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2002 Yearend: Toward a century of flight

By TOBIN BECK   |   Dec. 17, 2002 at 5:30 PM   |   Comments

(Part of UPI's Special Report reviewing 2002 and previewing 2003)

WASHINGTON (UPI) - Nearly a century ago, two brothers took turns piloting their propeller-driven Wright Flyer into the air down a windswept North Carolina hill, achieving what researchers have concluded was the first controlled flight of a powered aircraft in human history.

Nevertheless, the big question that vexed the Dayton, Ohio, brothers then and later was: Did they really invent the airplane?

"You bet they did," said Tom Crouch. "They sort of stood on the shoulders of giants, as Newton said, but they certainly were the inventors of the airplane. They were five or six years ahead of everybody else. They discovered and solved problems nobody else knew existed."

Crouch is senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington and chairman of the First Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board. The official centennial of the Wrights' feat is Dec. 17, 2003, but the Smithsonian is kicking off a year-long celebration of the event on Dec. 17, 2002.

At the time of Orville and Wilbur Wright and over the years, many others have claimed to have been first to fly an airplane.

"There always have been lots of claimants that others were first, but they all played out," Crouch said.

For as long as people have watched birds, men, women and children have dreamed of flying. Various cultures have incorporated flight into their myths, such as the Greek story of Icarus. Some tried various means of gliding, such as Armen Firman, who used a winglike cloak in Cordoba, Spain, in A.D. 852 and Abbas Ibn Firnas, who built a glider in Cordoba 25 years later. In the late 1400s in Italy, Leonardo da Vinci sketched and experimented with gliders.

By the time the 19th century was ending, men such as Otto Lilienthal in Germany, Clement Ader and Gabriel Voisin in France, Hiram Maxim in England and Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley in the United States, were working to build gliders and operational airplanes.

Ader built a steam-powered, bat-winged craft that lifted a few inches off the ground in 1890. He built a larger airplane in 1897 that crashed. Maxim built a steam-powered airplane that flew 200 feet in 1894 -- it also crashed.

A central problem remained unsolved -- how to control a flying machine in the air, how to get it to go where the operator wished without crashing.

Carroll Gray of Encino, Calif., who has spent many of his 53 years studying early flight and runs the Web site flyingmachines.org, said the Wrights succeeded because they developed a system of control.

"One thing that separates the Wrights from the others is a control system," he said. "The three axes of motion are roll, pitch and yaw. To be able to control all three simultaneously is a bit of a trick."

Both Crouch and Gray said Wilbur developed the system: a movable biplane surface at the front of the airplane to control pitch, the up-and-down movement; "wing-warping" -- a means of twisting the outer portion of the wings -- to control their tilt, or roll; and a rear rudder, coupled with the warping mechanism, to control yaw, or directing the front of the plane right or left.

Crouch said the Wrights, particularly Wilbur, showed remarkable ingenuity and insight as engineers by realizing the data from Lilienthal and other pioneering inventors were flawed.

Lilienthal died of injuries suffered in a glider crash in 1896 and Crouch said his death was the spark that rekindled an interest in flying Wilbur and Orville had felt first as children, when their father gave them a little helicopter toy.

"The death of Otto Lilienthal, which is what turned most Europeans off (working on development of flight), is what really got them going," Crouch said.

He said the brothers, and again most likely Wilbur, were looking for a challenge. Wilbur was in his mid-30s, unmarried, still living in his father's house and running a couple of small businesses with his brother, said Crouch, author of "The Bishop's Boys," a biography of the Wrights.

"He had watched his high school friends go off and get married, go to college, and I think it's pretty clear from his letters that he was looking for a challenge and a way to prove himself to himself and others," Crouch said. "It really is clear he was a brilliant mind, but hadn't had a chance to exercise it."

Wilbur saw a telegram about Lilienthal's death in August 1896, "and he always said in a funny kind of way that was the beginning," Crouch said, adding that after Lilienthal's death, as Orville had remarked, "there wasn't a day they didn't talk about the flying problem." It was another three years, however, before they got serious about it.

In 1899, the Wrights, who had a bicycle repair and manufacturing business in Dayton, wrote to the Smithsonian requesting advice for reading materials about flying machines.

"It was that reading that sparked their recognition that others had built wings, but nobody had focused on control," Crouch said.

The Wrights designed and built a biplane kite Wilbur probably flew circa October 1899, Crouch said.

The kite was designed to demonstrate a technique for exercising lateral control, which eventually became known as wing-warping, a major innovation, Crouch said.

Next the Wrights decided to build a larger glider, incorporating Lilienthal's data on what kind of wings were needed to achieve lift at a certain wind speed. Then they looked for a place to test it.

"They learned if they were going to build a glider of reasonable size, they were going to need a fairly steady headwind," Crouch said. "They wrote the Weather Bureau, and it turned out that cities like Chicago and Buffalo really are the windiest in the country. But fifth or sixth on the list was this little place that had a weather station: Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They sent a letter to the guy who ran the weather station, and the Wrights got a warm and friendly letter back."

In 1900, they brought their glider to Kitty Hawk on what they dubbed their "Scientific Vacation," he added.

There, they ran into problems.

"In 1900 and 1901, the gliders were disappointing," Crouch said. "They developed less lift and less drag than their simple calculations had shown, using data from Lilienthal and others. Lift was about 20 percent less than calculated. In the 1901 season, they began to run into control problems, too." Wing-warping was not working as well as they had hoped and they became fairly discouraged, he said.

"I think almost everybody would have given up at that point; it was obvious there were hidden problems they didn't understand," he said. "But they didn't give up."

Instead, Wilbur and Orville decided to throw out all the calculations borrowed from others and start accumulating their own experimental data from scratch.

"Lilienthal had used a 19th century engineering instrument, a whirling arm, to gather his data," Crouch said. The Wrights decided to build a small wind tunnel -- a wooden box about 9 feet long, with a fan on one end. Inside the box was a balance made of hacksaw blades and bicycle spoke wire, on which a model wing could be mounted. The wind tunnel and balance let them measure scientifically which wing angle and shape worked best.

"In the fall and winter of 1901, they not only measured wind foils, they measured the shape of the wing itself," Crouch said. "They tested wings of different camber, different aspect ratios, different tips. They got data they could take to the bank. They had a lot of confidence in their own work."

The brothers used their data to build their next glider, in 1902.

"It was right on the money the first time," Crouch said. "People have called the 1902 glider the first airplane. It was everything they had set out to do; it was controllable in the air and the wings were based on their own data; the lift and drag were right on their own calculations." At that point, he said, they were ahead of everyone.

"Nobody else had flown enough or taken enough measurements to recognize there was a problem with the data. The Wrights had explored, mapped and mastered problems none of the other explorers knew existed," he said. "These guys had to move a good deal farther on their own than most inventors -- and the problems were more complex. They were extraordinarily intuitive engineers, they had an extraordinary grasp of the intuitive process of solving problems."

The Wrights made the first powered flights a year later, at Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, using an engine they designed and built along with their friend, Charles Taylor. After a failed attempt Dec. 14, they tried again three days later. All four flights took place during an 85-minute span, from 10:35 a.m. to noon, on Dec. 17, 1903. Only the first flight, with Orville at the controls, was photographed.

Gray said the first real controlled flight was the fourth attempt, when the plane was flown by Wilbur.

"They alternated, the first flight was by Orville, then Wilbur, Orville, and the last flight was by Wilbur. The plane oscillated up and down as it flew along, and it wasn't under control (until the fourth flight)."

About halfway through the fourth flight, Gray said, Wilbur managed to damp out the oscillation and fly level.

Orville's diary, later published by the Library of Congress, contained this passage: "The machine started out with its ups and downs as it had before, but by the time he had gone over 300 or 400 feet he had it under much better control." The 59-second fourth flight is the only one the brothers measured -- 852 feet.

"On the critical question of control, which is the reason we exclude the others (who claimed to have invented the airplane), you have to throw out the previous three flights," Gray said. "The first real controlled, sustained, heavier-than-air powered flight by a human being in a machine was done by Wilbur on that fourth flight on Dec. 17, 1903."

