How one monumental moment in 1903 changed the course of aviation forever. December 17th marks the celebration of Wright Brothers Day, a national observance in honor of Wilbur and Orville Wright and the Anniversary of Flight.
It’s safe to say that the desire to fly has probably existed since the start of written history—perhaps even as far back to the moment when the earliest humans to walk the earth saw a bird fly for the very first time. However, it wasn’t until December 17th, 1903 on a cold and windy morning in North Carolina that the Wright brothers made this once impossible dream a reality.
How the Wright Brothers Made Groundbreaking History
Scores of pilots and aviation enthusiasts around the world know the story of Orville witnessing his brother Wilbur pilot the first practical fixed-winged aircraft four times on the day now regarded as the Anniversary of Flight. And although it’s true that many of their contemporaries attempted and claimed to have made this accomplishment first, the Wright brothers were the first to fully document and achieve everything necessary to make their feat indisputable.
The flights began with a 12-second hop at approximately 10 feet per second for a flight of 120 feet total. The final flight of the day traveled a distance of 852 feet in just under one minute. But what made their flight extra special was that the Wright Brothers’ heavier-than-air machine took off and flew a manned and controlled flight under its power, that of a 4-horse power engine, without reducing speed. Plus, the plane landed at an elevation equal to that of take off without wrecking.
In 1963, this monumental feat was finally solidified as a national observance and coined Wright Brothers Day by The U.S. Congress. Every December 17th, events are hosted at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a 425-acre area featuring a 60-foot granite pylon tower on top of Kill Devil Hill, where the Wright brothers first took flight. Across the country, aviation enthusiasts also hold special luncheons in honor of the Wright brothers, and some schools go on field trips to aviation and flight museums or partake in activities centered around aviation and the Wright brothers' role in changing the face of flying forever.
Flying After the First Flight: From the World’s First Air Race to the Golden Age of Flight to Now
In the decade after the Wright brothers first successfully conquered the air, many key advancements occurred in the field of aviation; including passenger flights, transcontinental flying, and flights reaching altitudes of thousands of feet—some reaching speeds close to 100 miles per hour. It might be easy to accredit most of this progress to military aviation, but one of the most important catalysts for the early development of flight was actually air racing.
Throughout the early 1900s, sporting aviation was one of the ways aviation pioneers developed and tested airplanes by conducting distance and speed contests. The first air race was held in August of 1909 in Reims, France—long before the first military use of an aircraft by the Italians for reconnaissance during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911. Aircraft manufacturers also utilized air races to showcase their best and most advanced airplane designs.
Many of the earliest air races took place in France and were frequented by some of the most famous aviators from around the world. The spirit of competition, rivalry, and sense of community at the races heavily influenced flying culture and drove major advancements in the field of aviation for over a decade. But during War World I, aviation meets slowed down to a grinding halt until they resurfaced again in the 1920s and 1930s.
This period is known as the Golden Age of Flight. Then, stories of air races, bold and daring stunts, and record-setting flights were often top tales in the news. Yet the arrival of World War II in 1939 would once again bring sporting aviation events to a pause as aeronautic engineers and airplane manufacturers shifted gears to focus on the development of military airplanes for use in combat. Eventually, after the second world war, sport air racing resumed. But due to the number of advancements in aviation, formula racing was incorporated to organize competitions according to aircraft features such as engine size.
Nowadays, there are about 11 international air races that occur annually, the most famous of which is the Reno Air Races in Reno, NV. It’s currently one of the largest air shows in the world and the only remaining unlimited class pylon race. It also includes the famous class of Formula One air races. Every year, when the aviation community gathers in Reno, the miracle of flight is taken to new and exciting heights. Pilots break new barriers, while engineers and manufacturers elevate the boundaries of what aircraft can do, be, and achieve—with a conviction and precision that has given life to an entirely new Golden Age of Flight.
Explore the latest news from airrace.org to learn more about the innovation taking place at the Reno Air Races each year.