Wright Activities Before and After 1903

Wilbur Wright damaged a wing on landing at Hunaudieres Race Course near Le Mans after his second flight of the day on August 13, 1908. The hard landing also broke some spars, ribs, and one skid runner was damaged.

Orville Wright was quoted in the newspaper the next day by the AP saying that the wreck was caused by a wrong move of a lever that controls the plane. “I have a cablegram from my brother explaining the affair. It resulted from a wrong move of the lever controlling the lateral rudders that govern the equilibrium, just as the aeroplane reached the level of the ground, causing it to list and bring the end of the structure in violent collision with the earth.”

“In the upper air,” Orville continued, “the mistake would have resulted in no harm. The aeroplane can be put in order in a few days.”

Orville at this time was preparing to perform test flights for the U.S. Army at Ft Myer, Virginia. Wilbur on August 15 warned his brother that he should prepare to have some difficulty mastering the handles that they had newly installed on their airplanes. “I have not yet learned to operate the handles without blunders.”

The recent occurrence wasn’t the first time that Wilbur became confused with the new controls. At Kitty Hawk before Wilbur went to France, Wilbur and Orville spent time practicing with the controls. On his last flight before traveling to France, Wilbur became confused while operating the elevator control and dived the plane into the sand at 41 mph. He wrecked the plane but fortunately survived with only a few bruises.

The recent accident was the eleventh and last flight flown at Hunaudieres. Wilbur didn’t like the field because of its small tree-lined size. He had to continuously make turns to say within the confines of the field.

The French military, now impressed with his flying exploits, offered him a larger more suitable field almost devoid of trees that formerly had been a military camp and artillery testing ground. It was his first choice originally, but the French didn’t want to let him use it then because of their lack of confidence that he would be able to fly.

On August 18, Wilbur completed repairs to the damaged plane and transported it to Camp d’Auvours, located close to the small town of Champegne and seven miles east of Le Mans. The high school in the town is named after Wilbur.

There he built a shed in the middle of the field where he would live. Inside the shed he rigged a canvas cot so that he could lift it up to the roof during the day. He placed packing crates so that they formed a crude wall between his “kitchen” and his “dining room.”

Wilbur lived in his shed for four months and enjoyed his stay except for when crowds of people were around. His companion was a stray dog named Flyer. Flyer was a good companion but not much of a “watch dog.” He would hide in the corner of the shed when visitors were around.

The use of sheds in France continued a practice initiated at Kitty Hawk where he and Orville lived in one to be close to their airplane.

Wilbur made some 120 successful flights at this location, many with a passenger accompanying him. He set records in flight time, distance and altitude.

The Wright brothers were extraordinary inventors but they were not skilled in marketing their product. They were not able to interest anyone in purchasing their Flyer for five years after Wilbur designated it as a practical airplane.

Wilbur was convinced that the competition would not be able to develop a practical airplane for at least five years. So when no one was interested in their Flyer in 1905, their obsession with secrecy caused them not to display the craft until they had a contract with a prospective buyer.

Their overwhelming concern was that someone would steal their design secrets and claim prior rights as the inventor of manned, controlled, powered flight. They didn’t even publish their picture of the famous first flight that occurred in 1903 until Sept. 1908.

Wilbur wrote, “We would have to expose our machine more or less, and that might interfere with sale of our secrets.”

In 1906, Santos-Dumont made a straight-line public flight in France that measured nearly 200-feet. That should have been a wake-up call to the Wrights, but Wilbur scoffed, “If he has gone more than 300 feet, he has really done something; less than this is nothing.”

A month later Santo-Dumont flew more than 700 feet and won two prizes for the first flight longer than 100 meters.

The Wrights still refused to make a public flight while trying to gain military sales and working on improving engine design. Wilbur figured that only a government could afford to buy their plane at the price they wanted to charge. He was interested in selling a few planes at a big profit and then get out of the business and return to performing research and design.

The following year, 1907, the French exploded with various airplane designs and public flights. Enthusiasts established competitions and awarded prizes.

The Wrights could have won them all, but they weren’t interested. They didn’t fly for nearly three years.

In the meantime, in January 1908 Henri Farman won the Deutsch Archdeacon Grand Prix for flying a one-kilometer circle over a field near Paris. Gabriel Voisin and Louis Bleriot managed increasingly longer “jumps.” They, not the Wrights, were getting all the publicity. The Wright flights had only been observed by a small number of eyewitnesses.

The Wrights’ attempts to sell their machine in Europe didn’t work out; neither did their attempt to sell their machine to the U.S. Army. It was a bad time to generate their interest in airplanes. The Army had been embarrassed by the total failure of Samuel P. Langley to fly his plane funded by a $50,000 Army contract and $23,000 from Smithsonian funds.

Representative Gilbert Hitchcock, Nebraska, sarcastically commented, “If is to cost us $73,000 to construct a mud duck that will  not fly 50 feet, how much is it going to cost to construct a real fly machine?”

They Wright’s didn’t help matters any by refusing to fly a demonstration flight without a contract.

At last, In 1908 the Wrights received two contracts on two continents. The U.S. Army, concerned about the progress of the Europeans, accepted the Wrights’ bid to build one airplane, the Model A, at the price of $25,000 if the airplane successfully passed prescribed qualification tests.

In France a contract was signed, not with the French Government, but with a private syndicate headed by French capitalists. The syndicate would purchase the rights to the Wrights’ French patents and the right to manufacture, sell, and license Wright airplanes in France. After a series of demonstration flights, the Wrights would receive 500,000 francs upon delivery of the first machine, $20,000 a piece for each of four additional planes, and shares in the company.

With contracts in hand, the Wrights intended to fly only for their buyers. They returned to Kitty Hawk for a month to prepare their Flyer for the demonstration flights Wilbur would fly in France and to refresh their flying skills. After that Wilbur took the airplane to France and Orville returned to Dayton to prepare another plane for the Army trials at Ft. Myer.

The Wrights had gotten back in business in the nick of time. Wilbur and Orville flew before enthusiastic crowds in France and America respectively. Their success spurred a handful of North American aircraft builders to try their hand at flying.

One such group was the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), formed by Alexander Graham Bell. One of its members was Glenn Curtiss who the Wrights would fight with over patent rights for years.

In July 1908, Curtiss flew his fast “June Bug” biplane more than one kilometer to win the $2,500 Scientific American Trophy and national acclaim. Wilber had flown his Flyer farther in 1905, but he had refused to compete with a man he believed was trying steal his ideas. Curtiss airplanes would, in a few years, surpass the Wright models.

The Wrights were awarded a patent covering three-axis control of any airplane in 1906 and warned that anyone who copied it for profit making purposes would be sued unless they paid the Wrights royalties.

Curtiss developed a new design for performing the effect of wing-warping without changing the shape of the entire wing. He called it ailerons, which were separate, movable surfaces at the back of each wing, similar to what is now used on modern airplanes.

Curtiss was confident that his new design would get around the Wrights’ patent. The Wrights maintained that any form of three-dimensional control system would fall under their patent and threatened to sue.

Curtiss ignored them. He was not too concerned about the Wrights because Bell had assured members of the AEA that ailerons used on the June bug would circumvent the Wrights’ patent.

In August 1909 Curtiss won the Bennett Trophy, in a flying meet held at Rheims, France, by setting a speed record of 47-mph. Some 23 different airplanes participated in the meet. He also sold the first consumer airplane for just $5,000.

The Wrights declined to participate in these flying competitions because they said they didn’t compete against mere imitators.

They did turn to the courts with their threatened patent infringement lawsuit. Judge R. Hazel of the Federal Court in Buffalo was assigned the case. Until such time as Hazel issued a restraining order to Herring-Curtiss Co, the company that Curtiss was now associated with, was free to continue flying.

Initially, the court actions went smoothly for the Wrights. On January 3, 1910, Judge Hazel granted an injunction against Herring-Curtiss that the Wrights had sought. Curtiss appealed, but the company, already in poor financial shape, was forced into bankruptcy.

