(NOTE: This article, the first draft of which was written in December of 2001, first appeared in print
in the August 2002 issue #177 of “WW1 AERO - The Journal Of The Early Aeroplane” pp. 26-39)

The Slope and Winds of Big Kill Devil Hill - The First Flight Reconsidered

© 2002-2014 Carroll F. Gray

      SINCE that blustery, gray mid-day in December of 1903 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina when The First Flight was accomplished by one of the Wright brothers in a powered, heavier-than-air controllable aeroplane, pretenders and contenders have risen up, each like a mythical Phoenix, to claim the laurels of being the first aviator of powered flight. Alexander Mozhaiski, Clement Ader, Gustave (Weisskopf) Whitehead and a number of others have been proposed (or have proposed themselves) as preceding the Wrights into the air. Some of these claims are still asserted from time to time and we can expect that as the Centennial of Flight approaches we will see them reasserted, yet again.

      Pending unforeseen and highly improbable evidence of an earlier powered flight, a far more interesting and I believe more historically important discussion is the question of which one of the Wrights should be awarded the honor of having been the first human to fly a heavier-than-air, powered, controllable, aeroplane. To raise this question at this point in time may seem odd, even heretical, since it would appear that this question had been answered many decades ago, beyond all questioning... wasn’t it Orville Wright who made The First Flight on December 17, 1903, at 10:35 a.m., near Big Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina? After extensive reading and considerable reflection on the available material, I don’t believe it was.

(See: NOTE 3 at end of article)



This map depicting the area surrounding Kill Devil Hill and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (to the north of Kill Devil Hill), was drawn by Wilbur Wright on June 13, 1908, while he was in Paris, France. (Arrow and text "Kill Devil Hill" added)

This photograph shows The Flyer on the 8-degree 50-minute slope at the foot of Big Kill Devil Hill. Five members of the Kitty Hawk Life Saving Station, John T. Daniels, Robert Westcott, Thomas Beacham, W. S. Dough and “Uncle Benny” O’Neal, moved the launching track and The Flyer about 1,300 feet from the Wrights’ work and storage sheds to the location shown in the photograph. (Library of Congress Wright negative LC-W86-22)

This enlargement of the above image shows four of the five crew members who assisted in moving The Flyer and the launching track. The two small children and the dog shown in this enlarged view were the ones who ran off as soon as the engine was started, frightened by the noise. (Library of Congress Wright negative LC-W86-22)

      For decades, almost from the time it took place, the first attempt to take The Flyer aloft (Wilbur Wright’s hop on the 14th of December 1903) has been widely dismissed as a serious contender for the honor of being The First Flight. Part of the reason may well be the photograph, taken after Wilbur’s return to Terra Firma, depicting a damaged front elevator assembly. However, the apparently most well informed objection to accepting this flight as The First Flight involves not the damage to the machine but the means and manner of take-off. On the 14th, The Flyer and the track from which it was to be flown were moved from the level area around the Wrights’ work and storage sheds and placed on an 8-degree 50-minute slope at the base of Big Kill Devil Hill, with The Flyer facing downhill.

      Wilbur won a coin toss for the honor of being the first to try The Flyer, and so he was aboard when it lifted off into the face of a weak wind, under power and assisted by gravity, and made a hop comparable in distance to the one Orville would make three days later. For many who consider these matters, the use of gravity has been viewed as an absolute disqualifier insofar as the title of The First Flight is concerned. Interestingly, Wilbur Wright’s concern about that flight apparently had nothing to do with the use of gravity, but rather with what he took to be his own “misjudgment,” as evidenced by a telegram sent by him the following day to his father, Bishop Milton Wright:

“Misjudgment at start reduced flight one hundred twelve power and control ample rudder only injured success assured keep quiet.”

