North Carolina - First in Flight

Wright Flyer - First Flight (1903)

The Wright Flyer (often referred to as Flyer I or 1903 Flyer) was the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft. It was designed and built by the Wright brothers - Orville and Wilbur - of Dayton, Ohio. They flew it four times on December 17, 1903, near Kill Devil Hills, about four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright Flyer was based on the Wright brothers' experience testing gliders at Kitty Hawk between 1900 and 1902. Their last glider, the 1902 Glider, led directly to the design of the Wright Flyer. The Wright brothers built the aircraft in 1903 using giant spruce wood as their construction material. Since they could not find a suitable automobile engine for the task, they commissioned their employee Charlie Taylor to build a new design from scratch, effectively a crude twelve (12) horsepower gasoline engine. A sprocket chain drive, borrowed from bicycle technology, powered the twin propellers, which were also made by hand.

The Wright Flyer was a bi-canard biplane configuration. As with the earlier gliders, the pilot flew lying on his stomach on the lower wing with his head toward the front of the craft in an effort to reduce drag. He steered by moving a cradle attached to his hips. The cradle pulled wires which warped the wings and turned the rudder simultaneously. The Wright Flyer's runway was a track of 2 x 4s laid on their narrow edge, which the brothers nicknamed the "Junction Railroad."

Orville and Wilbur returned to Kitty Hawk in 1903, and they completed assembly of the Wright Flyer while practicing on the 1902 glider from the previous season. On December 14, 1903, they felt ready for their first attempt at powered flight. With the help of men from a nearby government life-saving station, the Wright brothers moved the Wright Flyer and its launching rail to the incline of a nearby sand dune, Big Kill Devil Hill, intending to make a gravity-assisted takeoff. The brothers tossed a coin to decide who would get the first chance at piloting, and Wilbur won. The airplane left the rail, but Wilbur pulled up too sharply, stalled, and came down after 3-1/2 seconds, with minor damage.

Repairs after the abortive first flight took three days. When they were ready again on December 17th, the wind was averaging more than twenty (20) miles per hour, so the brothers laid the launching rail on level ground, pointed into the wind, near their camp. This time the wind, instead of an inclined launch, provided the necessary airspeed for takeoff. Because Wilbur had already had the first chance, Orville took his turn at the controls. His first flight lasted twelve (12) seconds for a total distance of 120 feet – shorter than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, as noted by observers in the 2003 commemoration of the first flight.

Taking turns, the Wrights made four brief, low-altitude flights that day. The flight paths were all essentially straight; turns were not attempted. Each flight ended in a bumpy and unplanned landing. The last flight, by Wilbur, was 852 feet in 59 seconds, much longer than each of the three previous flights of 120, 175, and 200 feet. The last landing broke the front elevator supports, which the Wright brothers hoped to repair for a possible four-mile flight to Kitty Hawk village. Soon after, a heavy gust picked up the Wright Flyer and tumbled it end-over-end, damaging it beyond any hope of quick repair. It was never flown again.

But, history was made. In North Carolina.

Created in 1982 to replace the much disputed 1975-1979 "First in Freedom" license plates, North Carolina continues to issue license plates with the slogan of "First in Flight." Of course, the citizens of the state of Ohio do not like these license plates, but although Wilbur and Orville Wright designed and built their gliders and the Wright Flyer in Dayton, OH, no one can dispute the "true fact" that the Wright brothers first flew their airplane in North Carolina in 1903.

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