For the first six months of 1910 the Wrights enjoyed an effective monopoly in the airplane business in America. It didn’t last long.

The Wrights offered to drop their suit if Curtiss would agree to take out a license and

settle for the past infringement.

Curtiss decided he was better off with a strategy of delaying tactics.

Curtiss went in to bankruptcy but came out of it in better shape than before. He got rid of Herring and purchased the assets of the company for a song, forming the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co.

Not only that, his appeal of the injunction was granted in June so he was back in business producing airplanes.

The litigation stretched out for eight years of trials and appeals. The effect was to slowly weaken the Wrights’ company, now known as the American Wright Co., formed in November 1909.

As the courtroom battles dragged on, it was Wilbur that became the key expert witness. He testified tirelessly about aeronautical design issues, explaining them in a clearly understood manner. His skill on the witness stand meant that his time at the company was limited.

Orville was busy with production and managing the company in Wilbur’s absence. Orville didn’t like managing and did as little of it as possible. In the meantime no one was doing much innovating.

Wilbur commented, “We have been compelled to spend our time on business matters … during the past five years. When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose.”

By the spring of 1914 the Curtiss Aeroplane Co. had surpassed the Wrights and grown into the largest aircraft manufacturing company in America.

In April 1912 Wilbur became very ill while in Boston. He attributed his illness to some fish he had eaten at a Boston hotel. Shortly after his return to Dayton he developed a fever that persisted for several days and his overall condition worsened. It turned out his illness was typhoid fever and he was gone within a month on May 30 at the age of 45.

Twenty-five thousand mourners filed past his coffin before the simple service began in the First Presbyterian Church in Dayton on June 1. There was no music in the 20-minute service. The pastor read scriptural messages and an overview of Wilbur’s career written by his older brother Reuchlin.

Interment was in a private burial at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton. Church bells tolled at 3:30 in the afternoon while all activity in the city came to a halt for ninety minutes.

Bishop Wright eloquently paid tribute to his son: “A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self reliance and a great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he live and died.”

After the death of Wilbur, Orville found himself at the helm of a floundering company with the patent wars still in progress. He didn’t want the leadership responsibility and he refused to actively improve the Wright airplanes because it would require adopting features that were used by Curtiss, the very man he accused of stealing.

He did invent a pendulum-driven automatic pilot for which he won the prestigious Collier trophy. It was soon eclipsed by Lawrence Sperry’s gyroscope-driven system.

Then suddenly there was good news in 1914. The Circuit of Appeals upheld the Wrights’ patent suit against Curtiss. This decision gave Orville a monopoly in which any company building and selling airplanes would have to pay the Wright Company 20% of its receipts. Orville could have closed down Curtiss. But he chose not to.

Many people are puzzled as to why he didn’t. The reason he didn’t is because the patent fight was over and now at last the Wright brothers’ claim to the invention of the airplane was recognized and protected. Orville felt vindicated.

With that accomplished he decided to sell the Wright Company. Orville recognized his limitations as a manager. He had no desire to oversee a team of research-and-development engineers such as Curtiss had developed.

On October 15, 1915 Orville sold the company, including the patents, to a group of eastern investors for $150 million. The new Wright Co. was still dogged by Curtiss as he continued to drag out negotiations with repeated proposals for settlement that were never finalized.

World War I brought an end to the fiasco. The U.S. stepped in and commanded a truce to resolve the dispute when America entered the war in 1917. A consortium of aviation companies banded together and brokered an agreement by which all members could pay a fee to license the patented technology. In return, Curtiss and the Wright-Martin Co., which in the interim had merged with the old Wright Co., each received $2 million in a one-time settlement and agreed to lay the patent issue to rest.

Orville retired and enjoyed life receiving the honors of being the co-inventor of the airplane, tinkering in his laboratory in downtown Dayton and doing some consulting work.

Reference: Invention & Technology, Fall 2003.

Wilbur Wright had been assembling his airplane in Bollee’s factory near Le Mans since June. The French were getting impatient waiting for Wilbur to demonstrate his airplane.

The Paris newspaper sarcastically announces, “Le bluff continues. Everyone has talked about the Wright brothers but they have not made good.” Bets were being made on whether Wilbur would get off the ground.

Wilbur was behind schedule because his crated disassembled airplane had been severely damaged by custom’s agents in Le Havre and would require considerable rework before it was air worthy again. Leon Bollee offered Wilbur space in his automobile factory in Le Mans to assemble the plane and was a great help to Wilbur in many ways.

A hot radiator house came off during a test run of the engine seriously burning Wilbur’s left side further delaying work.

Bollee arranged for Wilbur to use a local Hunaudieres racetrack as a flying field. It was a small field surrounded by trees with a grandstand located five miles south of Le Mans. The field was a difficult and dangerous field for Wilbur to negotiate. He would have to make a sharp turn turn immediately after lift-off and continue to make two to three deep turns every minute he was in the air.

Wilbur lived in a hanger on the field consisting of a wooden shed.  He cooked for himself and used a hosepipe for a shower. Water and milk were available from a nearby farmhouse as was a small restaurant.

A stray dog, Flyer, joined him and became a constant companion. The dog looked like “skin and bones” at first, but soon looked more like a barrel.

Wilbur’s first flight was on August 8, 1908

Wilbur wrote to Orville about his first flight, “Last Saturday I took the machine out for the first time and made a couple of circles. — I wound up with a complete ¾ of a circle with a diameter of only 31 yards, by measurement, and landed with wing level. I had to turn suddenly as I was running into trees and was too high to land and too low to go over them.”

The following is the newspaper report of the events of that day.

“Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio made a flight variously computed at 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 kilometers with his aeroplane here this afternoon, in one minute and 46 seconds. Throughout the flight Mr. Wright had perfect control of the machine. No attempt was made for a record, the object of the flight being to try out the aeroplane.

While flying through the air Wright demonstrated, or so it appeared to the spectators, that he was absolutely master of the airship, first soaring, then shooting gracefully downward and then mounting again at will, until finally, after completing two circles, he came down to earth.

The performance was greeted with a burst of cheers from a small number of people invited (about 30) to view the experiment. Wright was warmly congratulated by all the spectators, including a few French aeronauts, two Russian officers and a number of other experts.

The successful flight made by Wilbur Wright with his aeroplane today puts an end to the long anxious waiting in America and Europe to see what the Wright brothers were capable of accomplishing.

The long postponement of a public exhibition of what the Americans had to show the world aroused the liveliest comment and from some quarters a touch of skepticism. A Paris newspaper only last night referring to the bluff Wright Brothers, of whom everybody had been talking for many years, but who as yet have not made good.

Weather conditions for the test were splendid. The sky was blue and without a cloud and a gentle Northwest breeze was blowing.

It was shortly before 3 o’clock this afternoon when the aeroplane, which is the same as that used in the United States, was brought out of its shed and mounted on a small single-wheeled chariot, which in turn was on a single rail. After a preliminary test of the apparatus, Mr. Wright took a position beside the motor.

By means of a falling weight rigged on a beam erected in the ground and connecting with cords running over the rail, and the aeroplane, thus having been given a forward motion, suddenly left the chariot and ascended like a bird to a height of about 40 feet. Then it swerved and turned in its course and sailed up the field. It dipped gracefully up and down, attaining a height of 60 feet and then descended to between 30 and 40 feet.

Mr. Wright thus twice circled the field and, then, stopping the motor, brought the aeroplane directly in front of the improved grandstand, which was filled with wildly cheering spectators.

The descent was sure and easy, and was carried out with great nicety, without causing shock to either the machine or the operator.

Estimates vary as to the distance covered by the aeroplane, but the average was three kilometres. Hart O. Berg, European representative of the Wright brothers gave the official time as 1 minute 45 seconds.

The populace is enthusiastic over the experiment.” (End of newspaper article)

Wilbur wrote to Orville several days later, “The newspapers and the French aviators nearly went wild with excitement. Bleriot and Delagrange were so excited they could hardly speak, and Kapferer could only gasp and could not talk at all. You would have died of laughter if you could have seen them….. You never saw anything like the complete reversal of position that took place after two or three little flights of less than two minutes each.”

A Wright Type B airplane will participate in the World famous Farnborough (England) International Airshow in July 2008. The airplane is a civilian version of the authentic replica of the Model B located at the Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania.

The flights at the Airshow will help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first flight in the United Kingdom.

The replica was built by a group of volunteers in Dayton, Ohio. A spokesman said that this replica has many refinements and safety improvements that do not detract from its authenticity, but enhance its beauty and flying safety. The plane essentially operates under the same horsepower, weight and controls used by the Wright brothers.

In 1911, the Wrights received a contract from the U.S. Signal Corps for two Type B Aircraft. They built a factory on the West-side of Dayton to build these and other airplanes. Some twenty people were involved in construction of the Army’s Model B.

If you were interested in the “Art of Aviation” and becoming a “birdman” (pilot), the usual procedure was to meet with Orville in his office at the factory. Although, the first meeting might take place at their Huffman Prairie Flying Field, reachable by the interurban train from Dayton to the flying field at the Simms Station stop. Orville spent a lot of time at the flying field because he enjoyed being involved in the flying activities more than working in the office.

Lessons at the Wright School cost $60 per hour of direct training provided in 15-minute intervals. There was a potential large cost saving at the Wright School because there was no charge for breakage of the machine. Most other flying schools required the student to pay for breakage.

New students were considered to be “ground huggers” by the birdman and their associates. Orville would counsel nervous students, “Don’t be nervous, it’s just like learning to ride a bicycle.”

The student would then be assigned to his instructor and to the Wrights’ chief mechanician, Charley Taylor. Both men were professional and had a low tolerance for foolishness.

Before taking to the air the student would be tutored in the Wright techniques for construction and maintenance of airplanes and in the fundamental principles of flight. This included the means for lifting and dropping the machine by angling the elevator surfaces and the means for turning by coordinating movements of the rudder surfaces with wing warping.

In one room of the factory the Wrights’ had built a flight simulator, named the “kiwi bird.” The simulator was a Type B without an engine and tail assembly. It was cradled to allow lateral movement only.

An electric motor driving a cam continuously changed the angle of the planes about the longitudinal axis. As the student pilot manipulated the combination warp and rudder lever properly, the planes were returned to a level attitude.

Usually it required the student to spend several hours over three or four days seated on the kiwi bird, practicing until correction of lateral imbalance became instinctive.

Once this phase is completed the student pilot journeyed to the Simms Station Field for flight training. The field was a converted cow pasture, bare except for a thorn tree at one end and a large wooden shed at the other. The field was over 300-feet long, which was long enough to accommodate even inept students.

The students first task was to help pull the 1,250 pound Model B from the shed. The machine rode on wheels and skids that replaced the steel track that was used on earlier models.

The model B had its control surfaces at the rear of the machine unlike previous Wright models. A 35-hp water-cooled engine powered eight-foot propellers to turn at about 45-rpm.

The first procedure, which the student was taught to perform every time before flight, was the ground check. It included a walk around that included inspecting its fitness, checking patches of fabric and testing the webwork of wires.

If everything checked out to be ok, the instructor and student would climb into two side by side wicker seats lined with corduroy, perched on the forward edge of the lower plane.

Between the two seats stood the wing-warping lever with a hinged upper section for independent rudder control. By rotating the top portion of the lever the pilot could add or subtract rudder action by a somewhat difficult wrist-twisting movement.

To make the task easier, a right-handed pilot was trained in the left seat so that his “better” hand could be used.

There was another lever at the outside of each seat to use to change altitude.

A spring-loaded foot treadle that was reachable from either seat adjusted speed. Pressing on the foot treadle advanced or retarded the ignition spark, providing a range of engine power.

To start the engine, one man primed the intake manifold from an oil can filled with gasoline. The engine was then started with the compression released; otherwise, you would need two heavyweight wrestlers to turn the propellers.

Two other men swung the propellers; the engine fired in a blast of smoke as they ran to grasp the wing tips. The pilot than turned the compression-release lug and switched on the fuel-tank value. The spark-retard was not released until the engine was running smoothly.

