Hands-on Activity: You Are There... First Flight

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

The HL-10 lifting body aircraft landing at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, California.
Students research the first flight
Copyright © Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/HL-10_First_Flight_Landing_-_GPN-2000-000086.jpg


Students learn about archives and primary sources as they research original historical documents. While preparing an imaginative first-person account as if witnessing an historical event, they learn to appreciate the value of the first-person, eye-witness account and understand its limitations. Note: The literacy activities for the Mechanics unit are based on physical themes that have broad application to our experience in the world — concepts of rhythm, balance, spin, gravity, levity, inertia, momentum, friction, stress and tension.

Engineering Connection

Engineering designs and technology evolve by building on the past accomplishments of others. When designing new and improved products engineers conduct historical research to learn what other engineers and inventors have created so they can learn from their mistakes and successes, and respect their patent rights. As bicycle mechanics and designers, the Wright brothers understood the science of forces and the laws of motion. When designing their prototype gliders and aircraft, they researched technical papers describing the aeronautical theories of the 1890s.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Students apply skills in analysis, synthesis, evaluation and explanation to their writing and speaking.
  • Write and speak in the content areas using the technical vocabulary of the subject accurately.
  • Understand how engineering designs and technology evolve by building on the past accomplishments of others

More Curriculum Like This

Land! Water! Sky! Oh My!

This lesson focuses on the importance of airplanes in today's society. Students discuss their own experiences with airplanes and learn more about the role of airplanes in our world.

Middle School Lesson
Weather Forecasting

Students consider how weather forecasting plays an important part in their daily lives. They learn about the history of weather forecasting — from old weather proverbs to modern forecasting equipment — and how improvements in weather technology have saved lives by providing advance warning of natura...

Middle School Lesson
Will It Fly?

Students learn about kites and gliders and how these models can help in understanding the concept of flight. Then students move on to conduct the associated activity, during which teams design and build their own balsa wood glider models and experiment with different control surfaces, competing for ...

Middle School Lesson
Keep in Touch: Communications and Satellites

How do we communicate with each other? How do we communicate with people who are close by? How do we communicate with people who are far away? In this lesson, students explore the role of communications and how satellites help people communicate with others far away and in remote areas with nothing ...

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Many inventions and innovations have evolved using slow and methodical processes of tests and refinements. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

  • Paper and pencils
  • Access to the Internet


One hundred years ago, on December 17, 1903, on a lonely stretch of the North Carolina coast known as Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers successfully completed the first mechanically-powered human flight. Because of the risk they might not succeed, the Wrights did not invite members of the press to witness the event.

"Five hundred years from now when Americans look back at this era, the greatest accomplishment of this century will be flight," said prominent historian Douglas Brinkley of the University of New Orleans." It was the beginning of seeing Earth as a whole. ... Humankind had been trying to figure out how to be airborne since our earliest days, and here on the shores of North Carolina it had occurred."

In this activity, you will become a witness to history. You will recreate this great historical moment in the style of the classic television program, "You Are There." Broadcast live from 1953-57, this TV show reconstructed significant historical events using authentic primary sources and actual quotations. Real CBS News reporters acted as if they were witnessing the events, interviewing participants "live." The series was based on a radio program of the same name that was broadcast from 1947-50. If you prepare a radio program instead of a television program you will not have to build props, but you will have to make up for the lack of visuals by describing the action.


Archive: A place or collection containing records, documents or other materials of historical interest.

Bias: An unfair judgment; prejudice.

Perspective: A mental view or outlook; point-of-view. The ability to perceive things in terms of their relative importance.

Posterity: Future generations.

Primary source/text: "Primary sources are materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or witnesses. Examples of primary texts include eyewitness accounts, decrees, letters and diaries, newspapers and magazines, speeches, autobiographies, and treatises. Tax rolls, census data, and marriage, birth and death registers are also primary texts. In addition, historians ... [use] coins, works of art, or archaeological remains...The most important characteristics of a primary text, in other words, are that it was created at the time of the event under analysis and that it is not interpreted. It is primary and not derivative." (Source: Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 2001, 4).

Secondary source/text: Interpretation of a primary text. Secondary sources include articles, textbooks, movies, maps and statistical charts.


December 17, 2003, marked the 100-year anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight with an attempted recreation by a reverse-engineered replica of the original 1903 Flyer the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although weather conditions prevented the fragile little replica Flyer from actually taking off, the attempt conveyed the challenges the Wrights had to overcome to realize the dream of human flight.

In this activity, students present a recreation of the Wright brothers' first flight in the style of a popular 1950s CBS television program called "You Are There." The program premise was that real network correspondents reported events as if they were presenting live television news coverage of a memorable moment in history.

Divide the class into teams for various tasks: Research, scriptwriting, cast, set design, videography. The teacher acts as director.


To prepare the script for your program "First Flight," use authentic primary sources and learn about the television program, "You Are There." See the References section for student background reading and research materials.


Historians treasure primary sources, such as eyewitness accounts, because they provide a first-hand perspective on events. It is important to bear in mind, though, that an eyewitness account has its limitations. It is one person's view and may be biased. Historians prefer to have a large number of primary sources in order to crosscheck facts and get a more complete picture of events.

