Today is Wright Brothers Day

Almost all of us take for granted that we can get to virtually any destination in the world by flying in an airplane. We routinely board an aircraft, grumble at the slightest delay, and complain when we don’t get any peanuts during the flight. But really, we should be amazed in wonderment as each airplane takes off and lands.

It’s almost a miracle: we can sit in a somewhat comfortable chair, sleep, read a book or watch a movie, and three hours later, we’ve flown across the country. And it all began 105 years ago. On December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made the first successful controlled, powered and sustained flight of an aircraft.

Orville flew for 12 seconds, covering 120 feet (36.5m), at a speed of only 6.8 mph from level ground into a cold headwind gusting to 27 miles (43 km) an hour. The flight was recorded in the famous photograph, above. Then, to prove it wasn’t a fluke, they flew two more times: Wilbur flew approximately 175 feet (53 m), and then Orville took the controls again and flew 200 feet (60 m).

Their altitude was about 10 ft above the ground. Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls – a three-axis control – that made it possible for a pilot to control the aircraft and made fixed wing flight possible.

Every year since 1963 the US Congress proclaims Dec. 17 as Wright Brother’s Day, and the US President signs the proclamation (read below). Here is Orville Wright’s account of the final flight of the day:

“Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o’clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet (260 m); the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two.”

The proclamation of Wright Brothers Day :

“Our history is rich with pioneers and innovators who used their God-given talents to improve our Nation and the world. On Wright Brothers Day, we commemorate two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who took great risks and ushered in a new era of travel and discovery.

With intrepid spirits and a passion for innovation, Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first to experience the thrill of manned, powered flight. On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright flew for 12 seconds over the North Carolina sand dunes in the presence of only five people. In the span of one lifetime, our Nation has seen aviation progress from the first tentative takeoff at Kitty Hawk to an age of supersonic flight and space exploration.

On this Wright Brothers Day, we recognize all those who have taken great risks and contributed to our country’s legacy of exploration and discovery. This year, we also celebrate the centennial of the world’s first passenger flight. By remaining dedicated to extending the frontiers of knowledge, we can ensure that the United States will continue to lead the world in science, innovation, and technology, and build a better future for generations to come.

The Congress, by a joint resolution approved December 17, 1963, as amended (77 Stat. 402; 36 U.S.C. 143), has designated December 17 of each year as “Wright Brothers Day” and has authorized and requested the President to issue annually a proclamation inviting the people of the United States to observe that day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim December 17, 2008, as Wright Brothers Day.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord two thousand eight, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third.


19 Replies to “Today is Wright Brothers Day”

  1. I read that at the time there were several competing teams to complete the distance needed to officially claim air travel and the Wright Brothers could have lost there place in history very easily. A prime example of American innovation “God I Love this country”…

  2. Ok, the brothers Wright took a good step, but the first man to make a real flight was Santos Dummont.

    Look for him and you will find another version of the history of flight!

  3. “By remaining dedicated to extending the frontiers of knowledge, we can ensure that the United States will continue to lead the world in science, innovation, and technology, and build a better future for generations to come.”


  4. It would (maybe already had) have happened in the era it did, whether the Wright Brothers had been born or died before 1903. Does this take away from Orville and Wilbur Wright’s accomplishment. No. If Leonardo da Vinci did it without witnesses, or Rufus bo Dufus did it in Lower Elbonia in the year dot, it is still a marvelous accomplishment. If someone (George Bush) uses the terms “God given,” and “year of our Lord,” (the latter of which terms is still common on certain documents) in an eulogy of their accomplishments, so bloody what. A leader invoking faith, whatever one may think of that faith, in tribute to an advancement of science, does not make the accomplishment of the Wright Brothers any lesser. For science’s sake, let’s get off politician-bashing (any politician) in a science related website and concentrate on the incredible feat being celebrated. Yes, write an article pointing out a politician’s total non-grasp of science, but don’t denigrate a politician or a nation’s contributions to the advance of science solely for who signed a presidential proclamation. We’re supposed to be celebrating science, not using the occasion to make snide remarks. Just remember that the important part of the article is that the Wright Brothers conducted manned, powered, controlled, and sustained flight, while doctors of Physics were saying it was impossible. I think it was an amazing feat, and if someone thinks otherwise, they are either ignorant or have an agenda.

  5. I wasn’t bashing Bush–God knows I do that every chance I get but it didn’t seem worthwhile here–I was just finding the idea that the US is any sort of leader or inspiration in the field of science to be laughable.

