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The Wright Flyer (often retrospectively referred to as Flyer I and occasionally Kitty Hawk) was the first powered aircraft designed and built by the Wright Brothers. It is considered by many to be the first successful powered, piloted aircraft.

Wright Flyer
Crew One
First flight 17 December, 1903
Designers Orville and Wilbur Wright
Dimensions - Length 21 ft 1 in 6.43 m - Wingspan 40 ft 4 in 12.29 m - Height 9 ft 0 in 2.74 m - Wing area 510 ft 47 m
Weights - Empty weight 605 lb 274 kg - Gross weight 745 lb 338 kg
Performance - Maximum speed 30 mph 48 km/h
Wing loading - 1.4 lb/ft 7 kg/m
Power/mass - 0.02 hp/lb 30 W/kg
Power plant - Engine 1x water-cooled straight-4 piston engine - Power 12 hp 9 kW

Design and construction

Smithsonian Institution

A drawing of the Wright Flyer, showing its major components

The Flyer was based on the Wrights' 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 Wrights built the aircraft in 1903. Since they could find no 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.

The Flyer was a canard biplane configuration. The pilot flew lying on his stomach on the lower wing with his head toward the front of the craft. He steered by moving a cradle attached to his hips. The cradle pulled wires which warped the wings and turned the rudder.

The Flyer's "runway" was a track of 2x4s stood on their narrow end, which the brothers nicknamed the "Junction Railroad."

Flight tests at Kitty Hawk

Upon returning to Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wrights completed assembly of the Flyer while practicing on the 1902 Glider from the previous season. On December 14, 1903, they felt ready for their first attempt at powered flight. They tossed a coin to decide who would get the first chance at piloting, and Wilbur won the toss. However, he pulled up too sharply, stalled, and brought the Flyer back down with minor damage.

The repairs for the abortive first flight took three days, so that the Flyer was ready again on December 17. Since Wilbur had had his chance, Orville took his turn at the controls. His first flight lasted 12 seconds for a total distance of 120 feet (36.5 meters).

Taking turns, the Wrights made four brief, low-altitude flights on that day. The last, by Wilbur, lasted 59 seconds and covered 853 feet (260 meters). Soon after this flight, a heavy gust picked up the Flyer and tumbled it end over end, damaging it beyond any hope of quick repair.

The Flyer after Kitty Hawk

The Wright Brothers returned home to Dayton for Christmas after the flights of the Flyer. While they had abandoned their other gliders, they realized the historical significance of the Flyer. They crated it and shipped it back to Dayton, where it stayed in storage for 13 years. It was inundated in a flood in 1913.

In 1916, Orville brought the Flyer out of storage and prepared it for display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Wilbur had died in 1912.) He replaced parts of the covering, the props, and the engine's crankcase, crankshaft, and flywheel.

Debate with the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution refused to give credit to the Wright Brothers for the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft. Instead, they honored Samuel Pierpont Langley, whose 1903 tests of his own Aerodrome design on the Potomac were not successful. In 1914, a heavily modified Aerodrome had flown from Lake Keuka, providing the Smithsonian a basis for its claim.

Smithsonian Institution

The Wright Flyer in the Milestones of Flight Gallery of the National Air and Space Museum.

In 1925, Orville attempted to shame the Smithsonian into recognizing his accomplishment by threatening to send the Flyer to the Science Museum in London. The threat did not have its intended effect, and the Flyer went on display in the museum in 1928. During the Second World War, it was moved to an underground vault 100 miles from London where England's other treasures were kept safe from the conflict.

The Smithsonian Institution published in 1942 a retraction of its long-held stance that Langley had made the first flight. The next year, Orville agreed to return the Flyer to the United States. The Flyer stayed at the Science Museum until a replica could be built, based on the original.

In the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Institution

A three-view of the Flyer, drawn by the Smithsonian Institution in 1950

The Flyer was put on display in the Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian on December 17, 1948, 45 years after the aircraft's only flights. (Orville did not live to see this, as he died in January of that year.) In 1976, it was moved to the Milestones of Flight Gallery of the new National Air and Space Museum. It currently resides in an exhibit of "The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age," where it will stay until October, 2006.

1985 restoration

In 1981, discussion began on the need to restore the Flyer from the aging it sustained during years on display. During the ceremonies celebrating the 78th anniversary of the first flights, Mrs. Harold S. Miller, one of the Wright brothers' nieces, presented the Museum with the original covering of one wing of the Flyer, which she had received in her inheritance. She expressed her wish to see the aircraft restored.

The fabric covering on the aircraft at the time, which came from the 1927 restoration, was discoloured and marked with water spots. Metal fasteners holding the wing uprights together had begun to corrode, marking the nearby fabric.

Work began in 1985. The restoration was supervised by Senior Curator Robert Mikesh and assisted by Wright Brothers expert Tom Crouch. Museum director Walter J. Boyne decided to perform the restoration in full view of the public.

The wooden framework was cleaned, and corrosion on metal parts removed. The covering was the only part of the aircraft replaced. The new covering was more accurate to the original than that of the 1927 restoration. To preserve the original paint on the engine, the restorers coated it in inert wax before putting on a new coat of paint.

The effects of the 1985 restoration were supposed to last 75 years before another restoration would be required.[1]

Flyer replicas


The AIAA's Flyer replica undergoing testing in a NASA wind tunnel

A number of individuals and groups have attempted to build reconstructions of the Wright Flyer for demonstration or scientific purposes.

In 1978, 23-year-old Ken Kellett built a replica Flyer in Colorado and flew it at Kitty Hawk on the 75th and 80th anniversaries of the first flight there. Construction took a year and cost $3,000.

As the 100th anniversary on December 17, 2003 approached, the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission along with other organizations opened bids for companies to recreate the original flight. The Wright Experience, led by Ken Hyde, won the bid and painstakingly recreated replicas of the original Flyer plus many of the prototype gliders and kites as well as several subsequent Wright airplanes. The completed Flyer replica was brought to Kitty Hawk and pilot Kevin Kochersberger attempted to recreate the original flight at 10:35 AM December 17, 2003 from Kill Devil Hill. Although the aircraft had previously made several successful test flights, sour weather, rain, and weak winds prevented a successful flight on the actual anniversary date.

Numerous no flying replicas are on display around the United States and across the world, making this perhaps the most replicated single aircraft in history.


^  Mikesh, Robert C., and Tom D. Crouch, "Restoration: The Wright Flyer." National Air and Space Museum Research Report 1985, pp. 135-141.

  • Hise, Phaedra, "In Search of the Real Wright Flyer." Air&Space/Smithsonian, January 2003, pp. 22-29.
  • Jakab, Peter L., "The Original," Air&Space/Smithsoniann, March, 2003, pp. 34-39.

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