trial by flyer
From the start, the ground has never been very far away.
By Frank Wicks
All flight requires overcoming
the unforgiving force of gravity. It is inherently dangerous. A flying
machine requires lightweight construction, structural integrity, lift,
reliable propulsion, control surfaces, and piloting skills, along with
acceptable weather and navigating conditions. A great body of envisioning,
design, analysis, accidents, investigations, and lessons learned have
served as way points along the path to the amazing safety of modern aviation.
Daedalus, in the 3,400-year-old Greek legend, designed wings of feathers
and wax so he and his son, Icarus, could escape from the island of Crete.
Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted his wings. He plunged to
his death in the sea, an inexperienced pilot exceeding the aircraft's
The next millennia brought many stories of human flight. Claimed successes
include human-carrying kites in China and the canvas hang glider of the
Moorish inventor Armen Firman in the year 852 A.D. Some of the legends
are clearly fables, while others are credible. The technology existed
to build such machines.
|Kitty Hawk winds sometimes helped.
Sometimes, they hindered, as this early Wright glider tossed from
its moorings onto the Hill of the Wreck, shows.
The German engineer Otto Lilienthal, with his bird-like hang glider,
was the first aviator to be photographed. He achieved international fame
as images and articles recording his 2,500 flights were widely distributed
in books and journals. The Scottish engineer Percy Pilcher met Lilienthal
and made several flights under his tutelage.
Lilienthal asserted that to design a flying machine is nothing, to build
one is something, but to fly is everything. "Sacrifices must be made,"
was his response to those who feared for his safety. It became his epitaph.
A gust of wind caused a stall and fatal fall in August 1896. Percy Pilcher
died three years later when the tail of his glider failed. Lilienthal
and Pilcher planned to use their gliders as steps toward powered flight.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the renowned railroad and bridge engineer
Octave Chanute and the Smithsonian Institution's secretary, Samuel Pierpont
Langley, had other approaches. Chanute was experimenting with a biplane
hang glider that used the structural principles of the bridge truss that
he had invented, and he was mentoring other serious experimenters.
Langley skipped the glider phase. He had started with rubber band-powered
models, and in 1896 he flew a steam-powered model a distance of 3,300
feet. Shortly after the Spanish-American War started in Cuba in 1898,
the War Department, with the backing of President William McKinley, provided
Langley with $50,000 to develop a man-carrying flying machine for surveillance.
Newcomers from Dayton
The progress and deaths of Lilienthal and Pilcher and the experiments
of Chanute and Langley became matters of increasing curiosityultimately
an obsessionfor Wilbur and Orville Wright in their bicycle shop
in Dayton, Ohio.
Wilbur had suffered a decade of despondency after being hit in the face
with a lacrosse racket. It had prevented him from graduating from high
school and attending Yale. Orville had been trying to get Wilbur into
activities that would lift his spirits.
Wilbur appears to have been the more scientific brother, while the younger
Orville was the more gifted craftsman. In 1899, Wilbur concluded that
birds retain their lateral equilibrium not by shifting of weight as with
the Lilienthal, Pilcher, and Chanute gliders, but with a subtle twist
of their wingtips. This insight appears to be the spark that led to the
brothers' powered flights at Kitty Hawk just four years later.
|Langley's Great Aerodrome carries
Manly off its launching platform and on into the Potomac.
Wilbur first wrote the Smithsonian, requesting papers and books. He received
reports of Langley's experiments and Chanute's 1894 book, Progress in
Flying Machines. The brothers were surprised to realize a huge body of
literature existed. Famous scientists and inventors, such as Leonardo
da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Hiram Maxim, had taken
an interest in flight, with limited success.
Wilbur subsequently wrote a letter of introduction to Octave Chanute on
May 13, 1900. He explained his belief that human flight was possible,
and expected it would soon cost him an increased amount of money if not
his life. Chanute agreed that control should be by changing the center
of lift rather than weight lifting. However, Chanute thought the process
should be automated, while Wilbur and Orville anticipated developing piloting
It was the start of a decade of correspondence and friendship. The 400
letters describe theories, practice, suggestions, achievements, encouragement,
visits, triumphs, tragedy, patents, disagreements, and litigation.
