First Flight: How Wright Brothers Changed World

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
December 17, 2003

Thursday, December 17, 1903, dawned windy and cold on North Carolina's Outer Banks. At Kill Devil Hills, the thermometer hovered around the freezing mark, and a 25-mile-per-hour (40-kilometer-per-hour) wind blowing out of the north made it feel even colder.

Orville and Wilbur Wright had a few doubts about whether this was a good day to try to get their flying machine off the ground. They'd had one setback three days earlier when Wilbur lost control of the craft as he was trying to take off, damaging a wing.

It had taken them a day to repair the damage and get ready to try again, but on December 16 the winds had died to almost nothing and they decided to wait another 24 hours in hopes it would pick back up. Now, with the wind blowing at a strength that could cause them problems trying to control the flyer, they pondered whether to pack it in for the season and come back next year to resume their efforts.

But they didn't want to go back home to Ohio without knowing once and for all whether this design was going to work. So they decided that this day was as good as any to give it one more shot.

The Wrights hauled their wood-metal-and-muslin flyer—which resembled a box kite with propellers—out of its hangar and hoisted a red flag at their camp to signal the nearby U.S. Lifesaving Station that they'd like some help getting the flyer into position.

The modest, hardworking Midwesterners had formed a bond with the taciturn inhabitants of the remote, sparsely populated islands, and they'd had no trouble recruiting willing helpers in the years they'd been coming to the Outer Banks to develop their flyer.

On December 17, crewmen John Daniels, Will Dough, and Adam Etheridge came over from the Lifesaving Station. W.C. Binkley of Manteo and Johnny Moore, a teenager from Nags Head, also showed up to lend a hand.

These five men would witness an event that would change the world forever.

In December 1903, the industrialized world moved at the speed of a steam engine, and lots of people thought that was fast enough. A few months earlier a smug American scientist claimed to have proven that a powered aircraft would never fly, despite the dogged efforts of several would-be aviators besides the Wright Brothers. The scientist's opinion seemed to be confirmed a little later when a motorized flyer designed by Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, plunged into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., as its pilot tried to get it into the air.

Men wore bushy handlebar moustaches and stiff, high-necked collars in 1903 and wouldn't have stepped outside without donning a derby or perhaps a top hat. Women wore high-button shoes and ankle-length skirts, and no self-respecting female would dare go out in public unless her hair was properly pinned up and she had a hat on her head.

In 1903, a nickel had the same purchasing power as a dollar bill would have a century later.

That was the world the Wright Brothers changed.

Continued on Next Page >>


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