Wright Brothers – History of Flight

Articles relating to the history of the first flight.

The Parachute

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

The Wright brothers didn’t use parachutes although parachutes existed long before the Wright brothers introduced the airplane to the world. Leonardo da Vinci designed a parachute centuries ago and dare devils jumped out of balloons with parachutes in more recent years.

The introduction of the parachute to airplane pilots occurred during WW I when it became apparent that lives could be saved. German pilots were the first to use them. The Germans designed a chute that could be harnessed on the pilot’s back and could be deployed safely after bailing out of an airplane airplane. The pilot was saved to fly again.

The Americans had chutes but were poorly designed and often became tangled with the airplane while exiting.

General William Mitchell, commander of the U.S. Air Corps in France, observing the success of the Germans, was influential in establishing a parachute center at the Air Force’s Engineering Center at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio in 1918.

Earlier, Captain Albert Berry was the first pilot to make a successful jump from a moving airplane in March 1912 at an U.S. Army Base located just outside St. Louis. He jumped at 1,500 feet while flying at 55 mph. His chute opened after a fall of 500 feet.

The parachute he used was too bulky to be strapped to his back, instead it was carried in an iron cone fastened to the airplane’s undercarriage. Two ropes connected to a trapeze-like bar hung out of the mouth of the cone. Two leg loops were provided at the end of the bar.

Berry had to climb down the fuselage to the axle while steadying himself with the trapeze bar, slide a belt around his waist and then cut himself away. All this time the pilot had to fly the biplane as level as he could. One rapid movement in any direction would be fatal to Berry.

Despite the difficulty involved, Berry reached the ground safely.

Nine days later he decided to repeat the feat, this time before the public. This time the airplane flew lower at 800 feet to assure that the crowd had a good view of him.

All did not go well this time and the lower altitude almost cost Berry his life. The parachute somehow got below him and was seconds away from becoming tangled in the canopy. Fortunately, he was able to right the chute with enough time to reach the ground safely. Berry decided that was enough parachuting for him and he never tried it again.

On December 17, 2006 the First Flight Society enshrined Albert Berry in the Wright Brothers Memorial visitor’s center in Kitty Hawk, NC.

Berry’s two jumps were admirable, but not practical. The Army Air Corps needed something that didn’t require a circus act for pilots to use in an emergency.

As noted earlier, the Engineering Division at McCook Field was given the job and they developed a parachute that was lightweight while retaining great strength. It was made of Japanese silk, attached to a harness of linen webbing with dimensions 24 feet high and 19 1/2 feet in diameter in the open position.

With hinges attached, the weight of the parachute was 17 1/2 pounds yet it withstood a tensile strain of approximately 10,000 pounds. Metal fittings were of drop forged nickel steel, subjected to a pull test of 2,500 pounds each before assembly into the harness. These strengths were designed to withstand the forces met when a pilot is forced to leave his airplane going at a high speed.

On October 19, 1922 Lt. Harold Harris was the first pilot to jump from a disabled airplane with a manually operated parachute that saved his life. At the time he was flying a test flight over Dayton, Ohio.

His Loening W-2A fighter plane had been outfitted with new ailerons that were supposed to be more aerodynamic with improved maneuverability. He was participating in a mock dogfight when his ailerons whipped up and down, tearing the wing’s fabric surfaces and sending his plane plunging toward the earth.

The windblast scooped Harris out of the cockpit. He was able to manually activate his parachute and save his life. The parachute had been tested under experimental conditions, but never before in an actual emergency situation.

After Harris’ jump the Army required airmen to wear parachutes on all flights.

References: “Albert Berry’s Leap of Fate,” Aviation History, March 2007

“A Little Journey to the Home of the Engineering Div. Army Air Service, McCook Field,” undated.

The ancestors of ancient birds may have resembled the Wright brother’s 1903 biwing airplane. So wrote scientist Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University. A new study of the bones of a 125 million-year-old Chinese dinosaur suggests that they had upper and lower set of wings much like the biplanes of the Wright brothers.

The dinosaur called Microraptor gui used a two-level wing configuration that permitted the small 2-pound creature to glide from tree to tree. The 6-inch dinosaur had feathers on its legs that it folded under its body in flight, creating two staggered wing sections one slightly behind the other.

It appears that the dinosaur was tree-dwelling and took advantage of gravity to glide from tree to tree.