Triumph in Obscurity
The Wrights understood that their experiments had defined risks and hidden
dangers. There could be no success without survival. They would proceed
one step at a time, perform rigid inspections, and stay near the ground.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina at Kitty Hawk promised favorable winds.
The sand dunes allowed sustained glides close to the ground with soft
In 1900, the brothers experimented with kites. In 1901, they went aloft
in tethered gliders and were disappointed in the results. In 1902, they
performed several hundred glider flights, introduced three-axis control
for coordinated turns, and developed their piloting skills.
Back in Dayton, they built a wind tunnel, determined a better wing shape,
made a marginally adequate engine to drive two remarkably efficient counter-rotating
propellers via chains and sprockets, and applied for a patent on their
The aviation news in 1903 was the spectacular failures of Langley's
aerodrome as it plunged into the Potomac River on October 7 and again
on December 8. Langley had recruited a talented Cornell graduate named
Charles Manly, who had developed a remarkable 52-horsepower engine. The
Wright engine had 12 hp.
Manly was piloting the Langley machine. He had no prior airborne experiences,
and barely survived the water landings. A ground landing probably would
have been fatal. In aviation, there can be a small difference between
success and spectacular failure. Langley came close to success, but his
credibility was destroyed.
Wilbur Wright had written after the discouraging results in 1901 that
man would not fly for a thousand years. After the Langley failures, the
editors of The New York Times took an even dimmer view. After consulting
with their experts, they predicted that a flying machine would take a
collective million years of effort by mathematicians and mechanicians.
The flights of Dec. 17, 1903, by the Wrights at Kitty Hawk happened just
nine days after Langley's last failure. The event was unreported
and mostly unnoticed. What the public knew was that $50,000 of their tax
money had been wasted by Langley's fiasco. It would be almost another
five years before powered flight would be demonstrated to the skeptical
press and public.
New Phase and Actors
Aviation would slowly change from being a shared scientific challenge
to being a fierce competition for personal fame and fortune. Then it would
change rapidly. There would be spectacular demonstrations followed by
tragedies. Wilbur and Orville Wright would go from obscurity to international
sensations, then be held in contempt as obstructers of progress, and finally
be acclaimed as the heroes who taught the world to fly.
The Wrights knew they had succeeded where others had failed. The Army
had defined a mission for Langley's flying machine. The Army should pay
the Wrights for a machine that worked, but the taxpayer money that appeared
to have been wasted on Langley's failures made it difficult politically.
The brothers decided that their best strategy was to continue experiments
back in Dayton while soliciting a government contract. In 1904 and 1905,
they logged another 160 powered flights, while avoiding public attention.
Their 1905 proposal to the War Department was rejected. The French government
showed more interest, but considered the Wrights' price of $200,000 for
an initial machine to be a bit too high; French experimenters seemed to
be on the verge of success.
|Otto Lilienthal pilots his hang glider, a contraption
that would eventually kill him.
The Wrights stopped flying at the end of the 1905 season, despite Chanute's
advice to keep on experimenting. U.S. Patent No. 821,393 was based on
their 1902 glider. It was filed in March 1903, while they were building
their engine, and issued in May 1906. It confirmed the uniqueness of the
three-axis control that they considered vital for turns and stable flight.
The patent further strengthened the brothers' confidence and resolve.
On Nov. 14, 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont performed the world's first publicly
witnessed powered flight in Paris. He went 60 meters in a clumsy machine.
Newspapers proclaimed Santos-Dumont to be the first to fly. They were
unaware of the Wrights.
The next challenge to the Wrights came from the renowned scientist and
inventor Alexander Graham Bell. His Aerial Experiment Association was
formed at Bell's summer estate in Nova Scotia in October 1907.
The AEA charter was to demonstrate aerial locomotion using the tetrahedral
kite principle. Named assistants were motor expert Glenn Curtiss, Toronto
engineers Casey Baldwin and John McCurdy, and U.S. Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge.
Bell was a friend of Octave Chanute. He knew about the Wrights' successes,
but not the details of their flying machine. He had invented the telephone
in 1876, but often asserted he was more interested in flight. He had been
experimenting with large kites for 15 years, and had used the occasion
of a wedding to demonstrate their lifting power. A guest holding the tether
had become airborne. Unlike the telephone, this was a hobby he could share
with his deaf wife, Mabel. She offered to fund AEA powered flight experiments
up to an amount of $20,000.
