With all the focus on the Wright brothers as the founders of modern flight, it's easy to think that they were the only ones who came close to inventing an airplane. But in reality, Wilbur and Orville Wright were experimenting at Kitty Hawk during a whirlwind of manned flight trials and errors. All across the country, different people were testing out their own ideas of a flying machine. What the Wright brothers achieved in 1903 was the first powered flight in a fully controllable aircraft that was capable of sustaining itself in the air. As you'll see, they were far from the first men to fly.
In 1799, more than 100 years before the Wright brothers did their tests at Kitty Hawk, Sir George Cayley, an English baronet, dreamed up the idea of a fixed-wing aircraft. He built the first successful glider in 1804 and carried out a number of experiments on the theories of flight.
Later, Otto Lilienthal build a manned glider that flew successfully. In fact, he was the first to show audiences that a pilot could steer a glider and keep it balanced in the air. Sadly, he died in a flying accident, but his death served to propel the Wright brothers into action.
Octave Chanute was another important pioneer of flight. In 1896, he got a group of flying enthusiasts together in the Indiana sand dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. They tested a number of gliders, including a biplane glider that became the model for the Wright brothers' first gliders. As Orville and Wilbur were getting ready to go to Kitty Hawk, testing their designs, they regularly wrote to Octave for advice.
A number of other Americans were hot on the heels of the Wright brothers. Percy Pilcher died in 1899 when his Hawk crashed just before he was ready to test his powered airplane. Edward Huffaker and George Spratt visited Kitty Hawk to test one of Octave Chanute's gliders, and they stayed on to help test gliders the Wrights designed. All across the country, brilliant inventors built and tested their flying machines. Some achieved success right on the heels of the Wright brothers. In the Midland International Airport in Texas, you can see the airplane built by blacksmith Johnny Pliska, the first man to construct and fly a plane in Texas. He began building in 1905, just two years after the Wright brothers' success at Kitty Hawk, and probably achieved flight before 1911. Pliska was also the county's first naturalized US citizen.