The Wright Brothers

Your Captain Speaking: The Wright Brothers
“More than anything else the sensation [of flight] is one of perfect peace mingled with an excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination.” — Wilbur Wright

So it was that on December 17, 1903, at 10:35 Orville Wright took off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in the Wright Flyer. A brief 12 seconds that changed the world. The Flyer would fly three more times that day… and never again. But there is much much more to the story. In this month’s Volare let’s take a brief look.

The Wright brothers did not stumble their way into history by happenstance. They were innovators, intellectuals, and students who grew up in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing but with an extensive library. Their upbringing instigated and fueled their thirst for knowledge as well as their incredible drive and motivation. Wilbur’s genius and Orville’s mechanical ingenuity propelled them, no pun intended, past the public ridicule facing every man who dared to fly and past the difficulties and setbacks they would encounter. Despite the formidable odds that each flight could kill them, these men of “exceptional ability, unyielding determination, and far-ranging intellectual interest and curiosity” were convinced “that human flight is possible and practicable.” By working together, with support from their devoted sister, Katherine, Wilbur and Orville calmly and methodically surpassed each obstacle in their path. Life-long bachelors, they lived together until Wilbur’s untimely death from typhoid in May 1912.

In the early 1900’s the American public was unconcerned with progress in aviation. There were popular songs mocking fictitious characters who failed miserably in their ridiculous attempts to fly. Attempts at powered flight conjured the image of a madman on top of a hill with a complicated spinning contraption. A bicycle craze was sweeping the nation. Henry Ford was inventing the assembly line and revolutionizing the automobile industry and transportation in general. While most people were preoccupied with the new horseless carriages Wilbur and Orville were looking skyward.

What made the Wright brothers different? Wilbur and Orville’s interest in aviation was sparked in 1878 at the age of 11 and 7, respectively, when their father, Bishop Milton Wright, gave them a toy helicopter. The Bishop believed in education and did not limit that view to formal education. Reading, observing, and experimenting were considered equally educational if not more so. Orville said, “We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity.”

Early on, the Wright’s realized that achieving flight wasn’t the issue; the real problem was sustaining flight. Furthermore, in flight, much like riding a bike, the key to sustaining movement was sustaining balance and equilibrium. Prior to their own experiments, the Wright brothers studied other attempts at flight extensively. Much of their readings came to focus on Otto Lilienthal, a German glider enthusiast who died in a glider accident. It was Lilienthal’s idea to study birds to discover the secret of flight. And it was this idea, which the brothers took to an extreme, observing and analyzing nature’s winged creatures from that point on.

From his observations of birds, Wilbur deduced a key insight: birds used their wingtips to maintain straight and level flight. Using wingtips came as a drastic change from the attempts of the day that required the pilot of a glider to shift his weight as a means of control. One evening, Wilbur used a cardboard box to demonstrate to Orville and Katherine what would become known as “wing warping” or “wing twisting”. This means of control is one of the major advancements that spurred the Wright’s past their contemporaries. The Wright’s also studied aeronautics extensively. They wouldn’t find out until deep into their own trials that much of this data, collected from flight tests by others, was horribly inaccurate. Measurements taken to be “truth” turned out to be guesses, and bad ones at that.

In 1900 the Wrights made their first glider. A year later, they used Lilienthal’s data to “improve” their design. Seeing the performance of their glider degrade substantially, the Wright’s went back to their original design and subsequently made one of their biggest innovations: a wind tunnel. Suddenly, the engineering process became controlled, quantified, methodical, and comprehensive. In a 6-foot by 16-inch wooden box, a homemade wind tunnel, the Wrights could test every shape they could think of to determine the most appropriate wing design. They made their own scale models by hammering old hacksaw blades into a desired shape and proceeded to test these shapes at all angles for several months.

Using data from their wind tunnel experiments, the Wright’s developed an improved glider. Orville then had the idea to put a hinge on the rear rudder, which up till then, had been fixed. Wilbur took the idea a step further, deciding to connect the control of the rudder with the wing warping. After two months and 1,000 glides, the Wright brothers had solved the problem of controlling a vehicle in flight. The hard part was over. All they had left was to add an engine to keep the vehicle in sustained powered flight.

In January 1903, the Wright brothers placed Charlie Taylor, their bicycle shop foreman, in charge of building an engine. Taylor produced a 4-cylinder, 152-pound, 12-horsepower motor. As Taylor worked through the engine design, Orville and Wilbur dedicated themselves to designing and building propellers.

Before the Wrights could test their airplane, Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian was ready to test his. Langley had spent $50,000 of public money in addition to $20,000 collected amongst friends, including Alexander Graham Bell. Langley’s “aerodrome” failed immediately on both attempted takeoffs. Interestingly, since 1900, the Wright’s had spent a total of just under $1,000.

By 1908, five years since their maiden flight, the Wright’s had been unable to drum up any commercial interest in their invention. Much of those five years was spent pursuing commercial avenues, improving their product and fighting to ensure patent protection for their inventions. After numerous failed attempts at generating U.S. government interest and support, the Wrights traveled to France in an effort to find someone with commercial interest in their progress.

Once in Europe, they again faced an uphill struggle convincing the public their progress could match (much less exceed) the progress made by Frenchmen like Alberto Santos-Dumont. It wasn’t until their public demonstrations in Le Mans in the fall of 1908 that the Wrights would gain widespread acclaim. The American public wasn’t aroused to attention until 1909, when upon their return from France, the Wright’s flew up and down the Hudson River and circled the Statue of Liberty. Somewhere around one million people watched Wilbur Wright and the dawn of a new era was upon us.

Orville outlived Wilbur by thirty-six years and Katherine by nineteen years living to see Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier in 1947. A swatch of muslin from the Wright Flyer was in Neil Armstrong’s pocket as he stepped on the moon on July 20, 1969. Interestingly, all three events; the first powered flight, breaking the sound barrier and the lunar landing all happened well within the span of a lifetime. One has to wonder…

Note: The above material on the Wright Brothers was taken largely from: Wikipedia, “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough and Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum archives.

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