  6. (Clarification: now, not in the Wright’s day or even as late as the 70s–back then the US WAS a leader, if usually for the wrong reasons.

    And yes, I am American.)

  7. In re: Victor Sheckels:

    Why laughable? I,certainly, am American, although I do not denigrate contributions, scientific, literary, artistic, or any other kind from any part of the world. Enrico Fermi was, of course, born in Italy, but he put the first nuclear reactor into operation in the United States. The first manned flight to the moon and only, (unless Edgar Allen Poe’s story of Hans Pfaff is true) was made by NASA. Any national leader, be it Bush, Disraeli, or Kim Il Jong, is going to make a proclamation a patriotic one. I do agree with you, that the United States will not be “THE” leader in the world of science, but considered your “laughable” (Sorry,I have buttons that get pushed,too) to say we could not be “A” leader.

    I apologize for taking exception the way I did. If the US cannot be ONE of the leaders, or sources of inspiration in the field of science, I will be extremely sorry. I know the state of science knowledge and education in our schools today, and it really it scares me. Perhaps, in Wright’s day or during the cold war, we made scientific advances for the wrong reason. That is political and moral reasoning, which I feel myself unqualified to determine (within certain boundaries), but we made those advances, which were well received by the nation and the world. If the “reasons” were wrong, it cannot be chalked up next to Joseph Mengele’s anatomical/biological discoveries of the 1940’s. Moral grey area or no, there ain’t know comparison.

    I personally know a number of scientists (and I use the word to include REAL science teachers and those involved in research who are both American-born and American by choice). Some of them have political opinions I disagree with (I hope they do, otherwise politics would agree with science [scary thought]), but we have common grounds we agree upon. Some adhere to certain religions (rarely fundamental) across a wide spectrum, and some are agnostic or atheist. We look at it as though science and religion are two separate things.

    I know the political climate for science has sucked for a number of years in our country, but I hope that will change with the new administration. I deplored G. W. Bush’s stance on science, but the Clinton era saw many scientific grants die as well. (That’s why I am an independent.)

    Finally, (Thank Whoever) I think the United States has the potential to be “a” leader in the scientific discoveries of the next 50 years, as long as we rediscover (in company with a good part of the rest of the world) our intelligence and the scientific method (I refuse to use the words “belief” and “faith,” when discussing science).

  8. I think you’re being a bit dramatic there Victor – The world has changed and now there isn’t really any one leader in science, but the US would still be far and away among those at the top of the pile.

    It may not be a thoroughly scientifically literate society (I would struggle to think of any that really are) – but it still has among the finest facilities (telescopes, particle accelerators, supercomputers and the list just goes on and on…), the finest institutions (top universities, NASA, national laboratories such a Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia etc), and many of the finest minds. In addition, it has the sort of funding clout that the rest of the world can only dream of – only the European Union can go close to matching it.

    I’m an Australian, so I think I can be somewhat objective. Australia does great science, as do many western and other nations, but I think the US still reigns supreme at the moment in terms of sheer output of scientific discovery and knowledge.

  9. To Astrofiend:

    I think you put several of my arguments in a nutshell. The U.S. has many facilities, universities [even though Asians seem to outnumber U.S. students in pure science disciplines], to contribute to the advancement of our area of science (astrophysics, astronomy, et. al.). Our anglo-saxon (or whatever it is this week) intelligentsia is what is is (a melting pot of multi-cultural talent). After all, CHANDRA (the space telescope) isn’t named after an anglo-saxon individual. Political shifts notwithstanding, the US has a history (and academic and physical presence in science) that is difficult to deny. If most of the students are foreign (to the United States), I say, “More power to ’em.” I’m an American, but when Indian, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese or Burkina Faso students make an earth-shattering discover, it only advances the study of science. To put it in pure Americanese, “Who gives a rat’s a**s, as long as it gets discovered.”

    If a South African, Australian, Argentinian, or Pitcairn Islander discovers something new and useful, who the blazes cares. It’s been discovered. Science is a hell of a lot more important than winning the Olympic Gold Medal (a la “Chariots of Fire.) Scientific discover benefits all of us. If a Tibetan astrophysicist came up with a shattering conclusion (supported by all the proper evidence we like), I, for one, wouldn’t give a damn whether he gave credit to the Republic of China or the Dalai Lama. Damn it, it is all about science and facts.

