Wright Activities Before and After 1903

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.

The news from Le Mans on September 1, 1908 was that “Wilbur Wright made an endurance test with his motor today. At the end of two hours he found it heated and consequently this afternoon devoted himself to making examinations of the Bollee motor.”

Comment: When Wilbur arrived in France in June of 1908, a complete airplane in crates was waiting for him in the customs shed at Le Havre. He had also hired a French company, Bariquand et Marre, to build at least one new engine as well as rebuild one old Wright engine and have them ready for him.

When Wilbur opened the crtes he found almost everything inside was broken. It was either caused by careless custom inspectors or maybe on purpose.

Wilbur’s first reaction was that improper packing by Orville caused the damage, but Orville quickly put that notion to rest.

As if the broken pieces of the plane weren’t enough, Wilbur found that the engines, including one old Wright engine were not ready.

Fortunately, Leon Bollee, a Le Mans car manufacturer, offered him space in his factory to rebuild the plane. Wilbur estimated the job would take three weeks to complete. It took almost seven.

The French-built engines still had not been completed but they did send him the old rebuilt Wright engine. They did had done a shoddy job on it, so Wilbur had to work on it himself. While doing so on July 4th, the radiator hose came off the engine and sprayed Wilbur’s left side with scalding water. Fortunately, Bollee was standing next to Wilbur watching him work and was able to give him immediate first aid.

The scalding water left a large blister on his left side and another one on his forearm. It was painful but Wilbur continued his work.

The newspaper account referred to the Bollee motor. There was no Bollee made motor. It was most likely the old Wright motor that Wilbur had worked on in the Bollee factory.

The French intend on celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wibur’s first flight at Le Mans that occurred on August 8, 1908. A group from France, including Gerard Bollee, the 80 year old grandnephew of Leon Bollee, recently visited the Outer Banks, NC to discuss plans for the commemoration with members of the Wright family and the First Flight Society.

The “Scientific American,” May 30, 1908, carried the following article:

The Wright Aeroplane Test in North Carolina.

Upon the return of the newspaper correspondents and photographers from North Carolina, considerable more information was obtainable regarding the recent flights made by the Wright brothers in testing their aeroplane than has hitherto been available.

Unfortunately, not one of these men is a qualified technical observer, for which reason we are little better off for details than we were before.

In addition to the frontispiece showing the aeroplane as it appears in flight, we are enabled, owing to the courtesy of P. F. Collier & Son, (Colliers Magazine) to show our readers two photographs at long range of the aeroplane in flight around Kill Devil Hill. These photographs, while quite minute, nevertheless when magnified give some idea of the actual appearance of the machine in flight; but their greatest value lies in dispelling all doubt as to the ability of the Wright machine to fly and to make good its designers’ claims.

Comments: The wrights had developed the practical airplane in 1905. They made the decision at the end of the 1905-flying season that they would not fly again until they had a signed contract for its sale in hand. Their patent wasn’t granted until 1906 and even then the patent wouldn’t assure protection from their competitors stealing their secrets.

In 1908, they finally had secured contracts in France and the U. S. government for their airplane contingent on demonstration of operational performance. Their customers wanted a machine that would carry two people and a system of controls allowing the pilot to teach a passenger how to fly.

Their new design was basically the 1905 machine updated to incorporate a new upright seating arrangement, a new control system and a more powerful engine. The control system replaced the saddle with three control sticks. One elevator control stick was placed at the left hand of the pilot and another at the right hand of the passenger/student. The wingwarping and rudder controls were placed between the two seats.

The redesign of the controls along with the fact that the Wrights had not flown since 1905 necessitated they spend time practicing flying the new machine. They, therefore, decided to return to Kitty Hawk in 1908. End of Comments

All those who witnessed the flights agree that the performance of the machine was marvelous, and that the speed attained with the small motor of 30 horsepower was remarkable.

Comments: News organizations had been reporting on the new Army contract and were aware of the creation of a French syndicate to buy a Wright machine. They knew that the Wrights would soon be flying again and they wanted to be there when they did.

Three reporters representing leading newspapers were assigned to observe the Wright activities. Knowing the Wrights reluctance to fly when reporters were observing, they tried to hide some distance away. It wasn’t pleasant duty. They had to cope with snakes, mosquitoes, ticks and, at times, heavy rains. They were probably upset to find out later that the Wrights knew they were there all the time. End of Comments.

