“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” - Leonardo DaVinci.
Air travel is far more advanced than any other mode of travel in the world today. Today, we have in flight hospitality and service and automated controls, but it had all started on a windy morning on the 17th of December, 1903. Wilbur Wright. Most of us know that name, at least the last name. Wilbur Wright was one half of the duo who planted the seeds of progress in the field of aviation, a development which would go on to become a thriving industry in itself. As it is his birthday today, it seemed only fitting to write a tribute to him, explaining the accomplishments of this great mind in a biographical chronology. His life and his work are all explained here, so that the next time you soar into the skies with your favorite airline, you’ll know where it had all started. This is the story of Wilbur Wright.
"In memory and intellect, there was none like him. He systemized everything. His wit was quick and keen. He could say or write anything he wanted to. He was not very talkative. His temper could hardly be stirred. He wrote much. He could deliver a fine speech, but was modest.” - Bishop Milton Wright, Wilbur's father.
On April 16th 1867, Wilbur Wright was born as the third child of seven to Milton Wright and Susan Catherine Wright. Although Wilbur is primarily known for piloting the first successful powered flight in the history of mankind, he has an impressive track record of earlier accomplishments too. He finished his high school with flying colors in 1884 and later enrolled himself for additional German and Trigonometry classes. After completing high school, he also enrolled himself into college to pursue higher studies. Wilbur was a remarkable person and was known throughout his life as a bright and confident person, but things turned for the worse for him during the years 1885 – 86.
During that time, Wilbur had a serious ice hockey accident which crushed his zest for life and all good things. With this mishap, Wilbur slowly entered a depression and dropped his plans of completing college. Till 1889, Wilbur spent most of his time in his family home, reading and caring for his dying mother. His injury and his mother’s sickness kept him from completing college. Tuberculosis eventually took Susan Wright in 1889. Although his college years were disrupted due to constant relocation, injuries and family problems, Wilbur Wright always managed to excel in the years he did undergo formal education.
Wilbur and Orville Wright ventured into their adult lives with two businesses. One was a printing firm and the other was a bicycle shop They started their very own weekly newspaper, West Side News, which would eventually turn out to be short lived. In 1890, the West Side News was turned into a daily newspaper called The Evening Item, but that too lasted for four months only. Later, the brothers only focused on commercial printing. The business had Wilbur handling the editorial side and Orville handling the publications and printing side.
Also, there was a new craze of bicycles in the country at that time and the brothers tapped into this trend to establish their very own bicycle repair and sales shop in 1892. Four years later, they would start selling their own bicycle brand by designing their very own bicycles. The brothers used the money from this business to fund their research in aviation. Both these establishments go on to show us the unique qualities and attributes exhibited by the brothers, including a healthy business sense, a flair for mechanics and a passion to achieve something great.
"The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who ... looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space ... on the infinite highway of the air." - Wilbur Wright.
Wilbur’s father, Milton Wright was a Bishop with the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. As a Bishop, Milton was required to travel frequently and extensively around the country. On his return from these trips, he would bring back little souvenirs for his children to stimulate their curiosity and interest. Among other souvenirs, he had once brought back a minuscule helicopter model for Wilbur and Orville and this little toy would go on to influence the brothers to eventually make aviation history. This toy was basically a Cayley’s top, made out of wood and paper, its blades powered by the torsional properties of a rubber band. This toy would rise a little in the air, exhibiting basic properties of flight. Alphonse Penaud, a French aeronautical genius had designed a rotor concept and the little toy was based on this very concept. Nevertheless, it sparked an inspiration in the boys like nothing ever had done before.
There was also a German glider, named Otto Lilienthal, who had an early influence on the brothers and their interest in aviation. Young Wilbur and Orville followed his every accomplishment right till the final crash. The glider, along with a few other researchers, inspired and led the brothers to believe that actual powered flight was possible. It was then that they actively started reading up everything about aviation. The rest, as they say, is history.
"The bird's wings are undoubtedly very well designed indeed, but it is not any extraordinary efficiency that strikes with astonishment, but rather the marvelous skill with which they are used. It is true that I have seen birds perform soaring feats of almost incredible nature in positions where it was not possible to measure the speed and trend of the wind, but whenever it was possible to determine by actual measurements the conditions under which the soaring was performed it was easy to account for it on the basis of the results obtained with artificial wings. The soaring problem is apparently not so much one of better wings as of better operators." - Wilbur Wright.
