Wright Expert IntervieW

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ick Engler is an author, a pilot, and craftsman. He has written over fifty books, has taught wood technology at the University of Cincinnati and aviation history at Sinclair University. He works with young people to build historic aircraft and has devised several educational STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs around these adventures in pioneer aeronautics, including our Secret of Flight school tours. These activities have earned him several commendations from the State of Ohio and a national award for innovation in education from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Nick has also appeared in several documentaries on the Wright brothers and pioneer aviation, including two-hour PBS special, The Wright Brothers: A Journey of Invention. "I'm not an historian although I play one on TV," he explains. "What I am is an experimental archaeologist."

Experimental archaeology is a branch of archaeology that studies historic and prehistoric events by recreating them. "The best known examples are scholars who 'knap' flint, exploring how primitive peoples made stone tools. I've applied this same concept to industrial archaeology," he says, referring to another discipline which studies the origins of technology. "We built and flew the Wright brothers experimental airplanes all the aircraft they made between 1899 and 1905 to experience for ourselves the scientific, engineering, and piloting problems that the Wright brothers faced." His team of experimental archaeologists (who call themselves the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company) became the first group to reproduce all of the Wright brothers experimental aircraft since the Wrights themselves.

"We don't just study aviation history," says Nick. "We live it."


Interview Questions (so far)

Nick Engler is a member of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and was Director and Chief Builder during the time we were building and flying the Wright's experimental airplanes. He has committed to help grow this page, lengthening the interview as he gets more questions. If you have questions for him, contact us.

How has the airplane changed the world?

There must be a popular lesson plan somewhere with this question in it because I get it all the time. And I have to say – with all due respect to the person who wrote it – this is an awful question. There are two reasons I say this. First, it's much too broad to have a worthwhile answer. You ask general questions, you get general answers – better known as "fluff." The purpose of an interview is to ask insightful questions, questions that provoke a creative, revealing answer. To make up insightful questions, you must have some insight yourself. That is, you have to understand something about the subject. A much better lesson plan would have been to tell you to read one of the many overviews of aviation history there are on the web. That will clue you in on how the airplane changed the world. Then ask some questions about the effects of aviation that peak your curiosity and get some answers that interest you. That geezer who wrote the lesson plan – you probably wouldn't be caught dead listening to the kind of music he likes, would you? Why parrot his questions?

The second reason is that this question makes a presumption about technology that just isn't so. It presumes that a single technology – airplanes – causes a change that you can define. This is called "linear thought." You line up your causes and effects in nice, neat little lines and say, "This is what happened." It's an absolutely miserable and boring way to think about technology or history or anything else. The way in which technology effects the world is much messier, more interesting, and full of surprises. A single change comes from a thousand different sources and it can become the source of a thousand further changes, many of which we can't possibly foresee. Let me give you two examples.

Home remedies and folk medicine made it possible for the Wright brothers to fly. It's true. When petroleum was first discovered in the 1850s, it was refined to make lamp oil. Gasoline was a worthless by-product of the refining process. Snake-oil salesmen hauled it away and passed it off as a liniment to be rubbed on sore muscles and other afflictions. Soon it was commonly available as such in apothecaries (early drug stores) and general stores. In about twenty years, Nikolaus Otto and several other inventors noticed it made a much better fuel than it did a liniment. If he hadn't had easy access to gasoline, if the oil men had just thrown it away, gasoline engines might have been a long time coming. But of course they weren't; gasoline engines had been developing for about thirty years when the Wright brothers discovered that they needed one and a couple of gallons of gas to run it.

Airplanes have made Central America a big player in the flower trade. Do you realize that most carnations (and many other flowers) that are for sale in the United States are flown here daily from growers in Central American countries? Airplanes are commonly used to deliver flowers, seafood, transplant organs, and many other commodities that have to get where they are going in a hurry. So the correct answer to "How has the airplane changed the world?" is that "It has enabled me to send my grandmother flowers from Costa Rica." Of course, there are are a thousand other answers that are just as correct – and just as surprising.

Dr. Jones' Gasoline Liniment was good for "All Bodily  Pains," including rheumatism, bunions, and toothache, just to name a few.

The flower industry in Costa Rica employs over 6000 people – thanks to the airplane, in part.

Really, How has the airplane changed the world?