  10. To Atstrofiend:

    I feel the pain all of you know doubt felt when Mt. Stromlo was burned. In the two times (in the last four years) that we thought Mt. Palomar (I live 25 miles away) was in danger, we were disthaught. I appreciate Australia’s contribution to aeronautics and astronomy, and wish I could be down there to observe the LMC, SMC and the galactic center (not to mention, kangaroos are totally cool). Take care and great observing.

  11. Yep, the Wright Brothers were the first to fly a powered aircraft in the US…..if you discount Gustav Weiskopf (I think I spelled it right) who is pretty certain to have made some steam-powered aircraft flights in the New Haven, CT area the year before the Wrights……. Check it out for yourself, and also please do some research on how the Smithsonian got to display the Wright Flyer, and also read about Samuel Langley and Hiram Percy Maxim and Glenn Curtis and the Aerial Experiment Association (Alexander Bell was a part of this), then decide for yourself who was the first to fly……..and who spent their lives trying to keep everyone else on the ground.

  12. The Wright brothers had funding and help from plenty of places…now Richard Pearse, who achieved powered flight (Or rather hops) in 1902, was a simple farmer. He then achieved proper powered flight on the 31st March 1903. While it wasn’t quite as good as the Wright Brothers, it was 9 months before them and his rig was built in his shed.

  13. Have you guys ever heard the old Asian saying “The nail that pokes out gets hammered in”. Meaning that if one person goes above or beyond the masses he or she gets put into place. The reason America was always at the front of science is because we embraced genius we didn’t penalize it.

  14. Thanks andy for raising Richard Pearse’s name in this discussion but I feel that the other readers should be made aware that Pearse lived in New Zealand where he farmed with about as much success as he flew. ….All Kiwis are justifiably proud of him

  15. Andy,
    Thanks for the info on Richard Pearse! I hadn’t heard of him or his flights, but will google him and find out more…..
    My wife is from Curtiss’ home town, Hammondsport, NY, where there is an excellent museum of early flight and several flyable/flown reproductions built from the origional prints of Curtiss’ early planes, often using restored actual early engines. Her family library has a lot of info about Curtiss and others. Her Dad’s best friend’s father was one of Curtiss’ test pilots. The Wrights knew of Weiskopff and visited him to pick his brains about his gas engines a couple of years before their flights, and checked out his aircraft, that looked a lot like Chanute’s successful gliders. They also visited Langley and Maxim and sent an undercover ‘spy’ to Canada to look in on Bell and the AEA. For as secretive as they were about their own plane, they were more than ready to borrow the ideas of others……… Langley’s plane flew fine after it was repaired, by the way, and would have flown the first time before the Wrights’ flight if the launcher hadn’t broken and wrecked it.

  16. I have to apologize to everyone who has told me of all the people who flew before the Wright Brother. I also have to apologize for the gigantic US conspiracy that has covered this fact up. I should also apologize for all those who (like Oliver Stone) who have given us the real story of the Kennedy assassination. Enough said, my final post. Later.

  17. Larry,

    We can only work with what information we have…..and I suppose that applies to Oliver Stone too. If you check it out, you’ll find that the only way that the Smithsonian got the Wright Flyer to display it was that they signed a contract that they would forever refer to that aircraft as the first true flyable craft, on penalty of lawsuit and having the craft removed.

    Samuel Langley was the director of the Smithsonian when he built his flyer, not some obscure crank. The press, and the public, were so disbelieving of the idea of flight – and the Wrights knew this well – that the newspapers didn’t even send reporters to watch these early flights, and it’s why the Wrights kept observers away, to avoid ridicule. Glenn Curtiss, who did not fly a fixed-wing aircraft before the Wrights, by the way, was a famous motorcycle racer (he held the land speed record for many years) and had backing from Alexander Graham Bell, flew his first flight at the town fairgrounds Fourth of July in front of the whole town and quite a few folks and press that Bell got to come in from NYC, so the crank factor was minimized. I think that worldwide about half-a-dozen people made controlled flights before the Wrights, and another half-dozen got craft off the ground, but were not able to control their graft well, so crash-landed them. The clearest indication of one of Weiskopf’s early flights was a hospital report of an injury his engineer/boilerman recieved when he hit the second story of a building………..

  18. Are there any publications covering all the documented flights preceding the Wright’s 12/17/1903 accomplishment?

Comments are closed.