Centennial of First Flight

By Leslie Stroope Premium

1903 Flyer Imagine how your ancestors must have felt when they saw that man could fly like a bird—not just floating passively in a balloon, but in something he could steer, dip and soar. Would they have screamed and run away? Would they have stood with their heads thrown back at, as one person described it, the “great white bird” circling above them? And if they were among the handful fortunate enough to witness the first flight in Kitty Hawk, NC, what would they have told you about the experience?

In the day and age where jet trails regularly stripe the sky and cross-country excursions takes hours, not months, it’s kind of hard to imagine life before controlled flight. Early reports compared the airplane as a cross between a locomotive and a bird—the only frames of reference they had at that time.

It was only 100 years ago—within our grandparents’ lifetime—that a Dayton, Ohio bicycle shop owner positioned himself in his muslin-covered, wooden-framed Flyer and soared into the teeth of a fierce North Carolina wind.

OK, truthfully, Wilbur Wright’s first flight wasn’t so much a soaring, it was more of a hopping—120 feet in 12 seconds. But by the end of that day, he and his brother Orville had piloted their Flyer much further and kept it in the air for nearly a full minute.

This month marks the centennial of the Wright brothers’ first heavier-than-air powered flight, and fans have been preparing for takeoff all year. Celebrations have included everything from art shows, original symphonic compositions and museum openings to transcontinental glider races and paper airplane-making contests. Even the US Postal Service got in on the action by unveiling its fourth stamp honoring the Wright siblings’ achievements.

Orville and Wilbur had been intrigued by flight and experimented with kites and gliders before building the 1903 Flyer. For several years leading up to the successful flight, the men had vacationed in Kitty Hawk, NC. They chose it for the site of their experiments after soliciting advice from the U.S. Weather Service for a list of locations suitable to conduct their experiments. Their hometown of Dayton was far too flat, but the isolated fishing village of Kitty Hawk had the high winds, tall dunes and soft sands for landing that they sought. This month, 30,000 people are expected to gather to watch the re-enactment of an event that, 100 years earlier, captured the imagination of an audience of five.

The Wright brothers had been possessed by the idea of flight long before building the 1903 Flyer. Wilbur once wrote in a letter: “For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not life.” Ultimately the latter proved to be true. The years after that first flight were productive and tragic. The brothers founded a company, flying school and factory. They churned out 19 planes in 13 years, including the first hydroplane, a single-propeller plane, racing planes and a flying boat. But in 1912, an exhausted Wilbur died of typhoid fever. Orville assumed control of the company after Wilbur’s death, and three years later, sold his interest to financiers.

The 1920s marked the beginning of Orville’s decades-long feud with the Smithsonian Institution, which refused to recognize the brothers as being first to build a machine capable of flight. Instead, it insisted that honor belonged to former Smithsonian Institution secretary Samuel Langley. True, Langley had tested a flying machine in October and December 1903, but the only thing it seemed “capable” of doing was nose-diving straight into the Potomac River. In 1942 the Smithsonian formally recognized its error and retracted its stance on the Langley matter. Orville died in January 1948 and the Flyer was installed in the Smithsonian Dec. 17 of that year on the 45th anniversary of the first flight.

For only the fourth time ever, the original 1903 Flyer will come down from its hanging display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for the exhibition The Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age. Visitors can get an up-close look at the airplane now until 2005. The museum is also celebrating the centennial by unveiling a new display facility at Dulles Airport, Va., on Dec. 17. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center will house the Space Shuttle Enterprise and a SR-71 Blackbird, as well as other aeronautical artifacts. For more information, visit or call (202) 357-2700.

Back in North Carolina, the First Flight Centennial Commission will have four days of festivities leading up to the historic anniversary. Aviation luminaries such as Chuck Yeager will be on-hand. Events include a 100-person skydiving team, a 100-plane fly-by spaced throughout the day, and a skywriting competition. The celebration will culminate with a re-creation of the historic first flight, 100 years to the minute after Wilbur left the ground. Tickets, schedules and information are available at or by calling (800) 973-7327.

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