On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers accomplished their most famous triumph, the first flight of a heavier than air machine, a flight of 120 feet. The 1903 Wright Flyer flew four times that day, was damaged by a gust of wind after the fourth flight, and never flew again.
And nearly two years later, on October 5, 1905, Wilbur Wright took the 1905 Wright Flyer III to the skies over a pasture near Dayton, Ohio. He flew 24 miles (38 kilometers) in 39.5 minutes, longer than the total duration of all the flights of 1903 and 1904. It was the realization of the first practical airplane.
But many aviation historians concede the plane between the 1903 Wright Flyer and the 1905 Wright Flyer III was not as famous, but equally important. The 1904 Wright Flyer II was more than a learning tool, more than a step in the invention process. The plane taught the brothers how to fly.
In 1904, Orville and Wilbur moved their flight testing from Kitty Hawk to Huffman Prairie. They built a new, more powerful airplane, with a design that produced less drag using lighter, more durable materials, and a stronger and lighter engine. They built systems that made the launch easier.
Engineering and invention aside, 1904 also the Wright brother’s most courageous effort.
With their experience with gliders and the first Wright Flyer, the Wright bothers were already the world’s most experienced pilots. Still, they used incremental steps in their engineering and production, learning how to test each variable in flight dynamics, before moving on to the next step. And testing involved learning to control the aircraft. Each brother crashed several times, bruised and battered, their collective courage an important part of the learning process.
Beaten up by their own invention, the brothers persisted. In 1904 they made over 105 flights—over 45 minutes of total flight time. Eventually they achieved flights lasting five minutes, and completed full circles in the air— accomplished by Wilbur for the first time on September 20, 1904.
They stopped flying for the year on December 9, 1904. Over the winter they dismantled the 1904 Wright Flyer II, using the mechanical pieces for their next aircraft. But it was more than the engine and propellers that made the 1905 Wright Flyer III the world’s first practical airplane. It was the building, the learning, the experimentation, engineering, the fabrication, the testing, the courage, and the piloting in 1904 all setting the foundation that finally took the Wright brothers into the air in October of 1905.