      An interpretation of this somewhat cryptic message might be helpful. It’s interesting to note that the word “flight” was used by the Wrights to describe this and subsequent attempts (as was the word “trial”). However, as will soon become apparent, while “flight” was used to describe each of the five trials made that December, the word “flying” had a very specific meaning to the Wrights, who drew a bright line between “flying” and “jumping” (making short hops into the air). Thus “jumps” might be called “flights” but “jumping” was never referred to as “flying.” In this article a similar distinction is made. As to the phrasing of the telegram, the syntactical niceties of telegraphy required that messages be compressed, so “one hundred twelve” means one hundred-twelve feet flown (not one hundred feet flown in twelve seconds as has sometimes been believed). In a similar vein, “power and control ample rudder only injured” means engine power and flight controls were “ample,” and that only the front elevator assembly suffered damage. Although these days “rudder” refers to a moveable vertical tail surface, it was the front elevator which was routinely referred to by the Wrights as both a “rudder” and as a “front rudder.” The phrase “success assured” clearly demonstrates that Wilbur, as well as Orville, believed that while success had not yet been achieved, it had been clear, even on that first attempt, that the machine would fly.

This photograph depicts the launching track after Wilbur Wright’s first flight in The Flyer. The launch dolly, a wheeled crossbar which supported The Flyer under its lower wing, can be seen a few feet past the left end of the launching track. (Library of Congress Wright negative LC-W86-18)

This image shows The Flyer after landing. The left front elevator (“rudder”) support is broken, as is the left brace between the left front elevator support and the upper wing. The twisting of the elevators appears due to the broken left front elevator support, with what appears to be damage to the trailing edge of the lower elevator. The main supporting structure under the lower wing appears undamaged. (Library of Congress Wright negative LC-W86-20)

      It might seem therefore right and proper to simply accept conventional wisdom and dismiss Wilbur Wright’s flight of the 14th from consideration for the crown of being The First Flight. However, before we fully accept and embrace that point of view, let’s consider the four flights made on December 17th.


      Having lost the coin toss on the 14th, the first trial on the 17th (the second in the series of five that December) fell to Orville, for Wilbur and Orville had agreed to take turns trying to make The Flyer fly. Orville’s take-off from the nearly level ground near the Wrights’ work sheds was memorialized when, on instructions from Orville, John Daniels tripped the shutter of Orville’s camera. The resultant photograph has been reproduced perhaps more often than any other single photograph, for this was the event which has become familiar as The First Flight, spanning some 120 feet in 12 seconds. The next flight, Wilbur’s first flight on the 17th, extended to some 175 feet in 13 seconds and a landing was accomplished with no damage to The Flyer. Orville’s second attempt that day, and his last one in The Flyer, carried him just over 200 feet in 15 seconds and ended with a safe landing. At noon, Wilbur took-off on the last and the longest flight which The Flyer would ever make, and flew for 852 feet, staying aloft for 59 seconds.

      Today, of the five flights made, many people are aware only of Orville’s first flight on the 17th, largely by virtue of that photograph snapped by John Daniels, and it is that flight, the one in the photograph, which has been almost universally acclaimed as The First Flight. However, the first written account we have of the events of the 17th tells a different story. The famous telegram (quoted below with errors and quirks as per the original) sent that same gray afternoon by Orville Wright from the U.S. Weather Bureau station at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to the Wright family in Dayton, Ohio, reads:

“Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile
wind started from level with engine power alone average speed  
    through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform     Press      
home # # # # # Christmas .            Orevelle Wright            525P”

Wright Telegram

      Consider that within a few hours of their flights on the 17th, Wilbur and Orville Wright believed there had been “Success” on “four flights...” At first blush this would appear to bolster Orville’s claim to the First Flight crown, but there’s a hitch. If that first flight on December 17th of 120 feet in 12 seconds had been The First Flight, what are we then to make of Wilbur’s flight of the 14th? The total distances traveled on those two flights were very close and even though Wilbur’s time aloft was only about one-third of Orville’s, Wilbur traveled at an average speed nearly three-times as fast (19.1 m.p.h. versus 6.8 m.p.h.) over the ground as did Orville on his flight of the 17th. More to the point, Wilbur’s flight took place three days earlier. So exactly why has Wilbur’s flight of the 14th been so thoroughly dismissed and forgotten (or so it seems)?


      Four reasons why Wilbur Wright’s flight of the 14th has not been seen as a contender for The First Flight are immediately apparent:

1) The Use of Gravity To Assist Take-Off
2) The Shortness Of Time Aloft
3) The Wrights Believed It To Not Be Successful
4) Damage To The Flyer On Landing

      However, perhaps surprisingly, if those are to be the items which disqualify Wilbur’s flight of the 14th from consideration as The First Flight, then the claim for Orville’s First Flight falls away also, when we apply those same criteria to that effort.


      The Wrights’ experiments with kites of various descriptions during the Summer of 1899 at an open area near their West Third St. Wright Cycle Company bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, had given them practical insight into the value and hazards of aeolian assistance. Their glider experiments between 1900 and 1902 at Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina (a location chosen for the strength and constancy of the prevailing winds), yielded the knowledge and skill required to utilize wind as an element of flight. Merely gliding in calm still air was not what the Wrights had in mind. Indeed, Wilbur saw wind as part of the power required for flight. In a May 13, 1900, letter to Octave Chanute, referring to a plan for testing a box-type “kite” with an operator aboard, attached by a rope to a high pole, Wilbur wrote “The wind will blow the machine out from the base of the tower and the weight will be sustained partly by the upward pull of the rope and partly by the lift of the wind.” “The pull of the rope [note: due to the wind lifting the kite attached to the rope] will take the place of a motor in counteracting drift.”

      As noted, Wilbur’s flight of the 14th was assisted by gravity and wind, yet Orville’s flight of the 17th was also assisted by wind, although not by gravity. Our natural inclination may well be to view a headwind as an impediment to flight, but that was not the view held by the Wrights. Flying into a headwind blowing in excess of 20 m.p.h. may seem, at first blush, to be an even more impressive feat than a mere flight in still air. However, a forceful wind was required for a successful take-off, a necessity every bit as important as The Flyer’s Great White Wings over which that forceful wind blew. If a wind of about 20 m.p.h. were consciously held by the Wright brothers to be an integral, desired and necessary element of a successful take-off, how could the use of gravity in conjunction with wind, indeed meant to substitute for the lack of the desired wind speed, be of lesser value or significance? Put simply, if the use of gravity disqualifies the flight of the 14th from consideration, then so must the use of wind on the flight of the 17th.

      How can we be certain that the Wrights consciously considered a wind of about 20 m.p.h. to be necessary for a successful take-off into “full flight”? The answer lies in their very use on the 14th of that 8-degree 50-minute slope at the base of Big Kill Devil Hill. The reason that the take-off track and The Flyer were moved 1,300 feet (not a minor feat, even given their ingeniously simple way of doing it) to the sloping sands of Big Kill Devil Hill was the anemic wind puffing that day, which was insufficiently strong to permit take-off. The additional impetus gained by using gravity on the take-off would, they believed, offset the requirement for a strong wind. Orville Wright acknowledged the purposeful substitution of gravity for wind when he later wrote:

“Monday, December 14th, was a beautiful day, but there was not enough wind to enable a start to be made from the level ground about camp.” “With the slope of the track, the thrust of the propellers and the machine starting directly into the wind, we did not anticipate any trouble in getting up flying speed on the 60 foot monorail track.”

      A wind of about 17.5 knots (20 m.p.h.) was a conscious and desired part of the Wright brothers’ plans to launch their Flyer, for such a wind would serve two purposes: 1) it would assist in lifting The Flyer from the launching track, thereby not forcing The Flyer’s engine and propellers to bear the entire burden of take-off; 2) such a wind would reduce The Flyer’s speed relative to the ground, thus making landings gentler than if made in calm air. If any doubt lingers regarding the Wrights’ conscious linkage of a strong wind and The Flyer’s take-off, perhaps the following entry in Orville’s “Diary D” for December 16th will settle the matter once and for all:

“Wind of 6 to 7 meters (Note: 13.4 - 15.6 m.p.h.) blowing from west and northwest in morning. We completed repairs by noon and got the machine out on the tracks in front of the building ready for a trial from the level. The wind was gradually dying and by the time we were ready was blowing only about 4 to 5 meters per sec.(Note: 8.9 - 11.2 m.p.h.) After waiting several hours to see whether it would breeze up again we took the machine in.”

      What is it about the considered and conscious (even perspicacious) use of gravity as a supplement to a weak wind that somehow makes it a disqualifier? The “gravity-assisted” argument posed against Wilbur’s flight of the 14th should be discarded, for if we insist on disqualifying Wilbur’s flight on that basis, then neither can we accept Orville’s wind-assisted first flight of the 17th, if logic and consistency of definition are valued.


      The 3-½ seconds duration of the flight of the 14th, as recorded by Orville, measured the time aloft after The Flyer passed the end of the launching track; another 1/2 second can be added to include the time spent aloft over the launching track before passing the end of the track, yielding a total time aloft on the 14th of 4 seconds. Orville’s first flight of the 17th took 12 seconds for a flight of slightly greater length (120 ft. versus 112 ft.). Wilbur had to contend not only with the novel experience of flying a powered aeroplane, he also had to do so in a machine moving at close to three-times the rate of speed over the ground as did Orville three days later (19.1 m.p.h. versus 6.8 m.p.h.). The argument against recognizing Wilbur Wright’s flight of the 14th as The First Flight on the basis of time aloft can be reversed and held against Orville’s claim, for Orville flew at only about 1/3 the speed of Wilbur. The almost equal distance flown on these two flights is an important matter.


      On the third point, the belief that Wilbur and Orville considered the flight of the 14th to be unsuccessful (indeed, even a failure) the record is by no means entirely clear. Orville, at least, was not entirely dismissive of the results of Wilbur’s first attempt at powered flight, writing later:

“While the test had shown nothing as to whether the power of the motor was sufficient to keep the machine up, since the landing was made many feet below the starting point, the experiment had demonstrated that the method adopted for launching the machine was a safe and practical one. On the whole, we were much pleased.”

      The test of the launching track had certainly been a success. It seems, therefore, that the Wrights considered the flight of the 14th to be at least partially successful, even if only in that one respect.


      On the final point (the matter of damage at the conclusion of Wilbur’s flight on the 14th), if damage or lack thereof at the conclusion of flight is to be a deciding factor, then Orville’s December 17th flight cannot be considered a success either. On this point there is no room for argument, for in “Diary D” Orville himself documented the damage resulting from his own first flight on the 17th:

“The lever for throwing off the engine was broken, and the skid under the rudder cracked.” (Note: yet again, the “rudder” being referred to is The Flyer’s front elevator)

      Someone might want to argue that the degree of damage was different (and it was) but there was damage, nonetheless. I don’t consider damage or the lack of it to be of any importance whatsoever when considering which flight ought to be hailed as The First Flight. The most critical matter along these lines would be whether or not the aviator, not the machine, suffered injury and neither Wilbur nor Orville were injured on any of the five flights made that December.


      It is the next flight, the last flight that day (and the last one The Flyer would ever make) made at 12 o’clock noon on the 17th, which in my judgment stands out as the only true flight made by the Wrights that December. Wilbur’s second flight that day (I believe it to be The First Flight) was so far beyond the other four attempts at powered, controlled flight which he and his brother made, was aloft for so much greater a span of time, flew so much farther (and at about one-and-a-half times faster than Orville’s first flight) that it beckons, even demands, to be considered The First Flight. It may be surprising to know that the Wright brothers emphasized that very flight and only that flight when they first publicly discussed the results of their efforts. On January 5, 1904, at home in Dayton, Ohio, the Wright brothers issued a press release to the Associated Press (to correct erroneous press reports) which read, in part,

“The flights were made directly against the wind. Each time the machine started from the level ground by its own power alone with no assistance from gravity, or any other motive source whatever.” “Consequently the first flight was short. The succeeding flights rapidly increased in length and at the fourth trial a flight of fifty-nine seconds was made, in which time the machine flew a little more than a half mile through the air, and a distance of 852 ft. over the ground.”