As already noted in our last issue, the speed in question appears to have been from 45 to 48 miles an hour, although the last flight was timed in 7 minutes and 40 seconds, during which the life savers claim that the machine traveled slightly over 8 miles.

The distances are said to be fairly accurate, since they were gauged by the known space between telegraph poles and the number of poles in the course.

The probability is, however, that the speed of the machine did not at any time exceed 48 miles an hour. In fact, the Wrights do not claim a speed of much over 40 miles an hour.

Still, according to report, they state that before the flights witnessed by outsiders, they made three flights of 18, 24, and 32 miles respectively.

In their final flight they had intended to remain in the air an hour and twenty minutes, or a third longer than is required in the government test; but a false movement of one of the operating levers caused them to plunge downward. Not more than $50 worth of damage was done to the machine, and save for a few scratches the aviator was uninjured.

Comment: The accident could have been very serious. After flying some 8,900 feet, Wilbur became confused while operating the elevator control and dived the machine into the sand while moving at 41 miles an hour. He suffered severe bruises and bumps and wrecked the machine. End

A close study of the photographs which we reproduce shows that the horizontal rudder in front of the machine is of the double or triple-surface type.

Comment: The photographs were the first ever published of a Wright airplane in the air. End

The vertical rudder also can be seen well out at the rear, as well as the two propellers, half of each of which is in sunlight, and the other half in shadow.

The aviator is seen sitting in the middle of the lower plane, while there are several tubes for the cooling water of the motor running vertically upward to the upper plane from the motor, which is located in a fore-and-aft direction in the center of the lower plane, and which drives each of the two through chains.

A second lever in front of the aviator operates the vertical rudder, and a third one twists the planes to aid in steering.

In the tests recently made, the Wright brothers were trying out their new form of steering and control by means of levers and with the operator in a sitting position. In their former flights in 1905, the operator lay prone, and the change to a sitting position necessitated a different method of control.

Comment: On May 14, Wilbur flew with their friend Charlie Furnas aboard. Charlie was a mechanic from Dayton. This was the first time two men had ever flown together on a Wright airplane. End

The brothers are quite satisfied with the results they have obtained, and there is little doubt that more will be heard from them in the near future.

Upon hearing of their flights, Henry Farman sent a challenge for them to come to France and fly in competition with him. The Wrights paid no attention to this challenge. Their confidence in their machine is such that they do not believe it necessary to make a public trial either here or abroad in order to interest the other governments, which may yet purchase machines from them.

Since their trial flights in North Carolina have been witnessed by newspapermen, and photographs of these flights have been secured, there is no longer any doubt of the pre-eminence of America in aviation.

We hope that before the end of the year we shall be able to arrange for a public contest near New York, in which all the prominent foreign and American aviators will compete, and endeavor to win for the first time the Scientific American trophy.

Comment: Wilbur, under pressure from the French syndicate, left camp on May 17 to proceed directly to France via New York. Orville returned to Dayton to complete work on the machine he would fly in demonstrations for the Army at Ft. Myer beginning in September. End

Harper’s Weekly of September 26, 1908 reprinted an interview that a London newspaper reporter conducted with Lazare Weiller. Mr. Weiller is the head of a French syndicate that had just signed a contract in New York with Wilbur Wright.

Under the terms of the contract, the syndicate would purchase the Wright French patent rights to manufacture, sell and license Wright airplanes in France as soon the conditions of the contract were fulfilled.

The article stated that “the conditions (roughly) are that the machine shall make a flight of fifty kilometres (thirty-one miles), rising from ground under its own power in a wind of at least eleven miles an hour.

Mr. Weiller said that if the trials at Le Mans succeeded he would build a factory and make and sell the machines, to be used as instruments of sport.

He expressed great admiration for Mr. Wright, not for his dexterity, for he thought him rather clumsy, but because he is a genius and a scientist and has a perfect mechanical intelligence.

The French aviators he considered to be still in the stage of complications which Mr. Wright had passed.”

Weiller was a businessman involved in a variety of businesses, including a lucrative Paris taxicab business. His interest in the aeroplane was more than financial. He was interested in scientific and aeroplane speculation. The syndicate he headed was called La Compagnie Generale de Navigation Aerienne.

