Aviation History Month: The Wright Brothers

“I am convinced that human flight is possible and practical.” –Wilbur Wright, 1899

Since earliest times, people watched birds soaring overhead and wished they could fly too. Three thousand years before the birth of Christ, artists in ancient Egypt painted pictures of men with wings. Ancient Greek myths tell about winged gods and flying chariots. Arabian legends speak of princes riding on magic flying carpets.

In the Middle Ages, “birdmen” strapped wings to their arms and leaped from high places, flapping as hard as they could. Most of them suffered death or injuries, but a few achieved partial success with their glides. Later inventors designed flying machines called ornithopters (bird wings), which had wings that could be made to flap. However, no one was able to make one that could successfully carry a person.

The first truly scientific study of flight was made in the late 1400’s by the Italian artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo realized that human arm and chest muscles were not strong enough to operate a pair of wings. But he made detailed drawings of ornithopters, helicopters, and parachutes. The notes and sketches that he left show that Leonardo had a good understanding of the principles of aerodynamics. But historians are not sure whether he ever built and tested his inventions, and his works had little or no influence on the history of flight.

The glider, pioneered by Otto Lilienthal of Germany in the 1880’s, was the first successful heavier-than-air craft. Although it could not really fly, it could coast on air for many miles. Other inventors tried adding propellers and engines to gliders, but were unsuccessful at getting off the ground. Finally, the Wright brothers came up with a better aircraft design. Orville and Wilbur Wright designed and built both the biplane and its motor.

Orville piloted the first successful airplane flight over the soft sandy shores of the Outer Banks at Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.  At 10:35 am, the brothers’ flyer lifted into the air for 12 seconds and covered a distance of 121 feet. For the first time, a manned machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started. Later that day, Wilbur made a much longer flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds.

To celebrate Aviation History Month, read about these two homeschooled brothers:
First in Flight: Wilbur & Orville Wright

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