It is pretty easy to step into this photograph. We stand on that wind-swept beach at a respectful distance observing the two brothers and their machine. It is cold, but no one feels it. The engines are clattering away as the plane moves down the launch rail into the strong breeze. Orville is at the controls, tense, but ready. Wilbur is moving astride the right wing in restrained excitement. The aircraft lifts off and flies for 12 world-changing seconds. The photographer had been so awestruck, that he did not even know if he squeezed the shutter-bulb. That moment in time, that photo, has become our collective aviation birth certificate.
The funny part is that this flight was almost anti-climactic to what the Wrights had already accomplished. Just like gravity existed before Newton got hit on the head with an apple, the Wrights had conquered flight before their plane had even got off the ground. What distinguished the Wrights from their aeronautical predecessors is in the way they got it right.
The Wrights recognized that for an airplane to be practical it needed to be controlled in flight. The biggest problem was how to make the airplane turn. They came up with the unique idea of “wing-warping” (which is the forerunner of aileron control) to bank the plane, but a problem remained. They noticed that on their glider test flights the plane would tend to slide and not make a coordinated turn. Thinking outside the box, so to speak, they changed their previously fixed rudder to move in synch with the wing warping to resolve the problem.
Even in the 19th century, it was no secret that the lift efficiency of an aircraft’s wing was one of the keys to achieving flight. The Wrights were not satisfied with the lift calculations published by the leading aeronautical authorities of that time. This is where they took a tremendous leap of imagination. First, they recognized that a proportionally smaller wing could act in the same manner as a full-scale wing. Second, the lift efficiency on this smaller wing can be measured by placing it in a “wind tunnel” the results of which could then be designed into the full-scale airplane. What was foresight then still remains a standard in design protocol today.
Up until the Wrights came along, propeller construction and technology was geared to marine applications. The Wrights understood not only that air was a different medium than water, but also that a propeller needed to be designed in the manner of a wing airfoil to achieve efficient thrust. The Wrights produced hand-carved wooden propellers for their first powered plane that were highly efficient even by today’s standards. They also understood that the engines driving these props needed a higher power-to-weight ratio than current power plants could provide. No problem. In typical Wright fashion and with the help of the machinist in their bicycle shop, they designed and built their own engine to meet their needs.
While many aviation pioneers simply built their plane and made a one-shot attempt to fly (or die in the process), the Wrights took a more measured approach. They realized that building a flying machine was only part of the equation. Not only did the plane have to fly, but they also had to acquire the skills to fly it. Given the lack of available flight schools back then, this new set of skills had to be self-taught. Before their famous “first flight” they had completed well-over 1000 controlled glider flights. While these flights were conducted to test and develop their designs, it also gave them an opportunity to learn how to fly. In retrospect we know that the Wright Flyer was capable of flight, but piloting it was not an intuitive process. The fact that the Wrights were already experienced test pilots was a significant, but often understated contribution to the success of the first flight.
To the world they were “bicycle mechanics who invented an airplane” and “the first flyers,” but they were so much more. Through persistence, imagination, and ingenuity the Wrights identified and solved the problems that had befuddled all previous would-be aeronauts and did so without formal education or outside support. Much of their work remains fundamental to aviation 100 years later. The next time you roll down that runway and “break those surly bonds” or kick the yaw out of a turn, pay a tribute of remembrance to those two brothers who made it all possible, but remember to fly the plane first. They would have wanted it that way.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Ken Steiner prior to his retirement from the United States Aircraft Insurance Group as a Vice-President and Claims Manager. During his career, Ken investigated thousands of aircraft accidents involving small planes, crop dusters, helicopters, corporate aircraft, and airliners. He has been on-site at over 100 fatal aircraft accident investigations. He is currently an Aviation Investigative Consultant and is also a Pilot and Tactical Flight Officer for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Air Support Unit. He owns a Cessna 182 based at San Carlos and holds ATP and CFI certificates with over 5000 flying hours.