Was Orville Wright’s the first flight ever?

Last Monday, December 17, it was 109 years since the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. However, there was some skepticism in Europe about the flight. I had already read about that skepticism in the book “The Airplane: How ideas gave us wings“(1) (by Jay Spencer (2))

In the book, the reader gets the idea of the skepticism, of how in France there was also a race for performing the first flight and how it was not until the Wright brothers flew in Europe years later (1908) that people got convinced of that first flight in 1903. When I read about that, the idea that came to my mind was French chauvinism.

Let me now start connecting the dots…

Flyer I (picture by 350z33, available at Wikimedia)

  • Visiting the National Air & Space Museum, in Washington D.C., you could see a real scale Flyer I, the aircraft with which the brothers first flew. When you see the aircraft you first notice that the surface controls are at the front of the airplane, or that the airplane has no independent ailerons but the wing is bent at the tip…
  • Reading the book “The Airplane” there is chapter dedicated to the evolution of each configuration item of the aircraft. One of them is dedicated to the landing gear. In relation to the Flyer…

[...] European experimenters put the Wrights to shame by adopting wheeled undercarriages from the outset. The Wrights stuck with skids far too long, perhaps because they viewed their airplanes as scientific proof-of-concept vehicles first and practical machines second.

  • Last summer, when we visited the Aviodrome (3) museum in The Netherlands, we found another Flyer model of the Wrights. This one was a bit more complete: it showed the skids and how the airplane was propelled into the air thanks to a system composed of rails and a kind of catapult.
  • Finally, when reading about French aviation pioneers for the previous post in this blog, I got to read in the Wikipedia article about the Brazilian residing in France Santos-Dumont the following passage:

The Wrights used a launching rail for their 1903 flights and a launch catapult for their 1904 and 1905 machines, while the aircraft of Santos-Dumont and other Europeans had wheeled undercarriages. The Wright Brothers continued to use skids, which necessitated the use of a dolly running on a track. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, founded in France in 1905 to verify aviation records, stated among its rules that an aircraft should be able to take off under its own power in order to qualify for a record. Supporters of Santos-Dumont maintain that this means the 14-bis was, technically, the first successful fixed-wing aircraft.

Thus, it was not just simple French chauvinism as the more simple explanation given either in “The Airplane” or Wikipedia article about the Wright brothers may point to, but there was at the time a discussion about the way in which the aircraft were indeed propelled into the air. That is a legitimate discussion, not chauvinism. (4)

Since I am not invested in either position, to me the first flight will always be the generally accepted of Orville Wright on December 17, 1903. That is the one I celebrate (see tweet below). However, you can see how sometimes to get a clearer picture and connect some dots it takes visiting 2 museums in DC and The Netherlands, reading a book and serendipity researching in the Wikipedia. :-)


(1) “The Airplane” is a terrific book of which one day I hope to write a review. By the way I purchased the book at Boeing HQ in Chicago almost 2 years ago.

(2) Jay Spencer is also coauthor of “747” another great aviation book of which I wrote a review here.

(3) Aviodrome is a great museum north of Amsterdam, at the height of the Smithsonian institution National Air & Space Museum… if only it had free entrance as well. I will have to write about this museum too.

(4) That same federation did not accept as a first flight one made by the French Clément Ader in 1890, because it was an un-controlled flight.

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5 responses to “Was Orville Wright’s the first flight ever?

  1. Surprising you don’t mention Clément Ader’s first “avion”, the Bat . i always thought French contestations came from that, since Ader’s flight was made before the Wrights’ .
    In the same vein, Lindbergh’s crossing is universally known, while the French dramatic attempts are ignored, as well as the first Atlantic crossing in the difficult way, from Europe to America, which has been achieved by French guys. Before that, the first ever flight over a sea, achieved by Blériot above the Channel in 1909 .
    After that, the first military use of planes, in WW1, was made by French . The first intercontinental regular mail service, “l’Aéropostale”, between Europe, America, Africa .
    Everything American is famous, everything French is ignored, by Americans of course, then by the world since the rest of the world follows the USA .

    • Hi Phil,
      In the footnotes I had mentioned Clément Ader’s flight, as I had done so in the previous post. However, as I understood it, that one was not controlled and that is why it was not counted as the first. I also understood that that French Federation was still looking for a first flight to be recorded in the times of Santos-Dumont… but I am no expert in that.
      Those other facts you reflect of French aviation… I covered some in a previous post, but this one was intended just to show how books and the wiki sometimes do not show the whole picture… it takes time and several sources to figure out what happened.

  2. Pingback: North American X-15 | The Blog by Javier

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