Friday, December 17, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Wright Brothers Take Flight

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Orville and Wilbur Wright's Wright Flyer I, which made its iconic maiden flight over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, wasn't the first heavier-than-air craft to fly, nor was this the first flight by the Wright Brothers, nor even the first flight by them in the Wright Flyer I; three days earlier at the same location Wilbur took off, pulled up too sharply, stalled the engine, and crashed after about three seconds, causing minor damage to their flimsy, kite-like airplane.

Having repaired the machine, they returned to try again on this day in 1903, and this time found success; the real innovation on display that day, though, was not the flight itself but the three axis-control which enabled the pilot to actually pilot the plane and not merely serve as its ballast. In addition to the Wright Brothers themselves, the flights were witnessed by five people: Adam Etheridge, John Daniels and Will Dough of the coastal lifesaving crew, area businessman W.C. Brinkley, and Johnny Moore, a boy from the village.

The brothers each made two flights that day; first, Orville, who flew 120 feet in 12 seconds at a speed of 6.8 mph (as seen in the above photograph), then Wilbur who went 200 feet. On his second attempt of the dayOrville went 175 feet; finally, it was Wilbur who took the aircraft a whopping 853 feet before the front elevator supports snapped. This final flight, like the others, achieved a maximum altitude of ten feet and resulted in a bumpy landing.

Following these preliminary flight tests, the plane was being taken for repairs when a gust of wind picked it up and rolled it end-over-end, damaging it to such an extent that it was never flown again; although it was further damaged during the Great Dayton Flood of March 1913, in later years the Wright Flyer I was restored and, after much bureaucratic wrangling, came to the Smithsonian Institution in 1948, where it resides to this day.
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