      The only one of the flights which the Wright brothers themselves believed merited a detailed description was Wilbur’s remarkable last flight. Orville’s flight, while termed a “flight,” is not identified as The First Flight, indeed is not even specifically mentioned as it is only one of four made that day, but the “fourth trial,” Wilbur’s flight, is dealt with in detail. It’s quite clear from their press release, issued about three weeks after their experiments in North Carolina, that the Wright brothers thought that only Wilbur’s final flight was something worthy of note.

This photograph depicts The Flyer on its last flight of December 17, 1903. The Library of Congress caption for this photograph reads, in part, “Distant view of the Wright aircraft just after landing, taken from the starting point...” A closer inspection and analysis of the image indicates that The Flyer is actually still aloft, about 17-seconds into the flight, approximately 250-feet distant from the end of the launching track at an altitude of about 10-feet, with about another 600-feet and 42-seconds yet to go. (Library of Congress Wright negative LC-W86-38)

This photograph shows The Flyer after its final flight on December 17, 1903. Big Kill Devil Hill can be seen looming in the background. Note both front elevator supports are broken as are both front elevator assembly braces between the upper wing and the front elevator assembly. The main supporting structure under the lower wing is undamaged. The elevators appear undamaged. (Library of Congress Wright negative LC-W86-23)

      It is of some interest and importance that the text of the Wright brothers’ January 5, 1904, press release is not included in the biography by Fred C. Kelly, “The Wright Brothers,” first published in 1943. This volume, which includes numerous and lengthy quotes of other material, summarizes this quite important press release very simply (and inadequately):

“Desiring to correct the misinformation that had been printed, the Wrights prepared a statement about their recent flights, and gave this to the Associated Press with the request that it be published.”

      Kelly’s book, now considered something of a classic work on the subject, was “An Authorized Biography,” the contents of which were reviewed and verified by Orville Wright.

      The importance of Wilbur’s final flight is emphasized when we consider what Wilbur Wright believed constituted a flight of significance, as opposed to a mere hop into the air. In 1906, responding to the implications of the short flight made that same year in France by Alberto Santos-Dumont, Wilbur Wright wrote:

“From our knowledge of the subject we estimate that it is possible to jump about 250 ft., with a machine which has not made the first steps toward controllability and which is quite unable to maintain the motive force necessary for flight.” “If he has gone more than 300 ft. he has really done something; less than this is nothing.” “When someone goes over three hundred feet and lands safely in a wind of seven or eight miles it will then be important for us to do something. So far we see no indication that it will be done for several years yet. There is all the difference in the world between jumping and flying.”

      So, according to Wilbur Wright, a flight over 300 feet in length is really doing “something; less than this is nothing,” merely “jumping.” Of the five flights under consideration, Wilbur’s last flight on the 17th is the only one which exceeded 300 feet in length, the only one which did “something”... the other four flights were as “nothing,” they were only “jumping.”

      Beyond that, Wilbur Wright’s last flight that day is surely the only one which can be judged to have been a true flight in our current understanding of the term, for it was on that flight and that flight alone that The Flyer’s control mechanisms were fully employed to prolong the flight of The Flyer. As Orville Wright wrote in his “Diary D” about his brother’s last flight on that third Thursday afternoon in December of 1903:

“The machine started off with its ups and downs as it had before, but by the time he had gone over three or four hundred feet he had it under much better control, and was traveling on a fairly even course.”

      Later, Orville wrote the following about Wilbur’s last flight on the 17th:

“The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and in one of its darts downward, struck the ground.” “The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all.”

      What this means is that for four or five hundred feet of that flight, the last flight on the 17th, Wilbur Wright was FLYING The Flyer, actively controlling the “machine,” not merely trying to cope with the vicissitudes of wind and ground effect.

      One fact which, perhaps, is of significance and importance in understanding what the Wrights themselves believed they had done on the 14th and the 17th, is that the only one of the five flights the distance of which was actually measured (as opposed to being estimated by one means or another) was Wilbur’s last flight on the 17th. The length of the supposed First Flight, Orville’s first on the 17th, was only estimated (by Orville himself) as shown by the following entry in his “Diary D”:

“A sudden dart when out about 100 from the end of the track ended the flight.”

