Dec. 17, 2021

The First Flight of the Wright Brothers

The First Flight of the Wright Brothers

December 17th 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright achieve the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight in history.

This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Cold Open

It’s December 14th, 1903.

On a windswept beach, a few miles outside the town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a man with a thick black mustache and keen, inquisitive eyes pokes his head out of his tent and looks around, frowning. A moment later, a second head emerges – similar in appearance to the first, but balding and clean-shaven.

The two men squint up at the sky, checking for rain clouds. Then they glance across at a winged, wooden contraption sitting outside their tent. Today, we would recognize the contraption as a rudimentary airplane. But on this day, December 14th, 1903, the word “airplane” does not yet exist. Instead, the two men simply call their invention: the Wright Flyer.

But whether or not it will fly remains to be seen. If it does, it will be the first piloted, engine-powered airplane flight in history. And its inventors, Orville and Wilbur Wright, two bicycle mechanics from Ohio, will become the unlikeliest of celebrities.


With the help of three local coast guardsmen, the Wright brothers carry their machine to the foot of a nearby sand dune known as Kill Devil Hill. They flip a coin to decide who will make the first attempt. Wilbur, the bald one, wins the toss. He climbs into the cockpit and signals to his brother.

He’s ready.

Orville pulls the propellors and the motor splutter to life. The machine rattles down the launching rail, picking up speed until – with a final lurch – it rises up into the air!

But then, immediately, it stalls. The engine cuts out, and the Wright Flyer crashes down to earth. The Wright brothers’ first attempt at powered flight has failed.

Now they must repair their broken machine. The two brothers figure repairs will take about three days, meaning that the earliest their second attempt to be made is December 17th, 1903, and there’s still no knowing who will win the race to the skies – and who will be forgotten.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 17th - The First Flight of the Wright Brothers.

Act One: The Race to the Skies

It’s May 6th, 1896, seven years before the crash of the Wright Flyer.

On a spring afternoon in the village of Quantico, Virginia, a houseboat floats on the serene waters of the Potomac River. Sitting on deck is a stern-looking elderly man in a dark three-piece suit. His name is Dr. Samuel Pierpont Langley. He is the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and the man who many believe will someday invent piloted, engine-powered flight.

For the last ten years, this has been Langley’s sole obsession. The former Harvard astrophysicist rose to prominence during the 1870s and 80s, establishing the unit for measuring the sun’s radiation that still bears his name – “the langley”.

But by the mid-1880s, Langley felt intellectually unsatisfied and hungry for a new challenge. He turned his attention to a lifelong interest in a subject that had yet to be deemed “respectable” by the wider scientific community – aviation.

During the late 19th century, the idea of human flight caught the imaginations of inventors around the world. But it would take a while for the new field of aeronautics to be accepted as something worthy of serious academic study; early aviators were written off as cranks and crackpots. 

Because of this, Langley knew he had to proceed with caution, and carry out his experiments privately. His reputation was at stake.

But there were others like him, legitimate scientists and engineers who based their aeronautical experimentation on meticulous calculations, drawing on the research of early pioneers like Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo.

This burgeoning aviation community included Langley and Augustus Herring in the United States; Lawrence Hargrave in Australia; Louis Pierre Mouillard in France; and Otto Lilienthal in Germany. The focal point of the community was a French-American engineer named Octave Chanute, who encouraged open communication between inventors.

But out of all of them, Langley made the greatest strides towards the Holy Grail of aeronautics: piloted, engine-powered flight.

And yet, for all his progress, Langley was still conducting his experiments in secret, fearing that if found out, his peers would ostracize him from the scientific community.

Then, in 1887, something happened that guaranteed Langley’s place within the academic establishment. He was offered the role of Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution – the most prestigious scientific position in the country.

