First Powered flight

First Powered flight at Kill Devil Hill

The first powered flight was made at Kill Devil Hill (not Kitty Hawk) by Wilber Wright. It could have been Orville that made that first flight except for the toss of a coin. On our trip southbound through North Carolina, we went to the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center on the Outer Banks in Kill Devil Hill. When the Wright Brothers’ made this flight, Kill Devil Hill (the town), didn’t exist. Kitty Hawk was a weather observation station. There wasn’t really a town anywhere nearby, but the weather station at Kitty Hawk had a telegraph.

Kill Devil Hill is near the Roanoke settlement that I mentioned in our last article. We visited both Kill Devil Hill and Roanoke on the same day trip. Here is a link to that story. Roanoke and Jamestown

Ohio

Ohio plays into the picture because the Wright brothers owned a bicycle manufacturing company in Dayton. They also had a printing business and for a while even a daily newspaper. What Ohio didn’t have was a tall hill, made of soft sand with a predictable wind. So for three years, the Wright brothers visited the Outerbanks of North Carolina to conduct experiments and learn how to fly.

The Wright Brothers' Memorial on Big Kill Devil Hill.
The Wright Brothers’ Memorial on Big Kill Devil Hill.

Big Kill Devil Hill

Kill Devil Hill had the hill and the sand and the wind. I mentioned that the Wright brothers need all these things to learn to fly. At the same time as learning to fly, they also invented the airplane along the way. In their minds (proved correct), if they couldn’t control the flight, then success would be impossible and unrepeatable.

View of the flat "airport" where the Wright Brothers' first powered flight was accomplished.
View of the flat “airport” where the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight was accomplished.

Kill Devil Hill and the entire area at the time was bare sand. At the time of the first powered flight, there weren’t bushes covering the hill or grass in the area chosen for the takeoff. Of course, there also wasn’t a monument at the top of the hill.

Underdogs

I am also going to point out that the Wright brothers were underdogs in the competition to create the first powered flight airplane. They had competition from the very well-funded Samuel Langley and many others. Years before the Wrights successful first powered flight, the Army gave Langley $50,000 to fund his experiments, hopefully leading to the first airplane. Langley was very close to success and tried to fly it multiple times. He even had proven his design using unmanned designs.

The aircraft in this picture was created by Samuel Langley and is at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The engine of this aircraft produced three times the horsepower than that of the Wright Flyer. Nine days prior to the Wright Brothers’ successful first powered flight, this aircraft crashed into the Potomac River on Langley’s attempt to be the first to powered flight.

Langley’s attempt on December 8th was the second time this aircraft crashed into the Potomac River. Nine days later, the Wright Brothers flew their Wright Flyer four times successfully at Kill Devil Hill. The first flight was made by Wilber. After that first flight, Orville and Wilber flew the Wright Flyer three more times that day. Each was made with successful landings.

Practice and design

For three years, the Wrights hauled their gliders up the Kill Devil Hill over a thousand times and launched down the hill crashing and failing over and over again. Each failure refined the glider design and increased the Wrights flying skills. This was all before they considered attaching an engine to the aircraft and attempted the first powered flight in 1903.

During this period, the Wrights worked on and designed aircraft control systems and their engine. I have mentioned several times over the years that they realized that a propeller was also an airfoil subject to the same rules of lift as were the wings.

This monument at the Wright Brothers Memorial shows the elevator in the front and depicts Wilber Wright, laying down at the controls.
This monument at the Wright Brothers Memorial shows the elevator in the front and depicts Wilber Wright, laying down at the controls.

Soaring

On October 24, 1911, exactly one hundred and ten years prior to releasing this article, Orville Write flew his glider for nine minutes and forty-five seconds. This was a record for an unpowered flight that stood for ten years. This flight was also almost eight years after Wilber’s first powered flight in December 1903.

Crashed

The first powered flight also crashed (that one didn’t count), when the aircraft stalled as it climbed too abruptly at too low of an airspeed. The “flight” lasted 3.5 seconds and damaged the front elevator. Three days later on December 17, 1903, Wilber recorded the first powered flight of 12 seconds with a successful landing. The total flight distance was a little less than the distance between home plate and second base on a baseball field, but controlled flight it was, without a crash landing.

