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On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright took off in a powered airplane, flew for 12 seconds and 120 feet, then bumped down into the sand. A century later we know the date as an aviation milestone, but for that flight alone it is hard to argue that the Wrights were more successful than other inventors who had already flown farther (and crashed harder).

It took two more years for the Wrights to build and fly the world’s first truly controllable airplane. Unfortunately, until they felt sure of the sale of their perfected machine, their secretiveness invited skepticism from Scientific American and other publications of the day and left them underappreciated by their peers and the general public.

Other contenders for the “first airplane” laurels merely made short or uncontrolled flights. Clement Ader can be credited with the first powered takeoff in 1890. But his steam-powered aircraft reached an altitude of eight inches, sufficient to classify it as a flight only to his French countrymen. German-born Gustave Whitehead was adept at fabricating stories about flying in the U.S., but he never built a workable airplane. New Zealanders are proud of Richard Pearse: in March 1903 this reclusive, eccentric farmer flew his bamboo-and-canvas monoplane for about 450 feet before crashing into a gorse hedge. His example illustrates, rather painfully, the need for controllability in aerial navigation.

Control Is the Key

WILBUR WRIGHT, in a talk before the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago in September 1901, said that the greatest obstacle to a functional airplane was “the balancing and steering of the machine after it is actually in flight.” The Wrights therefore gave priority to working out a method of aerial control. They also re- alized that just as a cyclist needed to learn how to ride a bicycle, a pilot would have to learn how to fly.

The Wrights studied the work of Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer widely considered to be the world’s first pilot. LilienthaI made thousands of flights in sophisticated gliders of his own design, steering by shifting his body just as hang gliders do today. He perished after a flying accident, however, and the Wrights decided they needed a method of control more suitable. or airplanes big enough to carry a motor. They thought that if the wingtips could be warped while in flight, then the balance and the direction of the flying machine could be maintained.

In August 1899 the Wrights, taking a break from their profitable bicycle business in Dayton, Ohio, constructed a small bi-plane kite with a five-foot wingspan to test some of their theories. The kite was rigged with wires that slightly twisted the wings while aloft. An elevator, a small wing set forward of the main wing, stabilized the pitch (up-and-down motion) of the craft. Promising results encouraged them to make a scaled-up version in 1900 with a wing area of 165 square feet.

They took this kite to Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where consistently steady breezes blew off the Atlantic Ocean and the gently sloping sand dunes provided space and a soft landing. The Wrights were pleased enough with the results of their experiments to return in 1901 with an ambitiously larger glider, but they went back to Dayton puzzled by problems they had encountered with the contemporary aeronautical data. To refine their wing designs, they tested more than 60 model cross sections in a wind tunnel they built.

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From the information they gleaned came the 1902 glider, with an efficient, long, narrow wing design. They added a twin vertical tail to control yaw (side-to-side movement). The pilot lay prone in a hip cradle, and his own lateral movement pulled wires that warped the wings and controlled flight direction. At Kitty Hawk during the late summer and early fall, both brothers logged many hours of unpowered flight in this glider.

Having constructed and learned how to fly an unpowered aircraft, the Wrights then embarked on creating a more robust, motorized version. Most automobile engines being too heavy, they designed their own and built it using an aluminum-copper alloy. To find the optimal shape for propellers, they turned again to wind-tunnel testing, treating the propeller as a small revolving wing. Their design had an efficiency of almost 70 percent, just 10 percent less than modern versions. They mounted two of these propellers at the back of the aircraft rotating in opposite directions to counter effects from torque.

The Great Day

AT KILL DEVIL HILLS near Kitty Hawk on December 7, 903, the Wrights sat their Flyer 1 on the launching rail, laid on flat sand. Orville was at the controls (decided by a coin toss). They started the motor and, with Wilbur running alongside guiding the wing, the craft became airborne—briefly. If it is debatable whether the first flight of the day was a controlled flight or a hop, the fourth and last, with Wilbur at the controls, was definitive: it covered 852 feet in 59 seconds. The Wrights had flown a powered, heavier-than-air machine in free, controlled, sustained flight. Nine days later Scientific American cautiously noted: “This is a decided step in advance in aerial navigation with aeroplanes”

The Wrights were triumphant aircraft inventors. Unfortunately, they were terrible aviation businessmen. They became so concerned about losing financial control of their invention that they kept it away not only from the prying eyes of competitors but also from potential customers and those who could have helped spread word of their progress. Even after they were awarded patent number 821,393 in May 1906 (after a wait of three years), they did not believe that it offered much protection—an opinion that turned out to be justified.

