BBC Future

The Wright stuff: Ten great firsts in aviation

About the author

Stephen Dowling is BBC Future's associate editor.

Twitter: @sjdowling

He also blogs about analogue photography: Zorkiphoto


  • First to fly
    The Wright Flyer was the first powered aircraft in the world, taking off into freezing headwinds on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 17 December 1903. (Getty Images)
  • French first
    In 1909, Frenchman Louis Bleriot became the first to fly across the English Channel, spurred on by the Daily Mail’s £500 prize to anyone who could cross by the year's end. (AFP)
  • Original warrior
    A Morane Saulnier L – with a machine gun and metal plates on the propeller to deflect bullets – became the first fighter, downing three German planes in April 1915. (Getty Images)
  • Crossing the pond
    The Vickers Vimy became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic in 1919 when aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew non-stop from Newfoundland to Ireland. (Getty Images)
  • Globe trotting
    In 1924, four Douglas World Cruisers – especially designed for the task – became the first aircraft to fly around the world, circumnavigating the globe in 15 days. (Getty Images)
  • The only way is up
    The 1930s saw several leaps forward in aviation design, many in Germany; Focke Wulf’s Fw 161 became the first operational helicopter when it flew in 1936. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Jet setter
    On the eve of World War II, Germany flew the first aircraft to be powered by a turbojet. The Heinkel He-178, flying in 1938, ushered in a new age. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Barrier breaking
    Jet pioneer Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier - flying at 800mph (1,126 km/h) – in the experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane. (Getty Images)
  • Gleaming future?
    Britain’s De Havilland Comet was the first jet airliner, flying in 1949, and was poised for enormous success – before a tragic crash scuppered a promising career. (Getty Images)
  • Faster than a speeding bullet
    The world’s first supersonic airliner was not Concorde but a rival design from behind the Iron Curtain – the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 which first flew in 1968 (Getty Images)
On 17 December 1903, the Wright Brothers became the first to fly a powered aircraft into the air. BBC Future looks at other aviation firsts which followed them.

On 17 December 1903, a pair of brothers who ran a bicycle repair shop in Dayton, Ohio, changed the world forever. Orville and Wilbur Wright had spent the previous four years testing various gliders in the hope of becoming the first men to fly in a powered aircraft. On that December day, on the windswept sands of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, the pair’s Wright Flyer became the first aircraft to take off under its own power with a man at the controls and stay in the air.

The Wright Flyer’s first flight – all 120ft (37m) of it – along the Kitty Hawk sands changed civilisation forever. The secret to the Wright Flyer’s success was not so much the engine, which had been hand-made in only six weeks by the Wright’s friend Charlie Taylor, but the revolutionary three-axis control system, which allowed the pilot to move keep control the aircraft in three dimensions. The controllable rudder and flaps the brothers invented are still used in every aircraft that flies today.

The Wrights’ historic flight was only one of many aviations firsts – in the following 110 years, mankind’s conquest of the air has seen many memorable firsts. Here, BBC Future lists just a few of them.

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