The Debunker: Did the Wright Brothers Achieve the First Sustained, Powered Airplane Flight?

by Ken Jennings

November is here, and you know what that means—National Aviation History Month! Yes, like all good citizens, you undoubtedly wait all year for this fun-filled celebration of great achievements in the history of flight. But as you get together with loved ones during this festive flight-themed season, we want to make sure you don't perpetuate any myths and misconceptions. Ken Jennings, high-flying Jeopardy! whiz, is here all month to correct a lot of common aviation knowledge that's just plane wrong.

The Debunker: Did the Wright Brothers Achieve the First Sustained, Powered Airplane Flight?

On May 6, 1896, Samuel Pierpont Langley, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, brought his steam-powered Aerodrome Number 5 vehicle down to the Potomac River, where it flew over half a mile. The Aerodrome was a tandem-wing contraption that looked like a giant dragonfly, and its ninety-second test flight smashed all previous records for lift and stability. But wait—the Wright Brothers didn't test their Flyer at Kitty Hawk until 1903. Did Langley beat Wilbur and Orville to the punch by seven full years?

The Debunker

Well, yes and no. The Aerodrome was the first plane ever to achieve sustained, powered flight, but there's a (pretty substantial) loophole. Without the benefit of Kitty Hawk's strong winds to achieve takeoff, Langley launched his plane from a big floating catapult. (Unike the Wrights, he had a hefty government budget at his disposal.) And the catapult-launched Aerodrome that successfully flew three thousand feet was an unmanned model that didn't carry a pilot. The Wright Brothers' real achievement was putting a pilot in the sky, not an airplane.

In the fall of 1903, at the same time the Wrights were preparing their aircraft for its maiden flight, Langley had a full-scale, piloted version of the Aerodrome ready to go, but it crashed twice upon take-off. Langley wrote these embarrassing failures off as bad luck, but history hasn't been kind to that viewpoint: subsequent trials on reconstructed models (by NASA in 1981 and University of Toronto scientists in 2004) were unable to keep the Aerodome aloft due to fundamental design problems. But the Smithsonian stayed loyal to its boy, displaying Langley's 1903 model for years with a misleading label implying that Langley had beaten the Wrights to manned flight. Orville Wright was furious, and confiscated the Wright Flyer from the museum's collection for over twenty years until the squabble could be resolved.

Quick Quiz: Langley's work in the 1860s with the Allegheny Observatory and America's railroads led to the international adoption of the world's twenty-four different what?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.