Okay, okay. The answer that your teacher probably wants is that there isn't a single human endeavor that hasn't been affected by aviation. It has changed the way we travel, how we distribute food and goods, how we respond to emergencies, how we interact with people in other countries, how we wage war, and how we enjoy peace. Most importantly, it has changed how we view the world – and ultimately, ourselves. Before aviation, even the best maps showed our earth with lines and boundaries separating the people in one country from people in another. After aviation, men and women could see the world from above. The artificial boundaries disappeared; the earth looked continuous; the people felt more connected. Even natural barriers such as oceans and mountains began to mean less starting in 1909 when Louis Bleriot flew his little rag-and-stick aircraft across the English channel from France to England.

Which brings me back to the point I was trying to make with my story about flowers from Costa Rica. It's all connected; life is a web, both frightening and wonderful in it's complexity. Yes, the Costa Rica answer is smart-alecky (which is part of the reason I like it), but if you're going to use it, you might also include this: The airplane is just one thing that made it possible for Central America to sell flowers in the United States. There were also improvements in agriculture and botany, political developments that reduced trade barriers and promoted a global economy, and new methods of communications that allowed florists to manage the world-wide distribution of flowers. It wasn't just the airplane.

Take a look at the Timeline I helped prepare for this section of the web site. The column titled The Bigger Picture shows there were many other things going on in the world while the Wright brothers worked to invent the airplane and these things affected them. It was the same for those events and advances that happened after the Wrights perfected a practical flying machine. Take any one thing that you think has changed because of the airplane and take a good look at how that change came about. You will no doubt find that the change was caused by a bunch of things and the airplane was just one of them.

Lord Northcliffe, the owner and editor-in-chief of The Daily Mail of London, England, shown here in the front seat of his automobile in 1903, was among the first to recognize the significance of aviation and the changes it would bring. In 1908, he wrote to Winston Churchill, then a member of Parliament, "A man with a heavier-than-air machine has flown. It does not matter how far he has flown. He has shown what can be done. In a year's time, mark my words, that fellow will be flying over here from France. Britain is no longer an island. Nothing so important had happened for a very long time." In 1909, Louis Bleriot flew from France to England -- to capture a prize offered by Lord Northcliffe and the Daily Mail.

How did the Wright brothers invent the airplane?

Well, first of all, the Wright brothers never claimed to have invented the airplane. I know that on this web site and in many history books they are continually referred to as the “inventors of the airplane,” but even they themselves said that they were not. If you would ask Orville and Wilbur this question, they would probably answer that Sir George Cayley was the first person to design a fixed-wing vehicle that would be moved through the air by some motive force – what we now call an airplane. In fact, the Wright brothers didn’t even claim to be the first to have flown in an airplane. In a speech he gave before the Western Society of Engineers in 1901, Wilbur Wright said that honor goes to Sir Hiram Maxim, who in 1894 made an unplanned flight of about 200 feet when the steam-powered “captured biplane” he had built to test lifting surfaces escaped the track that held it down. It wallowed about in a the air with its frightened crew for a few seconds, flying two to three feet above the ground.

The honor that the Wright brothers claimed for themselves was that they were the first to make a  sustained, controlled, powered flight. Powered flight had been attempted many times before and some people, like Hiram Maxim and Clement Ader, managed to leave the ground for a few moments, but their flights weren’t sustained. In 1896, Samuel Langely’s unmanned “aerodromes” made sustained flights – they stayed aloft as long as there was fuel to run the engines – but these flights were uncontrolled.

The Wright brothers realized that airplanes would be dangerous and useless if they could not be controlled. In order for aviation to be a practical means of transportation, you have to be able to make the aircraft go where you wanted it to go. So that’s what they invented – a control system for airplanes. The patent that they were granted in 1906, the grandfather patent of the airplane, is all about the control system. It doesn’t even mention or show an engine.

Sir George Cayley published these plans for a "governable parachute" -- a glider, really -- in 1852. This craft was flown by Cayley's footman in 1853. Cayley actually designed his first fixed-wing aircraft in 1799 and built a flying model in 1804.

So how did the Wright brothers invent the airplane control system?

“Invent” is a synonym for “solving a problem.” Scientists and engineers such as the Wright brothers are first and foremost problem solvers. And the first thing you do to solve a complex problem is some research – you see what other people have tried before you so you know what not to do. So the first thing that the Wright brothers did was read everything they could get their hands on about “mechanical flight.” They discovered that only birds and insects were successful at controlled flight. A few human beings such as Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute had controlled their gliders by shifting the body weight of the pilot, but this was hardly a practical way of controlling and airplane. Can you imagine hanging beneath a fighter or an airliner and trying to make it turn by kicking left or right? So the Wrights studied birds in flight – turkey vultures and pigeons, mostly.

