Did you know? - Fascinating facts and useful trivia factoids about people, products and places

The First Flight

Were Wright Brothers the first to fly?

Wilbur and Orville Wright weren’t just lucky to make the first flight. They played with flying paper models in their youth, and by 1901 they had made hundreds of wind tunnel tests. In 1902, their glider was the biggest flying machine ever built. Orville Wright wrote, “We now hold all the records! The largest machine…the longest time in the air, the smallest angle of descent, and the highest wind!”

They called on the machine making skills of Charles E. Taylor, and by February 1903 they had an engine. By June, they had built a propeller. They headed for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in September to build their Flyer.

On Monday 13 December 1903, a toss of a coin gave Wilbur the honour of making the first flight. The engine and propeller powered the plane, the Flyer lifted off but immediately sank down, slightly damaged.

First flight?
By Friday 17 December 1903, the Flyer was fixed, and at 10h35, Orville made the first powered flight. It lasted 12 seconds. Wilbur made the second flight, which lasted less than a second longer than the first. Orville took the 3rd flight, covering 60 metres (200 ft) in 15 seconds. At noon, Wilbur made the fourth flight on that blustery day. The Flyer covered 255,6 metres (852 ft) in 59 seconds. He landed safely, but a sudden gust of wind sent the plane tumbling, breaking the wings and damaging the motor. There would be no more flights in 1903.

There were 5 men to witness the Wright Brothers’ flights. Orville even set up a camera so that a Mr Daniels could take photographs. But there were no newspaper men. In the Spring of 1904, they built a new plane and invited the press. The weather was not quite right, but since the reporters were there, they tried anyway. The plane failed to lift off. The Wright Brothers didn’t make the papers. They did fly again but spent the rest of their lives fighting about their patent and died without knowing the world finally recognised their work. In 1914, the Franklin Institute became the first scientific institution to recognise the Wright Brothers’ achievement.

But were the Wright Brothers really the first to fly?
By the time the Wright brothers got their flyer up in the air, flying was a hobby for New Zealand farmer Richard Pearse. Working single-handedly in his barn, he designed and built his own engine and flying machine. Datings suggest that Pearse made his first flight in March 1902. His remarkable success remained unknown until fairly recently.

But there is an account of an even earlier flight…

“Two years, four months and three days before the successful flights of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, a birdlike monoplane took to the air at early dawn on August 14, 1901, near Bridgeport, Connecticut, carrying its inventor and builder, Gustave Whitehead, a distance of approximately a half mile.” – Megan Adam, descendant of Gustave A. Whitehead.

Although there are no blueprints of Whitehead’s craft, evidence is mounting that Whitehead might indeed have been the first to have taken to the sky in a machine-powered aircraft.

By 1901, the Wright Brothers had the best collection of lift data in the world, some based on the pioneering work on gliding made by George Cayley.

On 23 March 1903, they applied for a patent for their new invention. This allowed them to request a fee for using their design. Other aviators were furious and refused to pay.

It is thought that Charles W. Furras, mechanic for the Wright Brothers, became the first airplane passenger when Wilbur gave him a 29 second ride in 1908. The brothers also took passengers on demonstration flights when they spent a year in Europe in an attempt to sell their patent.

Gustave A. Whitehead's monoplane

Although the Wright Brothers are credited with being the first to fly a powered aircraft in 1903, evidence is mounting that Gustave A. Whitehead took to the skies in his (above) monoplane in 1901.

A Boeing 747 is 70 metres (232 ft) long, 19 metres (63 ft) high and needs a runway of 3,2 km (10,500 ft). It weighs a massive 394 625 kg (870,000 pounds) at takeoff. How does it stay in the air?

Also see First Flight – with photographs External link