With this as his title, Langley was free to carry out his experiments at will. He assembled a team devoted solely to the invention of powered flight. Langley’s workers found him domineering and obstinate, often dismissive of other people’s ideas. But by May 1896, Langley has constructed a non-piloted flying machine, a four-winged wooden construction, powered by a steam engine.

He calls it the Aerodrome No. 5. And today is its first test flight.

Langley fidgets nervously as his assistants position the launching rail aboard a houseboat on the Potomac River. The last four prototypes of the Aerodrome all crashed just seconds after takeoff. If No. 5 is a failure too, Langley’s aviation career might as well be finished.

Langley grips the railings of the boat as the Aerodrome engine fires up. Observing the launch alongside him is the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. Langley hopes to achieve the same level of renown as his esteemed friend.

And, to his elation, the Aerodrome No. 5 is a success, staying aloft for one minute and twenty seconds before gracefully landing on the riverbank.

It’s a moment of victory for Langley. He receives a combined $70,000 grant from the War Department and the Smithsonian to develop a piloted version of the Aerodrome.

So Langley spends the next six years working on this machine. Each year that passes, he feels like he is getting closer to securing his place in the history books. And by October 7th, 1903, the piloted Aerodrome is ready for its first test flight. But the machine barely makes it off the launching rail before it crashes into the Potomac River. A month later, on December 8th, a second attempt also fails. Langley will never make a third.

In a few days, he will receive word from Octave Chanute, his fellow inventor, that somebody has beaten him to it: a stunned Langley will assume it's one of his rivals – Augustus Herring, perhaps, or Lawrence Hargrave. But Chanute will inform Langley that actually, in the race to the skies, he has been beaten by a pair of bicycle mechanics – two brothers, without a high school diploma between them – named Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Act Two: The Bishop’s Boys

It’s 1878 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, twenty-five years before Samuel Langley’s piloted Aerodrome crashes into the Potomac River.

Milton Wright, a protestant bishop, arrives home one day with a toy helicopter. The toy is made of paper and cork with a rotor powered by a twisted rubber band. Milton bought the fifty-cent toy as a gift for his sons – eleven-year-old Wilbur and six-year-old Orville.

From a young age, Wilbur and Orville Wright started exhibiting an intense curiosity about the world around them. Although there are three other siblings – and Wilbur is four years older than Orville – these two brothers have an especially close bond. Milton and his wife, Susan, nurture the boys’ inquisitive nature, encouraging them to read widely and take responsibility for their own education.

On that afternoon in 1878, Orville and Wilbur play with the toy helicopter for hours. The experience will spark a passionate interest in aviation. But throughout the brothers’ childhood and adolescence, that’s all it will remain: an interest.

By the time he’s eighteen, Wilbur, the more academically brilliant of the pair, intends to go to Yale to become a minister. And he would have done so, had a freak sporting accident not changed the course of his life.


It’s the winter of 1885. The Wright family has relocated to Dayton, Ohio. Wilbur plays hockey on a frozen pond with some friends when he is struck in the face by a hockey stick. He suffers a broken jaw and endures months of terrible pain. But the worst injuries are psychological. He plunges into a deep depression, decides not to attend Yale. He withdraws and becomes a recluse.  

Wilbur’s once bright future has been abruptly extinguished. And it will take nearly eight years to recover from his injuries. During this time – when not providing care for his dying mother – Wilbur reads voraciously. He consumes every book about aerodynamics he can get his hands on. He analyses complex aeronautical data, working out precise equations that might enable humans to fly.

By the time he emerges from his period of isolation, Wilbur’s fascination with aviation has become an obsession. But there's still the matter of making a living. 

So in 1892, Wilbur and Orville – who also dropped out of high school – open a bicycle workshop in Dayton. There the brothers design, manufacture and sell bicycles, using the proceeds to fund their budding flight experiments. All the while closely monitoring the latest developments in aeronautics.