Bell's plan was to place a motor on a kite. The best source of light and
powerful engines was the motorcycle maker Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport,
N.Y. Curtiss had been pleasantly surprised in 1904 when a circus performer
named Captain Tom Baldwin had ordered a two-cylinder motorcycle engine
for his dirigible. In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt and members of Congress
watched an airship powered by a Curtiss engine circle the Washington Monument
and the Capitol and then land on the White House lawn.
Bell invited Curtiss to visit him in Washington in January 1907 and ordered
a four-cylinder engine for his kite experiments.
Meanwhile, Bell had received a call from Selfridge, a young West Point
graduate who had been studying flight and believed the military would
soon take it seriously. Bell invited Selfridge to Nova Scotia to see his
kites and to meet Mabel. The Bells took a liking to the earnest and personable
young officer, and welcomed him like a member of the family.
Bell asked his friend President Roosevelt to allow Selfridge to join him
as an official aviation observer. Bell's newest kite had a span of 42
feet and weighed 200 pounds. It had a lattice of 3,393 tetrahedral cells
made of silk.
In December 1907, Selfridge would experience the excitement of flight
and the agony of a bad landing. Bell had him attached to the kite and
towed by a steamboat to heights of 168 feet for seven minutes off the
coast of Nova Scotia. A wind shift caused a loss of control and descent.
The fragile kite was torn apart. Selfridge had to be rescued from the
The giant kite that Bell had planned to power would have been a technological
dead end. The tetrahedral cells resulted in a bad lift-to-drag ratio.
The destruction of the kite provided the opportunity for new ideas.
The AEA moved to the Curtiss motorcycle shop in Hammondsport. Curtiss
used an iceboat to test engines and propellers. Selfridge designed the
first flying machine. It used red silk for fabric, and was called the
Red Wing. It had single-axis pitch control. It made a short flight off
the Keuka Lake ice on March 12, 1908, with Casey Baldwin at the controls.
The group's next machine was called the White Wing. It had two-axis control
and wheels. Bell suggested mounting moving surfaces between the fixed
biplane wings. These balance planes, or ailerons, provided an alternative
to the Wrights' wing warping. The White Wing was first flown by Casey
Baldwin on May 18.
|The Aerial Experiment Association
(l to r): Casey Baldwin, J.A.D. McCurdy, Glenn Curtiss, Alexander
Graham Bell, Lt. Tom Selfridge, Augustus Post.
The next day Lt. Selfridge made his first flight. An observer claimed
that Selfridge flew as gracefully as a bird. Curtiss celebrated his 30th
birthday on May 21 with his first flight for a distance of 1,000 feet.
The next person to try was Doug McCurdy, who had been on crutches since
taking a spill on a Curtiss motorcycle. This time, McCurdy struck a wing
on the ground and flipped over. He survived, but the White Wing was destroyed.
Curtiss rapidly built a new machine called the June Bug. On July 4, 1908,
with a festive holiday crowd in attendance, he made a flight of one kilometer
to win the Scientific American Trophy. This award ignored the Wrights'
several flights of greater distance, including a 24-mile flight three
years earlier. The sudden fame of Curtiss was a price that the Wrights
were paying for their secrecy.
The Army Signal Corps was interested in both lighter- and heavier-than-air
flight. Selfridge designed an improved propeller for Tom Baldwin's latest
dirigible. In August 1908, it was tested at Fort Myer, which is across
the Potomac from Washington. Selfridge and Curtiss made several test flights
with Baldwin. Selfridge also served on the official test board.
The press started questioning whether the Wrights had really flown. "Are
They Fliers or Liars?" screamed one headline. After years of stubborn
resolve and frustration, the Wrights suddenly had two opportunities in
1908. A wealthy Frenchman offered a contract to manufacture in Europe
subject to public demonstrations. They also received a contract from the
U.S. Army Signal Corps. It was conditional upon flying 40 miles per hour,
carrying two persons, and being transportable by a mule-drawn wagon.
