First Flight: How Wright Brothers Changed World

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The Wrights and their five accomplices pulled the flying machine from the hangar to a specially designed wooden track the brothers had built to launch the flyer. They cranked up the four-cylinder gasoline engine that had been especially designed and built for the flying machine. Orville, at 32 the younger of the pair, was at the controls. Wilbur had won the toss of a coin to see who would go first a few days earlier, the 14th of December—but the initial attempt had failed and the flyer was damaged without leaving the ground.

The Wrights stationed John Daniels at the Korona V camera they'd brought along to document their flying experiments. They'd chosen an excellent instrument to record their work. The big Korona, which the brothers had mounted on a tripod, looked cumbersome and unwieldy but it was one of the best cameras of that era.

A few minutes past 10:30 a.m. Orville climbed onto the lower wing of the flyer, lay stomach-down across it and grasped the controls. True to the no-nonsense demeanor of his times, he wore a dark suit, a white shirt with a stiff collar, a necktie and a cap.

Wilbur, dressed almost identically to his brother, stood by holding the tip of the lower right wing, ready to steady the flying machine as it moved down the wooden track. He turned to look at the five witnesses and was dismayed to see the glum expressions on the faces of the stoic islanders. Above the noise of the puttering engine, Wilbur asked the somber men to "not look so sad" and to "laugh and holler and clap" and "try to cheer Orville up when he starts."

At 10:35 a.m. Orville released a wire that held the flying machine to the track, and the contraption chugged slowly forward into the stiff wind. Wilbur trotted alongside, holding the wing to keep the flyer level. Then the flying machine lifted off the track, and Wilbur let go. The reserved witnesses managed a feeble cheer as the flyer left the ground, and at exactly the right moment, John Daniels squeezed the shutter bulb on the Korona V and captured a black-and-white photograph that will be forever engraved in human history.

It's hard to overstate the importance of that moment because, as Wilbur Wright watched his brother guide their flying machine into the air, the past and the future separated and the world started shrinking. Left behind were weeks-long trips across the U.S. and months-long crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. Ahead lay transcontinental trips of less than a day, and eventually even the oceans would be crossed in a few hours. And then, one summer day a mere 66 years later, men would fly to the moon and walk around on it.

Orville's first flight was wobbly and brief. The flyer darted up and down as he tried to figure out how to keep it under control. He didn't want to push his luck. After about 12 seconds in the air, he brought the flyer to a landing about 120 feet (36 meters) from where he'd started.

It didn't seem like much of an accomplishment, but the brothers were elated. "It was…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 had started," Wilbur said later.

Alternating as pilots, the brothers made three more flights. Around noon, Wilbur made a flight of 852 feet (260 meters) that lasted 59 seconds—the longest of the day. But the flying machine was slightly damaged by Wilbur's landing, and the group hauled it back to the hangar for repairs.

They were discussing Wilbur's flight when a gust of wind seized the flyer. The men grabbed it and tried to hold it down, but the wind slowly turned it over a couple times. John Daniels stubbornly hung on as the flyer overturned and so he was flung about, banging against the engine and propeller chains.

When the flying machine finally stopped flipping, he was bruised and scraped but otherwise not hurt. For the rest of his life, he would take great delight in saying he'd survived the world's first plane crash.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books. Drye lives in Plymouth, North Carolina.

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