How Wilbur Wright Taught Europe To Fly

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Error and impatience combined almost to nullify the individual ingenuity and bravery of such men as the Voisin brothers, Europe’s first airplane constructors, and Louis Blériot, who helped to pioneer the monoplane and who conquered the English Channel in 1909. For the Europeans had turned their backs on the outstanding example of Lilienthal, and now regarded flying from a groundsman’s, not an airman’s, standpoint. Surrounded as they were by the success of automobilisme , they looked upon the airplane as a winged motorcar, to be driven off the ground and steered through the sky by a chauffeur. Whereas Lilienthal, Pilcher, and the Wrights regarded the airplane as a rider sees his horse, as a steed to be ridden and maneuvered; pilot and plane to work and move together as a unified being. Control and maneuverability in the air was the secret—especially the ability to bank, turn, and circle—and Wilbur brought that secret to Europe in 1908.

The French did not believe that the Wrights had been power-flying since 1903, so that Wilbur was accused of bluffing and taunted by the press. Then on August 8, 1908, at the little provincial racecourse of Hunaudières, near Le Mans, the skeptics of press, public, and professional aviation sat waiting and gossiping in the makeshift grandstand. A few minutes later they were on their feet staring in amazed disbelief as Wilbur took off, banked, flew round in two graceful circuits, and came in to land. The spectators’ words tell their own story: “a revelation”; “we are as children compared with the Wrights”; “a new era in mechanical flight has commenced”; “ce ne fût pas un succés, ce fût un triomphe.” And so it went.

Wilbur was soon invited to the great military ground at Auvours nearby; for four fabulous months he held court to the world of adventure, and quietly revolutionized aviation. In all he made more than one hundred flights; was airborne for over twenty-five hours; carried passengers on some sixty occasions; and made six flights of between one-half and three-quarters of an hour, six flights of between one and two hours, and one of over two hours; all of this without injury to a soul, and with only one minor crack-up on landing. As Major B.F.S. Baden-Powell finally said, “That Wilbur Wright is in possession of a power which controls the fate of nations is beyond dispute.”