Wilbur Wright (left) with his brother Orville Wright
It’s a chilly, breezy day in December 1903. Wilbur Wright stands on the beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, staring at the sky above him. Soaring overhead in an airplane is his brother Orville—he’s in the middle of the world’s first successful piloted engine-powered airplane flight.
Today the Wright brothers are remembered as innovative engineers, and their history-making flight inspired generations of future fliers.
Orville Wright made the world’s first successful piloted engine-powered airplane flight.
GROWING UP WRIGHT
The Wright brothers were interested in flying from a young age. As children in Dayton, Ohio, their favorite toy was a small helicopter-like object that was powered by a rubber band to twirl its blades. Fascinated by the toy and its mechanics, the brothers hoped to one day build a flying machine big enough to hold them both.
Before experimenting with airplanes, the Wright brothers ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio.
As young men, the brothers went into business together, first operating a printing press, then a bicycle repair shop. Eventually the duo began selling their own custom-made bicycles to customers.
But the brothers never lost their love of flying. At the time, other aircrafts such as gliders—or aircrafts without engines—did exist, but the Wrights wanted to add more power to the objects they were flying. In 1899 the brothers began experimenting with building their own aircrafts.
Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, requesting information about aeronautics to help him and Orville with their aircraft designs.
UP, UP, AND AWAY
In 1900 the brothers traveled from Ohio to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to begin their flight experiments. The ocean-side dunes at Kitty Hawk had regular breezes and soft, sandy landing surfaces—perfect for their studies.
Wilbur Wright (right) and an unidentified friend assist Orville as he pilots a glider.
The brothers first conducted tests with kites before experimenting with gliders. Both Orville and Wilbur separately piloted the gliders during their testing process.
In 1903 the brothers built an airplane called the Wright Flyer I, which featured wooden propellers the men had designed and carved themselves. The plane also had a gasoline engine.
After weeks of unsuccessful attempts, the craft—with extra fabric incorporated to increase the stiffness of the wings—took flight for 12 seconds on December 17, 1903, traveling 120 feet before landing. The plane worked! Both brothers flew the craft a few more times that day. They had flown the world’s first successful piloted engine-powered airplane.
Wilbur Wright (right) observes as his brother Orville prepares to take off on his famous first flight.
WINGS OF CHANGE
After their success in North Carolina, the Wright brothers continued to travel around the world, perfecting their craft and modifying their designs. But they did so much more, kicking off the era of modern aviation and inspiring future adventurers.
The decades following Kitty Hawk were filled with accomplishments in aviation, including the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean and the first passenger flight. And, of course, flight didn’t just stay in this world—a little over 65 years after the Wrights’ famous first flight, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The Wright brothers didn’t just fly the first piloted engine-powered airplane—they created a whole new way for us to explore our world.
A bicycle built by the Wright brothers
Photo credits (top to bottom): CORBIS, Corbis via Getty Images; Archive Pics, Alamy; RGB Ventures, SuperStock, Alamy; New York Times Co., Getty Images; Everett Collection Inc, Alamy; Fox Photos, Getty Images; Daniel Borzynski, Alamy
Text adapted from Wings of Change, The Bird Men, and National Geographic Concise History of Science & Invention: An Illustrated Timeline