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Perspective: Those magnificent men; It was 12 seconds that changed the world. Dave Rogerson looks back at 100 years of flight.

Way back in 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote: 'For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.'

His dedication to that belief helped him, and his brother Orville, change the course of history on the morning of December 17, 1903, when they completed the first powered flight.

Born and raised in Ohio, the brothers owned a successful bicycle business when they began working on solving the mystery of human flight.

Fuelled by a lust for knowledge, the pair requested all the published information on the theory of flight from the Smithsonian Institute.

They then looked for the safest environment to test their experimental kites and gliders.

Orville and Wilbur researched various locations across America to find one that would provide steady winds for lift, soft sands for landings and few obstacles, such as trees.

After studying wind speed statistics, Wilbur decided to visit Kitty Hawk, a small fishing village on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He first travelled there in September 1900.

Though history would record Kitty Hawk as the location of the Wright brothers' aeronautical achievements, it was in fact just a few miles away at a site called Kill Devil Hills that Wilbur set up camp and began to assemble his first glider.

When Orville joined him a few weeks later, their experiments began in earnest.

The brothers enlisted the help of a small team of local people to help them - first flying gliders and then bigger contraptions.

After a break, the Wrights returned to the Kitty Hawk area in the summer of 1901, with a glider much larger than anyone had ever tried to fly before. But the machine failed to perform.

The discrepancies between their carefully noted observations and previously published data caused the brothers to set out on a new path of discovery.

They built a six-foot wind tunnel and spent many hours measuring the drag and lift ratios of some 200 different wing shapes.

These precise, systematic experiments resulted in the true mathematical principles of flight and provided the foundation of aeronautical engineering.

The information gleaned from their wind tunnel trials enabled the brothers to design a new type of glider in 1902.

This glider was the first machine in aviation history to be controlled on the three axes - pitch, roll and yaw.

Every successful aircraft ever built since has had controls to roll the wings right or left, pitch the nose up or down, and yaw the nose from side to side.

These three systems let a pilot control the plane. The entire aerospace business, the largest industry in the world, depends on these simple but brilliant ideas.

Wilbur wrote: 'Our new machine is a very great improvement on anything we have built before and over anything anyone has built.'

In 1902, they tested their control systems with 1,000 successful missions and prepared for the first powered flight.

After another break, the Wrights returned to Kitty Hawk in September 1903.

Due to bad weather and a number of mechanical difficulties, it was not until the afternoon of December 14, 1903, that their powered 'flyer' was ready.

Wilbur won the coin toss to be the first to test the machine. The flight on December 14 lasted only three-and-a-half seconds and covered a distance of 155 ft - before crashing.

The Wrights considered this first flight unsuccessful.

After a three-day repair stint, the brothers got up on the morning of December 17, 1903. They faced a north-easterly wind blowing at 27 mph and freezing temperatures.

On a flat, level open stretch of sand, just west of their hangar building, the brothers laid a 60 ft wooden monorail track into the wind. With the help of four local men and a 16-year-old boy, the brothers prepared their machine.

At 10.35am, Orville assumed the prone position in the U-shaped hip cradle located in the lower wing of the flyer.

The machine started to move slowly down the rail, into the face of the 27mph wind.

After a 40-foot run down the rail, the machine lifted into the air and climbed to height of 10 feet.

It darted erratically up and down several times, then swooped to the ground 120 feet from its take off point.

Orville later wrote: 'Though the flight only took 12 seconds, nevertheless, it was the first time in history that a piloted machine rose into the air under its own power, moved forward in the air without losing speed and finally landed at a point as high as that from which it took off.'

That same morning Wilbur and Orville took turns on the next three flights - each one covering a distance further than the previous. By the fourth flight Wilbur flew 852 feet in just 59 seconds.

Sadly, while the brothers were discussing their efforts a strong gust of wind flipped their machine wing tip over wing tip, destroying it.

But the four flights had proved man could fly.

Wilbur and Orville Wright showed the world that no dream is impossible and in the process altered the course of history forever.

Their achievements will be celebrated on the site of these first short flights exactly 100 years after the event.

Crowds of around 35,000 people a day will sit and watch a series of events designed to both salute the achievements of the past and inspire the next generation of aviators.

The centenary tributes, led by pilot and Hollywood star John Travolta, will last six days.

They will include interviews with the Wright's descendants, aerobatic and skydiving displays, a live link-up to a space station, and military flypasts.

Aviators, celebrities and dignitaries, including President George Bush, will be on hand for the culmination of the celebration, when at exactly 10.35am on December 17, 2003, the 12-second flight that changed the world will be dramatically recreated.


