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1903 Wright Flyer I

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fter a failed attempt on 14 Dec 1903 by Wilbur, the Wrights flew the world's first powered airplane at Kitty Hawk on 17 Dec 1903. Beginning at 10:35 AM, Orville flew it about 120-feet or 36.5 meters (in about 12 seconds. Then Wilbur flew for about 175 feet or 53.3 meters, followed by Orville who flew about 200 feet or 60.9 meters. Finally about 12:00 PM, Wilbur flew 852 feet or 259.7 meters in 59 seconds.

The Flyer I had a wooden frame in which the straight parts were spruce and the curved parts ash. The frame was covered with a finely-woven cotton cloth and was sealed with "canvas paint" similar to what sailors in Kitty Hawk used on their sails, probably paraffin dissolved in kerosene. The metal fittings were made from mild steel and the aircraft was rigged with15-gauge bicycle spoke wire. The engine block was cast from a hard aluminum alloy, 92% aluminum and 8% copper. The other parts of the engine were made from steel or cast iron, with the exception of the spark points which contained tiny bits of platinum.

Like the 1902 Glider, the Flyer I had three-axis control and was the first powered aircraft to be so equipped. The wings twisted or "warped" to roll the aircraft from side to side. The elevator (in front of the wings) pitched the aircraft nose-up and nose-down, The rudder (behind the wings) yawed the aircraft right and left. As in the 1902 Glider, the roll and yaw controls were interconnected -- when the pilot moved a cradle in which his hips rested from side to side, the wings warped and the rudder pivoted. The elevator was actuated by a lever to the pilot's left.

The Flyer I specifications:

  • 40.3 ft (12.2 m) wingspan
  • 0.83 ft (25 cm) anhedral
  • 6.5 ft (198 cm) chord
  • 6.2 ft (189 cm) separation
  • 510 sq ft (47.4 sq. m) wing area
  • 1:20 camber
  • 48 sq ft (4.6 sq m) double front elevator (referred to as "horizontal rudder" by the Wrights
  • 21 sq ft (1.9 sq m) twin movable vertical rear rudders
  • 21.1 ft (6.4 m) overall length
  • 605 lb (274.4 kg) total weight (without pilot)
  • 4 cylinder engine, 12 hp at 1150 rpm
  • Two contra-rotating propellers, 8 ft (244 cm) long, turning at 350 rpm

The engine (on the right side of the centerline) weighed 170 lbs. or 77.1 kg. The pilots (who lay on the left side of the centerline) weighed just 145 lbs. or 65.8 kg. To compensate for this imbalance, they made the right wing 4 inches (10 cm) longer so that it would produce slightly more lift than the left.

This was the only aircraft the Wrights tried to preserve. Damaged by wind after 4th flight, they returned it to Dayton; Orville restored it in 1916 and sent it to the Kensington Science Museum in London, England in 1928. It was returned to the United States in 1948 and since 1949 the Smithsonian has displayed it as the world's first piloted powered airplane.

The plaque reads: "THE ORIGINAL WRIGHT BROTHERS AEROPLANE: The world's first power-driven, heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled and sustained flight, invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903. By original scientific research the Wright Brothers discovered the principles of human flight as inventors, builders, and flyers they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation."


  • McFarland, 1953, pp , 394-397, 1183, plates 60, 63-78.
  •  McFarland, Marvin W. (ed) The papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright. McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1953, pp 394-397, 1183, plates 60, 63-78.

 [Submitted by Joe W. McDaniel] 

Wibur and Orville assembling the 1903 Fyler I at their camp in Kitty Hawk, NC.

A front view of the Flyer.

Ready for the first flight test on 14 December 1903.

Rarely seen in its entirety, this is a print of the complete photograph taken of the first flight on 17 December 1903.

On its fourth flight, the Flyer traveled 852 feet (259.7 meters) from its starting point and remained aloft for 59 seconds. The Wright brothers considered this the only completely successful flight of the day.

The entry in Orville's diary for 17 December 1903.

Want to see a detailed digital model of the Flyer from any angle? CLICK HERE to download the WBAC Wright Flyer I 3D PDF (about 11.8 Mb). (Your browser must have an up-to-date Adobe Reader plug-in to view the model.) After loading the PDF file, choose "Enable all features" to display the Flyer and the viewing tool bar.

The assembled Flyer outside its hangar. Wilbur is looking out of the door.

The Flyer from the right side.

Although the airplane left the ground on December 14, the pilot (Wilbur) never had the airplane under control and the flight ended in a crash that broke the front elevator.

The wing dips during the third flight on 17 December 1903.

The Flyer landed hard at the end of the fourth flight and broke the front elevator again.

Top view, font view, and side view drawings of the Flyer I. For more drawings, click HERE.

For an illustration (in PDF format) that identifies and explains the parts of the 1903 Wright Flyer, click HERE.

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