The Wrights observed birds to learn insights about flight. They concluded that control, particularly the roll component, was the key to man-flight. Birds mastered roll by twisting their wings. And like birds, a pilot could twist the wings of an airplane using a technique they named wing warping.

The Wrights used the biwing structure as a practical design for wing warping. Wilbur got the idea while twisting a bicycle tube box talking to a customer in their bicycle shop.

The dinosaur called “Microraptor gui” used a two-level wing configuration that permitted the small 2-pound creature to glide from tree to tree. The 6-inch dinosaur had feathers on its legs that it folded under its body in flight, creating two staggered wing sections one slightly behind the other.

It appears that the dinosaur was tree-dwelling and took advantage of gravity to glide from tree to tree.

The Wrights observed birds to learn insights about flight. They concluded that control, particularly the roll component, was the key to man-flight. Birds mastered roll by twisting their wings. And like birds, a pilot could twist the wings of an airplane using a technique they named wing warping.

The Wrights used the biwing structure as a practical design for wing warping. Wilbur got the idea while twisting a bicycle tube box talking to a customer in their bicycle shop.

The Brazilian inventor and aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont is popular this year in the United States. A replica of his 1906 airplane, the 14-bis, visited the Oshkosh AirVenture 2006.

In September, a replica of Dumont’s 1907 Demoiselle make public flights at the Dayton-Wright Brothers airport in Miamisburg, Ohio south of Dayton.

In 1904 after visiting the U.S. and learning of the Wright brothers success, Santos-Dumont returned to Paris to build his own machine. He originally moved to France to study engineering in the late 1800s.

In 1906 he created his 14-bis machine so named because it was first tested under his Airship (balloon) No. 14. On September 13, 1906 he achieved a “hop” flight of 23 ft in 7 seconds.

After repairs to the machine resulting from a crash landing on the previous flight, and the addition of a 50-hp engine, he flew 198 feet in seven seconds on Oct. 23. This flight won the Aero club of France’s Archdeacon Prize. The flight was recognized by the French as the first self-propelled heavier-than-air machine to take off in public and was greeted with enormous enthusiasm and coverage in the newspapers.

Then on Nov. 12, the bis-14 was fitted with primitive ailerons and achieved several flights, the longest being 722 feet in the time of 21 seconds at an altitude of 20 feet.

The machine, however, was impractical and Santos-Dumont flew it only one more time.

Octave Chanute wrote to the Wright brothers telling them about Santos-Dumont flights. Wilbur responded in 1906 with the following remarks: “When we see men laboring year after year on points we overcame in a few weeks, we do not believe there is one chance in a hundred that anyone will have a machine of the least practical usefulness within five years.”

In 1910 the Wrights brought suit against Santos-Dumont for infringement on the Wright’s French patents.

Santos-Dumont’s next machine was the 1907 Demoiselle (meaning dragonfly). It was the world’s first light plane. The pilot sat below the wing just to the rear of the engine. The engine powered a two-blade wooden propeller rotating just ahead of the leading edge of the wing.

Flight demonstrations of a replica of this machine were conducted during its stay in Dayton.

Santos-Dumont was born in Brazil on July 20, 1873 to a family made wealthy by the coffee business. He had multiple sclerosis that caused him to retire from flying in 1910. He returned to Brazil and committed suicide on July 23, 1932.

Santos-Dumont was a popular man as an aerial showman even though he contributed little to aeronautical engineering. When the hometown Dayton Herald carried the story of “first flight” on Dec 17, 1903, it carried the headline: Dayton Boys Emulate Great Santos-Dumont. The Herald made the mistake of comparing balloon flights with the first flight of a flying machine.

In 2007 Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of Wilbur and Orville Wright visited with Mario Villares, grandnephew of Santos-Dumont in Brazil. Lane said that she admires Santo-Dumont’s passion for flight. She said that he saw flying in so many ways.

Fly Like a Bird

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

On July 8, 2006 a manned, engine powered airplane with flapping wings took-off and flew for the first time. It went for a distance of about 1,000 feet in 14 seconds at a height up to four feet before crash landing.

Man has dreamed about flying like a bird throughout history. Daedalus and Icarus are famous in Greek history for trying to fly like a bird and weren’t successful. Leonardo da Vinci designed a machine to mimic a bird but never flew it. On July 8, 2006 two guys from Ohio were finally successful.

