- 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
As the observations of both brothers showed clearly, Wilbur understood his fault in trying an angle of climb so steep that the Flyer almost at once lost its air speed and began settling to the ground. With the high angle of attack, slow speed, and limited power, this was inevitable. If Wilbur had not overcontrolled immediately upon lifting from the track, December 14 would have been the date of the first successful powered flight. Wilbur recognized that the forward elevator, much larger than in their 1902 machine, was now too sensitive. They now knew what to expect, and as they started their repairs, Orville wrote out a telegram he dispatched the next day to Bishop Wright: “Misjudgment at start reduced flight one hundred twelve power and control ample rudder only injured success assured keep quiet.”
They could hardly wait to make another flight the next day. The Flyer was repaired and they chafed to get into the air. But the winds hardly stirred for two days. When they awoke Thursday they couldn’t believe their ears. A subdued roar came to them, a rumble that rose and fell in the distance. They looked toward the ocean and saw the surf boiling before a bitter, howling wind of nearly thirty miles an hour.
They went outside and stared. Finally, there was nothing else to do but return to their shed to be out of the numbing wind. They sat about, depressed, listening to the wind shrieking through loose boards, blowing jets of sand around them.
They shared the same thoughts. They were already two months behind schedule, and this wind could easily become a screaming gale or hurricane.
They might not have another chance until spring.
It is important to understand what exactly is meant by the term “flight.” “In the history of flying one is often faced with claims for this, that, or the other ‘first,’ ” states the eminent British aeronautical historian, Charles Gibbs-Smith, “regardless of whether the achievement in question has any true historical significance. Whatever tributes can be paid to certain experimenters on the score of ingenuity, persistence, or personal courage, it is essentialto decide whether their contribution was important historically, and to what degree.…
“In order to qualify for having made a simple powered and sustained flight, a conventional aeroplane should have itself freely in a horizontal or rising flight-path—without loss of airspeed—beyond a point where it could be influenced by any momentum built up before it left the ground: otherwise its performance can only be rated as a powered leap; i.e. it will not have made a fully self-propelled flight, but will only have followed a ballistic trajectory modified by the thrust of its propeller and by the aerodynamic forces acting upon its aerofoils. Furthermore, it must be shown that the machine can be kept in satisfactory equilibrium. Simple sustained flight obviously need not include full controllability, but the maintenance of adequate equilibrium in flight is part and parcel of sustentation.…”
Gibbs-Smith then quotes the man he regarded as the most eminent authority on the subject—Wilbur Wright: “From our knowledge of the subject we estimate that it is possible to jump about 250 feet, with a machine which has not made the first steps toward controllability and which is quite unable to maintain the motive force necessary for flight. By getting up good speed a machine can be made to rise with very little power, and can proceed several hundred feet before its momentum is exhausted.… There is all the difference in the world between jumping and flying.”
So the flight of December 14 was never considered successful by the Wright brothers. It failed to meet their own criteria, but it did show them that they were doing things the right way, that their equipment functioned, and that their hopes for future success were excellent. As they waited out the gusty winds on the morning of December 17, while sand whistled along the floor, they knew that getting into the air would be flirting with death itself.
As I imagine the discussion they must have had that morning I get cold chills because I know what is about to take place. And I know that their machine has never been flown before. Although the brothers had been practicing with gliders, their total experience with a power machine was the three and one-half seconds of Wilbur’s attempt three days before. Their tank contained enough fuel to fly the machine about eight miles in calm air and, although the brothers did not seriously set their aim on such a distance, they had discussed the possibility of remaining low over the sands and flying off the four miles to the village of Kitty Hawk. Ideal conditions could make it possible, they mused. But conditions were far from ideal; the winds blew at twenty-four to thirty miles an hour.
At ten in the morning they marched into the teeth of the wind and raised their signal flag for their witnesses and helpers to join them. In the meantime they began laying their launching track, less than 200 feet now west of their large work hangar and pointing straight north. It was so cold that the brothers often had to return to their shed so that they could cup their hands over their stove to get feeling back into their fingers. However, they were perfectly dressed, as was their custom, in full suits, right on down to starched white collars and ties.