What they found was that birds used aerodynamic flight controls – they moved parts of their wings and tail this way and that to deflect the airstream moving over them. This caused the birds to veer up, down, left, and right. So the next step in solving the problem was to come up with an aerodynamic flight system for airplanes. In 1899, they performed an experiment with a model glider flown as a kite to show they could used a horizontal surface – an elevator – to go up and down and they could twist or warp the wings to go right and left.

In 1900, they moved to the next part of the problem – making a manned glider with aerodynamic controls. This proved harder than they thought. After two years of trying, they still hadn’t created a glider that would support their weight in the air, let alone test their control system. So they took a detour and studied different wing shapes in a wind tunnel to see which would produce the most lift. The third glider that the built – the 1902 Wright Glider – had all the lift they needed. But when they began to test their controls, they found yet another problem. The glider would sometimes go out of control, turning one way when they wanted to go another. After much experimentation, they finally realized that they needed a vertical control surface, a rudder. When the added a movable rudder, the glider worked. The 1902 glider was the first machine ever with three-axis control – an elevator to pitch the aircraft up and down, wing-warping to roll it clockwise and counterclockwise, and a rudder to yaw it right and left. This was their invention. The patent drawings show their 1902 glider! The rest of the story – adding an engine in 1903, developing a launch system and  piloting skills in 1904, and refining the engine, the airplane, and their piloting skills in 1905 – this is what they did to make their invention practical.

Before he conducted any experiments, Wilbur read as much as he could find on bird flight. Among these was James Bell Pettigrew's Animal Locomotion, or Walking , Swimming, and Flying. Pettigrew confirmed Wilbur's suspicions that birds relied on aerodynamic controls in flight.

The Wright brother's solution to the "flying problem," as they referred to it, was 3-axis aerodynamic control. Wing warping (light blue) rolled the aircraft, the elevator (pink) pitched it up and down, and the rudder (light green) yawed it right and left. This gave the pilot control in all three dimensions.

Where would aviation be if the Wright Brothers Had Not invented the airplane?

It would most probably be right where it is today. There were two world wars between then and now, along with a host of major conflicts such as the Korean War and the Cold War. Wars (hot or cold) spur research into technology, and aviation would have quickly caught up to the timeline we know today possibly as soon as the First World War.

Consider where aviation was in 1900 and what the Wright brothers contributed, then take them out of the historical equation. Experimentation with heavier-than-aircraft took a nose-dive in Europe after the deaths of glider pilots Lilienthal (1896) and Pilcher (1899). In America, both Langley and Chanute had produced successful airplanes that might have inspired further research, but all manned airplanes up to this date had used weight-shifting for control. Can you imagine Charles Lindbergh steering the Spirit of St. Louis towards France by lurching from side to side? Or Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier hanging beneath the Bell X-1 rocket plane? Aerodynamic control was the breakthrough that opened up heavier-than-air aviation as a practical means of transportation. Only the Wright brothers were working on this problem in the early 1900s and it became their most important contribution – three-axis aerodynamic controls and the skills necessary to operate and coordinate these controls.

My guess is that with heavier-than-air aviation research stalled, lighter-than-air aerostation would have developed more rapidly, figuring heavily in World War I at its beginning. Rigid airships (such as those developed by Ferdinand von Zeppelin) would have been used extensively as heavy bombers. Germany did have a fleet of airships that raided Poland, Belgium, and England between 1914 and 1917, but we would have seen much more of this type of bombardment, probably from both sides. Smaller non-rigid dirigibles (such as those developed by Alberto Santos Dumont) might have served as light attack vessels and strafing platforms. But all of these would have proved too slow, making them easy targets for each other and ground-based artillery. Engineers would have looked for faster alternatives and would have turned to the neglected-but-promising technology of fixed-wing aircraft. They would have concentrated their research efforts here and by the end of the war (1918), we’d be seeing dogfights between airplanes with aerodynamic controls.

Artists depiction of a Zeppelin over the Parliament building in London, England during a bombing raid in 1915.

Because Zeppelins were vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire when flying lower than 5,000 feet (1.5 kilometers), they often hid in the clouds and lowered armored observation cars to direct their bombing run.

What was the Wright Flyer made of?

For the most part, it was made of wood, cloth, and metal.

 Let’s take the wood parts first. The straight wooden airframe parts and the propellers were made from spruce. This wood is very light but very strong, but it doesn’t bend well. So the bent wooden parts were made from ash. This is a slightly heavier wood than spruce and it’s just as strong, but it’s easy to bend. There was also a little bit of boxwood in the Flyer. Boxwood is an extremely heavy and dense wood that was used to make roller skates in the early 1900s. The Wrights bought boxwood roller skate wheels and machined them to make the pulleys they needed for the Flyer control system.

The metal was mostly soft steel, such as the steel automobile bodies are made from. All the fittings, fasteners, straps, gussets, and the tubing that held the propeller shafts are made from this stuff.  As you add carbon to steel, it gets harder and stronger. The 15-gauge bicycle spoke wire that was used to ring the Flyer was made from slightly harder (higher carbon content) steel. So were the gears in the engine and on the ends of the propeller shafts. When you add lots of carbon to steel, it gets hard enough to make tools. Consequently, it’s called tool steel. The crankshaft in the engine and the propeller shafts were made from tool steel. The links and rollers in the engine timing chain and the drive chains that turned the propellers were also tool steel, or close to it. The engine block was made an aluminum alloy to keep the Flyer as light as possible. Most engines in 1903 were made from cast iron, which is very heavy. Aluminum is much lighter, but not as strong. So the Wrights used an alloy that was 92% aluminum and 8% copper – the copper made the aluminum harder and stronger. There was of course some copper in the magneto and electrical wiring that generated electrical sparks in the engine, and probably some brass in the instruments – anemometer, stopwatch, and tachometer – the Wrights carried on board. Finally, there was a tiny bit of platinum in the engine. The “points” of the electrical breakers in the combustion chambers were platinum. These points created sparks to ignite the gasoline when the breakers opened. Had they been made of steel or copper, the electrical sparks would have burned and corroded the surfaces. The sparks would have grown weaker. Platinum did not corrode and the sparks remained “hot.” 

The cloth that covered the wings and control surfaces was cotton muslin woven with over 200 threads per inch. This particular muslin was very popular in the Wrights time for making women’s undergarments because it was so finely woven and soft to the touch. The Wrights needed the fine weave to keep the wing covering as airtight as possible. They probably sealed the muslin with “canvas paint,” a solution of melted paraffin wax and gasoline. After you paint the solution on the cloth, the gasoline evaporates leaving the paraffin behind to seal any spaces between the cotton fibers. The sailors and fishermen around Kitty Hawk used this to make their boat sails airtight, and it would have been readily available to the Wright brothers.

These are the castings required to make the 1903 Wright engine. The engine block and the journals that hold the crankshaft in place are cast from an aluminum alloy, 92% aluminum and 8% copper; the rest are cast iron. When complete, the engine weighed 180 pounds. If all the castings had been made from cast iron, the completed engine would have weighed over 350 pounds.

The Wrights turned pulleys for the control wires from boxwood roller skate wheels.

How has the invention of the airplane changed warfare?

The simplest answer, of course, would be for me to review all of the new and exciting forms of carnage that the airplane has made possible in the last century. The airplane enabled man to fly, and it wasn’t long before we were flying with guns, bombs, chemicals, biological agents, even propaganda leaflets meant to demoralize the enemy on the ground: “Your momma wears combat boots…” Some of these new uses for the airplane as a war machine were not only brutal, but also quite clever. For example, there was no such thing as “strafing” before airplanes – firing devastating streams of bullets at people on the ground while traveling too fast for them to effectively defend themselves. Nor was there much bombing before airplanes, and we’ve done some really creative things with that concept. Not only can we drop them from airplanes, we can put then in the noses of missiles, drop the missiles from airplanes, and fly the missiles hundreds of miles to a target with no need for the aircraft crew to pay a personal visit. As for nuclear bombs, airplanes not only provide a delivery system, they vastly increase the amount of damage inflicted by such a bomb. Turns out that a nuclear bomb will vaporize a great many more people along with their homes, pets, and gardens if you detonate it a few thousand feet above the ground, right after you push it out of an airplane.

My favorite, however, is fire bombing. You fly dozens of airplanes over a city like Dresden or Tokyo and drop hundreds of incendiary bombs that start fires faster than the firemen on the ground can put them out. As the fires grow and join together, they become a firestorm, a phenomenon that literally eats all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. The oxygen is depleted not only in the burning part of the city, but in the surrounding countryside as well, as the fire sucks in more and more air to keep itself lit. Turns out that the people and animals in and around a firestorm are asphyxiated long before they can burn to death.