Crouch said Wilbur made a hard landing that "dinged up the elevator" of the plane. Then, as they hauled it back to the starting point, a wind gust tumbled the airplane and wrecked it. But the brothers determined they had proven what they needed to prove and decided to return to Dayton. Over the next two years they built two new planes "and had turned marginal success into a practical airplane," Crouch said. "It was completely maneuverable."

Then, however, the Wrights virtually stopped flying -- at least for awhile.

"They were afraid somebody was going to steal their ideas," Crouch said.

They spent 1906 and 1907 mainly trying to sell airplanes, and in 1908 began making demonstration flights in the United States and France.

In August 1908 Wilbur went to France, and in September 1908 Orville demonstrated the Wright airplane to the Army just outside Washington, D.C. One of those flights resulted in the first fatality from a powered airplane in flight.

On Sept. 17, 1908, one of the two propellers broke and the Wright plane crashed at Fort Myer, Va., killing Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, who died of a skull fracture. Orville Wright suffered broken ribs, a fractured thigh and a concussion.

In the next few years, the Wrights concentrated on court fights to protect their wing-warping patent and their claim to having been first to build and fly an airplane.

"They really focused on protecting their patents in the years leading up to Wilbur's death (from typhoid, in 1912), Crouch said. "Orville was really concerned with defending their priority as inventors of the airplane. One person after another popped up and said, 'I did it first.' He spent a lot of time and energy in defending their priority in those claims."

There were no successful challenges. In 1915, Orville Wright sold the company to a group of financiers. The last of the patent fights was resolved in 1917. With entry into the Great War looming, the U.S. government encouraged a group of manufacturers to form a patent pool. Any manufacturer who joined the pool and paid a fee could use the patented process.

One part of the fight over who was first kept the pioneering 1903 Wright Flyer out of the United States for 20 years, Crouch said.

Samuel Langley had failed in a public attempt to fly his Aerodrome from a houseboat on the Potomac River just nine days before the Wrights flew. A Smithsonian official, "in a misguided attempt to honor his memory," later claimed the Langley craft had been capable of flight, Crouch said -- a claim he said "sent Orville through the overhead."

As a result, he said, Orville sent the Wright Flyer to the London Science Museum in 1928. During World War II the airplane was stored with other treasures in a mine, and Orville did not approve its return to the United States until 1948. The Wright Flyer came back in December of that year, after Orville's death in January from a series of strokes and old age.

What intrigues many of those fascinated with the history of flight is whether others would have achieved the flight control system -- and how soon -- if the Wrights had failed.

Asked that question, Leonard Opdycke of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., editor and publisher of "World War I Aero," a magazine about early flight, answered: "It wasn't that magic. There were people who were working with some success with gliders, models, even piloted airplanes. It wasn't going to be but a couple years" before someone achieved controlled flight.

Opdycke said the biggest contribution the Wrights made at the time was their emphasis on flight control, which was the reverse of pioneers such as Maxim and Ader who were trying first to get airborne no matter what and figure out control later.

Nevertheless, Gray said, the Wrights did it first, although there was a contender for the claim of being first with a wing-warping mechanism -- Edson Gallaudet, who later was credited with organizing the first airplane factory, built "a test kite kind of affair" in 1898, but did not patent the design.

No one put it all together like the Wrights.

Crouch said the Wright legacy is "they shaped the history of the 20th century" and all the events that relied on flight.

"I wouldn't get many arguments by saying, when people a millennium from now look back on our time, they will think this is the century when people broke the chains of gravity; they flew," he said.

The thrill and marvel of flight is a big reason the National Air and Space Museum is the most-visited museum in the world, hosting between 9 million and 10 million visitors per year, Crouch said.

"I think that's because to some extent it makes people feel good to come into that building," he said. "They think, 'gosh, human beings just like me did this in just a century. They learned to fly at the beginning of the century; at the end of the century they were sending their spacecraft beyond the limits of the solar system.'

"Before Orville and Wilbur, people were saying, 'If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings,'" Crouch said. "Afterward, they were saying, 'Gosh, what can't we do?' It expanded the human imagination -- it got people thinking about what's possible, to an extraordinary degree."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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