Last updated: 09:47 AM ET, Tue December 22 2015

6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Wright Brothers

Features & Advice | Paul Thompson | December 17, 2015

6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Wright Brothers

Public domain photo

It was December 17, 1903, when Orville Wright flew the Wright Flyer over the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Their flight covered a distance of only 120 feet — shorter than the wingspan of today’s larger passenger planes — but the milestone marked the dawn of a new era of transportation. Because of their innovation, we now cross the Earth at speeds previously unimaginable for thousands of years.

It All Started With A Toy

Their obsession with flight began in 1878, when their father brought home a toy resembling a helicopter, made of cork, bamboo and paper, and powered by rubber bands. Orville and Wilbur built their own aircraft engine, because no other engine manufacturer could build one powerful or light enough to get their plane off the ground.

Neither Wilbur or Orville graduated from high school. Before devoting themselves to powered aircraft flight, the duo spent some of their time working on a daily newspaper, called the Evening Item. They began their engineering careers in 1892, when they opened their bicycle repair shop in Dayton, Ohio. They went on to develop their own bike designs. The shop financed their airplane experiments. 

They Steered the Wright Flyer by Leaning

The 1903 Wright Flyer engine was mounted slightly off-center, so the pilot also flew the plane off-center to balance the weight. They steered the plane left and right by shifting their body weight, which made the wings warp and caused the plane to turn in the desired direction.

A Coin Toss Put Orville in the History Books

When conducting their flights, the two brothers simply alternated their turns at the controls. That is fair, right? Wilbur had won a coin toss, and unsuccessfully tried to take flight on Dec. 14, so Orville was next to take a turn on Dec. 17 While Orville was the first to successfully fly their plane, Wilbur flew 175 feet that same day, shortly after Orville. Orville flew once more that day, 200 feet, followed by Wilbur, who flew a remarkable 812. During that flight, a gust of wind sent Wilbur to the ground, damaging the Wright Flyer. It would never fly again.

Following their successful flight, their success was not met with heroic notoriety, but rather skepticism. Only one local journalist was there to cover the flight. The duo didn't really gain notoriety until they took their second plane to France.

Orville Piloted the Flight That Caused the First Fatal Crash

Many people know that Orville was the pilot for the world’s first powered flight, but many don’t know that he was also the pilot during a crash which led to the world’s first powered plane crash death. The victim was Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, a 1903 graduate of the U.S. military academy. Selfridge was a pilot himself with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and also a governmental rep for the Aerial Experimental Association, chaired by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

On Sept. 3, 1908, Orville Wright came to Fort Myer, Virginia — a military base adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery — in hopes of seeking a contract to sell the plane to the Army. On September 17th, Lieutenant Selfridge took to the air with Orville. At an altitude of about 100 feet, a propeller split, sending the plane out of control and crashing to the ground. Selfridge died shortly thereafter from a concussion he had sustained in the crash. Fort Myer was also the site of the National Weather Service, which originated there in 1870.

The Wright Flyer Was the First Military Aircraft

Their 1908 Flyer ended up being the world’s first military aircraft, as a result of demonstration flights flown before the military and public. The Army purchased the plane in 1909, for $30,000 — almost $790,000 when accounting for inflation to 2015 dollars. Training was conducted in College Park, Maryland and San Antonio, Texas. The plane was used for observation purposes, not actual combat.

Orville Could Hold a Grudge

It wasn’t until 1948 — one year after Orville’s death — that the Smithsonian Institution received the 1903 Wright Flyer. Because the Smithsonian secretary Samuel Langley had tried to make the first powered flight nine days before Orville’s attempt, the institution had said Langley’s machine was the first to be “capable” of powered flight. Orville refused to give the 1903 Flyer to the Smithsonian until they declared the Wright Brothers were the first to achieve the feat. 1969, U.S. Astronaut Neil Armstrong carried a piece of the 1903 Wright Flyer’s muslin fabric to the moon with him.

Admittedly, I didn’t know about the Selfridge death or the Wright Brothers’ military contract until I read “The Wright Brothers,” by David McCullough. If you’re interested in aviation history at all, I can’t recommend this book enough. My recommendation of this book isn’t compensated in any way, I just thought it’s an excellent nonfiction book that people who like airplanes and/or history will enjoy. 


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