On December 17, 1903, over the wind-swept barrier island of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Orville Wright became the first man to fly. “To fly,” in the precise terminology of the FAI, meant “the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight”. The Wright Flyer was the first powered aircraft designed and built by the Wright brothers, based on Wilbur and Orville’s experience testing gliders at Kitty Hawk between 1900 and 1902. Their last glider, the 1902 Glider, led directly to the design of the Flyer.
The Wright Brothers Flyer is now on display in the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, in Washington, DC. When I visited the NASM, the Flyer hung in the main entrance hall with other iconic aircraft. Since 2003 it is the centerpiece of an exhibit titled “The Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age”.
The Wrights built the aircraft in 1903 using ‘giant spruce’ wood as their construction material. Since they could not find a suitable automobile engine for the task, they commissioned their employee Charlie Taylor to build a new design from scratch. A sprocket chain drive, borrowing from bicycle technology, powered the twin propellers, which were also made by hand.
There is tons of information about the Flyer on the internet, and I have little to add. Aside from its presence at the NASM (well worth a visit), the only other point I would make is that the Wright Brothers used scientific aerodynamic principles (lift and weight, thrust and drag, airfoils, etc.) in their efforts. They were not just a couple of bicycle mechanics who, through trial-and-error, eventually got lucky. They even designed and built their own gasoline powered, four-stroke, internal combustion engine to power their aircraft.This page explains much of their science and engineering.
While technically a success, the first Flyer could never stay aloft for very long, and the Wrights eventually resorted to a catapult to launch it. Eighteen months after Kitty Hawk, in June 1905, the Wrights took to the air with a new machine, the Flyer III. It is the worldâ€™s first practical airplane. On October 5 they flew for 24 miles in 38 minutes, landing only when their gas tank runs dry. Later that month, the United States government tells the Wrights it has “no requirements” for a flying machine.
The Wrights pursued aviation, continued to refine their aircraft, going to Europe to demonstrate it, and soon working with the U.S. government on military aviation.
Read about the evolution of their flyers into the Wright Model B, their first production-quantity airplane.