- Historic Sites
“The Air Age Was Now”
As well as being geniuses, the Wright brothers were methodical craftsmen of astonishing persistence. An aeronautical expert supplies the fascinating technical and personal details of their legendary achievement.
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
But the Wrights, despite their personal relationship with Chanute, were not pleased with the visitor’s attitude toward their work. Orville explained that Chanute “has been trying to purchase the Ader machine built by the French government at an expense of $100,000.00 which he was intending to have us fix and run for him. He thinks we could do it! He doesn’t seem to think our machines are so much superior as the manner in which we handle them. We are of just the reverse opinion.…”
There were certain indications of wry head-shaking on the part of the brothers. They were amazed at the power of the Langley machine—four times greater than their own—but they also saw that Langley had headed down blind alleys and was too concerned with details that had no effect on the aerodynamic performance of his aircraft. “Our track for starting the machine (total cost about $4.00) amused Mr. Chanute considerably,” wrote Wilbur, “as Langley is said to have spend nearly $50,000.00 on his starting device which failed in the end to give a proper start, he claims.…”
By November 19 water was freezing on the ponds by the camp, but the next day the propeller shafts arrived and the brothers threw themselves into their work. As quickly as they could, they prepared for another engine test. When the shafts were in place, they were plagued again by the irregular firing of the engine and the violent jerking of the chains. By the next day they seemed to have solved the engine problem; Wilbur recorded in his notes that the trouble lay in the system that fed fuel to the engine.
Orville wrote to Charlie Taylor, the mechanic who had made the repairs: “The shafts arrived day before yesterday noon (Friday).… You did a most excellent job of brazing, and we are highly pleased that the bearings were not injured at all. I suppose you remember how the chains and propellers jerked when we were testing them at home, but you ought to have seen them here. We thought that when we could get both propellers on the shock would be divided between the two, but on the contrary we found the shock greatly increased on each. The jerking of the propellers back and forth would loosen up the sprockets in spite of all the tightening we could do. This play was probably the cause of breaking the brazing loose, although they had been already brazed so many different times that the fit was very poor. While the shafts were away we had lots of time for thinking, and the more we thought, the harder our machine got to running and the less the power of the engine became, until stock got down to a very low figure. … As soon as the shafts arrived we set them up and got ready for a test. The engine, of course, had been run only a few minutes since we had been here, so that two of the cylinders were full of oil and only exploded now and then. As a result, after about ten seconds’ run, both sprockets were loose. We used a chain and six-foot 2 x 4 to tighten them and the nuts, but ten seconds’ more run and they were loose again. We kept that up all Friday afternoon, and by evening stock had gone still lower, in fact just about as low as it could get, about 100 percent below par. But the darkest hour comes just before dawn. The next morning, thanks to Arnstein’s hard cement, which will fix anything from a stop watch to a thrashing machine, we stuck those sprockets so tight I doubt whether they will ever come loose again. After a few minutes’ run to get the adjustments, and to burn out the surplus oil, the engine speeded the propellers up to 351 rev. per min. with a thrust of 132 pounds. Stock went up like a sky rocket, and is now at the highest figure in its history. … We will not be ready for trial for several days yet on account of having decided on some changes in the machine. Unless something breaks in the meantime we feel confident of success.
“I suppose you find things a littly chilly of mornings. We had ponds of ice all about our camp the other morning and the wash basin was frozen to the bottom. But the carbide can has kept us very comfortable indoors.…”
Several days of poor weather turned into several days of terrible weather. Light rains worsened until Kill Devil Hill was the scene of howling winds and biting cold, and to add to their misery it began to snow. Unexpectedly the weather changed; on November 28 the wind changed to an easterly heading and the thermometer rose. Immediately they were hard at work to ready the machine for its first test flight, and they ran the engine with a new apparatus that would judge engine and wind speed simultaneously. Engine speeds averaged 1,000 rpm, and in one test the geared-down propellers wound up to 350 revolutions per minute, a much better performance than they had anticipated. They were jubilant with the results, and the lingering doubts of the machine being able to support itself in the air vanished. They ran the engine half a dozen times, and then, examining the machine, they saw something that made it clear that these tests had been an excellent idea.
Along one of the propeller shafts, barely visible, was a hairline crack. If put under the stresses of flight, the shaft might well have flown apart, destroying the machine in the air or sending it tumbling out of control to the ground.