The Sad Reason The Wright Brothers Only Flew Together Once

We pretty much take it for granted now, but there was a time when motorized flight, carrying a human being at the controls, was the stuff of dreams, until two brothers from the Midwest turned their mechanical aptitude and intellectual curiosity from building better bicycles toward conquering the skies.

Wilbur Wright was the older of the two, born in 1867, followed about four years later by Orville. The story goes that their father, Milton, returned from a trip bearing a gift: a French toy, powered by a rubber band, that flew similarly to a helicopter. The boys were entranced, intrigued, and inspired.

As Biography describes them, Wilbur was "more hyper, outgoing, serious and studious – he never forgot a fact and seemed to live in his own head." Orville, on the other hand, was "very shy, but also much happier, with a sunnier outlook on life." Despite their differences, they forged a bond in childhood that remained unbroken throughout their lives. They applied themselves to various endeavors — neither attended college; they were too busy, apparently — including a printing company and a bicycle shop, where they not only repaired but built bikes. But flight was never far from their minds.

Orville flew first, and alone

On December 17, 1903, after years of experimentation, after a coin toss over who would pilot, the Wright Flyer, with Orville at the controls, made the first heavier-than-air, motorized manned flight, says the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum — all of 12 seconds in length. Three more flights followed that day, until, during a break, the wind caught the flying machine and damaged it beyond repair. It was a telling moment, because as we all know, what goes up might very well come down again, and not always happily.

Their father, who lit the spark that became flight, certainly recognized both the brilliance and the perils of the brothers' achievements. It was clear that a flying machine with just one person aboard was only the first step. As History tells it, the Wrights' father made the brothers promise never to fly together — surely the losing both of his sons at once was an unthinkable prospect. They made one exception: a flight in 1910, near their home-town of Dayton, Ohio, which was followed by Orville piloting with their father as a passenger — Dad's one and only flight. The story is told that Milton repeatedly cried, "Higher, Orville, higher!"

Milton, of course, was right to be concerned. Orville had the dubious distinction of being involved in the first flight fatality: in 1908, a plane he was demonstrating for the military crashed, severely injuring Wright and killing his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge.