Earth’s first powered flights by a man-made craft were made by brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright less than 120 years ago on December 17, 1903.  In the next weeks, the first powered flight by a man-made craft should take place on Mars.  The tiny helicopter Ingenuity will accomplish that feat in Mars’ Jezero Crater.  In 2005, my son and I visited Kill Devil Hills in the North Carolina Outer Banks, which was the site of Earth’s first powered flights.

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Pictures in textbooks and other sources I’d read in elementary school always pictured the site as being on or very close to the beach.  At least that is my recollection.  The location of the first flights is actually a field at the foot of a small hill far from the shore.  The area has been preserved as the Wright Brothers’ National Memorial and Monument.   

Kill Devil Hill, a large sand dune, was the site of earlier glider experiments by the Wrights. The dune has been stabilized and the Wright Brothers Monument was erected at the top.

Kill Devil Hill and Monument

Views from the top reveal that the first flights were conducted more than a half mile from today’s shoreline. The Outer Banks are tiny, low-lying barrier islands whose shorelines are prone to shift. It is hard to know how close the Atlantic Ocean was to this spot 100 years ago.

First flight markers and original work shed and hangar

The Wrights made four successful flights in their Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903. They built a make shift runway consisting of four 15-foot two-by-fours laid end to end. To take off, the airplane rode down this track on a small, wheeled dolly.

The Wright Brothers’ “runway” and takeoff point for each flight.

The weather was cold with a wind speed of 27 miles per hour. Those were very good conditions. Wings produce more lift in cold, dense air. A 27-mph headwind substantially shortens the length of the run required for takeoff.

But with a strong wind, any variation in wind direction on takeoff or in flight would probably make the Wright Flyer very difficult to control. A strong headwind also reduces an airplane’s groundspeed and the distance flown in any flight .

Markers show the length of the four flights. The first was only 12 seconds and travelled 120 feet in an up-and-down path with Orville Wright at the controls. On the second, Wilbur Wright traveled 175 feet in a similar up-and-down course. On the third, Orville covered a little more than 200 feet in 15 seconds. With Wilbur back at the controls, the Flyer made its final and most significant flight. After another erratic start, Wilbur steadied the airplane for an impressive 852-foot trip in 59 seconds.

I think there is some license taken in arranging these makers in a straight line. A 27 mph wind can be a struggle for modern private planes that are much heavier than the Wright Flyer. I think there is little chance that the Wright brothers’ flights all landed exactly where the markers are located. On the other hand, if the Wrights had enough control to keep a straight track over the ground in a strong wind, they were very good pilots.

Final Thoughts

It is amazing that powered flight on Earth first occurred less than 120 years ago and now we we will witness powered flights on Mars in a few weeks. I wonder if one day people will visit markers in Jezero Crater to commemorate Ingenuity’s upcoming flights.

Visiting the Wright Brothers National Memorial is well worth it if you are in the area. There is a visitiors center with many interesting exhibits in addition to being able to walk around the area and take in views from the monument.