February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Most Americans know that Wilbur and Orville Wright were the first to fly a powered airplane; a few know that they were the first to build a practical powered airplane; but almost no one in the United States seems to know that these remarkable brothers not only inspired Europeans to revive their all-but-moribund ambition to fly, but, in 1908, revolutionized European aviation when the French had been floundering intellectually in the field of aviation for six long years. The British, I regret to say, had been sound asleep since the death in 1899 of Percy S. Pilcher, the only man who had improved on Lilien that’s gliding, and who might have rivaled the Wrights. This is a sad admission, coming as it docs fium a European historian, but it is unfortunately all too true.
It is this revolution of 1908, caused by Wilbur’s flights near Le Mans in France, that is the subject of the pictures shown here. They come from a unique historical document recently unearthed in Paris for A MERICAN HERITAGE by Naomi Barry: an album of photographs dedicated by Wilbur himself to a little girl named Elizabeth and now owned by Af. Shot. Elizabeth was the daughter of French inventor and industrialist Léon Bollée, who had offered the American the hospitality of his home, and his factory at Le Mans in which to erect the epoch-making Flyer.
But the story really goes back to 1896, when the tragic death of Otto Lilienthal in Germany—killed when his glider crashed—deeply alfected a young bicycle maker named Wilbur Wright in Dayton, Ohio. It was not until 1899 that Wilbur finally took up the active pursuit of flying, and then enlisted the devoted collaboration of his younger brother, Orville. They made their first glider in 1900, their second in 1901, their third in 1902; and they Hew them in the bleak isolation of the Kill Devil sandhills, south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because of the strong constant winds to be found there. By the autumn of 1902, they had drastically modified their third glider, and had finally achieved properly controlled glider flight. It was the element of control—despite their later brilliance in engine and propeller design—that was to lead the Wrights to their conquest of the air: sensitive, co-ordinated control of elevator to climb and dive, and’ of wing warping and rudder to bank and turn; sensitive co-ordinated control by the pilot of a Hying machine, to fly it where he willed it to fly, and—of equal importance—to hold it successfully in dynamic equilibrium against the vicissitudes of the air. No one but the Wrights had metthese problems, tackled them, and conquered them; no one in fact came anywhere near them in their achievements until the year 1909, and then only as a result of the Wrights’ example.
As all the world now knows, but did not realize until 1908, the Wrights’ first Flyer made the first powered, sustained, and controlled flights in history on December 17, 1903, the best of four flights lasting fifty-nine seconds and covering over half a mile through the air. By October of 1905, with Flyer No. 3—the Wrights called their machines Flyers after their cycles—they achieved the first practical powered airplane which could bank, turn, circle, fly figures of eight, and stay up in the air for half an hour at a time.
Dogged by spies and the frustrations of dealing with official stupidity at home and abroad, and still unknown to press and public, the brothers abandoned flying in October, 1905, and never once took to the air again until finally, in 1908, it was announced that they would fly in public for the first time, Wilbur in France, and Orville at Fort Myer, Virginia.
Now one must again go back over the years, this time to 1902. In that year the French heard rumors of the Wrights’ gliding successes, and in 1903 another great American pioneer, Octave Chanute, a friend of the Wrights’, went to France and lectured on the brothers’ gliding, giving descriptions and showing photographs of their flights without, however, fully understanding their machines or their flying technique. The French, inert in the aeronautical doldrums, were immediately aroused to rivalry.
Whereupon, although the French had most of the clues to success in their lap, so to speak, and possessed a galaxy of adventurous and talented men, the inexplicable happened: they misread the Wrights’ clues; failed to emulate their gliding; and therefore concluded that the Wrights had not achieved anything significant at all. The unpalatable truth is that not a single European pioneer could build a machine that would stay up in the air for even one full minute until November of 1907, despite some shrill whistlings of triumph over the flights of Santos-Dumont and the French-domiciled Englishman, Henri Farman.
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.”