First Powered Flight

In camp at Kill Devil Hills, they endured weeks of delays caused by broken propeller shafts during engine tests. After the shafts were replaced, Wilbur won a coin toss and made a three-second flight attempt on December 14 1903, stalling after take-off and causing minor damage to the Flyer. Following repairs, the Wrights finally took to the air on December 17, 1903, making two flights each from level ground into a freezing headwind gusting to 27 miles per hour.

The first flight by Orville at 10:35 AM of 120 feet in 12 seconds, at a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour over the ground, was recorded in a famous photograph.

The next two flights covered approximately 175 and 200 feet, by Wilbur and Orville respectively. Their altitude was about 10 feet above the ground.

Five people witnessed the flight’s: Adam Etheridge, John T. Daniels (who snapped the famous first flight photo), and Will Dough, all of the US government coastal lifesaving crew, area businessman WC Brinkley, and Johnny Moore, a teenaged boy who lived in the area.

 In 1904, they made 105 flights. But totaled only 45 minutes in the air. Two flights lasted five minutes each. On October 5, 1905, the machine flew 24.2 miles (38.9 kilometers) in 38 minutes and 3 seconds When the Wrights first offered their machine to the US government, they weren’t taken seriously. But by 1908 they closed a contract with the US Department of War for the first military airplane. Meanwhile, they resumed experimental flights near Kitty Hawk that newspapers reported at great length.

Immediately after these trials, Wilbur went to France, where he aroused the admiration and enthusiasm of thousands. He made flights to altitudes of 300 feet (91 meters) and more. He arranged with a French company for the construction of his machine in France. When he returned to the US, he made demonstration flights from Governors Island, MY, around the Statue of Liberty, up to Grant’s Tomb and back.

While Wilbur was in France, Orville made successful flights in the US. On the morning on September 9, 1908, he made 57 complete circles at an altitude of 120 feet (37 meters) over the drill field at Fort Myer, Virginia. He remained in the air 1 hour and 2 minutes ad set several records the same day. On September 17, however, while he was flying at 75 feet (23 meters), a blade of the right had propeller struck and loosened a wire of the rear rubber. The wire coined about the blade and snapped it across the middle. The machine became different to manage and plunged to the earth. Orville suffered a broken thigh and two broken ribs. His passenger Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge died within three hours of a fractured skull. The accident was the most serious in the Wright brother’s career. Orville reappeared at Fort Myer the next year fully recovered. He completed official tests with no evidence of nervousness.

In August 1909, the Wrights closed a contract with some wealthy men in Germany for the information of a German-Wright Company. Later that year, they formed the Wright Company in New York City to manufacture airplanes. They earned some money but were troubled with imitators, infringements on their patents, conflicting claims and lawsuits.

The brothers’ contracts with the U.S. Army and a French syndicate depended on successful public flight demonstrations that met certain conditions. The brothers had to divide their efforts. Wilbur sailed for Europe; Orville would fly near Washington, D.C.

Facing much skepticism in the French aeronautical community and outright scorn by some newspapers that called him a “bluffeur”, Wilbur began official public demonstrations on August 8, 1908 at the Hunaudières horse racing track near the town of Le Mans, France. His first flight lasted only one minute 45 seconds, but his ability to effortlessly make banking turns and fly a circle amazed and stunned onlookers, including several pioneer French aviators, among them Louis Blériot. In the following days, Wilbur made a series of technically challenging flights, including figure-eights, demonstrating his skills as a pilot and the capability of his flying machine, which far surpassed those of all other pioneering aircraft and pilots of the day.

The French public was thrilled by Wilbur’s feats and flocked to the field by the thousands, and the Wright brothers instantly became world-famous. Former doubters issued apologies and effusive praise. L’Aérophile editor Georges Besançon wrote that the flights “have completely dissipated all doubts. Not one of the former detractors of the Wrights dare question, today, the previous experiments of the men who were truly the first to fly …” Leading French aviation promoter Ernest Archdeacon wrote, “For a long time, the Wright brothers have been accused in Europe of bluff … They are today hallowed in France, and I feel an intense pleasure … to make amends.”[104]

On October 7, 1908, Edith Berg, the wife of the brothers’ European business agent, became the first American woman passenger when she flew with Wilbur—one of many passengers who rode with him that autumn. Wilbur also became acquainted with Léon Bollée and his family. Bollée was the owner of an automobile factory where Wilbur would assemble the Flyer and where he would be provided with hired assistance. Bollée would fly that autumn with Wilbur. Madame Bollée had been in the latter stages of pregnancy when Wilbur arrived in LeMans in June 1908 to assemble the Flyer. Wilbur promised her that he would make his first European flight the day her baby was born which he did, August 8, 1908.

