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Flight's 2nd Century: The Wright legacy

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ, United Press International   |   Dec. 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM   |   Comments

A weekly series of UPI articles examining the forthcoming second century of human flight, which will begin on Dec. 17, 2003, with the centennial celebration of the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Dec. 12 (UPI) -- By all accounts, the Wright brothers never should have showed the world humans really and truly could fly. In fact, 100 years ago the thought of a machine that could move through the air was the standard of impossibility.

Most noted inventors of the day -- including Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison -- had tried and failed to build a contraption capable of powered flight. Samuel Langley, head of the renowned Smithsonian Institution, had spent $50,000 of the U.S. government's money just on the launch mechanism for his decade-in-the-making test vehicle, the Great Aerodrome, and all he had to show for it was a pair of spectacular, public dunkings in the Potomac River.

The flops prompted the New York Times to editorialize on Dec. 8, 1903, that "A man-carrying airplane will eventually be built, but only if mathematicians and engineers work steadily for the next one to ten million years."

As it turned out, it did not take 10 million years. It did not even take 10 days. On Dec. 17, 1903, with no media coverage and little fanfare, two bachelor brothers whose main line of work was building bicycles in Dayton, Ohio, successfully demonstrated the world's first powered flying machine. Working in their spare time over just four-and-a-half years and spending less than $1,000 in profits from their bicycle business, Wilbur and Orville Wright opened a new chapter in human history.

Bill Gates has called the feat, "The single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing."

Wright brothers biographer Harry Combs said the achievement was on par with man's discovery of the use of fire.

The invention of the aircraft and the science of flight changed our view of distance and time, allowing nations to be crossed in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks. It changed how conflicts would be waged, altered economies, laid the foundation for a multi-billion dollar global industry and, perhaps most important, broke open psychological barriers for other creative thinkers.

In hundreds of books about the Wright Brothers, no issue is more compelling or passionately debated then how they did it. Why these two men -- these bicycle mechanics from the Midwest who never even formalized their education with a high school diploma? How did they succeed when the greatest scientific and honored scholars of their day had failed?

Author Mark Eppler takes a stab at solving the mystery and uncovers what may very well be an even greater contribution from the Wright brothers than the invention of the airplane and the science of flight. In "The Wright Way: Seven Problem-Solving Principles from the Wright Brothers," Eppler makes a powerful argument it was the process, not the machine, that is the true Wright legacy.

Eppler designates the principles Orville and Wilbur embraced and practiced to crack the unsolvable puzzle of their day. Eppler, a management consultant and self-described "student of everything Wright," said the lessons are as applicable to businesses and individuals today as they were to the airplane inventors a century ago.

Among the factors that set the Wright brothers apart from their competition was the ability to frame problems correctly and the discipline to tackle the hardest part first. Initially, the brothers divided up the challenges of powered flight into six subsets:

-- the wing design, which would provide lift for the craft;

-- the propulsion system, which was needed for thrust;

-- the power source;

-- a control mechanism to manage the inherent instability of flight;

-- a balancing system to keep the craft level during flight, and

-- piloting skills to actually fly the machine.

The tyrants of the lot, the brothers decided, were control and balance. These issues were the potential showstoppers. The Wrights were among the very few who thought so, however. Most of their cronies, including Langley as well as Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun, who spent $200,000 of his fortune building a mammoth and doomed contraption, decided power was the long pole in the tent: If you had enough of it, you could fly, they thought.

"A poorly defined objective can lead one far from the desired outcome," Eppler writes.

How the Wrights arrived at their conclusion is another example of successful problem solving. First and foremost, the brothers were passionate and disciplined learners. They were life-long students stirred by curiosity and bound by deep commitment to excellence. Eppler terms these traits "relentless preparation" and "measuring twice." What set the brothers apart, however, was their trusting and seamless bond to their partnership, a devotion to truth and a willingness to risk even their lives to achieve their common vision.

Truth did not emerge easily. It took the brothers spirited debates -- onlookers would call them arguments -- to wrest the solutions of flight from the myriad of options before them. This free-wheeling exchange of ideas, the willingness to subject every idea, every possible solution, to heated, passionate, pointed debate was possible because the Wrights respected each other and counted on their respective intellects to find the flaws, the inconsistencies, the errors in proposed solutions to technical problems.

"These conflicts generated energy that fueled their creativity," writes Eppler, adding we are living in a culture today that does not tolerate straight talk.

Instead of constructive conflict, many people are in situations where they do not trust someone else's motives. They are not intellectually prepared to defend their positions and they do not want to risk losing face, he explains.

The Wright brothers shared two other traits that helped them achieve powered flight. They both had a talent for tactile and conceptual tinkering, a characteristic that, for example, was crucial in helping Wilbur solve the problem of how to make a wing that was both flexible -- which was needed for control purposes -- and rigid, for structural integrity.

Eppler recounts the following story: One day at the bike shop, Wilbur removed an inner tube from a box and started toying with the rectangular structure. As he fiddled with the box, he realized the side-to-side motion was exactly what was needed to resolve the problem with wing and a new concept, later known as wing warping, was born.

The brothers also were able to conceptualize new and often radical ideas, and they had the courage to consider them.

The Wright Way, in Eppler's terminology, can be summed up as the following:

-- Forging, the principle of constructive conflict

-- Tackling the tyrant, the principle of worst things first

-- Fiddling, the principle of inveterate tinkering, the art of looking for connections and contrasts

-- Mind-warping, the principle of rigid flexibility and the ability to think outside the box without abandoning the box

-- Relentless preparation, the principle of forever learning

-- Measuring twice, the principle of methodical meticulousness

-- Force multiplication, the principle of equitable teamwork

The Wright brothers saw problems as opportunities and used brainpower, not horsepower, to solve them. In return, they demonstrated, dramatically and poignantly, the impossible was not beyond the reach of mankind.

--

Irene Mona Klotz covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

© 2003 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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