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In 1949, the Library of Congress acquired 303 glass plate negatives developed by the Wright brothers. Some of these prints, including the iconic image above, are in the National Air and Space Museum. (Library of Congress )

The Wright Brothers’ First Flight Photo, Annotated

A careful study of the shot taken in December 1903 at Kitty Hawk shows the moment of aviation’s birth.

It is one of the most famous photographs ever taken. The time was 10:35 on the morning of December 17, 1903. The place: The sand dunes four miles south of the little fishing village of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Earlier that morning, Orville Wright had set up the camera on a tripod pointed at the spot where he thought the airplane might be in the air. When three members of the U.S. Lifesaving Service Station at Kill Devil Hills walked up from the beach to help out, Wilbur handed John T. Daniels the bulb that would activate the shutter and told him to squeeze it if anything interesting happened.

I have often thought that being in the darkroom as the image emerged on the fragile glass plate would have been almost as exciting as witnessing the flight. “In the photographic darkroom at home,” Wilbur Wright once explained, “we pass moments of as thrilling interest as any in the field, when the image begins to appear on the plate and it is yet an open question whether we have a picture of a flying machine, or merely a patch of open sky.” With this image, they must have been thrilled indeed.

Experienced amateur photographers, the brothers honed their camera skills as they documented their flight research. By 1902, they were using the camera that would take the famous picture, a Korona-V, made by the Gundlach Optical Company. One of the best cameras on the market, it captured every detail of the flight of the world’s first airplane.

The craft rode down the 60-foot monorail track (A) on one bicycle wheel hub mounted under the forward elevator support and another on a cradle that was left behind when the airplane took off (B). The footprints in the sand (C) outline the spot where the small bench (D) served as a rest for the right wing before the flight. The shovel (E) was used in positioning the rail and burying an anchor that would hold the airplane in place on the rail before takeoff. The coil box (F) in front of the shovel provided the spark to start the engine. The small can (G) contained a hammer and nails for minor repairs.

But does the photo document a genuine flight? Orville Wright was flying into the teeth of a 24- to 27-mph headwind, moving forward so slowly that Wilbur had no trouble keeping up with him. While his distance over the ground was only 120 feet, the true distance flown through the air, because of the headwind, was calculated at 540 feet, well beyond the 300 feet the brothers decided would constitute a sustained flight.

The photo captured a moment when the elevator was at the extreme point. Evidence that Orville was able to recover and continue flying is found in the fact that when the photo was snapped, the airplane had travelled only 20 feet over the ground and had been in the air no more than two or three seconds. Far from being stalled, it is still flying and has to travel another 100 feet over the ground in the next nine or ten seconds. Orville was clearly exercising a measure of control over the craft. Each of the three flights that followed that morning was longer than the one before, culminating in Wilbur’s final flight, which covered 852 feet over the ground in 59 seconds. So the famous photo is just what it seems to be, an astounding image of the world’s first airplane at the outset of its first flight.

About Tom Crouch

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s aeronautics department. An historian of early flight, he is the author of The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

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