111 Years Ago Today: Man’s First Powered Flight.

By Tom Demerly for Alert 5.


Without knowing it the Wright Brothers had invented a control surface and wing combination that would go to remain in flight testing to this day.

It is equipped with side stick controls like an F-16 Fighting Falcon. It uses an advanced, “mission adaptive” wing that has no seams at the control surfaces. The wing is so unique its design is protected under U.S. patent 821,393. The entire wing changes shape to control the roll axis of the aircraft.

Like many state-of-the-art modern combat aircraft from the MiG-29 Fulcrum to the F-22 Raptor, it has a twin tail for maximum yaw control authority. Like both the highly capable Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Raphael it has twin canards in front of the wing to perform pitch control. But unlike any of these aircraft, its entire structure is made of ultra-lightweight composites. And, like the highly capable modern F-35 it uses two sources of thrust powered by a single, entirely new and advanced, powerplant.


A crude series of vertically arrayed canards were used on the Wright Flyer. Today forward canards are seen on the Eurofighter Typhoon, Chengdu J-20 and Dassault Rafale advanced tactical aircraft.

The cockpit provides the pilot with better situational awareness and visibility than any of these advanced combat aircraft, with the pilot’s field of vision limited only by the range of motion of this head, a remarkable achievement now rivaled only in the F-35.

And it is the first successful powered aircraft ever, the Wright Flyer.

111 years ago today Orville Wright became the first man to achieve powered flight. His first 12-second flight, covering only 120 feet, changed the course of mankind.

10:35 Local, Thursday, 17 December, 1903; Kill Devil Hill, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville Wright lays prone on the lower wing pilot station of the Wright flyer. The aircraft’s engines are running, having been warmed-up for some minutes to assure their smooth operation. Wright completes a ritual that will become commonplace for every pilot from this day forward, he cycles his controls through their range of motion to verify they are working.

The aircraft sits on a track that provides directional control for its take-off run, much like the catapult on a modern aircraft carrier. A rope holds the plane back until take-off thrust from its single engine, driving two propellers through a transmission adapted from a bicycle, is achieved. Then the rope will be released and…

Today is the culmination of a protracted yearlong flight test program. Non-powered prototypes have been flown over 300 times on test missions at low altitude throughout this test range. Flight regimes and test protocols are established, along with the routine for flying the new powered aircraft itself.


Inventors, aircraft engineers, test pilots and bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright. The two men are oddly industrious, driven and inventive.

Wind is strong, gusting over 20 MPH. It is moderately overcast. The test range, being an open dune area, is free of obstructions. It is a good area for low altitude flight-testing.

Despite the meticulous development program success is not guaranteed. In fact, an attempt at powered flight the prior Monday has failed. Flight test pilot Wilbur Wright was in the cockpit on that flight attempt. The aircraft could not achieve adequate lift and/or thrust to maintain controlled flight, leapt briefly into the air out of control, and crashed after three seconds. The entire flight test program is in question.

Wright achieves run-up of his single engine, an incredibly advanced aircraft-specific powerplant with a remarkable thrust-to-weight ratio. The Wright/Taylor single engine uses a cast aluminum engine block to reduce weight. It is fuel-injected and uses a crude “afterburner” or heater from its own crankcase to form explosive fuel vapor. Distantly similar to the contra-rotating propellers on a modern Russian TU-95 “Bear” bomber, engine thrust turns two propellers, hand carved in the Wright Cycle Shop, the bicycle shop owned by the Wright Brothers.

Wright’s engine reaches take-off thrust. He releases his holdback rope, and the aircraft begins its take-off roll to something that will become known to pilots as “V2min” or, “minimum take-off speed”. V2min is achieved before the aircraft reaches the end of the track.

A miraculous conspiracy of physics begins to form; Newton’s third and second laws, Bernoulli’s principle, a controversial idea known as the “Coanda effect”, and the by-product of an equation derived by Leonhard Euler in 1754. The thin medium of air is coerced into a mystical manipulation that suddenly grants mankind temporary clemency from gravity.

And it flies.

Control is poor. The aircraft is erratic. Yaw control is difficult. It is buffeted by the wind and flight surface response is mushy. Wright wrestles the vague controls with all four limbs.

But it flies.

“Photographer” John T. Daniels, a lifeguard by trade, is standing by with a heavy Gundlach-Korona view camera loaded with a single 5-by-7-inch glass-plate negative for “film”. He will get one chance to shoot the most important image in the history of flight, and one of the most important in the history of mankind.

This is also the first photograph John Daniels has ever tried to shoot.

Upon seeing Wright’s aircraft lift-off its rails Daniels panics with excitement- and nearly forgets to squeeze the bulb shutter release exposing the glass plate film and burning the photo into the emulsion. He quickly composes himself and clamps his fist shut on the bulb. He gets this photo:


Wright briefly learns something every pilot will learn in flight training, if you fight the controls, the controls fight back. His frantic actuation of the controls moderates to a softer touch. He feels a sensation as impossible to describe as love or death or any other life-altering event. He feels freedom from earth on his own terms.

The sky has finally surrendered her maidenhead, and mankind has at last slipped the surly bonds of earth.

At an airspeed of Mach 0.01, or 6.8 miles per hour, Wright begins to let down into the first ever “final approach” after about 10 seconds. Another 2 seconds and the aircraft touches down, under control, at the command of a pilot.

The flight test program at Kill Devil Hill rockets ahead. That day, the Wright Brothers will make three more flights, the last flight achieving another aviation milestone: the first airplane crash. The Wright Flyer is lightly damaged in the crash after a successful flight of nearly one minute.

The military is quick to realize the significance of the Wright Brother’s achievements and the flight development and test program accelerates under scrutiny from the U.S. Army. The Wrights later develop a routine where they fly the aircraft for people to view in person to verify its capabilities. The routines are soon dubbed “airshows”.

Once the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight, test programs in other countries accelerated. Powered flight was a new and rapidly advancing frontier characterized by constant development and improvement, and punctuated by occasional tragedy. It is a frontier that continues to this day, 111 years later.







About tomdemerly (16 Articles)
Tom Demerly has written for "Outside", "Velo-News", "Bicycle Guide", "Bicycling", "Inside Triathlon", "Triathlete", "Triathlon Today!", "USA Triathlon Magazine" and many other publications. He has raced endurance events on all seven continents and climbed the highest mountain on three. Demerly is four-time Michigan USA Cycling Champion and has completed over 250 triathlons around the world, Including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. In 1990 Demerly raced for the Nike/Velo-News/Gatorade Cycling Team in Belgium. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia and as a Scout Observer for Company "F", 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit.

2 Comments on 111 Years Ago Today: Man’s First Powered Flight.

  1. Gustave whitehead was first to fly. How do you not know this?


    • Whitehead’s claims as well as recent (2013) allegations that his flight might have occurred before that of the Wright Flyer’s in 1903 were proven to be fabrications last year, fairly quickly after they surfaced. There hasn’t been much support lent to these claims from any reputable news or historical organizations, while the Wright Bros. claim to fame has been well-documented and appropriately sourced by a vast number of reputed organizations, including the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.


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