Books by McCullough, David

McCullough, David. The Wright Brothers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-2874-2.
On December 8th, 1903, all was in readiness. The aircraft was perched on its launching catapult, the brave airman at the controls. The powerful internal combustion engine roared to life. At 16:45 the catapult hurled the craft into the air. It rose straight up, flipped, and with its wings coming apart, plunged into the Potomac river just 20 feet from the launching point. The pilot was initially trapped beneath the wreckage but managed to free himself and swim to the surface. After being rescued from the river, he emitted what one witness described as “the most voluble series of blasphemies” he had ever heard.

So ended the last flight of Samuel Langley's “Aerodrome”. Langley was a distinguished scientist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Funded by the U.S. Army and the Smithsonian for a total of US$ 70,000 (equivalent to around 1.7 million present-day dollars), the Aerodrome crashed immediately on both of its test flights, and was the subject of much mockery in the press.

Just nine days later, on December 17th, two brothers, sons of a churchman, with no education beyond high school, and proprietors of a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, readied their own machine for flight near Kitty Hawk, on the windswept sandy hills of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Their craft, called just the Flyer, took to the air with Orville Wright at the controls. With the 12 horsepower engine driving the twin propellers and brother Wilbur running alongside to stabilise the machine as it moved down the launching rail into the wind, Orville lifted the machine into the air and achieved the first manned heavier-than-air powered flight, demonstrating the Flyer was controllable in all three axes. The flight lasted just 12 seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet.

After the first flight, the brothers took turns flying the machine three more times on the 17th. On the final flight Wilbur flew a distance of 852 feet in a flight of 59 seconds (a strong headwind was blowing, and this flight was over half a mile through the air). After completion of the fourth flight, while being prepared to fly again, a gust of wind caught the machine and dragged it, along with assistant John T. Daniels, down the beach toward the ocean. Daniels escaped, but the Flyer was damaged beyond repair and never flew again. (The Flyer which can seen in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum today has been extensively restored.)

Orville sent a telegram to his father in Dayton announcing the success, and the brothers packed up the remains of the aircraft to be shipped back to their shop. The 1903 season was at an end. The entire budget for the project between 1900 through the successful first flights was less than US$ 1000 (24,000 dollars today), and was funded entirely by profits from the brothers' bicycle business.

How did two brothers with no formal education in aerodynamics or engineering succeed on a shoestring budget while Langley, with public funds at his disposal and the resources of a major scientific institution fail so embarrassingly? Ultimately it was because the Wright brothers identified the key problem of flight and patiently worked on solving it through a series of experiments. Perhaps it was because they were in the bicycle business. (Although they are often identified as proprietors of a “bicycle shop”, they also manufactured their own bicycles and had acquired the machine tools, skills, and co-workers for the business, later applied to building the flying machine.)

The Wrights believed the essential problem of heavier than air flight was control. The details of how a bicycle is built don't matter much: you still have to learn to ride it. And the problem of control in free flight is much more difficult than riding a bicycle, where the only controls are the handlebars and, to a lesser extent, shifting the rider's weight. In flight, an airplane must be controlled in three axes: pitch (up and down), yaw (left and right), and roll (wings' angle to the horizon). The means for control in each of these axes must be provided, and what's more, just as for a child learning to ride a bike, the would-be aeronaut must master the skill of using these controls to maintain his balance in the air.

Through a patient program of subscale experimentation, first with kites controlled by from the ground by lines manipulated by the operators, then gliders flown by a pilot on board, the Wrights developed their system of pitch control by a front-mounted elevator, yaw by a rudder at the rear, and roll by warping the wings of the craft. Further, they needed to learn how to fly using these controls and verify that the resulting plane would be stable enough that a person could master the skill of flying it. With powerless kites and gliders, this required a strong, consistent wind. After inquiries to the U.S. Weather Bureau, the brothers selected the Kitty Hawk site on the North Carolina coast. Just getting there was an adventure, but the wind was as promised and the sand and lack of large vegetation was ideal for their gliding experiments. They were definitely “roughing it” at this remote site, and at times were afflicted by clouds of mosquitos of Biblical plague proportions, but starting in 1900 they tested a series of successively larger gliders and by 1902 had a design which provided three axis control, stability, and the controls for a pilot on board. In the 1902 season they made more than 700 flights and were satisfied the control problem had been mastered.

