This Saturday marks the 113th anniversary of man’s first “heavier-than-air” flight in a powered craft. On Dec 17, 1903 at 10:35am, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur standing by, the Wright Brothers made history. Their glider, called “Flyer”, lifted off and flew 120 feet in 12 seconds across the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk on the coast of North Carolina.
Today we take for granted simply getting on a large jumbo jet to get anywhere we want to go. It is possible now to fly thousands of miles around the world in just a few hours. Such a short flight, at just ten feet off the ground, does not sound so impressive. In fact, the Wright Brother’s craft was little more than a large, powered kite. Back then, however, the light bulb and the land-wire telephone were considered “high tech”.
Being able to fly like the birds had been a dream of mankind for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks tell of the story of Icarus, who tried to escape from Crete with wings fashioned from feathers and wax. The Chinese built manned kites, and a thousand years ago, the English monk Eilmer of Malmesbury flew several hundred feet in a machine he made. In the 15th century, Italian inventor Leonardo Da Vinci experimented with framed devices that looked like birds and spirals. As late as 1874, Félix du Temple flew his powered “Monoplane” from a ski-jump in France. The Wright Brothers themselves were inspired by a helicopter-like toy their father had given them as children which was based on the ideas of French inventor Alphonse Pénaud.
The brothers weren’t the first to have the idea nor was the 1903 flight their first attempt. They had been playing with the idea since 1899, constructing plans and models in the back of their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. In 1900 they flew their first unmanned glider and continued to perfect the craft for years after, building a number of flyers. In fact, their 1906 patent application was not even for an airplane at all, but for “new and useful improvements in Flying machines”.
So what makes them special? The working parts of wings and engines had been experimented with for years. What they focused on was giving the pilot control of the craft. They realized that too many inventors had been killed or injured by their own machines, so being able to actually fly it safely was very important. The concepts of wing-warping, lift, drag and three-axis control were central to their planning efforts. Control was the key.
Even after the 1903 flight, they were constantly making improvements to the efficiency and stability of the craft. Broken propellers, cracked frames, and unpredictable winds often hampered their efforts. If you have ever worked on a truck or tractor, you know that machines can be very frustrating. Time and again, the brothers had to go back to the drawing board, change plans and even scrap whole flyers which became damaged. It took persistence and plenty of patience to get it right.
Speaking before a conference of engineers in Chicago in 1901, Wilbur remarked:
“If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial."
They were careful planners but what he meant was, if you really want it to work, you have to get up there and do it yourself.
The Wright Brothers were able to perfect the control mechanisms that made sustained, powered - and most importantly, safe – fixed-wing flight possible. Their work is a testimony to American ingenuity and determination. Remarkably, this author’s great-grandmother was able to read about this flight in the newspaper as a young lady, and just 66 years later, in 1969, watch the first man land on the moon on television.
What the Wright Brothers began on that cold December day on the dunes at Kitty Hawk, little could they have foreseen, but even the sky wasn’t the limit. From humble origins, it was only the beginning of much greater things.
Written for the author’s brother Andrew C. Allen on his birthday, 17 December