If you want a quick answer, I’d say that the airplane made war more democratic. Before the airplane, most of the casualties of war were confined to the soldiers who fought them. Now everyone who lives in and around an important city, factory, or oil field shares that exciting possibility of being killed or maimed. The airplane also made war much more Biblical in its scope. We can literally rain fire from the heavens. That used to be the exclusive privilege of the Deity – see Genesis 19:24, Psalms 11:6, or 1Kings:38.

It’s ironic that Wilbur and Orville both voiced opinions shortly after they had revealed their invention that the airplane would make war impossible. Or, at the very least, impractical. I mean, when you can fly over the battlefield and see what the opposing army is up to, you can counter their every move. And they can do the same to you. So what’s the sense in doing anything? This wasn’t the Wrights’ own thought. In 1903, a popular English novelist, George Gessing, said in no uncertain terms, “The invention of the airplane will make war impossible in the future.”

Gessing’s remark was part of a wider philosophy that had quite a following in the late nineteenth century. Jules Verne, perhaps that most widely-read writer of that century, believed that the submarine and other “improved war material” would make war impossible. Nikolaus Tesla, anticipating the laser, said the “death ray” would eliminate war. Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, said the same thing of “the coming wireless era.” Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, thought a worldwide web of phone connections would necessitate a common language which would “join all the people of the Earth into one brotherhood.” And Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, said his invention would “sooner lead to peace than a thousand conflicts.”

The twentieth century proved this philosophy to be woefully naïve. New technologies did little to abate war; some – like the airplane – simply made war more terrible. A twenty-first century military historian, Martin van Creveld, hit closer to the mark in his article “War and Technology” when he wrote, “…without technology, there would probably have been no war. After all, without technology, if only in the form of sticks and stones, man’s ability to kill his own kind is extremely limited.” It was a bitter pill to swallow for many pioneer aviators who had such high hopes for aviation and the good it could do. Alberto Santos-Dumont, the first man to fly in Europe, sank into a deep despair when he saw the purposes to which the airplane was put in World War I and eventually committed suicide.

But let’s not end this answer on such a depressing note. In one remote and unlikely way, those nineteenth century inventor-philosophers may have been on to something.

Man not only took guns and bombs into the air. He also took cameras. Aeronautics and its promising offspring, astronautics, gave humanity its first look at the earth from high above, a higher and broader view than any mountaintop could afford. And what these views collectively showed was just this: There were no borders. They were imaginary and arbitrary. This had a profound psychological effect on a species who for thousands of years had been staring at and steering by maps with bold important lines drawn across the landscape separating our stuff from their stuff. The photographic evidence seemed to suggest it was all just stuff.

Only two nuclear bombs have ever been used in warfare. They were dropped on Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right), two Japanese cities. Each were dropped from B-29 Superfortress aircraft.

B-29s were also used to firebomb Tokyo and 66 additional cities in Japan. Here a B-29 drops incendiary bombs on Osaka. A single firebombing campaign over Tokyo, Operation Meetinghouse, burned 16 square miles (41 square kilometers), destroyed 267,000 buildings, and killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people. It was the deadliest bombing raid ever staged -- deadlier than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Victorian novelist George Gessing.

Alfred Nobel in his laboratory

Alberto Santos-Dumont tests the controls of his first aircraft, the 14-Bis, in Paris in 1906. The airplane was suspended from Santos-Dumont's Airship No. 14..

At no time was the shock therapy of these “views from above” more effective than on December 24, 1968 when Apollo 8 rounded the dark side of the moon and astronaut William Anders snapped a photograph that would later be called “Earthrise.” The earth hangs above the lunar landscape, a quarter million miles away. Not only are there no borders or boundaries, there is no evidence of mankind or any of his works. All of us – all three billion souls at that time – fade into a brilliant blue insignificance. The message was crystal clear. The earth is nothing more than a spaceship, slightly larger than Apollo 8, but a spaceship just the same and just as fragile. As any astronaut knows, in order for a spaceship to carry its passengers safely, they need to get along. I’m a pilot and the same thing holds for airplanes. First thing on the checklist: Get along. When your passengers are shooting at each other, they tend to put holes in the airplane.

