December 17, 2013, marked the 110th anniversary of the first powered, controlled flight of an airplane. Wilbur Wright had made the first attempt three days before, when the brothers laid their 60 foot launch rail down the lower slope of the Kill Devil Hill. That attempt ended with a hard landing only 105 feet from take-off, with minor damage to the machine. It was Orville’s turn to make the first attempt on December 17. He had set up a camera that morning, pointed at the spot where he thought the airplane would be in the air. When John T. Daniels walked up the beach with three other surf men from the nearby Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, Orville asked him to squeeze the bulb operating the shutter if anything interesting happened. The result was what has arguably become the most famous photograph ever taken.
Recently, however, some skeptics have suggested that the image does not depict a real flight at all. The over the ground distance of Orville’s first attempt, they note, was only 120 feet — only fifteen feet farther than Wilbur’s abortive first attempt on December 14. Neither of the trials achieved a distance of 300 feet, which, the Wrights later suggested, was the point after which an aviator has achieved sustained flight, and “…has really done something.”
But look a little closer. On December 14, Wilbur covered 105 feet in only 3.5 seconds, while Orville was in the air for twelve seconds. Why was the flight of December 17 so much slower? On December 14, Wilbur took off into a wind of just four to eight miles per hour. The combination of a very light wind and the launch rail laid on a downhill slope resulted in the airplane rushing into the air so fast that Orville could not keep up with it by running along on the ground. Because of the low wind speed, the distance travelled through the air (ground speed plus the velocity of the wind into which the machine is moving) was only 224 feet.
On December 17, on the other hand, Orville took off from the sand flats near their camp and flew into a headwind gusting from 24 to 27 miles per hour. The speed of the machine over the ground was perhaps eight miles per hour, so low that Wilbur, as seen in the famous photograph, had no trouble keeping up. This time, while the distance over the ground was only 120 feet, the true distance flown through the air into that headwind was calculated at 540 feet, well beyond the 300 feet the brothers had decided would constitute a sustained flight. Each of the four flights that the brothers made that morning was longer than the one before, culminating in Wilbur’s final effort just before noon, in which he flew 852 feet over the sand in 59 seconds. Proof that the Wrights were thinking in terms of speed and distance flown through the air, as well as over the ground, is to be found in the telegram that they sent to their father, in which they reported an average speed of over thirty miles per hour, almost three times their actual ground speed.
Other critics of the first flight photo point to the extreme positive angle of the canard elevator, arguing that the surface is stalled, which has caused the wings to stall, insuring that the flight is about to end. In fact, the photo simply captured a moment in time when the elevator was at the extreme point. The hinge point was near the center of the surface, which, as Orville noted, “…gave it a tendency to turn itself when started, so that it turned too far to one side and then too far to the other.” Evidence that Orville was able to recover and continue flying is to be found in the photograph itself.
The airplane took off by running down a monorail track made up of four fifteen foot lengths of two by four, set on edge with a cap strip on top. The brothers tell us that the airplane took off that morning after a run of forty feet. The photo shows the craft directly over the end of the track. So, when the photo was snapped, the airplane had traveled only twenty feet or so over the ground and had been in the air no more than two or three seconds, moving slowly forward into the teeth of the strong headwind. Far from being stalled, the airplane is in full flight and still has one hundred feet to travel over the ground — and almost 500 additional feet through the air — in the next nine to ten seconds. Given the distance flown through the air, and the evidence provided in the photo of Orville’s being in control of the craft under what can only be regarded as very difficult circumstances, the photo is just what it seems to be, an astounding image of the world’s first airplane at the outset of its first flight.
I am not alone in that view. Dr. Paul Dees, a Boeing aerodynamicist and an authority on the aerodynamics of pioneering aircraft, remarks: “Was the December 17, 1903, famous first airplane flight shown on that famous photograph really a flight? You bet it was!” NASA engineer Norm Crabill, who was involved in wind tunnel testing a full-scale reproduction of the 1903 Wright airplane concurs: “…the physics substantiate the picture — the airplane is flying.” Is all of this important? I certainly think so! The first flight photo is familiar to millions around the word as a symbol of the Wright achievement. That is worth understanding, explaining, and defending.
Tom Crouch is senior curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.