An eyewitness account such as Amos Root's reporting of early flights by the Wright brothers at Huffman Prairie, Ohio, is a true gem because it so successfully captures what it felt like to witness for the first time a human being take off in an airplane. We are given the privilege of living the moment along with Mr. Root (to set the dramatic stage, read his eyewitness account aloud to the class):

At first there was considerable trouble about getting the machine up in the air and the engine well up to speed. They did this by running along a single-rail track perhaps 200 feet long. It was also, in the early experiments, found advisable to run against the wind, because they could then have a greater time to practice in the air and not get so far away from the building where it was stored. Since they can come around to the starting-point, however, they can start with the wind even behind them; and with a strong wind behind it is an easy matter to make even more than a mile a minute. The operator takes his place lying flat on his face. This position offers less resistance to the wind. The engine is started and got up to speed. The machine is held until ready to start by a sort of trap to be sprung when all is ready; then with a tremendous flapping and snapping of the four-cylinder engine, the huge machine springs aloft.

When it first turned that circle, and came near the starting-point, I was right in front of it; and I said then, and I believe still, it was one of the grandest sights, if not the grandest sight, of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you — a locomotive without any wheels, we will say, but with white wings instead, we will further say — a locomotive made of aluminum. Well, now, imagine this white locomotive, with wings that spread 20 feet each way, coming right toward you with a tremendous flap of its propellers, and you will have something like what I saw. The younger brother bade me move to one side for fear it might come down suddenly; but I tell you, friends, the sensation that one feels in such a crisis is something hard to describe.

For Mr. Root's full eyewitness account, see The First Reporter, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wright/reporter.html.

Black and white photograph of a simple bi-wing aircraft with one man lying face down, head forward in the center of the open plane and a second running nearby.
Figure 1: First Flight of the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer was photographed on December 17, 1903 at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk by John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Life Saving Station, who was using the Wrights' camera. Orville is the pilot and Wilbur is running alongside. The flight, which was one of four flights made by the Wrights that day, covered 120 feet at an average speed of seven miles per hour over the ground. Wilbur made the last and longest flight of the day, staying aloft for 59 seconds. After a total flight time of 98 seconds that day, the Flyer was never taken into the air again. It is now on display at the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
Copyright © NASA, http://www.wright-brothers.org/History_Wing/History_Intro/History_Intro.htm


Prepare your First Flight script. Include in your cast of characters Orville and Wilbur Wright, of course, and perhaps John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Life Saving Station, who took the famous picture of the 1903 Flyer taking off. You will also need a "witness" who will be interviewed by your reporter and someone to play Walter Cronkite, the narrator. Unfortunately Mr. Root was not present at the Kitty Hawk flight, but his account of the Huffman Prairie flights will give you some ideas and quotations to adapt for your witness. To fill out the cast, include assistants to the Wrights and other local people. Be sure to record or videotape your program for posterity!

Troubleshooting Tips

Plan on 50 minutes to introduce the lesson concept, 50 minutes for the class to prepare the script for the "You Are There" recreation, and two 25-minute sessions for rehearsals and acting out the recreation.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Call-Out Questions: Quiz students with call-out questions during the Observing and Thinking phases, to be sure they understand the concepts of primary and secondary sources, and following the reading of Mr. Root's first-hand account, to make sure they understand why the account is of interest to historians. The students also need to understand how to adapt this account for the "You Are There" recreation of the true first flight.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Class Presentation: Evaluate students on their teamwork in successfully accomplishing the various tasks.

Post-Activity Assessment

Class Presentation: The class as a whole is responsible for the success of the final presentation of the First Flight recreation, and can be critiqued and rewarded as a group.

Discussion Questions: Ask the students, and discuss as a class:

  • What physical forces did the Wright brothers have to understand to design an airplane that could fly? (Possible answers: Gravity, drag, thrust, weight, lift, acceleration, center of mass, balance, stress and strain on materials, air resistance, laws of motion, friction, rotational motion, etc.)
  • The brothers ran a bicycle repair, design and manufacturing company. How do you think this experience and expertise might have helped them as they set out to design an airplane? (Possible answer: They used the occupation to fund their growing interest in flight. Their work and projects with bicycles, gears, bicycle motors, and balance [while riding a bicycle], were critical to their success in creating the mechanical airplane. They understood mechanics and materials, and had the skills and knowledge to fabricate and test wing and flyer designs.)
  • How might the brothers be considered to be mechanical and aeronautical engineers? (Possible answer: They used their understanding of science and math extended to machines, engineering design and flight, and applied it invent something new.)

Activity Extensions

To give a "you are there" feel to coverage of the 2003 Iraqi war, journalists were embedded with the troops. This meant they actually lived with the soldiers and witnessed the action as it occurred. Learn about this practice and discuss in class. For additional information, use the Internet to search "Positive, Negative Aspects of Embedded Journalism."

Activity Scaling

  • Assign students who are talented in the various tasks as team leaders.


Culick, F.E.C. The First Flight. Aerospace, NASA. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/aero/wright/background/first.html

First Flight. North Carolina's Outer Banks. http://www.outer-banks.com/flight/ Accessed May 4, 2004.

First Flight, Flights of Inspiration. The Franklin Institute Online, Philadelphia, PA. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://www.fi.edu/flights/first/intro.html

Jakab, Peter L. and Tom D. Crouch. The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age. National Geographic, 2003.

Tobin, James. To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. Free Press, 2003.

Wright Brothers' Flying Machine. NOVA, PBS. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wright/

The Wright Brothers, Huffman Prairie. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian. Accessed May 4, 2004. http://www.nasm.si.edu/wrightbrothers/fly/1904/huffman.cfm

Wright Brothers Papers, Paperless Archives, http://www.paperlessarchives.com/wright_brothers_papers.html, accessed May 4, 2004. (Archive of 16,100 pages of Wright Brothers papers.)

The Wright Story. Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation, http://www.first-to-fly.com/History/Wright%20Story/wright%20story.htm, accessed May 4, 2004.


Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 17, 2017