Now all that remained was to add an engine and propellers to the successful glider design, again scaling it up to accommodate the added weight. In 1903, you couldn't just go down to the hardware store and buy an engine, and automobile engines were much too heavy, so the Wrights' resourceful mechanic, Charlie Taylor, designed and built the four cylinder motor from scratch, using the new-fangled material aluminium for the engine block. The finished engine weighed just 152 pounds and produced 12 horsepower. The brothers could find no references for the design of air propellers and argued intensely over the topic, but eventually concluded they'd just have to make a best guess and test it on the real machine.

The Flyer worked the on the second attempt (an earlier try on December 14th ended in a minor crash when Wilbur over-controlled at the moment of take-off). But this stunning success was the product of years of incremental refinement of the design, practical testing, and mastery of airmanship through experience.

Those four flights in December of 1903 are now considered one of the epochal events of the twentieth century, but at the time they received little notice. Only a few accounts of the flights appeared in the press, and some of them were garbled and/or sensationalised. The Wrights knew that the Flyer (whose wreckage was now in storage crates at Dayton), while a successful proof of concept and the basis for a patent filing, was not a practical flying machine. It could only take off into the strong wind at Kitty Hawk and had not yet demonstrated long-term controlled flight including aerial maneuvers such as turns or flying around a closed course. It was just too difficult travelling to Kitty Hawk, and the facilities of their camp there didn't permit rapid modification of the machines based upon experimentation.

They arranged to use an 84 acre cow pasture called Huffman Prairie located eight miles from Dayton along an interurban trolley line which made it easy to reach. The field's owner let them use it without charge as long as they didn't disturb the livestock. The Wrights devised a catapult to launch their planes, powered by a heavy falling weight, which would allow them to take off in still air. It was here, in 1904, that they refined the design into a practical flying machine and fully mastered the art of flying it over the course of about fifty test flights. Still, there was little note of their work in the press, and the first detailed account was published in the January 1905 edition of Gleanings in Bee Culture. Amos Root, the author of the article and publisher of the magazine, sent a copy to Scientific American, saying they could republish it without fee. The editors declined, and a year later mocked the achievements of the Wright brothers.

For those accustomed to the pace of technological development more than a century later, the leisurely pace of progress in aviation and lack of public interest in the achievement of what had been a dream of humanity since antiquity seems odd. Indeed, the Wrights, who had continued to refine their designs, would not become celebrities nor would their achievements be widely acknowledged until a series of demonstrations Wilbur would perform at Le Mans in France in the summer of 1908. Le Figaro wrote, “It was not merely a success, but a triumph…a decisive victory for aviation, the news of which will revolutionize scientific circles throughout the world.” And it did: stories of Wilbur's exploits were picked up by the press on the Continent, in Britain, and, belatedly, by papers in the U.S. Huge crowds came out to see the flights, and the intrepid American aviator's name was on every tongue.

Meanwhile, Orville was preparing for a series of demonstration flights for the U.S. Army at Fort Myer, Virginia. The army had agreed to buy a machine if it passed a series of tests. Orville's flights also began to draw large crowds from nearby Washington and extensive press coverage. All doubts about what the Wrights had wrought were now gone. During a demonstration flight on September 17, 1908, a propeller broke in flight. Orville tried to recover, but the machine plunged to the ground from an altitude of 75 feet, severely injuring him and killing his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who became the first person to die in an airplane crash. Orville's recuperation would be long and difficult, aided by his sister, Katharine.

In early 1909, Orville and Katharine would join Wilbur in France, where he was to do even more spectacular demonstrations in the south of the country, training pilots for the airplanes he was selling to the French. Upon their return to the U.S., the Wrights were awarded medals by President Taft at the White House. They were feted as returning heroes in a two day celebration in Dayton. The diligent Wrights continued their work in the shop between events.

The brothers would return to Fort Myer, the scene of the crash, and complete their demonstrations for the army, securing the contract for the sale of an airplane for US$ 30,000. The Wrights would continue to develop their company, defend their growing portfolio of patents against competitors, and innovate. Wilbur was to die of typhoid fever in 1912, aged only 45 years. Orville sold his interest in the Wright Company in 1915 and, in his retirement, served for 28 years on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor of NASA. He died in 1948. Neither brother ever married.

This book is a superb evocation of the life and times of the Wrights and their part in creating, developing, promoting, and commercialising one of the key technologies of the modern world.

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