On December 17, 1903, only nine days after Langley’s second failed experiment, two Ohio men did what the War Department, Langley, the Smithsonian, and all of that government investment could not. With $2,000 of their own money and little fanfare, the Wright brothers launched the first powered heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. From dunes four miles south of Kitty Hawk, N.C., the Wrights’ Flyer flew for 59 seconds, traveled 852 feet, and ushered in the era of modern aviation.
How did the Wright brothers succeed where Langley had failed?
Langley and his band of experts were working on the wrong problem and thought more money would solve it. James Tobin in his book To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and The Great Race for Flight (2004) explained that they saw flight as a problem of power; the Wrights, as a problem of balance. That difference in perspective led to the development of two machines along very different paths: Langley’s, straight into the water and oblivion; the Wright brothers’, straight to the sky, and into history.
From the beginning of their work in aeronautics, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control. Their breakthrough was their conception of what is now called three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and maintain its balance. This method became a standard in the industry and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft.
How did they see what others couldn’t? By chance or fate, the Wright brothers had mechanical skills perfectly suited to their success in aviation, and insight that came from their years of experience in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. They understood that an unstable vehicle such as a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with practice. These were advantages that the government lacked, as did some of their fiercest competitors in the private sector, including Alexander Graham Bell.
That’s the thing about genius: It springs from the unlikeliest places.
The Wright brothers were also freed from the subsidy-induced waste that hinders many government-funded projects. Indeed, the limits on their financial resources actually helped them. They were compelled to spend wisely what little they had. As Milton Friedman once observed, few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.
Since the Wright brothers couldn’t absorb the costs of repeated flight tests, they developed a wind tunnel to test aerodynamic designs. This saved them not only money but time. From those simulations they amassed data that they used to hone their aircraft designs. It proved easier to fix a problem on paper than to do what Langley did: rebuild planes that had no chance of flying.