First steps to flight began at Kitty Hawk


SAN ANTONIO, Texas – What would Orville and Wilbur Wright do if they could see one of the Air Force’s fighter jets in action today?

Probably run away screaming from the mass of silvery metal rocketing over them.

But the lineage of air power, of motorized flight, can be traced to the Wright brothers. In a sense, the Air Force was not born in 1947 as we are all taught.

It was born Dec. 17, 1903, when the brothers managed to keep what amounted to a box kite with a motor attached airborne for about 12 seconds over the sandy dunes of the beach at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Most people know the Wright brothers’ legend: Two brothers, both bicycle mechanics, with a passion for kites and flying, decide to experiment with powered flight.

They cobbled together the first rudimentary flying machine from various engine parts and bicycle odds and ends and slapped it on a larger version of the kites they liked to fly.

Rest of the story. Still, as with most legends, there is more to the story. The Wrights did not just wake up one day and decide to build an airplane. They were inspired by others who were trying to “break the surly bonds” of earth.

The Indiana-born brothers found inspiration in the experiments of Secretary of the Smithsonian Samuel Langley, who had made several attempts to fly model aircraft with steam or gasoline engines.

The Wright brothers also found the theories of Otto Lillienthal, a German engineer, inspirational, said officials from the American Institute on Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Using what amounted to an early hang glider, the engineer flew more than a thousand short glides from a large mound near Berlin. He was killed in 1896 when his glider plummeted 50 feet to the ground.

Seeking advice. Octave Chanute was also experimenting with gliders and heavier-than-air flight. Widely respected for his flight expertise, the brothers sought his advice in developing their aircraft, and he gave them help based on his own experiments.

Most of the information the Wrights were amassing was theory, not fact, said officials from the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. In 1900, they decided to put the theories to test and set out for Kitty Hawk.

The first test flights were little more than kite-flying exercises. Using a glider with a 17-foot wingspan, the duo controlled the aircraft with a guide wire.

They did make a few manned flights without the wire, but were unhappy with their inability to control the aircraft.

For the next three years, the Wright brothers tinkered with various aircraft designs, wingspans and control surfaces. They learned all they could about aerodynamic theory and tested propellers.

Finally, in 1903, they were ready to test their powered aircraft.

The final test. Orville flew the aircraft. Lying in a prone position, he held the controls in both hands and worked the throttle on a four-cylinder engine driving the aircraft.

The aircraft covered 10 feet in one second, finally landing 120 feet later. In the space of 12 seconds, the modern aerospace era was born.

For the first time, man had propelled a heavier-than-air motorized, controllable vessel through the air.

The Air Force is already beginning its preparations for the centennial celebration that will happen next year.


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