No, their names were not Orville and Wilbur Wright. They names are Jim DeLaurier and Jeremy Harris. They met at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, located across the street from Ohio State University. DeLaurier is an Aeronautical Engineer and Harris is a mechanical engineer.

They are both retired now although DeLaurier, who in recent years was a professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Toronto’s Aerospace Institute, still maintains his laboratory and advises students, some of who helped build the ornithopter.

The machine weighs 760 pounds and is powered by a small jet engine that produces 60 pounds of thrust.

On the fateful day the pilot Jack Sanderson, tried several times to get off the ground but failed. On the fourth attempt, with the wings flapping, the machine rose, touched down a couple of times and then rose and flew.

Harris envisioned 38 years ago building an ornithopter, an airplane that has flapping wings like a bird. DeLaurier, a colleague at Battelle, joined him in the endeavor that became an obsession for both men.

The Wright brothers flew with fixed wings that could be warped over a hundred years ago. Their longest flight was 852 feet in 59 seconds on their fourth flight of the day. Their Flyer served as the model that became the modern airplane of today.

It is not expected that a flapping machine will experience similar success. It does represent what creative engineering can achieve. Da Vinci would be proud of Harris and DeLaurier.

The ornithopter, appropriately named Flapper, will be placed in the Aerospace Museum at Downsview Park, Toronto.

The Wright Brothers were not always revered in Dayton as they are now. Here are some examples:

First Flight News: When Loren Wright presented the telegram from Orville and Wilbur describing their first flight on Feb. 17, 1903, the editor of the Dayton paper didn’t publish the news because he didn’t he didn’t see anything significant enough to publish.

The City of Dayton didn’t get around to publicly honoring the Wrights until it held a homecoming celebration on June 17, 1909, six years after the first flight.

The Wright Family Homestead, 7 Hawthorne St., where Orville was born, was sold to Henry Ford in 1936, then dismantled and moved to Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Wright Cycle Shop, 1127 West Third St., the Wright brothers’ fifth bicycle shop, where the Kitty Hawk Flyer was built also ended up in Greenfield Village.

Orville Wright’s Laboratory, 15 N. Broadway was demolished in 1976 for a gas station that was never built. A nice park containing a statue of Orville and a false front of the laboratory has been built in recent years. It also contains an operating ATM machine.

Hawthorn Hill in Oakwood was the home of Orville, Katharine and the bishop beginning in 1913. The National Cash Register Company bought the house after Orville’s death in 1948. That action saved the house but it is not open to the public except for rare occasions.

The first Wright Aircraft Company manufacturing building was built in 1910 on West Third St., further west of the fifth bicycle shop. A second building was built a year later. It was in these two buildings that the American aviation industry was born. Delphi now owns them and Delphi is currently in serious financial trouble. The buildings, pictured below, are still in use and in good condition. The Wright buildings are not open to the public and were not even during the Wright centennial celebration in 2003. Will the city be able to save these historic buildings if Delphi puts them up for sale?

Lawrence Blake, Superintendent of the Dayton Heritage National Historical Park provided the latest information on this question.

The National Park Service in 1992 studied the Wright Company Factory buildings for inclusion within the Dayton Aviation Heritage Historical Park. The study concluded that the buildings were outstanding examples of a particular type of resource and potentially, they offer exceptional value in illustrating and interpreting cultural themes of our nation’s heritage. However, the Park Service did not recommend inclusion in the park primarily because the buildings were inaccessible to the public.

Note: Delphi would not let me in the gate to photograph the buildings during the Centennial. The picture above was taken on Sunday through the chain link fence while no was there.

Since 1992, ownership of the property has shifted from General Motors to the Delphi Corporation. It is currently part of a complex of manufacturing buildings still in operation. Delphi has not made commitments for the future of the plant, which includes the Wright Company buildings, but has indicated a strong interest in the preservation of these buildings.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (P.L 108-447) included a provision directing the National Park Service to update the previous study, and to specifically include an analysis of alternatives for incorporating the Wright Company factory buildings as a unit of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

The National Park Service initiated a Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment of the Wright Company factory buildings in January 2005 with the active participation of Delphi and the Aviation Heritage Foundation. A draft Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment is scheduled for release and a 30-day public review in January 2006. A public meeting will be held in Dayton during the public review period.

The Special Study/Environmental Assessment of the Wright Company Factory buildings will be completed later in 2006.

Community organizations and individuals in Dayton have been actively supporting this 5th site of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park.