Mysteries Of Flight: Who Was Really First To Fly?

The arguments, theories and facts about who was really the first to fly

The Backstory

“Avion III” By Roby – CC BY-SA 2.0 BE/Wikimedia Commons

The popular story of who flew first is easy. It was the Wright Brothers, at Kill Devil Hills (Kitty Hawk), North Carolina, December 17, 1903. Orville was at the controls, and there are photographs of the plane, the Wright Flyer, on that very flight, which lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. To be clear, the flight we’re talking about was the first flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft flying under its own power and achieving sustained, controlled flight.

There were lots of other aircraft before the Wrights’ big day on the Outer Banks. Chinese kites were used to lift men, reportedly to great heights, around 2,000 years ago. Human-carrying balloon flights became common in the late 1700s. Benjamin Franklin witnessed what was at the time the longest balloon flight (5 miles), in Paris in 1783. There are unverified stories of flights of gliders taking place more than 1,000 years ago, and by 1804, English scientist Sir George Cayley had designed a workable glider (which was flown by a local boy…details are sparse) and had developed a sound understanding of the basic forces of flight. Otto Lilienthal was the first to be photographed flying a heavier-than-air craft, a glider of his own design, and he eventually made around 2,000 flights.

But when it comes to piloted, heavier-than-air, powered and controlled flights, well, that gets us all the way up to the turn of the 20th century, or thereabouts, and that’s where the controversy begins.

Pioneers Who Claim To Have Done It

  1. Langley: In 1903 Samuel Pierpont Langley in his Aerodrome made two unsuccessful flights from a raised platform in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. In a drone version, the craft reportedly made successful flights. Shortly after the catastrophic attempts (the pilot was rescued after each failed attempt), the Wrights flew, and that was that for Langley. Except that in 1914 aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss heavily modified Langley’s machine and made successful flights with it, prompting the Smithsonian to crown Langley’s Aerodrome as the first plane capable of flight. It recanted only after the Wrights threatened to withhold the gift of their original Wright Flyer.
  2. Whitehead: Two-and-a-half years before the Wrights flew, German immigrant Gustave Whitehead flew a qualifying powered aircraft on long, controlled flights in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Or so he claimed. There were accounts of the flight in a local paper at the time, and many years later more than two dozen witnesses claimed to seen Whitehead’s airplane fly. Many decades later, researchers built a slightly modernized version of Whitehead’s long-lost plane and succeeded in flying it, barely.
  3. Others: There is credible evidence that New Zealander Richard Pearse flew a powered plane of his own advanced design on a somewhat controlled flight nine months before Kitty Hawk. In 1897, Clement Ader, a French inventor, claimed to have flown a bat-winged craft 100 meters, though there is scant evidence of that fact—quick crashes of his airplane, however, are well documented.

 The Truth

Were the Wrights the first to fly a heavier-than-air, controllable powered craft? The truth is, we might never know for certain. What we do know is that they did the deed. On December 17, 1903. The evidence is strong and the case is made airtight by the fact that the Wrights barely paused in their trials before making more and more and more flights. Does it matter who was first? To a lot of people, it does. But regardless of whether you believe it was the Wrights, as history rightly gives prominence in this claim, or some other early claimant, the fact is that the genesis of flight was a process that started centuries before the Wright Flyer. That said, the Flyer and the Wrights work on it unquestionably contributed strongly to the early development and ultimate success of aviation.