This is the only photo taken during the first powered flight and has been colorized from the original black and white photo.
This is the only photo taken during the first powered flight and has been restored and colorized from the original black and white photo. It is used on the National Park Service pamphlet for the Wright Brothers Memorial. It was taken by John Daniels and part of the Library of Congress.

Dismissed

Not only were the Wrights underfunded, they continued to be underappreciated even though their accomplishment was truly monumental. Some of this dismissal was directed by Langley. He was favored to win and should have won the prize of first powered flight with his superior aircraft. Langley’s aircraft was both more stable and had a better engine than the Wright Flyer.

The Wright Brothers First Powered Flight Monument on the top of Big Kill Devil Hill.
The Wright Brothers First Powered Flight Monument on the top of Big Kill Devil Hill.

The Wright Brothers still have the monikers of “bicycle mechanics” mentioned as their occupations. The Wrights owned a bike shop building bicycles from scratch labeled with their own brand. Bicycles were all the rage during this time and the Wrights were at the forefront of the “safety bicycle” movement.

Not only did the Wright Brothers make the first powered aircraft flight they applied their knowledge and testing to create some of the oldest aerodynamic math equations. They knew how much lift would need to be generated and how much horsepower and wind speed would be required to create the required lift.

The accomplishment of creating the first aluminum block lightweight engine by Charlie Taylor was also dismissed and Charlie is often referred to as a mechanic.

Links to places mentioned in this article.

The Wright Brothers National Memorial North Carolina

12 thoughts on “First Powered flight at Kill Devil Hill”

  1. This is so fascinating! I love hearing all of the background. The underdog story makes it even more compelling.
    I have never been to the Outer Banks but I have been to the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH and they have an entire section dedicated to the Wright brothers. I highly recommend it if you have never been!

  2. It is a testament to the underdogs’ inventiveness and the spirit of this country that people like the Wright Brothers and the two Steves at Apple are the successful ones. Your blog also emphasizes the learnings necessary from brute force trial and error; this is what was needed recently with regard to developing the current mRNA vaccines. Brilliantly written and captured, as usual, Scott and Tami!

  3. If you haven’t read the David McCullough book on the Wright Brothers, it’s by far the best.

    I continually re-play the Audible version and feel as if I’ve been to Kill Devil Hill personally.

  4. Each time you post Scott I feel we have been with You and Tami on another great adventure!! The Wright Brothers and Kill Devil Hill took great courage! If you are still in North Carolina check out the Outer Banks and all 7 light house’s. Some you can still climb. As well with in the Outer Banks and the many ship wrecks on the coast. North Caroilna while we lived was an adventure in it self! Miss and Love You Guys❣️🤓

    1. We missed all the lighthouses. I wanted to be a little inland associated with hurricane season. Perhaps it was a mistake. We can always come back.

  5. The Wright brothers are an inspiration to learn from our trials and errors and persevere! We were fortunate that when my son was requested to write an article for school, he chose the Wright Brothers. Since we lived south of Raleigh, we took a day trip to Kill Devil Hills, that was almost 20 years ago. I don’t remember reading about Langley. Thank you for accurate facts and for including me on your journey.

  6. We were supposed to visit the Outer Banks this Fall, and this monument was high on our list, but we had to change our plans, so we missed it. I am bummed, but happy to read all about it here. What a cool piece of history. To think how far the science has come from these simple beginnings not so long ago.

    1. I marvel at how advanced the Wright Brothers were. They had two controls. The hand control adjusted the elevator.

      The other control was by shifting their hips. Shifting the hips allowed the pilot to bank the airplane like a bird. The same rolling motion creates a skid called adverse yaw. They solved this by running wires to the rudder from the same cradle. Thus shifting the hips both rolled the aircraft and corrected for the adverse yaw.

      Given their history in bicycles, they also understood the problem of gyroscopic precession created by the propellers. By making one propeller rotate clockwise and the other propeller rotate counterclockwise the two rotating in opposite directions canceled the effect. This was done with a simple twist of the chain driving the propellers.

      They identified the problem and created or adopted simple solutions.

      Thanks for giving me the opportunity to geek in the comments. Scott

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