Politics & Policy

Up and Back Down

The Wright legacy

There’s an old skydiving joke, about the man in a leg cast who’s greeted by his pals. “Did you hurt yourself jumping?”


One hundred years ago today, two sons of an Ohio bishop of the United Brethren Church, and sons of the American midwest at the turn of the last century, successfully landed a heavier-than-aircraft on a particular wind-blown Atlantic dune, called Kill Devil Hill, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

That was their true feat–landing.

Anyone can fly–just jump off a cliff or a tall building or bridge, and you’ll fly for several seconds. It’s the landing that’s (often literally) the killer.

Prior to the Wright’s historical achievement, several others had flown heavier-than-aircraft, but the Wrights were the first to fly and land one under non-human power.

Man had been dreaming of flight since the times of the ancient Greeks, with the myth of Icarus. According to the legend, his father, Daedalus, and he each strapped on a pair of wings made of wax and feathers, but Icarus was too bold, and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, the crucial feathers dispersed, and he plummeted into the sea. He was one of the first to fly, but he failed to land. He wasn’t the first at that.

Leonardo da Vinci imagined helicopters, but he never actually built one, let alone took it off, or landed it. In the late 18th century, the Montgolfier brothers (it may seem like aviation pioneers are always brothers, but they’re not really) in France finally freed themselves from earth’s gravity, but it was in a lighter-than-aircraft–one that was supported in the atmosphere like a ship on the waves. It could both take off and land, but it had abysmal performance, because it was so large that its drag was great, and it couldn’t move independently of the air in which it floated. It was a slave to the winds, and could move no faster, and in no other direction, than their whims.

In the late 19th century, a number of people strove to break the bonds of the mercurial air and design vehicles that could chart their own fate through the atmosphere, but aerodynamics remained more art than science.

The federal government decided to get into the act. In the late part of the century, Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley (who was secretary of the Smithsonian–an association that caused that institution to deny the Wrights’ achievement for decades), funded by a grant from the war department, attempted to build a heavier-than-air powered craft. But he didn’t truly understand aerodynamics (particularly of how to build an efficient propeller), and thought that he could simply scale up successful small models. Just a couple of months before the Wrights’ flights in 1903, he launched an aircraft from a houseboat in the Potomac (the first aircraft carrier). Like all such other attempts, it achieved flight, flying off the deck with great aplomb, but it failed to maintain horizontal flight, and it failed particularly and spectacularly in its landing, quickly sliding into the river “like a handful of mortar,” according to observers.

Private efforts seemed a little more promising. Otto and Gustave Lilienthal (I know, I know, brothers again, but really, there’s ample evidence from the 20th century that it’s possible to design an aircraft without a sibling) made great strides in developing human gliders in the 1890s. But they never successfully put engines on them, and tragically, in 1896, Otto died as a result of injuries from a crash of one of his contraptions.

But it wasn’t in vain, because despite (or perhaps because of) his untimely end, he inspired the Wrights, then bicycle manufacturers and repairmen in Dayton, Ohio, seeking something more exciting and groundbreaking to develop than better ways of transportation on two-wheeled human-powered devices.

Modern aircraft-accident investigators know that the two most dangerous times for a powered aircraft are takeoff and landing. The vast majority of accidents occur in these flight phases, for obvious reasons–they’re when the aircraft is traveling at relatively high speed, close to the ground. Lilienthal died in landing, and the Wrights realized that the key to a safe landing was learning to control the aircraft (also necessary to make it a practical means of transportation).

In order to do so, such was the state of knowledge at the time that they had to invent (or, more accurately, reinvent) the field of aerodynamics, which remained full of misconceptions going back to Newton. They built wind tunnels to get theory to match up with reality for the efficient design of wings and propellers (which is a rotary wing), and developed their own lightweight (for the time) gasoline-powered aircraft engine. But most importantly, they took a page from Daedalus’s book, and watched to see how the birds did it.

They observed that seagulls steered themselves by changing the shape and direction of their wings, directing the air down on the right and up on the left to bank left, and vice versa. They also observed that when engaged in the critical maneuver of landing, they slowed themselves by increasing the drag on both wings, coming to a gentle stop.

They built their aircraft on the same principles, except without the feathers, and with upper and lower wings, somewhat like a box kite. They mimicked the bird by pulling on wires to warp the wings (modern aircraft use hinged surfaces, called ailerons). Pitch was controlled with a forward wing (later dubbed a “canard” by the French, who considerably advanced the Wrights’ technology early in the 20th century).

They now had an aircraft that could theoretically fly, but they needed three more ingredients. Though their engine design was revolutionary for its time, it was still underpowered, and the craft needed a strong headwind to assist in getting it into the air, which was why Kitty Hawk, with its steady on-shore winds, was chosen as the test location. They needed skill in piloting, some of which was gained in unpowered glider flights, but which ultimately could only be attained by flying the craft. Finally, they needed a lot of luck.

Just how much luck and piloting skill was required has only been discovered in the past few years, as several teams have attempted to duplicate their feat, building replicas. It turns out that their aircraft was extremely unstable, meaning that unlike most modern aircraft, it wouldn’t “fly itself”–one had to control it constantly to keep it going in the right direction. The modern teams have found the replicas almost impossible to fly, even by experienced pilots.

And here’s where luck came in (though, in choosing the location and day, they in a sense made much of their own luck). Less wind would have meant not getting off the ground. More wind, or more erratic wind, may have led to disaster. The first successful flights might not have occurred on December 17 and, if one or the other brothers had been killed, they might not have occurred at all, leaving it to someone else to relearn the same lessons and delaying the age of flight for more months or years.

But fortunately, everything went “Wright,” and they not only flew (and landed) the famous first twelve-second flight of 120 feet, but three more on the same day, showing that it wasn’t a fluke. They had demonstrated that they could both fly, and land.

There’s an old pilot’s dictum about any landing that you can walk away from being a good one.

By that standard, the brothers Wright not only had the first landings, but they had great ones, though on their fourth attempt, the aircraft flipped over. But Wilbur, the pilot, walked away from it, so it was still good. Their successful landings that day paved the way for the thousands of safe landings now performed every day by jets, many of whose wingspans are longer than that first flight, allowing millions of people to perambulate back up the jetway every year, and making our planet today a much smaller one than the one in which the Wrights were born almost a century and a half ago.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism, and Internet security. He writes about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.


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