On this day in 1871, Orville Wright, who created the first successful motor-equipped airplane with his big brother, Wilbur, was born. Decades later, in 1939, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commemorated Wright’s birthday by declaring 19 August National Aviation Day.

Who were the Wright Brothers?

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright were bike shop owners who became obsessed with inventing the world’s first successful flying machine. After much experimentation, the Wright Brothers designed a small motor-powered airplane that used “wing warping,” a technique modeled after the wings of a bird. The brothers successfully flew their plane off of a hill in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903, and later sold their first contract to the U.S. military in 1908. The Wright Brothers would go down in history as the “fathers of modern aviation.”

The World Wars 

While commercial aviation was slow to take off, the World Wars spawned major innovations in air travel, from planes that could drop bombs to those large enough to transport troops to far-flung destinations. 

Meanwhile, in 1925, the U.S. government passed the Contract Mail Act of 1925, which allowed private companies to bid on contracts to deliver mail across the U.S. Among the winning bidders were companies that would later become incorporated into major airlines including United Airlines, Transcontinental Air Transport, American Airways (among others). Hence, the commercial airline industry was about the take off.  

What technologies helped make commercial aviation a reality?

While the World Wars and mail delivery accelerated aircraft design and production, the public was less enthusiastic about flying. At the time, most people were too afraid, and traveling by air wasn’t a safer or faster alternative than traveling by train. 

However, by the 1950s, a number of technologies made commercial aviation appealing to travelers. Among them, innovations in radio allowed pilots to navigate bad weather. Radar technology, developed during WW 2 to detect enemy aircraft, made it possible for commercial airliners to safely share airspace and land. Pressurized air cabin technology (in which air is pumped into cabins) allowed passengers to remain comfortable as planes climbed into higher altitudes. Perhaps most revolutionary, the invention of the jet engine in 1930 gave airplanes greater thrust and propulsion, allowing them to fly at incredibly fast speeds. Today, commercial passenger planes can reach average speeds of about 575 mph, or 930 kph, making them the fastest transportation systems on earth.

How to Celebrate National Aviation Day 

There are many ways to celebrate National Aviation Day — from supporting aviation museums or saying “thank you” to aviation professionals. Learn more.

Also check out the TryEngineering lesson plan, Take Flight! In this lesson plan, teams of students explore the forces that impact flight and design, build, and test their own gliders out of simple materials.