      The length of the next flight, Wilbur’s, was also only estimated:

“Dist. not measured but about 175 ft.”

      The length of Orville’s second attempt of the 17th is only obliquely referenced:

“When out about the same distance as Will’s, I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing...”

      We know the length of Wilbur’s last flight with certitude for it was the one flight which they both thought deserved actual measurement, yielding a precise statement:

“The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds.”

      The fact that we have a precise and accurate measurement only for Wilbur’s last flight is, it seems to me, as clear a piece of evidence as we can have (especially when coupled with the press release of January 5, 1904) that at the very time of their December 1903 flights, Orville and Wilbur Wright perceived that Wilbur’s flight had done “something,” and that Orville’s first flight and the other three flights had not. One of the most striking qualities which the Wrights, especially Wilbur, possessed, was the desire and ability to document every aspect of their work, in detail, in written form. Their seemingly lackadaisical attitude towards the length of Orville’s first flight (indeed, towards the length of all of the other flights, except for Wilbur’s last one), reveals the importance they attached at the time to Wilbur’s final flight.

      It's of considerable interest that today we can find numerous examples in print of seemingly precise measurements for each of the five flights made by the Wrights that December, when only Wilbur’s final flight on the 17th was measured.

      Wilbur’s second flight on the 17th, the one and only flight that day which by the Wrights’ own standards did “something,” ought to be recognized and fully embraced for the wonder that it was... The First Flight (regardless of the seemingly inevitable damage sustained by the front elevator assembly on landing). If it isn’t, then we ought to accept Wilbur’s flight of the 14th (gravity, short time aloft and all) as being The First Flight, if only on the basis that it preceded Orville’s flight by three days. However, in neither case should Orville’s first flight on the l7th (nor indeed, his second flight on that date) sustain a hold on the prize. Giving full consideration to Wilbur’s final flight and his active, intentional and successful control of the machine, I believe it’s proper to remove the previous four flights (including Wilbur’s on the 14th and Orville’s first on the 17th) from serious consideration for the honor of being The First Flight.


      Wilbur Wright’s death on May 30, 1912, has left us to ponder which of these five flights he might have considered to be The First Flight. Indeed, it appears that it was only after Wilbur’s death that the matter of The First Flight even became an assertion. The initial question posed in print had been more in the nature of whether or not the Wrights were first to fly, not which one of the brothers had been first on which flight. Perhaps the importance of identifying The First Flight stemmed from some legal necessity which arose during the long patent wars fought between the Wrights and various of their competitors, most notably Glenn Curtiss. In any event, by 1913 the question relative to the Wrights had become not WHETHER they were the first to fly in a powered controllable aeroplane, but WHICH of them had been first to fly and on which attempt. It is a striking shift in emphasis. Orville had identified The First Flight quite clearly in his own mind, believing without reservation that his own first flight of the 17th had been The First Flight. Writing in the December 1913 issue of “Flying” magazine (New York), Orville provided his own assessment of the importance of his December 17, 1903, endeavor:

“That flight lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless - the first time in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.”

      This is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, statements in print identifying Orville’s first flight as The First Flight... something which appears to have not occurred while Wilbur was still living.

      The myth that The Flyer had “raised itself by its own power” (first put forward in the press release issued by the Wrights on January 5, 1904) was reiterated in Orville’s December 1913 article. The Flyer in which Wilbur and Orville made their first attempts at powered flight on December 14th and 17th did not and probably never could raise itself “... by its own power into the air...” something which would have been almost certainly known to both Wilbur and Orville Wright at the time (although it seems to have escaped much subsequent notice or mention). In the absence of the application of wind or gravity (or both) to assist it into the air, the 1903 Wright Flyer was at its very best only capable of making short jumps or hops, just the sort of hops which Wilbur dismissed in 1906 as being “...nothing.” In this regard, Wilbur’s comment bears repeating, “There is all the difference in the world between jumping and flying.” Applied fairly, Orville’s definition excludes all of the Wright flights made that December (indeed, it even excludes the Wright flights made between 1904 and 1909 which utilized a falling-weight catapult for launch) for it includes the phrase “... had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight...” Mere repetition of the myth of The Flyer’s unassisted take-offs, however, neither constitutes proof nor historical truth.

      The last part of Orville’s definition deserves close consideration, as well, for Orville writes of his first flight that it “... finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.” This opens up an interesting line of discussion. While that element is meant to exclude gliding from the arena of The First Flight, such an exclusion hardly seems necessary, for gliders were not powered machines. If it were meant to indicate some quality inherent in flight, that also seems peculiar, for wouldn’t a more meaningful statement about relative elevation and flight be “... finally landed at a point higher than that from which it started.”?

      It seems to me that Orville Wright’s widely accepted and often quoted definition from his December 1913 article is seriously (even fatally) flawed in four respects:

1) it fails to accurately and fairly include (even, it can be argued, seeks to obscure) the role played by wind in launching The Flyer into flight;

2) it wrongly states that The Flyer had “... raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight.” ;

3) it assumes that there is some element critical to The First Flight which involves landing at the same level as take-off;

4) it completely ignores the salient point of control of the aeroplane by the aviator.

      On the third point, consider, for a moment a hypothetical contender for The First Flight... what would be made of a powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight which took off from a location something akin to 20 feet higher than the elevation where it landed, reached an altitude during flight of over 50 feet, and in the interim traversed a mile in controlled, powered flight. Would we exclude that hypothetical flight from consideration as The First Flight solely on the grounds that it landed at a spot lower than where it took off? I think not. In construing historical events, the definitions employed can often be the single most important element in making a judgment about historical matters, and it is difficult to think of another circumstance in which this is more forcefully demonstrated than in the present instance.

      The fourth point is intriguing, for it would be difficult to assert that Orville had actually controlled his first flight of December 17th, and, indeed, in his statement about his first flight he does not state that he did so. Orville did, however, note that on the last flight on the 17th, Wilbur had controlled The Flyer and had flown with “... but little undulation.” Shouldn’t identification and recognition of The First Flight involve the question of whether or not the aviator aboard had actively controlled the machine? It is, in the final analysis, that single element that fully and decisively separates Wilbur’s remarkable 852 foot flight from the other four made that December... Wilbur had controlled, had extended the flight by the use of controls... had flown, the machine for some 400 to 500 feet of its flight. Orville had also been at the controls on his attempts, of course, but he had not controlled the machine, had not flown The Flyer. To Orville’s credit he apparently never stated that he had actually had the machine under control during his “jump,” that was a belief he seemingly left for others to hold and assert.


      The following First Flight definition includes items drawn from the statements and writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright, as well as from the results of my own reflections on the matter, and is proposed for use when considering, characterizing or describing The First Flight.

THE FIRST FLIGHT: The first occasion upon which a powered, human-carrying, heavier-than-air machine lifted from the ground into the air by means of the movement of air over a lifting surface or surfaces, remained in flight for a distance exceeding 300 feet under the intentional direction of the aviator aboard through the active use of control mechanisms operated during flight by the aviator, and returned to the ground without injury to the aviator.


      A belief that the Wright brothers, especially Wilbur, had made conscious use of environmental factors such as wind and gravity to assist the take-off of The Flyer could, perhaps, be misunderstood as an attempt to impute an inadequacy of design or engineering. In my view, seeing these matters as they appear to be from the available record can only serve to deepen our appreciation and broaden our understanding of the extraordinary and profound achievement of The First Flight. Looking beyond the conceptual confines of the “machine,” they were able to see The Flyer as a part of the air in which it was built to fly. Not only were they able to endow their Flyer with the ability to fly through the air, but they were also able to draw from the very air and earth part of the means by which they launched their Flyer into full flight. The Wright brothers’ success was therefore as much a success of conception as it was of execution, as much a success of the mind as it was of flight.

      Unfortunately, it seems beyond dispute that Orville’s first flight on the 17th will probably continue to be seen to be The First Flight, although I do not believe that it should continue to be so honored. After hanging for many years from the ceiling of the National Air & Space Museum (with a mannequin of Orville in position on the lower wing as though flying The First Flight) the 1903 Wright Flyer will soon be displayed at ground level during “The Wright Brothers and The Invention of The Aerial Age” exhibition at N.A.S.M. Hopefully, when this new exhibition of the Wright Flyer is unveiled to the public in the Spring of 2003 we’ll see images of Wilbur and Orville Wright standing as equals alongside their creation. (NOTE: As of April 27, 2003, the date of posting this article on this web site, the exhibition is now scheduled to open during September or October of 2003) However, if anyone is to be represented at the controls of The Flyer, it should properly be Wilbur Wright, the person who made The First Flight. Orville Wright’s significant contributions in concert with Wilbur Wright’s remarkable, almost intuitive, grasp of aeronautical engineering, and their fascinating and roughly equal collaboration are well documented. Orville’s place in aeronautical history is quite secure. However, simply put, with respect to The First Flight, Wilbur is the right Wright and Orville is the wrong Wright.

      In closing, let’s consider that photograph for a moment... the now universally familiar photograph of Orville and The Flyer aloft, that most remarkable of images, which has etched that moment into the memories of millions, even billions, of people across the world. Perhaps it is the power of that one image which is most responsible for Orville being accorded the honor of being First, and which will continue to sustain that claim. However, a closer examination of the use and impact of that photograph, and the sociology as well as the politics which have become inextricably attached to it over the nearly 100 years since that “Series V Korona” dry-plate camera’s shutter was tripped, may well reveal more interesting twists and turns in the story of The First Flight. It will also reveal just when and under what circumstances The First Flight became the legend it has become. Those aspects of this remarkable story, however, will have to wait until another article at another time.

1) The Flyer was capable of making a theoretical top speed of some 26-28 knots (30-32 m.p.h.) in still air, but The Flyer probably could not have taken-off under only its own power in still air, and, indeed, as a matter of record it never did so. Thus, the speeds over the ground for the five first flights were remarkably low, ranging from a high of 16.6 knots (19.1 m.p.h.) on Wilbur’s flight of the 14th, to a low of 5.9 knots (6.8 m.p.h.) on Orville’s first flight of the 17th against a headwind of 11-12 meters per second (21.4-23.3 knots or 24.6-26.8 m.p.h., measured by Orville using a French “Richard” hand-held metric-scale anemometer loaned to them by Octave Chanute). The Wright brothers knew that a lack of wind would hamper (perhaps even prevent) a proper take-off and would significantly increase the landing speed of their Flyer, perhaps dangerously so. They also knew that a wind in excess of 26-28 knots (equal to The Flyer’s theoretical top speed in still air) would mean that The Flyer could not fly forward through the air.

2) The total distance of 112 feet cited for the flight of December 14, 1903, includes approximately 7 feet flown above the launching track plus 105 feet flown after passing beyond the end of the track; total flight time includes approximately 1/2 second for the 7 feet flown above track, plus 3 1/2 seconds flown after passing beyond the end of the track as recorded by Orville Wright.

3) The last column “Time x Distance” (time aloft multiplied by distance flown over the ground) of “The Five First Flights” table is meant to provide a quantified “value” for placing the five first flights in a relative perspective; hence the first attempt at flight on the 17th yields a factor of 1,440 (12 seconds aloft x 120 feet covered over ground) while the final flight on the 17th yields a factor of 50,268 (59 seconds aloft x 852 feet covered over ground), meaning that the relative “value” of the final flight on the 17th, by Wilbur, is 34.9 times greater than the first flight on the 17th, by Orville. The bar graph illustrates the same quantified “values” for the five first flights in a graphical form.

4) Quoted material not identified in the body of the text as to source is taken from the valuable reference work “The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright” - edited by Marvin W. McFarland, Ayer Co. Publishers’ two volume reprint edition, 1998

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: The photographs taken on December 14 and 17, 1903, were shot using Orville Wright’s “Series V Korona” dry-plate camera. The images used in this article were taken from the Library of Congress collection of Wright brothers negatives and are free of copyright restrictions; the images were cropped and enlarged, with improved levels, contrast and brightness, but were otherwise unaltered, with spots, scratches and other imperfections left intact.