The contract was the first contract that the Wrights had successfully negotiated in France or anywhere else in Europe and even though terms were not as good as they wanted, it seemed to have profit potential. Upon satisfactory completion of the demonstration flights, the Wrights would receive (a) 500,000 francs upon delivery of the first machine, (b) 50% of the founders shares in the company and (c) 20,000 francs apiece for each of four additional machines.

The year before, Wilbur had been unsuccessful in negotiating a contract with the French Government. At that time he thought that contracting with the government as the Wrights had done in the U.S., rather than with a commercial firm, was the preferred approach.

That approach had resulted in a ten-month delay in getting started in France. By that time several French aviators were making flights with machines that imperfectly copied the Wright machine.

On January 1, 1908 Henri Farrman won the Archdeacon 50,000 francs cup for a flight lasting one minute, 28 seconds. The flight was far from perfect and his turn at the halfway point was awkward and the machine wobbled as it made a wide flat turn.

The day after Wilbur’s arrival in France, Leon Delagrange flew for 8 miles at Rome and Farrman flew the first flight with a passenger on board at Issy.

Although the French machines were technologically behind the Wright’s machine, Weiller began to get cold feet about the contract and feared the Wrights’ machine might be overtaken. When Wilbur arrived in France in June, he had to shore up Weiller’s confidence.

Wilbur wrote to Orville, who had stayed behind in the U.S. to fulfill the Army’s contract requirements: “The situation in France was similar to how an old-time circuit rider had found religion in his district, in other words flat on its back. — Our position is improving rapidly as it always does when one of us is here to meet people and infuse a little confidence in them.”

Wilbur was optimistic about the time it would take to build the machine that was still stored in crates at Le Havre, having been sent to France the previous year. He estimated that it would take a few weeks to build the machine and complete the demonstration flights. The few weeks turned into six months.

When Wilbur opened the crates, he found the disassembled machine had been severely damaged during the French custom inspection. Initially, he thought it was Orville’s fault, so he sent him an angry letter.

He wrote: “I opened the boxes yesterday and have been puzzled ever since to know how you could have wasted two whole days packing them. I am sure that with a scoop shovel I could have put things in within two or three minutes and make as good a job of it. I never saw such evidence of idiocy in my life.”

Seven weeks were required to build the machine. It didn’t help that Wilbur received a severe burn on his arm when a radiator hose broke during an engine test. The burns left a blister as big as Wilbur’s hand on his left side and another blister a foot long on his forearm.

Finally on August 8, Wilbur was ready for a demonstration flight of his assembled Wright Model A Flyer at the Hunaudieres racetrack near Le Mans.

Wilbur was dressed in his usual suit, a visor cap set backwards and starched collar. The engine started and quickly died when Wilbur’s back collar stud caught on the control wires.

Soon after, the weight dropped from the launching derrick, propelling the machine into the air.

French aviation reporter, Francois Peyrey, describes what happened: “We beheld the great white bird soar above the racecourse and pass over and beyond the trees. We were able to follow easily each movement of the pilot, note his extraordinary proficiency in the flying business, perceive the curious warping of the wings in the process of circling and the shifting and position of the rudders. After one minute and 45 seconds of flight, Wright returned to the ground, descending with extraordinary buoyancy and precision.”

The crowd cheered loudly. “Well, we are beaten!” exclaimed one spectator. Another said, “We are as children compared with the Wrights.”

Wilbur wrote Orville on August 15, “In the second flight, I made an “eight” and landed at the starting point. The newspapers and the French aviators went wild with excitement. Blenot and Delagrange were so excited they could scarcely speak, and Kapferer could only gasp and could not talk at all. You would have almost died of laughter if you could have seen them.”

Wilbur, between August 1908 and January 1909, made more than one hundred demonstration flights in France at Le Mans and Pau. He took up 60 passengers including the first woman to fly (Mrs. Hart Berg, whose husband had put the Weiller syndicate together), astounding spectators and bringing on instant fame.

On the last day of 1908, Wilbur won the Michelin prize for circling above snow covered Camp d’Auvours for 2 hours, 20 minutes. The distance covered was about 90 miles. Wilbur was told that the French government was going to bestow the Legion of Merit on both Wright brothers.

