Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Celebrating Flight -- December 17, Wright Brothers Day

On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright slipped the surly bonds of earth when their Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.

The brothers launched the Wright Flyer four times on that windy, bitter cold day, from level ground to altitudes of about 10 feet. Orville had the controls for the historic first flight covering 120 feet in 12 seconds at a speed of 6.8 miles per hour. Wilbur climbed aboard for the second flight, which took the Wright Flyer about 175 feet. Orville squeezed out an additional 25 feet in flight number three. The fourth and final flight of the day with Wilbur at the controls was a long-distance marvel -- 852 feet in 59 seconds. 

In 1914, just 11 years after the Wright brothers ignited flight mania, the University of Michigan saw an educational niche to fill and established the first collegiate aeronautics program in the United States. Today, that program ranks third among similar programs throughout the United States.

The Wright Flyer hung in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building from 1948 until 1976, when officials moved it to the new National Air and Space Museum. In 1984 and 1985, during a refurbishment to preserve the craft, technicians uncovered a number of surprises that have made the craft all the more interesting.

The Wright brothers were small town businessmen in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where they made and repaired bicycles before developing a technology that helped define the 20th Century. Although the Wright Flyer earned its wings in 1903, it wasn't until 1906 that the U.S. Patent Office granted patent 821393 to the brothers for their "Flying Machine."