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 capabilities.

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 curiosity—ultimately an obsession—for 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 skills.

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 landings.

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 three-axis control.

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 icy waters.

New Directions

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 turns.

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.

Final Chapters

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 development.

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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