After his last flight in France near Pau in March, Wilbur gave the machine he flew at Le Mans and Pau to Weiller and the members of the syndicate.

Weiller’s doubts had vanished and investors clamored to join the syndicate. His syndicate did not intend to build the machine. They would function as sales agents, contracting other firms such as Societe Astra and Chantiers de France.

The syndicate eventually claimed that it had received 50 orders, but probably one-half that was ever constructed. The trouble began when Societe Astra, the company that had constructed most of the machines under contract for the syndicate, was taken over. The legal complications of this take-over might take years to straighten out. In the meantime, profits were falling and Weiller’s syndicate was about out of business.

Orville sailed to France to investigate the situation, leaving New York on November 15, 1910. He returned home discouraged. Their contract in Germany was also in bad shape.

Orville returned to Europe in 1912. He found that Weiller’s syndicate was virtually defunct. Societe Astra had taken over the entire operation. The change was disastrous. Quality of the machines had deteriorated, particularly the engines, and their business practices, according to Orville, were hopeless.

Neither the Wrights nor the investors would ever get rich on the profits from the sale of the license-built machines in France.

The Wright brothers can best tell the story of how the Wright machine takes off and makes a flight. They wrote about the experience in a 1908 issue of Century Magazine. It is quoted below.

“In order to show the general reader the way in which the machine operates, let us fancy ourselves ready for a start.

The machine is placed upon a single rail track facing the wind, and is securely fastened with a cable.

The engine is put in motion, and the propellers in the rear whirr. You take your seat at the center of the machine by the operator. He slips the cable, and you shoot forward.

An assistant who has been holding the machine in balance on the rail, starts forward with you, but before you have gone fifty feet the speed is too great for him, and he lets go. Before reaching the end of the track the operator moves the front rudder (note: they called the elevator, the rudder at that time) and the machine lifts from the rail like a kite supported by the pressure of the air underneath it.

The ground under you is at first a perfect blur, but as you rise the objects become clearer. At the height of one hundred feet you feel hardly any motion at all, except for the wind which strikes your face.

If you did not take the precaution to fasten your hat before starting, you have probably lost it by this time.

The operator moves a lever, the right wing rises, and the machine swings about to the left, yet you do not feel the sensation of being thrown from your seat, so often experienced in automobile and railway travel. You find yourself facing the point from which you started.

The objects on the ground now seem to be moving at much higher speed, though you perceive no change in the pressure of the wind on your face. You know then that you are traveling with the wind.

When you near the staring point, the operator stops the motor while still high in the sky. The machine coasts down at an oblique angle to the ground, and after sliding fifty or a hundred feet comes to rest.

Although the machine often lands when traveling at a speed of a mile a minute, you feel no shock whatever, and cannot, in fact, tell the exact moment at which it first touched the ground.

The motor close beside you kept up an almost deafening roar during the whole flight, yet in your excitement you did not notice it till it stopped.”

The same article the Wrights discussed some of the difficulties met with by experimenters in constructing a machine that will have good stability.

“The balancing of a flyer may seem, at first thought, to be a very simple matter, yet almost every experimenter had found in just this the one point which he could not satisfactorily master.

Many different methods were tried. Some experimenters placed the center of gravity far below the wings, in the belief that the weight would naturally seek to remain at the lowest point. It was true, that, like the pendulum, it tended to seek the lowest point; but also, like the pendulum, it tended to oscillate in a manner destructive of all stability.

A more satisfactory system, especially for lateral balance, was that of arranging the wings in the shape of a V, to form a dihedral angle, with the center low and the wing-tips elevated.

In theory this was an automatic system, but in practice it had two serious defects: first, it tended to keep the machine oscillating; second, its usefulness was restricted to calm air.”

The Century Magazine in their comment on the above mistakenly maintains the wrong paradigm popular at the time that a successful design of a machine will incorporate automatic equilibrium.

The Magazine states the following: “The Wright machine has demonstrated that it can fly in a wind as great as 20 miles an hour, while none of the other aeroplanes have ever flown in a wind of half this velocity. In this one point alone it is far superior to all other aeroplanes; and doubtless, in time, the brothers will perfect it so that it will have automatic equilibrium and thus be capable of use by almost any individual.”