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Aviation in Utah: 100 years of flight

Utahns were quick to embrace aviation and help achieve mastery of the skies

Published: Thursday, Dec. 4 2003 11:05 a.m. MST

An early photograph in Utah captures the box-like construction of the early planes, which copied the design of the Wright brothers' first airplanes.

Utah State Historical Society

Twelve seconds, 120 feet. Less time than it takes to hum the first half of the "Jeopardy" theme and less than half the length of a football field.

That was the first airplane flight, achieved by Orville Wright on Dec. 17, 1903, near the sandy dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

It got a little better. Orville got the first flight by virtue of a coin toss, but he and Wilbur each took two flights that day in their Flyer I craft. And by day's end, Wilbur had stayed aloft for 59 seconds and traveled a distance of 852 feet.

It was a rather inauspicious beginning for something that would change the world. Even the people who were there were not mightily impressed. Five witnesses came to watch the activities; few newspapers reported it.

After all, these were simply two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio. And while there was a lot of interest in flying machines, other more promising experiments were going on. So even though the Wright brothers flew, it took awhile for the world to take note. Interestingly, the Deseret News was one of the few newspapers that did carry a story the very next day. It reported an incorrect distance, but the paper did acknowledge the event:

"A successful trial of a flying machine has been made near Kitty Hawk, N.C., by Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, O. The machine flew for three miles in the face of a wind blowing at the registered velocity of 21 miles an hour and then gracefully descended to earth at the spot selected by the navigator. The machine has no balloon attachment but gets its force from propellers worked by a small engine.

"Prepatory to its flight the machine was placed upon a platform near Kitty Hawk. This platform was built on a high sand hill, and when all was in readiness, the fastenings to the machine were released and it started down an incline. The navigator then started a small gasoline engine which worked the propellers. When the end of the incline was reached the machine gradually rose until it obtained an altitude of 60 feet. In the face of a strong wind blowing it maintained an even speed of eight miles an hour."

The Wright Brothers had been working on their flying machine for several years. Although they were bicycle mechanics by trade, their passion was aeronautics, and they had studied and experimented in meticulous detail.

In a letter to Octave Chanute, dated May 13, 1900, Wilbur noted: "For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life. . . . My general ideas of the subject are similar to those held by most practical experimenters, to wit; that what is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. . . . "

The brothers chose the Outer Banks of North Carolina for their experiments because they decided, from the replies they got from various postmasters, that it would have the most favorable wind conditions.

Beginning in 1900, they spent several weeks each year at Kitty Hawk, at first testing gliders, and then finally their motorized machine.

Following that first successful flight, they continued to work on and perfect their design. It took them seven years to come up with a practical design.

In 1912, Wilbur died of typhoid fever; he was 45. Orville built an aeronautics laboratory and returned to inventing. He died in 1948 at the age of 76.

The legacy of Kitty Hawk has obviously been far-reaching. And from the very first, it was embraced in a big way by the people of Utah.

"Aviation," proclaimed an ad in the Deseret News on Feb. 10, 1911, "the word that charms the multitude — that thrills the heart — that crowds the grand stand. It's the latest innovation in sportsdom and one that appeals to every nation."