Just when the psychological effects of this photo were beginning to settle in to our collective conscience, there came another. On July 6, 1990 the space probe Voyager I swung by Saturn and pointed its camera back towards earth, almost 4 billion miles away. Because the earth appeared so close to the sun from this vantage, there is a lens flare as the sunlight breaks into separate beams. But the earth is still visible. Just. It is less than a single pixel in the midst of a sunbeam. The digital photo was dubbed the “Pale Blue Dot” and it too conveys a clear message. Not only is the earth a spaceship, it’s a very, very tiny spaceship. There were about five and a half billion souls on Earth when the photo was taken and you can see us all for exactly who we were and still are: Interdependent. Come a little closer – close enough to read any one of a dozen headlines in any of today’s newspapers – and you can see us a little clearer: Critically interdependent with massively outsized egos.

Two world wars engulfed this pale blue dot in the twentieth century; since then we have managed to limit our warfare to “regional conflicts” for about seventy years running. And we have bound the 7,083,766,731 (as of this writing) astronauts who ride our spaceship a little closer together with successive waves of commerce, environmentalism, and viral videos. It’s not great, but it is progress. In this way, I’d like to think that one of the many, many effects the airplane has had on warfare is less of it.

And that, I think, is the best answer.

Earthrise, taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft as it orbited the moon.

The Pale Blue Dot, taken from Voyager 1 in the vicinity of Saturn, 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from Earth.

How many unsuccessful flights did the Wright brothers make before they made their first successful flight?

Because of the way in which you have phrased your question, there is no correct answer. I could reply that the Wrights made almost 2200 flights before their first successful powered flights on December 17, 1903, but many of those were highly successful gliding flights. Even those in which the glider performed poorly added to the store of aeronautical knowledge they were gathering. I could also say the the Wrights made precisely one unsuccessful attempt at powered flight on December 14, 1903 before ultimate success three days later. But that too is misleading. It gives you the impression that it took just two tries to get the airplane into the air and says nothing of the 2200 glider flights during which the brothers gleaned the skills and knowledge they needed to make a successful powered flight.

The truth is, the Wrights did not persist in spite of failure. They made thousands of test flights over a seven-year period during which they developed the airplane from a primitive glider to a practical form of transportation. Some of these flights were highly successful; others ended in near tragedy. But each test flight, even those that resulted in a crash, contributed knowledge and experience toward the achievement of their ultimate goal.

Actually, the Wrights had two goals. Between 1899 and 1905, the Wright brothers ran a research and development program to (1) create a practical flying machine and (2) develop the skills needed to navigate the machine through the air. Towards these ends, they devised an ingenious "test pilot" program to minimize risk while developing their airplane and their flying skills. This same approach is still used by NASA, the United States military, commercial airplane manufacturers, and others to develop new aircraft and the techniques necessary to operate them.

Between 1899 and 1902, the Wright were primarily concerned with creating a machine that could sustain flight while carrying the weight of a pilot. After two false starts (the 1900 and 1901 gliders) and a little over 50 test flights, they finally achieved a capable airplane with their 1902 Wright Glider. They spent September and October of 1902 in Kitty Hawk making over 1000 gliding flights and honing their piloting skills.

They returned to Kitty Hawk a year later with a powered version of their 1902 glider, the 1903 Wright Flyer I. While they were assembling it at their camp, they made another 1100 flights in the 1902 glider, continuing to develop their flying techniques. They made one failed attempt at powered flight on December 14, 1903, pitching the nose up at a steep angle on take off. This caused the Flyer to lose speed, stall and crash. The Wrights spent three days analyzing the attempted flight, using all of the information they had gleaned on their previous 2200 glider flights. On December 17 they tried again, raising the nose just a few degrees on take off. This small-but-important adjustment in piloting technique worked, and they were able to make four successful flights before a gust of wind picked up the Flyer and dashed it to pieces.

 However, the 1903 flights were much less important than history would have us believe. Had the Wrights stopped there, they never would have earned the reputation as the inventors of the airplane. The December 17 flights were just "proof of concept" experiments; they did not result in a practical flying machine. The Wrights continued their research through 1904 and 1905, refining the design for their aircraft and developing the skills they needed to navigate and land safely. By October 5, 1905, they were satisfied that they had developed a practical airplane and that they had mastered the skills need to fly it. They set out to sell both the airplane and their knowledge of piloting techniques.

