On December 17, crewmen John Daniels, Will Dough, and Adam Etheridge came over from the Lifesaving Station. W.C. Binkley of Manteo and Johnny Moore, a teenager from Nags Head, also showed up to lend a hand.

These five men would witness an event that would change the world forever.

In December 1903, the industrialized world moved at the speed of a steam engine, and lots of people thought that was fast enough. A few months earlier a smug American scientist claimed to have proven that a powered aircraft would never fly, despite the dogged efforts of several would-be aviators besides the Wright Brothers. The scientist's opinion seemed to be confirmed a little later when a motorized flyer designed by Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, plunged into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., as its pilot tried to get it into the air.

Men wore bushy handlebar moustaches and stiff, high-necked collars in 1903 and wouldn't have stepped outside without donning a derby or perhaps a top hat. Women wore high-button shoes and ankle-length skirts, and no self-respecting female would dare go out in public unless her hair was properly pinned up and she had a hat on her head.

In 1903, a nickel had the same purchasing power as a dollar bill would have a century later.

That was the world the Wright Brothers changed.

The Wrights and their five accomplices pulled the flying machine from the hangar to a specially designed wooden track the brothers had built to launch the flyer. They cranked up the four-cylinder gasoline engine that had been especially designed and built for the flying machine. Orville, at 32 the younger of the pair, was at the controls. Wilbur had won the toss of a coin to see who would go first a few days earlier, the 14th of December—but the initial attempt had failed and the flyer was damaged without leaving the ground.

The Wrights stationed John Daniels at the Korona V camera they'd brought along to document their flying experiments. They'd chosen an excellent instrument to record their work. The big Korona, which the brothers had mounted on a tripod, looked cumbersome and unwieldy but it was one of the best cameras of that era.

A few minutes past 10:30 a.m. Orville climbed onto the lower wing of the flyer, lay stomach-down across it and grasped the controls. True to the no-nonsense demeanor of his times, he wore a dark suit, a white shirt with a stiff collar, a necktie and a cap.

Wilbur, dressed almost identically to his brother, stood by holding the tip of the lower right wing, ready to steady the flying machine as it moved down the wooden track. He turned to look at the five witnesses and was dismayed to see the glum expressions on the faces of the stoic islanders. Above the noise of the puttering engine, Wilbur asked the somber men to "not look so sad" and to "laugh and holler and clap" and "try to cheer Orville up when he starts."

At 10:35 a.m. Orville released a wire that held the flying machine to the track, and the contraption chugged slowly forward into the stiff wind. Wilbur trotted alongside, holding the wing to keep the flyer level. Then the flying machine lifted off the track, and Wilbur let go. The reserved witnesses managed a feeble cheer as the flyer left the ground, and at exactly the right moment, John Daniels squeezed the shutter bulb on the Korona V and captured a black-and-white photograph that will be forever engraved in human history.

It's hard to overstate the importance of that moment because, as Wilbur Wright watched his brother guide their flying machine into the air, the past and the future separated and the world started shrinking. Left behind were weeks-long trips across the U.S. and months-long crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. Ahead lay transcontinental trips of less than a day, and eventually even the oceans would be crossed in a few hours. And then, one summer day a mere 66 years later, men would fly to the moon and walk around on it.

Orville's first flight was wobbly and brief. The flyer darted up and down as he tried to figure out how to keep it under control. He didn't want to push his luck. After about 12 seconds in the air, he brought the flyer to a landing about 120 feet (36 meters) from where he'd started.

It didn't seem like much of an accomplishment, but the brothers were elated. "It was…the first time in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it had started," Wilbur said later.

Alternating as pilots, the brothers made three more flights. Around noon, Wilbur made a flight of 852 feet (260 meters) that lasted 59 seconds—the longest of the day. But the flying machine was slightly damaged by Wilbur's landing, and the group hauled it back to the hangar for repairs.

They were discussing Wilbur's flight when a gust of wind seized the flyer. The men grabbed it and tried to hold it down, but the wind slowly turned it over a couple times. John Daniels stubbornly hung on as the flyer overturned and so he was flung about, banging against the engine and propeller chains.

When the flying machine finally stopped flipping, he was bruised and scraped but otherwise not hurt. For the rest of his life, he would take great delight in saying he'd survived the world's first plane crash.