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First powered flight by the Wright Brothers: 17th December 1903

Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk
17 December 2021
On this day in 1903, the Wright brothers made the first successful powered flight.

Within a dozen years it would transform naval warfare. In little more than a generation the aircraft carrier would replace the battleship as the capital ship of navies – all stemming from a day which made history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903. 

Orville successfully left the ground behind in the brothers’ ‘Wright flyer’ and stayed airborne for 12 seconds. By the end of the day his brother Wilbur had completed a 59-second sortie, definitively proving their airframe was capable of sustaining stable flight.

This achievement followed years of trials with gliders and kites to improve their design, with the brothers even building their own wind tunnel for experiments. The Wrights were able to fund their aviation endeavours with the bicycle shop that they opened in 1892.    

The Royal Navy entered the world of aviation in 1909 when it ordered its first airship, the Mayfly. The following year American flyer Eugene Ely became the first person to successfully launch from a stationary ship – and the first person to land on one early in 1911.

In 1912, the then Commander Charles Samson took off from HMS Hibernia while she steamed at 15kts to become the first aviator to launch from a moving vessel.

In the opening weeks of WW1 in 1914, pilots of the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service – forerunner of today’s Fleet Air Arm – bombed Zeppelin sheds in Germany, first from land, then on Christmas Day, from sea in the world’s first ‘carrier strike’ operation against Cuxhaven.

But it was in August 1917 that arguably the most important achievement was made when Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning landed his Sopwith Pup on a moving HMS Furious in Scapa Flow – which is the key moment in aircraft carrier development.

Orville successfully left the ground behind in the brothers’ ‘Wright flyer’ and stayed airborne for 12 seconds.

Wilbur Wright died in 1912 after contracting typhoid but Orville lived until 1948, meaning that he witnessed the birth of jet fighters. The likes of which were implemented during World War 2, only 41 years after that historic day in North Carolina. 

In December 1945, Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown made the next leap forward in naval aviation when he became the first to land a jet aircraft on a carrier as his de Havilland Vampire touched down on the deck of HMS Ocean. It would be a few years before jets were routinely operated from aircraft carriers, but early issues were overcome by the invention of the angled deck and the steam catapult, and improvements in jet engine performance 

Brigadier General Chuck Yeager would be responsible for the last big milestone in aviation to occur prior to Orville Wright’s death, when he climbed into the Bell X-1 and proceeded to break the sound barrier in October 1947. Since then we have developed ever faster, stealthier and capable aircraft that are able to operate in theatres across the globe. But it was the achievement made by the Wright brothers, two bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio, that changed the face of transportation and warfare forever. 


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