It’s hard to pinpoint Washington, D.C.’s, No. 1 tourist attraction. But somewhere near the top of the list has to be the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, which is always jammed with tourists and even has a huge annex, open to the public, out in the boonies near Dulles International Airport.
If you walk into the main museum on the National Mall, your eye can’t miss one exhibit in particular, even among the various rockets and giant airplanes and space-faring craft that pack the huge hall. Tiny compared with its surroundings — it’s the very first successful heavier-than-air, engine-powered flying machine.
That “aeroplane” is Wilbur and Orville Wright’s “Flyer,” as they called it, which first stayed aloft above the sand dunes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks one chilly December day in 1903.
That much you may already know.
You may know, too, that that little craft was built and put into the air by the Brothers Wright of Dayton, Ohio.
(When’s the last time anyone named a son Orville or Wilbur? But I’ll bet there were thousands of them in the years immediately following that historic flight.)
Who were these guys?
Which one flew the Flyer?
Which was older?
Which one had the curled, wax moustache in the photo to the left, and which shaven one, below and to the right, looked like a stiff shoe clerk?
How did these two, previously seen tinkering with the bicycles they were making in their shop back in Dayton, end up among North Carolina’s Atlantic dunes that frosty December day?
And what became of them after their unprecedented “heavier-than-air” powered flight that lasted all of 12 seconds?
Wilbur Wright, the older, clean-shaven brother, had had his jaw shattered and all his front teeth knocked out playing ice hockey. For the pain and to prevent an infection, he ingested a derivative of strychnine, which (not surprisingly) did not agree with him, kept him in a foul humor, and turned him into a sort of recluse.
His mustachioed brother, Orville, by contrast, was a jolly extrovert and risk-taker.
But these sons of a Protestant bishop and his wife were both adept bicycle mechanics and makers of small motors. And they shared a fascination with birds, which they had watched endlessly as kids, probably from their backyard or the wraparound porch of their parents’ Victorian home in Dayton.
They later said, though, that their fascination with flying had begun when their father gave them a crude toy “helicopter” one day in 1878, when Wilbur was 11 and Orville was 7. (I put the word in quotes because there was no such thing as a real helicopter in 1878.)
Later, they followed with rapt attention articles in the Dayton newspaper about the flights of German Otto Lilienthal, the world’s foremost glider pilot. When Lilienthal was killed in a flying accident in 1896 — his last words were, “Sacrifices must be made” — they determined not just to take up Lilienthal’s work but to go him one better and put a motorized machine into the air.
The motor part wasn’t the problem. They had installed plenty of them onto bicycles, creating motor-cycles, and were confident that they could build a sufficiently powerful one to keep a heavier-than-air contraption aloft.
The trick would be controlling it.
Gliders were fickle things, susceptible to up- and downdrafts and crosswinds that would send them who-knows where. Into the earth quite suddenly, some of the time.
If you’ve ever flown a kite, you know the wind’s impact on gossamer wings.
So the first thing the brothers did was build a glider that could be controlled by twisting its wings, tilting its tail, and, while piloting the thing, by leaning this way or that.
Their first glider had a forward elevator to direct it up or down, a rear rudder to guide it left or right, and — this was the revolutionary touch — wings that could be tilted to enable the flyer to bank one way or the other, the way a modern airplane does when it’s finished its circling and is finally swooping down for landing.
All this was well and good, but a long-lasting flying machine couldn’t rely on the wind alone to get from place to place. It needed power, and that was a challenge. Automobile or, who knows? washing-machine engines, added to the weight of the pilot and the rest of the plane, would be too heavy to get the machine aloft.
And if anybody had thought to put a propeller in the front of a glider, they hadn’t heard of it. In case you weren’t sure (I wasn’t), the propeller’s function is to grab the air and sort of pull the airplane forward.
Because of their shop work in Dayton, the Wright brothers knew very well how to solve the motor problem: they’d use their lighter motor-cycle engine. As for the propellers, they built a pair out of wooden laminate and mounted them on the rear of their flyer. And because fabricating and servicing bicycles was almost exclusively a warm-weather occupation, they had the winters free to fly their glider and then their heavier-than-air machine.