At that point the pilot would wave the assistants to let loose of the machine. The pilot kicked at the treadle and pushed the elevator-control lever. The machine bounced along the ground as the machine gained speed. The tail assembly raised and its skids left the ground as the “B” wobbled into the air.

It was customary at the Wright school for the novice student to only act as an observer on his first flight. After landing, the aviators, mechanicians, and workman on the ground would go through a ritual of carefully examining the machine to see if the student passenger “had squeezed the paint off.”

A typical flight-training schedule would consist of a 15-minute airborne period per day over several days. The first couple of days the student would learn to perform left and right turns and then figure eights. The task of the student was to maintain level flight, as well as perform aerodynamic turns without slipping and skidding. It was like balancing on a knife-edge. One mishap, one lapse of concentration, could result in a plunge into oblivion.

By the third, flight the student was participating in takeoff and landing maneuvers. One helpful bit of advice given to the student on taking off and landing was to “look at your shadow. When it leaves you, you’re in the air; when it reappears again, you’re down.” Landing too hard was hazardous to skids and wheels.

By the sixth day, the student had operated the machine under his own skills through a complete cycle.

Generally student flight was restricted to afternoons and then only in still air. Orville established this rule. He said, “Otherwise we can’t tell whether the wind or the student is knocking the machine about.”

Orville would often observe the training dressed in his derby and dark business suit. He would admonish his students against foolhardy thoughts or acts. He emphasized the maxims of safety. Caution and concentration were bywords expressed to students for survival.

Orville would often tell of the horse-drawn carriage waiting on the road that bounded the pasture, its driver, a somber gentleman with tall black hat, following with keen interest each day’s flights. That man, Orville said ominously, was the local undertaker.

Once the instructor and teacher were satisfied that the student was ready to solo, Orville as well those other present would gather to watch the solo flight. After a successful flight, the observers would cheer while the pilot was proclaimed a master of airplanes — a “birdman.”

After qualifying as an aviator, the Type B could be purchased for $5,000.

An extra benefit of being a student at the Wright School was that Orville would regularly invite most of his students to his Hawthorne Street home for dinner with his father, Bishop Milton Wright, his sister, Katharine, and his brother Lorin.

Reference: Fight of the VIN FIZ by E. P. Stein

Famous aviation inventors from the Wilbur and Orville Wright to space entrepreneur Burt Rutan are driven by the joy of invention.

In September 1900 Wilbur wrote to his father, “It is my belief that flight is possible and, while I am taking up the investigation for pleasure rather than profit. I think there is a slight possibility of achieving fame and fortune from it.”

They treated their first visit to Kitty Hawk as a vacation trip, Orville wrote to his sister in October 1900, “This is a great country for fishing and hunting. The fish are so thick you see dozens of them whenever you look down into the water. The woods are filled with wild game.”

On another occasion, Orville wrote to his sister, “It has been with considerable effort that I have succeeded in keeping him (Wilbur) in the flying business. He likes to chase buzzards, thinking they are eagles and chicken hawks, much better.”

The brothers brought home with them a lot of pictures that year. But they where mostly scenic tourist type pictures, only a few were of their 1900 glider.

Even two years later prior to their third trip to Kitty Hawk, Katharine wrote to their father, “Will and Orv ….. Really ought to get away for a while. Will is thin and nervous and so is Orv. They well be all right when they get down in the sand where the salt breezes blow, etc. They think that life and Kitty Hawk cures all ills you know.”

Burt Rutan talks about how private space policy should emphasize innovation, safety and having a helluva good time.

Rutan has averaged more than one new aircraft design per year for over 30 years totaling some 36 different manned airplanes. Last year Rutan and his team, Scaled Composites, became the first private company to send a man into suborbital space twice with two weeks, using the same vehicle.

When SpaceShipOne landed after its second successful flight and won the “X Prize,” he proclaimed, “we are going to the stars.”

Until the latter part of 1906 there were only two men in the world who could fly. Between 1903 and 1906, Wilbur and Orville made 160 flights totaling almost 160 miles.

