September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright (having won a coin toss with Wilbur) took off at Kitty Hawk in the machine the brothers called the Flyer . It reached an altitude of 10 feet and traveled 120 feet in 12 seconds. For the first time in history, a controllable, man-made machine had left the ground, climbed higher than its takeoff point, and landed at the original altitude. Man had flown . The Flyer made three more flights that day, then crashed after the last flight of 852 feet in 57 seconds; it never flew again.
The Wright brothers had built their own engine, with four cylinders, producing 12. horsepower, barely enough power to keep the machine in the air. The pilot lay on his belly on the lower wing, using a hand lever to control the elevators mounted in front. By moving his hips from side to side in a yoke, he could warp the wingtip trailing edges and produce a bank and, eventually, a turn (the rudders aft were immobile, and the plane couldn’t be controlled around the vertical axis). It was also violently unstable in pitch, terminating the first three flights and leading to the final crash.
The most astounding aspect of this final realization of an ageold dream was that nobody noticed. Would-be birdmen had been building contraptions for years and crashing with depressing regularity; only nine days earlier Samuel Pierpont Langley’s Smithsonian Institution—backed Aerodrome had crashed in the Potomac—for the second time. The nation continued to believe that man couldn’t fly.
The Wright brothers returned to Dayton, rented a field, and began to test their improved Flyer II —and finally Flyer III . There were dozens of flights in the next five years, but not even the Dayton newspaper paid much attention.
Flyer III became the Model A, with a 3o-horsepower engine and a dual-control system. The rudders were now controllable, and the pilot and a passenger sat upright on the leading edge of the lower wing. The Model A had its problems, but it was capable of 45 mph and eventually established records of 360 feet altitude, distance of 77 miles, and endurance of 2 hours and 20 minutes (and held the first speed record of 27 mph).
In 1906 the wealthy Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont managed a short, straight hop a few feet off the ground in Paris in his uncontrollable I4- bis , and the world went wild: Man had flown ! In 1907 a few others—Louis Blériot, Gabriel and Charles Voisin, and Henri Farman—also got off the ground in straight or curved hops, but no machine as yet could maneuver or return to its starting point.
Only in 1908, patents in hand, did the Wrights re-emerge from Dayton with Model As. Orville took one to Fort Myer to demonstrate flight to a now mildly interested Army, while Wilbur took the other to Europe, hoping for government purchases abroad.
Orville convinced America man could fly, while Wilbur blew everybody’s mind. The Europeans were flabbergasted. This machine was fully controllable; it swooped, soared, turned, traveled cross-country. There was no longer any question as to the true pioneers—except at the miffed Smithsonian, which insisted the palm belonged to Langley (as a result, Orville sent the Flyer I to a London museum, where it languished until the Smithsonian apologized handsomely in 1948, the year after Orville died).
The Flyer , the ur-grandfather of all aircraft, was a terrible design, greatly overrated. Because it did fly, it can’t be overrated; but it’s the Model A that truly inaugurated the air age.