The Wright Brothers: Aerial navigation (1904)

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by Malcolm McDowell
Author of “Shop Talk on the Wonders of the Crafts

When the flying machine built by Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, made a three-mile flight at Kittyhawk, NC December 17 last, aerial navigation became a fact.

The box kite-like structure, which carried a man three good miles, was under perfect control and was not held suspended in the air by a balloon. Santos Dumont’s airships are merely steerable balloons. The aer-auto of the Wright Brothers is a genuine flying machine, depending entirely on its wings to maintain a soaring flight, on its propellers for the forward movement, and its rudder for direction.

Engineers regard the success of the Dayton aeronauts as a decided advance in air navigation and as offering a larger promise of a successful practical solution of the problems presented by aerial navigation than the accomplished feats of the Parisian balloonists.

Back of the Wright brothers’ triumph is the sequence of aeronautical experiments conducted by Herr Otto Lilienthal, who made over 2000 flights in Germany before he was killed; a young English engineer named Pilcher; Octave Chanute, at one time president of the Western Society of Engineers; and some years of efforts, failures and partial successes of Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright.

Resolved inventors

The aeronautical history of the Wright brothers is interesting; it is the record of two young men determined to solve the mysteries of mechanical flight.

The unfortunate death of Lilienthal, who was dashed to earth in one of his flights, directed the attention of Wilbur Wright to aeronautics. He began in 1896 to study and experiment, and soon his brother Orville joined him. Their preliminary tests were so satisfying that in 1900 they carried their experimental flying machines to Kittyhawk, a sandy beach on the shore of North Carolina, and it was there they demonstrated their ability not only to soar, but to manage their air craft and to a limited degree control its flight.

They had ascertained that the difficulties which obstructed the pathway to success in flying machine construction were those which related to the construction of sustaining wings; those which related to the generation and application of the power required to drive the machine through the air and those relating to the balancing and steering of the machine after it was actually in flight.

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Advances mean more opportunities

Before they began their experiments men had constructed wings or aero planes, which, when driven through the air at a sufficient speed, not only sustained the weight of the wings themselves, but also of the engine and engineer as well. Fifteen years before the lightest steam motor was the marine engine, which weighed sixty pounds to the horsepower, while the gas engine weighed more, and the locomotive weighed 200 pounds to the horsepower.

But great improvements effected radical changes, so that when the Dayton air navigators took their huge kites to test the carrying abilities of Atlantic breezes, steam motors had been made which weighed but ten pounds to the horsepower, and gas engines had been cut down to twelve and one-half to fifteen pounds to the horsepower.

The great problem which the Wright brothers undertook to solve and have solved related to the balancing and steering of the machine after it was actually in flight. In the words of Wilbur Wright, “This can come only by practice provided the proper machine is constructed.”

Be safe or innovate

In an address which Wilbur Wright, in the fall of 1901, made before the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, in which he first publicly recounted his experiments, he said:

“The person who merely watches the flight of a bird gathers the impression that the bird has nothing to think of but the flapping of its wings. As a matter of fact this is a very small part of its mental labor. To even mention all the things the bird must constantly keep in mind in order to fly securely through the air would take a considerable part of the evening. If I take this piece of paper, and after placing it parallel with the ground, quickly let it fall, it will not settle steadily down as a staid, sensible piece of paper ought to do, but it insists on contravening every recognized rule of decorum, turning over and darting hither and thither in the most erratic manner, much after the style of an untrained horse.

“Yet this is the style of steed that men must learn to manage before flying can become an everyday sport. The bird has learned this art of equilibrium and learned it so thoroughly that its skill is not apparent to our sight. We only learn to appreciate it when we try to imitate it. Now there are two ways or learning how to ride a fractious horse: One is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast awhile, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former on the whole turns out the larger proportion of good riders.

“It is very much the same in learning how to ride a flying machine. 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.”

The first flying machine built by the Wright brothers was a double-decked kite having a surface area of 165 square feet. The operator lay extended on his face crosswise of the center of ths lower deck. The rudder was a smaller aeroplane extending forward in front of the machine; therein the Wright machine differed radically from others. The first attempts at “gliding” were made from the top of a sand hill which rose from the flat sand to a height of one hundred feet.

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>> On the next page: How the first flights were described, experiments in 1901 & more


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