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Impearls: 2003-12-14 Archive

Earthdate 2003-12-17

BBC and the anniversary of flight

The left continued its “Bah, humbug!” response to the great events of the age when BBC World broadcast an amazingly insulting (to Americans) and bizarre “tribute” to the hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight last night by questioning its authenticity.  They unearthed an old, spurious claim that a Brazilian, not the Wright Brothers, was the first to fly — not in 1903 or sometime before, but 1906!

How can a flight — even if it took place — happening in 1906 possibly beat out a first flight occurring in 1903?  Why, the Wrights' claim is supposedly spurious, because:  1) The Wrights did much of their work in secret.  (To which an appropriate response might be, what in the blazes does that have to do with the Wrights having actually accomplished the mission?  It just shows the brothers were serious about protecting patentability of their invention.  Besides, their flights were thoroughly witnessed.)  And 2), the Brazilians also claim that, supposedly, the Wrights' first flight in 1903 took place under “ideal conditions,” by which I presume they mean that the Wrights' flight initially took off into a headwind (just as all airplanes do today, if they can).  The BBC reporter and their interviewees went on and on about how the flight in 1903 was invalid because of these conditions.

It's astonishing (or perhaps not, considering that this is the BBC) that no one interjected at any point, “What about the years 1904 and 1905?”  Even if the Brazilians' (and the BBC's, by defection of journalistic responsibility) second critique of the Wrights' 1903 flight were admitted to have validity, during 1904 the brothers accomplished much more, as Professor James E. Vance, Jr., describes, writing in Encyclopædia Britannica: 1

Wilbur and Orville Wright in the course of their experiments came increasingly to consider Cayley's diagram of how a wing works, particularly the role played by the speed of the wind passing over the top of the wing.  This led them to seek a site with a strong and persistent ambient wind (the Vogels Mountain where the 1781 ornithopter may have flown has just such a high ambient wind, as do the hills near Elmira, N.Y., and Fremont, Calif., classic gliding courses).  From the U.S. Weather Bureau the Wrights secured a list of windy sites in the United States, from which they chose the Outer Banks of North Carolina, specifically Kitty Hawk.  On Kill Devil Hill on Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright became the first man ever to fly in an aeroplane (as they were at first known), initially using as a frame a biplane of 40-foot 4-inch wingspan and equipped with the 12-horsepower engine (see Figure 18).  He lifted off the ground in a 20-27-mile/h wind and flew a distance of 120 feet in 12 seconds.  Having a strong wind certainly aided in that accomplishment, but the brothers soon demonstrated that such a wind was not absolutely essential.

After further experiments at Kitty Hawk they returned to Dayton to build a second plane, Flyer No. 2.  Neither the balloons and dirigibles nor the earlier ornithopter and glider experiments had produced flight: what they had done was to harness the dynamics of the atmosphere to lift a craft off the ground, using what power (if any) they supplied primarily to steer.  The Wrights initially used atmospheric dynamics to help in lifting the plane, but they subsequently demonstrated that they were able to lift a plane off the ground in still air.

In the long run their most significant invention was a way to steer the plane.  After carefully watching a great number of birds, they became convinced that birds directed their flight by internally warping their wings, distorting them in one fashion or another.  To do this in their plane, the Wrights constructed a ridged but distorted wing that might, through the use of wires fixed to the edge of the wing, be flexed to pass through the air in changing directions.  This distortable wing was relatively misunderstood by other early plane experimenters.

During the summer of 1904 the Wrights made 105 takeoffs and managed to fly on a circular course up to 2.75 miles for a sustained flight that lasted 5 minutes 4 seconds.  Because they took a proprietary view of their invention, publicity about their work was minimal.  After further trials in 1905 they stopped their experiments, using the time to obtain patents on their contribution.  Only in 1908 did they break their secrecy when Wilbur Wright went to France to promote their latest plane.

That should dispose of any illusions that powered flight wasn't invented until 1906!

A remarkable characteristic of the Wright Brothers' fabulous achievement is the quality science they performed in making their dream a reality.  In approaching the critical problem of designing an efficient propeller, for example, they discerned that a cross-sectional slice of the propeller is actually equivalent to a piece of wing.  They developed and built a new, much lighter engine to power the craft — weight also being of vital concern.  The Wrights realized that control of the plane in flight was essential, both for success and pilot survivability, and came up with means (described above) to maneuver the craft along all three axial dimensions.  Attempts by others toward attaining powered flight during this same time frame were notably deficient in any number of these areas — and as a result they failed.

For the BBC to step into this centennial occasion — celebration of realization of one of mankind's oldest dreams — broadcasting their usual supercilious sneer is quite offensive.  But good going BBC in confirming my previous estimations of them!


1 James E. Vance, Jr. (Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of California, Berkeley), “Transportation: … Aviation: … The Wright brothers,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

UPDATE:  2003-12-18 16:00 UT.  Rand Simberg posted a link to this piece in his Transterrestrial Musings.  Thanks Rand, and to Mike Daley who passed this along to him.  I certainly agree with Simberg in one of his postings earlier that a major factor in the Wrights' success is their having taken an incremental approach to testing and solving problems piecemeal, rather than jumping straight towards a total perceived “solution.”

UPDATE:  2003-12-21 23:00 UT.  A discussion on a space science discussion list has arisen concerning this article.  I've posted a follow-up piece in Impearls here (permalink) with my reply.


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