Twelve seconds. That’s how long the world’s first airplane flight lasted on December 17, 1903, above the wind-swept dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville Wright was at the controls of the
flimsy craft. He flew 120 feet.
Orville and his brother Wilbur had been interested in flight since childhood, when their father had given them a little toy helicopter powered by a rubber band. “We built a number of copies of the toy, which flew successfully,” Orville later remembered. “But when we undertook to build the toy on a much larger scale it failed to work so well.”
As young men, the Wright brothers went into business making and fixing bicycles in Dayton, Ohio, but they never forgot their dream of flying. They began building gliders, making hundreds of test flights, unmanned and manned. They chose Kitty Hawk for their trials because of its strong, steady winds.
Dissatisfied with their results, they used an old washtub, a fan, and a wooden box to construct a wind tunnel. They experimented with model wings and redesigned their glider. Then they built a gasoline engine to mount on the biplane.
Along the way they heard plenty of cracks about how they were wasting their time. One of the nation’s leading scientists had shown by “unassailable logic” that human flight was impossible.
So on a frigid December morning at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers shook hands, Orville climbed into place, moved a lever that set the plane in motion – and did the impossible.
It took a while for the world to notice the achievement. But the handful of people who witnessed that first leap into the air knew what it meant. “They done it! They done it! Damn’d if they ain’t flew!” one local exclaimed. The age of flight had begun.