Caretakers of the Sky: The Wright Brothers and Recording the Aerial Age

Today marks the 117th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, ushering in the age of powered flight.  To celebrate this incredible milestone, we would like to present records related to the Wright Brothers and their achievement.

The dawn of the twentieth century was a time of tremendous scientific progress and many felt that the human dream of powered aviation may finally become a reality.  The Wright brothers, like many professional and amateur aviation pioneers, believed that powered flight was possible and that the only obstacle was achieving lateral control, the movement from side to side.  The felt that control should depend on the pilot, much like how a rider balances a bicycle. After successful tests on a five-foot biplane kite, it soon became obvious that the weather conditions at their home in Dayton were ill-suited for sustained experiments.

“Photograph of the Wright Brothers’ Camp in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina,” Records of the US Army Air Forces, Record Group 18, National Archives Local Identifier: 18-WP-48625.

According to the National Park Service, in 1900 the Wright’s contacted the U.S. Weather Bureau about locations that contained the following three criteria: steady winds, ample soft sand dunes, and isolation.  They ultimately settled on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, specifically the small settlement of Kitty Hawk, due to several large sand dunes known as Kill Devil Hills.  The Wrights had high hopes for their first glider, believing the design to be sound and stable.  Unfortunately, the wings of the glider generated less lift than expected, and they were forced to use it mainly as a kite that they operated from the ground.  The brothers returned in 1901 with an improved design they felt would correct previous deficiencies.  While this glider worked well in level flight, it was hard to control and unpredictable, leading them to the point of almost giving up.  Eventually, they returned to Ohio and created a wind-tunnel to create their own data, rather than rely upon data collected by other aviation pioneers, which they had been using up to that point but had proven to be inaccurate.

The 1902 Wright Glider represented all of the brother’s exhaustive research from their wind tunnel experiments.  Improvements included a more efficient wingspan and the addition of moveable, vertical stabilizers on the rear of the craft to prevent side-to side movement (yaw) during turns .  A moveable tail, combined with the horizontal stabilizer at the front and control of the wings, created a controllable aircraft, known today as the three axes of flight.  After conducting approximately one thousand glides during 1902, the brothers returned to Dayton confident that they could put a powered aircraft in flight during their next trip. They were so confident in fact, that once they returned to Dayton, they filed a patent for their flying machine in March 1903, as detailed by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Detailed drawings from “821393 – Flying Machine – Wright Brothers,” Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Record Group 241, National Archives Identifier: 2524937

After three often challenging and sometimes dangerous years, the brothers believed that 1903 would be the year that they could achieve powered flight.  They first had to make critical refinements to their design, chiefly finding a power source.  After failing to find an adequate commercial engine that was available, they commissioned a machinist at their bicycle shop, Charles Taylor, to build one for them.  They also needed propellers, and as there was little research available, the Wright’s used their wind tunnel to design their own as well.  They then had to address the increased weight of their flying machine.  It weighed nearly five times more than their 1902 glider, requiring a launching system to get it up to flying speed.  Their setup consisted of a 60-foot wooden monorail on a dolly with two modified bicycle hubs and another hub attached to the front of the machine, detailed in the National Park Service Article “Road to First Flight.”

After arriving at Kitty Hawk in September 1903, the date of their attempt at powered flight was continually set back due to issues with the engine and propellers.  After all the mechanical issues had been fixed, the Wright brothers were ready to attempt powered flight on December 14th.  The pilot was decided by a coin toss, which Wilbur won.  Unfortunately, during takeoff he oversteered, and the flyer climbed too steeply, stalled, and dove into the sand, necessitating more repairs.

“Wright Brothers’ 1903 Aeroplane Kitty Hawk in First Flight,” Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165, National Archives Local Identifier: 165-WW-713-6.

As detailed by the article “The First Flight,” after 3 days of repairs, on December 17th, 1903, with the winter weather beginning to set in, the brothers prepared for what would likely be their last attempt to achieve powered flight for the year.  The wind was much stronger than they would have liked, but nevertheless they pressed on.  Since Wilbur had gotten the first turn, Orville took the controls for the second attempt.  At 10:35 AM, Orville released the restraining wire and the flyer began rolling down the monorail.  As he left the ground, John Daniels, a member of the local lifesaving station, snapped the iconic photo above as Wilbur ran alongside. The brothers then took turns, flying three more times, increasing their distance as they familiarized themselves with the controls.  Unfortunately, after the fourth flight, a gust of wind caught the flyer, rolled it over and damaged it beyond simple repair.  The flying season ended, the brothers sent a telegram to their father reporting their achievement along with the statistical numbers for their flights.

Despite such a momentous achievement, as laid out by the Smithsonian Institute, the US government initially took little interest in the Wright’s invention.  The brothers even reached out to the government in 1905, but their refusal to share specific details of their airplane, plus the government’s bad experiences with previous inventors meant that talks went nowhere.  Orville and Wilbur spent the next five years perfecting their designs and securing a patent.  In May 1908 Wilbur travelled to France to demonstrate their flying machine and dispel claims that they hadn’t actually achieved flight.  Around the same time, the U.S. military took renewed interest in the Wright’s machine.

On December 23, 1907 the army issued Specification No. 486, outlining parameters for a heavier than air flying machine.  Although the competition was open to all bidders, it was clear that the brother’s airplane was the only real contender.  The field trials of the plane were set for late summer 1908 at Ft. Myers, Virginia.  On September 17th, 1908 Orville took off with army observer Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge.  Tragedy struck when one of the propellers malfunctioned, causing the plane to plummet to the ground, killing Selfridge and severely injuring Orville.  The trials were put on hold while Orville recovered, resuming in June 1909.  That first successful flight was captured on film on July 27th, 1909 with Orville flying and Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm observing as high ranking officers and officials looked on, including President Taft and First Lady Helen Taft.

“FIRST ARMY AEROPLANE FLIGHT, FORT MYER, VIRGINIA,” Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111, National Archives Local Identifier: 111-H-1185

While still photography had been a function of many government agencies as far back as the 1850s, it wasn’t until after the creation of the airplane that government began to use the motion picture camera to record its activities. According to Hermine M. Baumhofer in “Motion Pictures Become Federal Records,” the Department of Agriculture was the first to acquire a motion picture camera, and the film above was captured by the first semi-official government cameraman, Winfield Scott Clime, a Department of Agriculture employee who had travelled to the parade grounds at Fort Meyer, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. to record an airplane in flight at his own expense.  The footage that Clime shot during those trials is considered to be the first and oldest motion picture created by and for the federal government.  During the subsequent 1909 trials, a U.S. Army Signal Corps cameraman captured those flights, since its motion-picture activity was carried out under the same authority as it’s photographic work via the transmitting communications by signals. Clime presented his film of the 1908 trials to the signal corps in 1921, which were then transferred it to the National Archives.


The Wright Brothers, National Air and Space Museum:

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park, National Park Service:

Wright Brothers National Memorial, National Park Service:

Telegram, Orville Wright to Bishop Milton Wright announcing the first successful powered flight, 17 December 1903:

Patent No. 821,393 – Flying Machine – Wright Brothers, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Record Group 241, National Archives and Records Administration:

The United States Army Buys Its First Aeroplane, 1909, Dr. Greg Bradsher, National Archives and Records Administration:

I Saw Kitty Hawk: Film, Memory, and Archives, Audrey Amidon, National Archives and Records Administration:

The Army’s Specification No. 486, Air Force Magazine: