“a flight very modest compared with that of birds”

The first flight, December 17, 1903. MS-1, The Wright Brothers Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University Libraries

December 17, 1903. At 10:35 a.m., Orville Wright takes off into a 27 mph wind. The distance covered was 120 feet, and the time aloft was 12 seconds. Wilbur can be seen at right. The picture was taken with Orville’s camera by John T. Daniels.

In commemoration of the 108th anniversary of that first flight, here are two accounts written by Orville Wright of that momentous occasion.

The first account, “The Wright Brother’s Aëroplane”, was written by Orville and Wilbur Wright and appeared in the September 1908 issue of Century Magazine, to give people a first-person account of how they invented flight:

The first flights with the power-machine were made on the 17th of December, 1903. Only five persons besides ourselves were present. These were Messrs. John T. Daniels, W. S. Dough, and A. D. Etheridge of the Kill Devil Life Saving Station ; Mr. W. C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Mr. John Ward of Naghead. Although a general invitation had been extended to the people living within five or six miles, not many were willing to face the rigors of a cold December wind in order to see, as they no doubt thought, another flying-machine not fly. The first flight lasted only twelve seconds, a flight very modest compared with that of birds, but it was, nevertheless, the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in free flight, had sailed forward on a level course without reduction of speed, and had finally landed without being wrecked. The second and third flights were a little longer, and the fourth lasted fifty-nine seconds, covering a distance of 852 feet over the ground against a twenty-mile wind.

The second selection was taken from an article written by Orville Wright for Flying and the Aero Club of America Bulletin in December 1913:

The course of the flight up and down was exceedingly erratic, partly due to the irregularity of the air, and partly to lack of experience in handling this machine. The control of the front rudder was difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center. This gave it a tendency to turn itself when started; so that it turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about ten feet, and then as suddenly dart for the ground. A sudden dart when a little over a hundred feet from the end of the track, or a little over 120 feet from the point at which it rose into the air, ended the flight. As the velocity of the wind was over 35 feet per second and the speed of the machine over the ground against this wind ten feet per second, the speed of the machine relative to the air was over 45 feet per second, and the length of the flight was equivalent to a flight of 540 feet made in calm air. This flight lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless the first 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 started.

For more information about that first flight, or to learn more about the materials in our Wright Brothers collection, please visit our website. Additional pictures of the first flight and over 2000 more pictures from the Wright Brothers collection are available online in CORE, our campus repository.

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