The Wright Brothers’ First Flight – Some Little-Known Facts

First flight of the Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.

Just about everyone with any interest at all in aviation has heard about Wilbur and Orville Wright, who on December 17th 1903 made history by flying the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft. But who were the Wright brothers? Here are some more unusual details about them…

Wilbur and Orville Wright’s Early Years

  • Wilbur was injured when he was hit by a stick at the age of 18 during an ice skating game. Health problems followed, and he spent a great deal of time at home and unemployed.
  • Orville dropped out of school, but later started a printing business. Wilbur joined him and they published a short-lived weekly newspaper.
  • Orville brought a bicycle, and the brothers opened their cycle shop in 1892, leaving a friend in charge of their printing business.
  • Both brothers vowed not to marry, and neither did.
  • Wilbur and Orville had two older brothers and a younger sister.
  • The brothers didn’t work on Sundays, and even postponed their historic first flight despite reasonable weather for this reason.

Aviation Research and Development

  • Wilbur said he got ideas of how to develop flight from watching pigeons.
  • The idea of the biplane structure came to Wilbur when he was handling an empty box which had contained cycle inner-tubes.
  • In 1900 the Wright brothers spent four weeks on the dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, experimenting with flying gliders. But there were problems, and they eventually had to leave for home having not sorted out how to design a viable aircraft.
  • Over the next two years the brothers built wind tunnels and experimented continuously. They eventually decided to build their own engine, after failing to secure anything suitable from the car companies they wrote to.

The Historic First Flight

  • There were problems during the first few days at Kitty Hawk. On December 17th the weather was bad and the wind too strong, but they flew anyway…like many pilots after them!
  • Orville made the first flight, lasting 12 seconds and covering 120 feet. Wilbur made the second, lasting 13 seconds and covering an extra 75 feet.
  • The brothers made two more flights before a hard landing broke the elevator support.

Wilbur and Orville Wright After the First Flight

  • The brothers continued flying, and by the end of 1904 were orbiting several times in a single flight.
  • In 1908, Orville achieved the world’s first one-hour flight.
  • In 1909, the brothers toured Europe, giving demonstrations, and being widely acclaimed.
  • Wilbur died of typhoid in 1912 at the age of 45. Orville then sold the Wright company; he opened a small private aeronautical research laboratory, but apart from that he retired from the world of aviation. He died in 1948.

Without the hard work and determination of Wilbur and Orville Wright, powered flying might not have happened for a long time. Later famous aviators such as Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, and Jimmie Angel, owe a lot to them…as do those who fly today. Without the Wright brothers’ work, there would have been no Concorde, no budget airline flights and no jobs in commercial aviation. They changed the world!


  1. “The Wrights: 100 Facts” by Tony French, “Pilot” magazine, December 2003