Wilbur’s analysis was that birds were designed for flight and they instinctively controlled their aerial maneuvers according to their position and the surrounding atmospheric conditions. Bearing this in mind, he figured that if he built a machine mimicking the design of a bird, he could function as the machine’s brain and control its movement instinctively. Wilbur and Orville also noticed that birds tilted their wings on either side in order to turn or bank. Taking a cue from this phenomenon, they developed something called as ‘wing warping’, which was a simple technique that involved the twisting or warping of the wings of a biplane so that the wings roll on either side during a turn. Practically, wing warping included structural modifications of wingtips so that the balance and lateral stability of the airplane was contained. The Wrights first used wing warping on a five foot kite by warping the wing on only one side of the kite. They noticed that the 'warped side' produced more lift than the 'unwarped side'. With extra lift, the problem of sustained flight was solved. Similarly, other aerodynamics and structural theories were discovered and the brothers' goals were moving within grasp.
"It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill." - Wilbur Wright.
The bicycle business kept the brothers in sync with constant designing and their mechanical applications. This, coupled with up to date knowledge in the field of aviation, prompted the Wright brothers to start experimenting with their own aircraft designs and structures. The brothers moved up to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1900 to finally realize their dream of building airplanes. Kitty Hawk was a place known for strong winds and hence, it would serve as the ideal location for the launch of their very first flight.
For three years, from 1900 to 1903, Wilbur and Orville built and upgraded several models of gliders and honed their piloting skills on it. Taking a cue form Otto Lilienthal, the Wrights decided to start with gliding first in order to master aerial control and balance, before venturing into the more challenging domain of powered flight. Then, in 1903, with experience and intellect, the brothers finally proceeded to build the very first powered airplane.
With the help of all their research and development, the Wrights managed to build a powerful motor engine and an airplane with structural strength and stability to withstand the vibrations produced by the motor. This plane weighed 700 pounds and was named as the Flyer. On the morning of 17th December 1903, at precisely 10.35 PM, Orville Wright controlled the very first attempt to take to the skies with the Flyer. It was a fairly successful one and it lasted for about 12 seconds at a height of 120 feet. After a few more attempts, it was Wilbur who successfully flew the powered plane for a remarkable 59 seconds at a height of 853 feet at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA. Later, on the 9th of November, 1904, Wilbur flew the first flight to last for more than 5 minutes, with the Flyer II, an upgraded version of the Flyer.Though the first flight record was set in 1903, Wilbur Wright also set more records in 1908 and 1909, when he traveled to Europe to showcase his invention.
“I would’ve waited ten times as long to see what I have seen today.”
An astounded Frenchman in Le Mans quoted the above words in an attempt to express his excitement towards what he had just seen. During his time in France, Wilbur also offered to take journalists and officials for a sortie. The Wrights shot to fame with this and were invited and hosted by royalties and officials in France. After leaving the French speechless with his feat at Le Mans, France, Wilbur returned back home to an audience of 1 million who saw him fly around the infamous statue of liberty.
With the successful launch of the first ever successful powered manned flight in the history of mankind, the Wright brothers secured their place in the sky as the first aerial brothers as well as in the history books as the undisputed pioneers of aviation. But even after making history, there were still complications, mainly from bureaucrats. It was common thought among bureaucrats that if two mechanics could achieve something like this, so could the government. However, with perseverance, which was always a part of the brothers’ personalities, they eventually became the favorites of the crowd as well as the government.
Later, with time, passion turned to business and the brothers acquired immense wealth through the sale of airplanes and the signing of future manufacturing contracts. This is where commercial aviation is said to have started, declaring the Wright brothers as the “The Fathers of Modern Aviation”. Both brothers had a very close association and Wilbur, being sharper of mind and elder of age, took up his position as the President of the Wright Company.The Wrights also won a patent suit against their chief competitor, Glenn Curtiss, in 1914, the same year they also made the first military aircraft with a machine gun for the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. Although, by this time, Wilbur had unfortunately passed away.