Designed by the Wright brothers, ‘The Wright Flyer’ in 1903 becomes the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft to successfully take flight.

The US Smithsonian Institute – a knowledge-sharing network that links museums and research centres from around the US, administered by the federal government – describes the invention of Orville and Wilbur Wright as “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard”.

The Wrights initially perform experiments using gliders, before building the Flyer in time for a first test run on December 14 1903. The first attempt at take-off lasts barely three seconds, as Wilbur successfully guides the plane off its launching rail but pulls up too sharply, causing the machine to stall, falling to the ground instantaneously. A second attempt at sustained flight is made three days later (after repairs from the failed first attempt are completed) on December 17, with windy conditions helping Orville to achieve the necessary airspeed for lift-off. The second flight lasts 12 seconds, during which time the Flyer manages to travel 36.5 metres (120 feet). At the commemorations celebrating the Flyer’s 100th anniversary, speakers point out that the distance travelled by the Flyer during that ‘flight’ is shorter than the wingspan on a modern Boeing 747. Four further flights are taken on December 17. Each attempt is cut short by the Flyer needing to make an unintended landing, but the final flight taken that day lasts almost one minute, with the machine travelling 260 metres (850 feet). Unsurprisingly, the aircraft sustains damage during the unintended landings, worsened by heavy winds, and is never flown again. Despite only recording a combined airborne flight time of less than 10 minutes, the Flyer lays the foundations for future breakthroughs in aviation, changing the realms of travel possibilities forever.

The Flyer today resides in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.