The truth of the matter is that abject failure – the sort of failure that leaves you hopeless – was rare in the Wright's experience. They came close to it at the end of their 1901 flying experiments when on the way home from Kitty Hawk Wilbur told Orville, "I doubt man will fly in our lifetime, not within a thousand years." But back home in Dayton, Ohio, there was a waiting invitation to speak to the Western Society of Engineers. Somebody apparently thought their work was worthwhile and that buoyed their spirits. Before long they were back at it, testing wing shapes in a wind tunnel.

Every test flight and wind tunnel experiment taught them something valuable, although oftentimes the results were unexpected or disappointing. They were often discouraged. The time required to achieve their goals – almost seven years – was much longer than they had at first supposed. The "flying problem," as they called it, was more complex than they had first imagined. But it was not a lack of success that discouraged them. It was the difficulty of the work and the vast amounts of time and energy necessary to do it that required greater-than-average endurance, courage and confidence.

The Wright brothers made their first attempt at powered flight on December 14, 1903. They set up the Flyer at the base of a dune with the launch rail running downhill.

Wilbur, who was in the cockpit on December 14, pulled back too hard on the elevator control as the Flyer reached the end of the launch rail. The nose of the aircraft pitched up and the forward elevator acted like a brake, quickly reducing speed. The aircraft stalled, came down hard on its nose and cracked the forward skid and the elevator support.

Three days later, on December 17, 1903, the Flyer had been repaired and the Wrights once again attempted to fly. The made four successful flights, the last one lasting 59 seconds and traveling 852 feet.

Although successful, the December 17 flights were not without mishap. After the fourth flight, Wilbur cracked another skid. The damage was minor and the Wrights thought they could repair it and keep on flying. However, shortly after they carried the Flyer back to the launch rail, a gust of wind picked it up and rolled it over several times doing a great deal more damage. The Wrights decided to pack it up and go home to Dayton, Ohio.

After their second glider failed, the Wright brothers almost gave up. What made them keep working?

Three fortunate events, each one leading to another. As you know, the Wrights were thoroughly discouraged by the 1901 experiments in Kitty Hawk. On the train back to Dayton, Wilbur told Orville that he didn’t think people would fly in their lifetimes, maybe “not in a thousand years.”

First event: Within a week of returning home, there was an invitation from Will’s friend Octave Chanute to give a speech to the Western Society of Engineers, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in America at the time. Will had just published his first scientific article and he was proud of it. So he was flattered by the invitation, but at the same time he wondered whether he really had anything worthwhile to say. From his point of view, up to this time his experiments in Kitty Hawk had been disasters. He hadn’t discovered anything new; if anything, he was more mixed up now than when he started. The only thing that could be counted as progress was his suspicion that Lilienthal’s lift tables were wrong. So he decided to describe his and his brother’s experiments, and then list Lilienthal’s deficiencies as one of their conclusions.

Second event: It bothered Wilbur that he had no hard scientific data to prove Lilienthal was wrong, just a few measurements that he had made on the dunes while gliding. Before Wilbur left to give his speech, he and Orville did some quick investigations with a cardboard wind tunnel. These seemed to indicate that Wilbur would be correct in saying that Lilienthal was wrong, but the results weren’t conclusive. So when Wilbur got back, he and Orville spent months designing a wind tunnel and balances to measure and compare the lift and drag produced by an airfoil. Then they spent several more months testing over two hundred different wing shapes. The results surprised and horrified Wilbur – Lilienthal had been right. Fortunately the speech he gave had not yet been published, so Wilbur was able to edit it and soften what he had to say about Lilienthal before it went to press. (To this day, we don’t know what Wilbur said about Lilienthal when he gave the speech.)

The wind tunnel results (and the thinking they had to do to design the wind tunnel apparatus) also left Wilbur and Orville with a much better understanding of aeronautical engineering. Orville would later say that the wind tunnel experience transformed them into true scientists. Now they not only knew that Lilienthal had been right, they also knew what they had done wrong. At the conclusion of their wind tunnel experiments, they had enough data to pick an efficient wing shape and calculate how big the wing should be to support their weight in gliding flight. In other words, they had the ability to design an aircraft whose performance could be predicted mathematically. This was a huge step forward in aeronautics. But they still weren’t quite ready to commit to continuing their experiments.