In the late 1500s Italian inventor Leonardo Da Vinci created the first design for a flying machine using bird wings as the basis for his model.

Da Vinci's design was repeated in the late 1800s by young German pioneer Otto Lilienthal, known as the original hang glider. There was, however, a major flaw in his design as he had no controls and was tragically killed when a gust of wind threw his glider out of control.

Englishman George Cayley is credited with inventing the aeroplane near Scarborough in Yorkshire in 1799.

A toss of a coin gave Orville Wright the honour of making the first flight in Flyer I on December 17, 1903.

In 1905 the Wrights tried to suppress an article in The Dayton Daily News that contained a sketch and working details of their plane, the Flyer III. The Wright brothers received Patent Number 821,393 for a 'flying machine' on May 22, 1906.

The first flight lasting more than one hour was made on September 9, 1908, by Orville Wright at Fort Myer, Virginia, lasting 1 hour, 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

The first passenger to travel in a plane was Charles W. Furnas, the Wright brothers' mechanic, who flew with Wilbur Wright on May 14, 1908.

The wingspan of a Boeing 747 'jumbo jet' (195 feet) is longer than the first flight made by the Wright brothers (120 feet).

The first in-flight movie was The Lost World, shown during a flight in a converted bomber from London to Paris in April 1925.

Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. After a flight lasting 14 hours and 54 minutes she touched down in Ireland. Earhart was ahead of her time. Not only was she a pilot, she was a feminist before it was fashionable, a mechanic and a navigator. She also crashed numerous planes and survived.

Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while flying round the world in 1937 and it is still one of the most mysterious in aviation circles.

Madame Therese Peltier was the first woman to fly solo in an aeroplane in 1908.

Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel for the first time in the Bleriot XI in 1909.

The first sustained international commercial air passenger service was established between Paris and Brussels in 1919 and air mail flights between Canada and the US began with William E Boeing.

The first Municipal airport in the USA was dedicated at Atlantic City, New Jersey in May 1919.

The first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean went from Newfoundland to Ireland in the Vickers Vimy in 1919 with British Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Albert Brown on board.

The first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic was completed by Charles A. Lindbergh in the Spirit of St Louis in 1927.

The first flight attendant, Ellen Church, took to the skies in 1930 and the first female employed as a pilot was Helen Richey in 1935 with Central Airlines.

The DC-3 was the world's first successful passenger airline taking off from Santa Monica, California for the first time in 1935.

The first supersonic flight was achieved on October 14, 1947, by Cpt Charles 'Chuck' Elwood Yaeger over Lake Muroc in California reaching speeds of 670mph at 42,000ft.

Andre Turcat piloted Concorde on its first flight on 2nd March, 1969. After Concorde began commercial flight services in 1976 more than 2.5 million passengers flew at supersonic speeds. The aircraft clocked up more than 140,000 flying hours (over 100,000 of them at supersonic speed) and travelled 140 million miles.

Its fastest transatlantic crossing was on February 7, 1996, when it travelled from New York's JFK to London Luton in two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds. In 1992, Concorde broke the record for the fastest round-the-world trip in just 33 hours.

In 1994 Vicki van Meter, aged 12, became the youngest pilot to make a transatlantic flight in a Cessna 210.

In July 2003 Austrian stuntman Felix Baumgartner flew unaided across the English Channel with a 6 foot carbon fibre wing attached to his back after jumping from a plane. The trip lasted 14 minutes and covered some 21 miles.

Commercial airline pilots are required to be clean shaven when flying. It is not a fashion demand but because cabin pressure may drop dramatically and oxygen masks would not function correctly if pilots had beards.

The Airbus A380, due to take to the air next spring, will be the world's biggest passenger plane. The double decker jumbo will have space for cinemas, boutiques, bars and restaurants and room for up to 800 passengers.

If air travel was 99.99 per cent safe there would be three fatal air crashes every day of the year. Air travel is in fact 99.9999996 per cent safe, leaving a one in seven million chance that you will die in a crash.


The first of four flights made by the Wright Brothers at the Fill Devil Hills on December 17, 1903 Orville Wright (above) and Wilbur with his sister as passenger in 1909 Wilbur Wright is shown flying the Wright brothers' plane over Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Ohio, October 4, 1905. This was their longest flight in 1905, 24 miles, proving their theory of controlled flight. Huffman Prairie is near the current Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn, Ohio Four F-15 fighter jets fly in formation over the Wright Brothers Monument in Kill Devil Hills, NC
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 17, 2003
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