On this day in 1903, bicycle builder Orville Wright risked his life when he took the controls of the Wright Flyer, becoming the first person to fly a powered aircraft. The flight lasted for 12 seconds, over a distance of 120 feet, and paved the way for what we know as modern flight.
Compared to today's planes, the Wright Flyer was marvelously simple, but no less brilliant. The frame was made of spruce wood, and the wings were covered in muslin fabric. The motor was built in-house, by their mechanic Charlie Taylor, in only six weeks. It only churned out 12 horsepower, turning counter-rotating propellers which pushed the plane. The whole plane cost under a $1,000 ($27,000 adjusted for inflation) to build — less than a nicely appointed 2015 Camaro.
Orville flew the plane by laying on his stomach. Can you picture a modern commercial jet being flown by pilots who are laying down in the cockpit? Perhaps it's not the Wright Flyer itself that is the most important innovation by the Wrights, but their method of controlling the plane. In fact, their patent wasn't for the plane, but for "a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine's surfaces." Wilbur's observations of birds showed that they changed the angle of their wingtips to help them turn. The pilot laid in a "cradle" with tethers attached to the wingtips, and by shifting his body weight, he could control the shape of the wingtips, a technique called wing warping. Used in combination with the rudder, the pilot was able to make smooth, level turns. On modern fixed wing planes, mechanically-controlled ailerons are used to change the shape of the wings for making turns.
I didn't know this previously, but according to Wikipedia, there were actually four flights that day — two by Orville and two by his brother, Wilbur. The fourth flight, with Wilbur at the controls was the longest in distance and duration, measuring 859 feet and 59 seconds of air time. It was ended as the plane pitched downward and impacted the beach at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Some damage occurred to the rudder, which was on the front of the plane.
The first "Wright Brothers Day" was declared by Congress in 1963, and as part of that, the President is to make a proclamation annually on this date. President Barack Obama did that today, and you can read his full proclamation here.