1902 was the beginning of the “Keiter Affair” in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (UBC), where Wilbur and Orville’s father Milton Wright served as a bishop. Milton had always been active and influential in his church and occasionally dived head first into political battles. During these battles, Wilbur often served as his father’s wing man, occasionally writing papers or giving testimony to support his father’s position. Milliard F. Keiter had been the UBC’s publishing agent since1893. In 1901 an audit found $6800 missing from the publishing account. (This was equivalent to about $150,000 today.) Milton disagreed with other church officials as how to prosecute Keiter. Most wanted to simply dismiss him, but Milton pushed for a full-blown criminal prosecution and enlisted Wilbur to investigate Keiter. Wilbur was torn between helping his father or building another airplane.

Which brings us to the third event: In April of 1902 Octave Chanute asked Wilbur to test a glider of Chanute’s own design for him when Will and his brother next visited Kitty Hawk. Wilbur declined and said that he and Orville hadn’t yet decided what they were going to do for the 1902 flying season. Chanute sort of ignored that last part and said he would hire another guy – Augustus Herring – to fly his glider. Chanute also asked George Spratt to meet them in Kitty Hawk. (Spratt had visited the Wrights in Kitty Hawk in 1901 and they had become good friends.) In effect, what Chanute did was to organize a party in Kitty Hawk and expect the Wrights to host it. In early July Wilbur finally committed to returning to Kitty Hawk, and then he and Orville scrambled to build a new glider based on their wind tunnel data. By August, they were back on the dunes and found their new glider flew beautifully.

With the lift problem solved, they were finally able to attack the control issues they had wanted to address back in 1900. They quickly cracked the control problem and by October 8 they were testing a glider with three-axis aerodynamic controls (just as Chanute, Herring, and Spratt arrived). The 1902 Wright Glider became the basis for their patent and the rest, as you know, is history.

Octave Chanute was an accomplished engineer and one of the most active experimental scientists in aviation at the turn of the twentieth century.

The opening page to a transcript of "Some Aeronautical Experiments," the speech Wilbur gave to the Western Society of Engineers in 1901.

One the the wind tunnel balances Wilbur and Orville designed to study the lift and drag produced by different wing shapes.

From left to right seated in front of the 1902 Wright Glider at Kitty Hawk: Octave Chanute, Orville Wright, Wilbur Wright, Augustus Herring, Dan Tate, and George Spratt.

Why did Orville Wright stop flying in 1918?

It was most probably a combination of factors. Perhaps what weighed most heavily on Orville's mind was that he was tempting fate. Orville had survived dozens of crashes, beginning in 1902, any one of which could have been fatal. He was the pilot during the first fatal airplane accident in 1908 in which his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, had died. Many of the members of the Wright Company's exhibition team, people he taught to fly, died in crashes. All throughout the pioneer aviation era, Orville read or heard about pioneer aviators who died in horrific crashes. In some cases, he helped investigate those crashes and was intimately aware of the gruesome details. Any sane pilot left standing at the end of the pioneer aviation era would feel thankful that he had survived -- perhaps Orville simply decided to quit while he was ahead.

Orville was also unfamiliar (and perhaps uncomfortable) with the stick-and-rudder controls that became the standard for airplanes as the pioneer aviation era progressed. Very early in their aeronautical research, he and Wilbur had bad experiences when they attempted to fly with foot controls. Their first two gliders (1900 and 1901) had kickbars that the Wrights used to control wing-warping and these proved more trouble than they were worth. After 1901, the Wrights rigidly avoided putting foot controls in their aircraft.  The earliest stick-and-rudder control systems used a kickbar to control the rudder. Orville may have been uncomfortable with rudder kickbars and foot pedals because he associated them with past failures or because of a mental block he had developed against flying with his feet. Whatever the reason, Orville never bothered to learn to fly with what we now consider standard controls.

Finally, by 1918 Orville was uncomfortable in airplanes, period.  The injuries he suffered in his 1908 crash never fully healed and his injured back was a constant source of discomfort. He had the suspension systems in his automobiles adjusted or "reinforced"  because he was in so much pain when he drove on bumpy roads. Flying a small aircraft in turbulent air was probably torture for him. Later in life he said as much, admitting that that travel by air was especially painful.

Orville Wright with Max Rinehart 0n 14 May 1918 after making his last flight as a pilot. Orville flew a Wright Model B alongside Rinehart's DeHavilland 4 (in background).

The cockpit of a 1910 German "Otto" airplane, showing the kickbar used to control the rudder.

Orville beside his 1932 Hudson Essex with a "reinforced" suspension system.

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