Redemption and Tragedy
The Wrights had not flown for three years. They rapidly prepared two machines,
and separated for the first time. Wilbur traveled to France, where in
August he dazzled huge crowds with his graceful maneuvers and endurance.
He was suddenly a hero in France and celebrated throughout Europe. Wilbur
wrote that his new worry was that people thought he could do anything.
Meanwhile, Orville was preparing to demonstrate at Fort Myer. Once again,
Lt. Selfridge was a member of the official test board. By September 9,
the press was reporting that Orville was making solo flights exceeding
one-hour duration. He was then asked to take passengers. Thomas Selfridge
was to be the passenger on September 17.
|The Wrights were prudent pilots.
Above, Wilbur conducts a preflight check in France.
Selfridge planned on traveling to Missouri the next day for further airship
demonstrations with Tom Baldwin. He was eager to experience flight in
the mysterious Wright Flyer before leaving. Orville was uncomfortable.
Selfridge was a member of the Bell and Curtiss competition and now was
a judge. Selfridge was also asking questions and trying to get information
that Orville considered proprietary.
|Both Wright brothers knew the
high cost of miscalculation (above), even before the tragic flight
that injured Orville and killed Selfridge.
The extra weight would require additional load on the remarkably efficient
propellers. They were long and slender, crafted of laminated wood. Two
new and slightly longer 9-foot-diameter propellers were installed. Orville
made four graceful circles around the parade grounds at 150 feet, while
Selfridge smiled and waved to the gathered crowd of 2,500 people. Suddenly.
the left propeller split. There was a thump followed by vibration, loss
of control, and a dive to the ground.
Orville suffered broken bones and an injured back.
Selfridge died at age 26 of a fractured skull. The Army's aviation expert
and only pilot was also first to die in a powered flying machine. He was
buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery in a plot near the accident site.
Orville was slowly recovering when the Wrights received the upsetting
news that Bell had been allowed to examine their damaged machine. Bell
and the AEA subsequently filed their own patent. The named inventors were
Bell, Baldwin, McCurdy, Curtiss, and the estate of Selfridge. It was filed
in 1909 and issued in 1911. U.S. Patent No. 1,011,106 describes a machine
similar to Curtiss's June Bug. It has three-axis control like the patented
Wright Flyer, but improvements that included balance planes rather than
wing warping for control around the roll axis.
The Wrights were invited and declined to race in Rheims, France, in 1909.
Curtiss was invited and accepted. The Wrights claimed patent infringement
and sued to stop Curtiss from flying. The Curtiss people suggested that
if you jumped in the air and waved your arms, the Wrights would sue. Curtiss
was allowed to fly after posting a bond.
Curtiss built an improved June Bug. On a race track course, he triumphed
over the emerging aviators of Europe, such as Louis Bleriot. Curtiss demonstrated
amazing piloting skills and new techniques. He slowed for turns by climbing
to convert kinetic energy into potential energy, and then converted the
potential energy back to kinetic energy and speed when coming out the
Glenn Curtiss was acclaimed as the new great American aviator in Europe
in 1909. Wilbur Wright, who had been the 1908 hero, was scorned as an
obstructer of progress.
Progress and More Tragedies
While Selfridge was the first fatality, the rapid growth of aviation led
to many more tragedies. The Wright machine was difficult to fly. The Wrights
started an exhibition team that performed for large and enthusiastic crowds,
but five of the nine aviators on their payroll died in crashes. The brothers
established a flying school at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, where many
notable military and civilian pilots received their first training.
The brothers built a full-scale model with seat and control levers. Motors
and cables pitched and rolled the pilot in response to lever motion. The
Wrights had made an early version of the famous flight simulator that
was patented by Edwin Link in 1931, which was first used in amusement
parks and then for World War II pilot training.
One flying student was a nearly deaf and venturesome ex-football player
named Cal Rodgers. In 1911, he became first to fly from coast to coast.
Rodgers survived at least 15 bad landings. Replacement parts and repairs
were supplied by a following train. Five months after completing the trip,
Rodgers was flying over the beach at Pasadena when he plunged to his death
in the Pacific Ocean.