Orville followed his brother’s success by demonstrating another nearly identical Flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia, starting on September 3, 1908. On September 9, he made the first hour-long flight, lasting 62 minutes and 15 seconds.

Later Years

Neither brother married. Wilbur once quipped that he did not have time for both a wife and an airplane.[140] Following a brief training flight in Berlin he gave to a German pilot in June 1911, Wilbur never flew again. He gradually became occupied with business matters for the Wright Company and dealing with different lawsuits. Upon dealing with the patent lawsuits, which had put great strain on both brothers, Wilbur had written in a letter to a French friend, “When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.” [141] Wilbur spent the next year before his death traveling, where he spent a full six months in Europe attending to various business and legal matters. Wilbur urged American cities to emulate the European – particularly Parisian – philosophy of apportioning generous public space near every important public building.[142] He was also constantly back and forth between New York, Washington and Dayton. All of the stresses were taking a toll on Wilbur physically. Orville would remark that he would “come home white”.

Wilbur died of typhoid fever on May 30 1912, just as the airplane was beginning to make great advances. Orville worked on alone, and in 1913, he won the Collier Trophy for a device to balance airplanes automatically. He sold his interest in the Wright Company and retired in 1915. He continued to work on the development of aviation in his own shop, the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory. In 1929 he received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal for his and Wilbur’s contributions to the advancement of aeronautics.

Orville succeeded to the presidency of the Wright Company upon Wilbur’s death. Sharing Wilbur’s distaste for business but not his brother’s executive skills, Orville sold the company in 1915.

After 42 years living at their residence on 7 Hawthorn Street, Orville, Katharine and their father, Milton, moved to Hawthorn Hill in the spring of 1914. Milton died in his sleep on April 3, 1917, at the age of 88. Up until his death, Milton had been very active, preoccupied with reading, writing articles for religious publications and enjoying his morning walks. He had also marched in a Dayton Woman’s Suffrage Parade, along with Orville and Katharine.[148]

Orville made his last flight as a pilot in 1918 in a 1911 Model B. He retired from business and became an elder statesman of aviation, serving on various official boards and committees, including the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), predecessor agency to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (ACCA), predecessor to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).

Katharine married Henry Haskell of Kansas City, a former Oberlin classmate, in 1926. Orville was furious and inconsolable, feeling he had been betrayed by Katharine.[149] He refused to attend the wedding or even communicate with her. He finally agreed to see her, apparently at Lorin’s insistence, just before she died of pneumonia on March 3, 1929.

Orville Wright served NACA for 28 years. In 1930, he received the first Daniel Guggenheim Medal established in 1928 by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. In 1936, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

On April 19, 1944, the second production Lockheed Constellation, piloted by Howard Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye, flew from Burbank, California, to Washington, D.C. in 6 hours and 57 minutes (2300 mi – 330.9 mph). On the return trip, the airliner stopped at Wright Field to give Orville Wright his last airplane flight, more than 40 years after his historic first flight. He may even have briefly handled the controls. He commented that the wingspan of the Constellation was longer than the distance of his first flight.

Orville’s last major project was supervising the reclamation and preservation of the 1905 Wright Flyer III, which historians describe as the first practical airplane.

Orville expressed sadness in an interview years later about the death and destruction brought about by the bombers of World War II:

“We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong … No, I don’t have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused. I feel about the airplane much the same as I do in regard to fire. That is, I regret all the terrible damage caused by fire, but I think it is good for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that we have learned how to put fire to thousands of important uses.”

Orville died on January 30, 1948.

Wilbur was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York City in 1955 and Orville in 1965. Orville set the original plane flown near Kitty Hawk to the Science Museum in London in 1928, until they sent the plane back to the US in 1948, and it’s now in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Basic principles of that place are used in every airplane. The Kill Devil Hill Monument National Memorial in North Carolina became the Wright Brothers National Memorial in 1953.