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The Cover
December 17, 2003

The Conquest of the Air

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2003;290(23):3038. doi:10.1001/jama.290.23.3038

It was Thursday morning, the 17th of December, 1903. Just outside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in a scrubby, windswept area of the Outer Banks known as Kill Devil Hills, Wilbur and Orville Wright were about to do what humans had dreamed of doing even before the days of Icarus: "powered, sustained, and controlled flight" in the air, above the earth. Conditions that day were hardly auspicious: the wind was blowing at between 24 and 27 miles per hour; overnight, ice had formed on the puddles around the brothers' camp. Yet, over a period of little more than 90 minutes, between 10:35 AM and noon, they would do what Icarus had failed at and Leonardo could only dream of—not once, but four times. As the result of an earlier coin toss, Orville earned the right to try first. In a bumpy and erratic ride, he stayed aloft for 12 seconds and traveled 120 feet. Wilbur made the second flight, at 11:20 AM, and also stayed up for about 12 seconds, but with a lesser wind, he traveled some 75 feet farther than Orville. The third flight was Orville's again and he flew 200 feet in 15 seconds. At noon, Wilbur took off for the final flight, covering 852 feet in 59 seconds. But the wind had its revenge. Shortly after Wilbur landed, a sudden gust caught the plane and cartwheeled it across the dunes, causing major damage and ending their experiments for that year. It was only an interruption, however. In less than five years, in September 1908, Wilbur would stay aloft for more than an hour and a half and would cover a distance of 61 miles, a world record. Two weeks later, in Le Mans, France, with a passenger in tow, he flew for 65 minutes. That was enough for the French government: they ordered 50 of the biplanes. (At the same time, Orville was conducting a similar test flight for the United States at Fort Myer, Virginia. That flight ended tragically when the plane failed. Orville was badly injured and his passenger, Army Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge, was killed.)