Back in Dayton, at Huffman Prairie, the Wrights continued work on producing a salable flying machine. With their Flyer 2 they made more than 100 short flights, later on using a catapult to facilitate takeoff. Still, they avoided the limelight, much to the frustration of aviation enthusiasts excited by snippets of news. In June 1904, with rumors trickling in from Dayton, Scientific American complained: “Great secrecy was maintained about the test, and hut few witnessed it.” There was at least one witness, Amos Ives Root, and he wrote an article about what he had seen. He published it in his magazine, Gleanings in Bee Culture, on January 1, 1905. Root claimed that Scientific American had rejected his offer to publish the article. We have no record of why the editors might have done so, hut perhaps the style was too flowery for their taste. Here is the first sentence as it appeared in Bee Culture: “1 have a wonderful story to tell you—a story that, in some respects, out rivals the Arabian Nights fables—a story, too, with a moral that I think many of the younger ones need, and perhaps some of the older ones too if they will heed it.”

The Flyer 2 and the Flyer 3 were as difficult to control as the Kitty Hawk Flyer, and hard landings were frequent (points worth remembering by those attempting modern re-creations of the aircraft). A crash in July 1905 forced the Wrights into a radical and fortuitous reconstruction of the Flyer 3. They enlarged the control surfaces and placed them farther from the center of balance. On October 5,1905, with Wilbur at the controls, the airplane flew 24 miles in 39.5 minutes.

The Wrights had developed the world’s first truly practical airplane and clinched their status as aviation pioneers. But it was a laurel conferred by history alone, because the Wrights allowed so few people to observe—or photograph—the aircraft flying. It was not until 1990 that the Flyer 3 was designated as a National Historic Landmark, the sole airplane ever to receive that honor.

The Wrights offered to sell the airplane to, variously, the U.S. secretary of war, the

 French, the British and the Germans. But they refused to demonstrate its flight ca- pabilities without a signed sales contract. Not surprisingly, customers balked at buy ing so novel a device without seeing whether it worked. Unable to get additional information from, or about, the Wrights, Scientific American commented huffily in a January 1906 article, “It seems that these alleged experiments were made at Dayton, Ohio, a fairly large town, and that the newspapers of the United States, alert as they are, allowed these sensational performances to escape their notice.”

The French dubbed the Wrights “hluffeurs.” A German aeronautical journal called their flights “em amerikanischer bluff.” The Wrights, however, did not think their flying machine sufficiently advanced to demonstrate it yet.

Fame Slips Away

MEANWHILE, FAR AWAY from Dayton, in France, Brazilian-born Alberto Santos-Dumont made the first public demonstration of flight. He took off from a field on November 12, 1906, and flew for 722 feet. Because there was no proof to the contrary at the time, he was hailed as the first man to fly. His countrymen today still revere Santos-Dumont as the Father of Aviation. In an effort to encourage innovation in aeronautics, the Aero Club of America and this magazine offered a prize in 1907 to the first person who could take off and fly one kilometer in a straight line. The Wrights chose to pursue sales contracts and did not compete for the prize. Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Aerial Experiment Association, backed by Alexander Graham Bell, entered and won the trophy with their June Bug aircraft in a triumphal flight on July 4, 1908. Because of this feat and the prominence of Curtiss in early American aviation as a pilot and inventor, many in the U.S. believed he was the first to fly.

The Wrights waited until they were close to selling airplanes to both the U.S. Army Signal Corps and to a French syndicate before showing their aircraft publicly Starting on August 8, 1908, at a racetrack near Le Mans, France, in a Wright Model A Flyer, Wilbur astonished viewers with multiple flights of unprecedented piloting skill and technological advance, and the Wrights were hailed as heroes.

By 1909 the Wrights reached the peak of their fame. In the autumn of that year perhaps a million astounded onlookers saw Wilbur fly over New York Harbor and around the Statue of Liberty; a few days later a similarly huge crowd saw him take an aerial trip up the Hudson River. Yet the burgeoning field of aviation was rapidly overtaking the Wrights as money and talent poured into this exciting new industry. By 1911 several companies, mostly in Europe, were manufacturing aircraft that were safer, faster and more maneuverable than the Wright flyers.

When Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, Orville was left floundering against the rising tide of competition and fighting protracted patent-infringement lawsuits. By 1915 he had tired of the flying business, and he quit. But he never gave up strug gling to secure his status in the history hooks as half of the team that had worked so hard and so successfully to solve the problem of airplane flight.



Copyright @ 2003, December 2003, ( pgs. 94-97)

415 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017


A Wright Brothers Myth

A POPULAR MYTH about the Wright brothers is that ‘they were considered cranks because everyone knew that flying was impossible.” Untrue. This fiction is based on the turn-of-the-century writings of several skeptics, principally Simon Newcomb, a prominent astronomer, who noted the difficulty of scaling up the power needed for working models to full-size aircraft. The reality is that people had been flying since 1?83, thanks to the invention in France of a practical hot-air balloon by brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier. By 1903 powered balloon flights and glider soaring were commonplace, and engines were becoming lighter and producing more horsepower. Fitting the elements together was acknowledged as tricky, risky and expensive, but few people thought that airplane flying would always be “impossible.’ It was the Wrights’ secretiveness that made this magazine (and many others) skeptical about their accomplishment

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