12/06/2011 06:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

Happy Aerospace Holidays: Wright Brothers Day

In my post the week before last, I mentioned Wright Brothers Day to Steve Isakowitz during our interview. When I got back from the interview and started writing my blog post, I realized that many of my readers might not be familiar with the holiday, which I thought was quite a shame.

So, to remedy that, and because holidays make life interesting, this post is all about one of December's lesser-known observances. If even one person who reads this comes away aware of the historical significance of December 17th, then I will consider myself successful in writing this.

What is Wright Brothers Day?

As I would hope everyone reading this is aware, Orville and Wilbur Wright were brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who worked for many years to create a heavier-than-air vehicle capable of powered controllable human flight. The words "powered," "controllable," and "human" are very important there. Each one had been done independently by other inventors before, but what the Wright Brothers did that was so revolutionary was to create the first vehicle that met all of those criteria.

Two earlier brothers, Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier (Mont-goal-fee-ay), had created the hot air balloon in the 1780s. This proved it was possible for humans to fly, but balloons weren't a practical way to travel because they remained at the mercy of the wind.

About 10 years before the Wrights, German inventor Otto Lilienthal discovered the principles of aerodynamic wing design and made over 2,000 flights in his gliders. However, Lilienthal was never able to put a motor on them, so his glider flights remained, in the words of Buzz Lightyear, just "falling with style."

Lilienthal died in 1896, after one of his gliders crashed, but his successes inspired others to pursue the dream of human flight. One of them was Samuel Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He developed model flying machines powered first by rubber bands and later by gasoline motors that all actually flew. But when he tried to scale up his designs to carry a person, he met with failure.

Lilienthal's gliders allowed for human, unpowered flight, with some degree of control possible if the pilot shifted his weight. Langley's "aerodromes" were capable of powered, uncrewed flight. But the reason we remember the Wright brothers is that they managed to unite all of these elements -- their Flyer was powered, controllable, and human-carrying.

After several years of tests with gliders and engines in the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wrights made their first flight on December 17, 1903. Orville, the pilot, was only airborne for 12 seconds, and only flew a distance of 120 feet (36.6 meters), but it was the beginning of true human flight.

The history and "prehistory" of aviation are incredibly fascinating, and the brief summary above hardly does any of these early pioneers justice. I would recommend the official Centennial of Flight website to anyone interested in learning more. (In general, I dislike talking about things that commemorate anniversaries once the anniversary has passed, however the fact that it is no longer 2003 in no way impairs your ability to enjoy that excellent site.)

What do you mean, it's a holiday?

Yes, it's true that we don't get December 17th off from work or school. But, it is recognized by Congress as an official "federal observance," and the president usually issues an official proclamation about the day's significance. President Obama's proclamation from last year can be viewed here.

So how do I celebrate?

The best part about "federal observances" is that you have a lot of leeway in how you celebrate them. (For instance, in this video, SpongeBob SquarePants demonstrates his own unique way of celebrating Leif Erikson Day, another federal observance.)

Most ordinary people probably won't even be aware that it's a holiday, so they won't be expecting gifts or cards from you. So, you can get away with simply wishing your friends "Happy Wright Brothers Day!" in person or by text-message and then following up with "It's the 108th anniversary of their first flight!" (I hate it when people act like anniversaries that don't end in a zero or a five don't matter.)

If you want to take things a step further and wear something aviation-related, whether that means aviator sunglasses or a bomber jacket, or just a shirt showing an airplane or spacecraft, go for it! Since the "newsboy"-style hats that we commonly associate with the brothers are now once more in fashion, you can definitely wear one of those as well, although people might not see anything special about it. (That's okay, though. What matters is that YOU know why you're wearing it.)

If the spirit moves you, you could try your hand at folding paper airplanes or making your own invention with a construction toy like Lego bricks or an Erector set -- and don't be discouraged if your results are less-than-stellar, the Wrights had setbacks, too!

But, I would say the best way to celebrate Wright Brothers day is to reflect upon their accomplishment. Read about them or other aviation pioneers, either in print or online. Watch a documentary if you want. Visit an air and space museum if you can. Look overhead at jets leaving contrails and realize for a moment how incredible it is that machine is flying -- actually FLYING.

Out of all the humans who ever lived, (3.2 million years of them, if we start our measurements with Lucy and her Australopithecine kin), only those born in the last two hundred and twenty have ever had the chance to fly, and only in the last 108 years have we had the airplane. So, on December 17th, take a moment to appreciate that, thanks to the Wrights, the sky is no longer the limit!