From the period 1908 to early 1912 only 10 people had flown. After that for the next 3-1/2 half-year period, there was an explosion of flight. Thousands of pilots flew hundreds of airplanes in 39 countries.

They were flying because it was fun. Commercial applications were still in the future. People wanted to fly with barnstormers and attend air shows. It would not be until the late 1920s before commercial transport carried passengers, mail and merchandise.

Rutan is at the point with regard to development of space airplanes where the airplane was before the common man could fly. His SpaceShipOne demonstrated that “the little guy can fly above a hundred kilometers, without government assistance, and government technology, and government funds.”

“We strongly feel that the biggest problem is the safety problem, not the affordability problem,” claims Rutan.

“The real thing that we did here is to develop three new breakthroughs, and each one of them is going to have enormous effects on safety. The “care-free reentry” in which the craft realigns itself automatically is just one of those, so we think this is the right way to go and we think that we can get that level of early airplane safety if we adequately do our flight tests ahead of time.”

Rutan has an outstanding safety record over his 30 years of airplane development. His airplanes have never injured a pilot or had a major accident.

He maintains that his success is based on a philosophy of never having to defend their safety. Rutan requires all his people whether building, designing, flying or testing, always to be in the mode of questioning safety.

“But to never, ever put themselves in a position where they defend the safety. Once they do, you’re screwed.”

He explains what he means by saying, “If you’re always questioning it (safety) you can turn around and find something better and immediately incorporate it. For example, if you had turned in last week a report to government agency in which you’ve told the product, as it is, is safe, if you discover something better next week, you have two choices.”

“One, you can go and write an addendum to that report and essentially tell the government, that, gee, I was wrong last week, it wasn’t the safest that it can be, and now it is because I’ve discovered this new thing. And then you’ll find yourself debating that with them and losing your credibility with them.”

“We make changes almost every day when we’re in a research mode. So you can see you get into this big back and forth in which they see you making changes after you defend the safety to them.”

“Now the solution there is to never tell anybody it’s safe, but also question it, which then allows you to immediately incorporate safety features and go on. And, instead of firing somebody who designed something unsafe, you reward whoever found a better way and congratulate them. The other choice that people have is they’ll see something safer and they’ll realize they just told the government that it was safe last week. And then they made the decision that, well, you know, last week’s configuration — it’s safe enough”

Rutan also points out that he runs a small company. He doesn’t have a big safety department that works with government regulators. It would be counterproductive to divert his workforce from designing, manufacturing and testing to make the product as safe as possible in order to write reports and provide data to government regulators who are often naïve and sometimes inexperienced and won’t make a quick decision.

He maintains that he is not against government regulations but rather how they are applied. He believes that the solution is to allow the developer to define the testing that is needed for his system to show that it is safe. The developer would negotiate his test plan with the FAA, who would approve the fact that he did it. You can’t regulate too early in the development process because you don’t know what new ideas are going appear in the future.

He provides the example of NASA. He claims that “what Alan Shepard flew in was an expendable booster with a parachute recovery, and for 44 years of NASA manned space flight, they have not made significant improvements in concepts that will allow safe access to space.”

An article in the New York Times of April 4, 2005 cites that the loss of the Columbia and its crew two years ago was the outcome of a broken safety culture. James D. Wetherbee, a former shuttle commander and recently a safety official at The Johnson Space Center in Houston, is still concerned about safety at NASA. He states that “NASA’s management did not see safety clearly, and noted that the previous administrator, Sean O’keefe, had spoken about how much risk was acceptable.” Wetherbee says that is the wrong question to ask. The right question is what risk is necessary, and how do we eliminate the unnecessary risk.

What Rutan wants to do is follow the process the Wrights used. That was one of continuous improvement through experimentation and flight testing until both brothers believed their Flyer was safe enough to fly.

Rutan claims he will develop a space vehicle that is 100 times safer than anything developed so far.

But, the Wrights didn’t have to contend with the FAA or NASA.

Reference: Reason, March 31, 2005.