Their lives become consumed by their ambition. Of the two brothers, Orville is the more brilliant engineer, but Wilbur is the visionary genius and the driving force behind their work. But despite their abilities, the odds are stacked against the Wright brothers. They have no formal qualifications and are almost entirely self-taught. Try as they might, they cannot gain access to the exclusive community of aeronautical inventors, men like Dr. Samuel Langley.

In 1899, Wilbur writes a letter to the Smithsonian headed by Langley: “Dear Sirs, I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known, and then, if possible … help the future worker who will attain final success.” 

The letter doesn't do much for Wilber. Langley is busy developing his Aerodrome.

But later that year, on his own, Wilbur makes a significant discovery, one that allows the Wright brothers to overtake Langley in the race to the skies. 

One day, while fiddling with a scrap of rubber in the workshop, Wilbur discovers the principle of wing-warping – a system of pulleys that twist the edges of the wings, mimicking the way birds keep balance in flight. It turns out to be a major breakthrough, and the Wright brothers make good use of the discovery as they assemble their earliest gliders.

Learning from the mistakes of their contemporaries, like Otto Lilienthal – who crashed and died in 1896 – the brothers realize that control is the fundamental issue. To stay aloft, the machines require built-in steering, and an ability to adjust the wings and maintain equilibrium.

The brothers also need a suitable place to test their gliders. They settle on the coast of North Carolina, where the dunes outside the town of Kitty Hawk will provide a consistent breeze and soft, sandy landings. Kitty Hawk is also remote. There, they will be able to carry out their experiments away from the prying eyes of the press.

The Wright brothers spend the next three years traveling between Dayton, Ohio, and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Slowly, methodically, they develop their gliders. They experiment with tilt, lift, and thrust. They adjust the curvature of the wings and design a movable rudder for steering. Eventually, they add a diesel engine, built by Charlie Taylor, the mechanic from their bicycle shop.

By 1903, they have built the Wright Flyer, a meticulously designed masterpiece of engineering. But when the first test flight ends in calamity on December 14th, Orville and Wilbur must contend with the possibility, they’ve gotten something wrong.

With the weather worsening and rival aviators closing in on the prize, there isn’t time for a radical re-think. Instead, everything comes down to the next test flight.

Act Three: The First Flight

It’s December 17th, 1903, the day of the second test flight.

Wilbur and Orville emerge from their tent to a bitterly cold winter’s morning. A freezing headwind whips in from the northeast and stings the brothers’ faces. They look ruefully at one another. Conditions are even worse than they were before. But they don’t have much choice. It has to be today. They don’t want someone else to be first.

Once again, they enlist the help of some local coast guardsmen – as well as a 16-year-old local boy who happens to be walking down the beach that morning. Together, they drag the Wright Flyer into position at the foot of Kill Devil Hill.

Wilbur went last time, so now it’s Orville’s turn. He climbs into the cockpit and checks his controls. Everything’s in order. It’s now or never.

Wilbur pulls the propellors; the motor starts running. Orville stares directly into the icy wind and begins moving down the launching rail. The sand beneath him becomes a blur as the plane accelerates; sound of rattling wood filling his ears until – suddenly – the plane lifts off the rail, and the rattling disappears.

It’s only air between him and the ground, now. For 15 feet… 30 feet… 50 feet. The plane travels 100 feet in total. Airborne for 12 whole seconds, before coming to land under the control of its pilot.

The onlookers cheer. And for the first time in history, a machine has taken off from flat ground and sustained controlled flight through the air. The sixteen-year-old boy will run straight into the nearby village, spreading news of the ground-breaking achievement.

Wilbur and Orville Wright will become celebrities. But nobody, not even the Wright brothers themselves, could have predicted how radically their invention would transform human existence. From international travel, to modern warfare, to space exploration – the age of aviation changed the way we live, and it all began on that windswept beach in North Carolina, on December 17th, 1903.


Next, on History Daily. December 20th, 1860. South Carolina secedes from the Union and the United States of America is plunged into Civil War

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.