The Wright Flyer, with wing warping and chains driving two pusher propellers,
was no longer a platform for progress. Curtiss had taken the technical
lead with his 1908 June Bug, and pioneered flight off water and landings
on ships. Charles Manly, who had been Langley's outstanding engine
designer, joined Curtiss.
The Curtiss Jenny was the first mass-produced airplane, with 6,000 turned
out between 1915 and 1918. It cost $5,500. It had a 90-hp engine and a
propeller at the front to pull rather than to push. It was used for flight
training during World War I, for the first airmail service, and by the
flamboyant barnstorming pilots of the 1920s.
Glenn Curtiss had been born in 1878. After his father died, Curtiss and
a deaf sister were raised by his mother and grandmother. His education
ended in the eighth grade. The family moved 80 miles from Hammondsport
to Rochester so his sister could receive special schooling. Curtiss got
a job processing film at Eastman Kodak and moonlighted by delivering telegrams
by bicycle. This led rapidly to bicycle racing, making bicycles, and then
making motorcycles for racing and sale.
Aviation became a natural but unexpected extension of these earlier experiences.
At the age of 40, Curtiss decided that further advances in aviation would
require college-level engineering skills. He redirected his enthusiasms
and energy to designing boats and camping trailers and to real estate
Curtiss died of an embolism at the age of 52. He is buried near the meadow
in Hammondsport, where he and Selfridge made their first powered flights.
|Glenn Curtiss flies the June Bug
on Independence Day, 1908. Less than four months earlier, in March,
the Red Wing flew over Keuka Lake.
Samuel Langley had once been recognized as his country's greatest scientist.
When he died of a stroke in 1906, he was remembered more for his spectacular
failures. Smithsonian officials, wanting to redeem Langley's reputation,
lent Curtiss the failed 1903 Langley machine. Curtiss rebuilt it, made
some modifications, including the addition of pontoons, and in 1914 made
a short flight from Keuka Lake.
The Smithsonian proceeded to display the 1903 Langley machine as the first
one capable of powered flight.
Orville's last personal achievement was to negotiate with the Smithsonian
for the removal of the Langley machine in exchange for the 1903 Wright
Flyer. On the 45th anniversary of its first flight, the Wright Flyer went
on permanent display on Dec. 17, 1948. Orville had died a year earlier.
Wilbur had died in 1912 at the age of 45.
Flying Machines Go to War
When World War I started in Europe in 1914, the importance of military
aviation that had been predicted by Lt. Selfridge was confirmed. Large
airships were deployed. Heavier-than-air flying machines were dropping
bombs and engaging in air-to-air combat. A new pilot-training airfield
outside of Detroit was named in Selfridge's honor. While the Curtiss
Jenny became the primary pilot trainer, the warring European countries
made all the combat planes.
Theodore Roosevelt had been president from 1901 to 1909, the birth years
of powered flight. He had personally intervened with the Army to provide
Lt. Selfridge the opportunity to become a military aviation expert. Roosevelt
was anxious to fly with Orville Wright during the 1908 trials at Fort
Myer. Orville judged the winds to be unfavorable, and the ill-fated flight
with Selfridge occurred a few days later. If the winds had been calmer
that day, President Teddy Roosevelt, rather than Lt. Thomas Selfridge,
might have been the first fatality of powered flight.
Roosevelt thrived on action. He considered military service a model for
leadership and also made it a family tradition. In 1898, he had resigned
as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and recruited the Rough Riders from
the membership of his Knickerbocker Club. They achieved fame at San Juan
Hill. His four sons continued the martial tradition.
All four Roosevelt sons saw action during World War I. Quentin, the youngest,
had been the darling of the nation while growing up in the White House.
Quentin had been a mechanically inclined teenager who liked to work on
cars and motorcycles, and also showed promise as a writer. He left Harvard
as a sophomore to volunteer for the new Army Air Service.
Lt. Quentin Roosevelt died at the age of 20 on July 14, 1918. He was engaged
in air-to-air combat when his French Nieuport was shot down over Germany.
That life and death are parts of the same great journey was the consoling
thought that his father shared with the stunned nation. The grieving father
died a few months later.
Frank Wicks, a professor of mechanical engineering
at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and a frequent contributor to this
magazine, is a pilot of gliders and powered aircraft.
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