They chose an ever-breezy barrier island, the finger of sand off North Carolina’s Atlantic Ocean coastline near the hamlet of Kitty Hawk.
Flight historian George Morris wrote that they arrived in 1900 and slept in a tent.
If you have ever spent the winter in a tent, you would do what they did. The next year they built a house. They built a house out in the open plains between the big hills, the Kill Devil Hills. They flew gliders.
They flew, they crashed; they flew, they crashed.
They crashed so many times that they quit. They packed up and went back home to Dayton.
But just for a while.
Back home they came up with one more gadget: a long, low, wooden box, at the end of which they mounted a fan.
The fan drove air through that box.
This was not part of the aircraft.
It was a crude wind tunnel.
What a brilliant concept, Morris wrote.
For the first time, you did not have to build a full-sized glider, find yourself on a hill, climb in the glider, and throw your body off [the hill]. That was hard on test pilots. For the first time, now you could take a few pennies and this little wooden box; a few pennies to build a tiny metal wing, mount that wing on test equipment, drive air through the box and test for lift, drag, and angle of attack.
No one had ever lived through more than three or four test flights of heavier-than-air machines. The Wright brothers tested more than 200 model planes in their wind box, as safely as they might have simply written about it. Without risking life or limb, they could see what would fly and what would not.
Then they built their full-size bi-wing machine, and it flew, on December 17th, 1903.
They had to carry their Flyer over to the barrier island by boat; there were no bridges, no highways, and no trucks to haul it. The only “runway” was an open, sandy field, sprinkled with low weeds.
But there, the brothers’ Flyer flew, with Orville guiding its controls while lying flat on his stomach, facing forward. It traveled just 37 meters. In just 12 seconds. And at just 11 kilometers per hour. But it flew, and five people, including Wilbur on the ground, witnessed it.
And then the brothers took turns flying their aero-machine, again and again, until it stayed aloft for 59 seconds and covered 260 meters. You may wonder why they didn’t dipsy-doodle longer, up and around and back again, if only to show off a little. They couldn’t, because — guidance improvements or not — the Flyer was quite unstable, and things kept failing or breaking.
But they had flown, and word got out, not through hearsay but because the proud Wrights had sent a telegram to the Dayton newspaper, exulting. Ironically, the paper didn’t print the story, saying the Wrights had stayed in the air too short a time to qualify as true pioneers. But the telegraph operator in North Carolina alerted friends of his in the newspaper business, and word soon got out to the whole world.
The rest, as the tired saying goes — quite accurately in this case — is history. If you’re unclear what that history is, drop by the closest airport.
In their remaining years, the Wright brothers spent much of their time claiming patents, contesting others’, and then selling theirs to corporations. In one deal, they received a 10-percent royalty on every airplane that a company sold. While they backed off most flying themselves except for publicity shots, they did train others and hired exhibition pilots to show off their machines and collect prize money.
The Wright brothers’ company even transported the world’s first-known commercial cargo by air in 1910 by delivering two bolts of silk dressmaking material to Columbus, Ohio, from Dayton.
Wilbur Wright, the strychnine-poisoned brother, did indeed live a short life. He died nine years after the pioneering flight, at age 45.
As my former VOA colleague Ken Reed once wrote, “His father’s tribute to him could just as well have included Orville [who lived to 76]. ‘A short life [longer in Orville’s case], full of consequences. Seeing the right clearly, pursing it steadily, he lived and died.’”
At Orville’s death in 1948, the executors of his estate signed a contract to sell the original Flyer to the Smithsonian Institution for $1.
The agreement stipulated that the Smithsonian could never display any aircraft carrying a claim that it had flown any earlier than the Wright Brothers’ machine.
When the Flyer was hung for display, the descriptive label below read, in part:
The world’s first power-drive heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled, and sustained flight.
I don’t know whether the same placard is in place below the Flyer today. But it would be easy enough to find out.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum sits across the street, diagonally, from VOA.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Boonies. A colloquial term, short for “boondocks,” which, in turn, refers to remote or isolated territory.
Gossamer. In the adjective form, this word refers to something delicate and fine, even flimsy. The noun is related to the material that spiders use to spin webs.