"First to Fly Were Ace Bike Mechanics"
One hundred feet over the ground, the propeller shattered, and the primitive aircraft plummeted to earth. A passenger cracked opened his skull, and died--the first death from a plane crash. The pilot of this 1908 two-man flight, Orville Wright, broke a leg, fractured and dislocated a hip, and shattered four ribs.
In the hospital, a friend asked, “Has it got your nerve?” Orville--who with his brother Wilbur had made the first manned flight, and were now setting one aerial mark after another with test flights--was resolute. “The only thing I’m afraid of is that I can’t get well soon enough to finish those tests!”
The Dayton, Ohio brothers got right back on course. Within weeks, Orville had exceeded his own record of an hour-long continuous flight. The following autumn, Wilbur Wright flew around the Statue of Liberty and banked along the Hudson River, to the cheers of one million assembled New Yorkers.
Their dazzling success resulted from years of patient, trial-and-error engineering. And from bicycling.
Born in 1867 and 1871, respectively, Wilbur and Orville Wright first became fascinated with aviation as children, when their father brought home a toy, rubber-band-driven helicopter. They immediately set about building their own plaything.
As grown-ups, these inveterate tinkerers founded a firm to build, sell, and fix bicycles, one of the new inventions, along with motorcycles and cars, common in the thriving industrial center of Dayton. They indulged their love of flight, reading everything they could find on the glider flights of aviator Otto Lilienthal, and on the failed, powered flight attempts of Smithsonian director Samuel Langley.
To master the art of flying, they built and flew their own gliders. To improve the gliders, they invented the wind tunnel. They placed small airfoils to mimic wings on odd, three-wheeled bikes that they pedaled about Dayton’s streets. Then they took their experiments indoors, forcing air over a six-foot wooden foil, measuring the results of some 200 experiments with gear fashioned from saws and bicycle wire. Their wind tunnels were vastly more efficient and less costly than building a new glider for each test. And each test added to the brothers’ growing knowledge of aerodynamics.
They took their gliders to the windy, coastal bluffs of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There they became expert flyers. In 1902, they made 250 short glides in two days, and more than 1,000 in a month.
A simple purchase at the Wright Bike Company sparked another innovation. Wilbur was selling a customer an inner tube, and idly twisting the box. He was struck by the idea one could control a plane’s flight in like fashion, by twisting or “warping” its wings. The brothers successfully tested the notion on a five-foot kite, then applied it to their gliders, then to the plane they were building. The Wrights also discovered a pilot should “roll” or bank into the turn, like a bird, and unlike a ship, which is turned by a rudder. Their approach to flight borrowed much from cycling, where an inherently unstable rider on two thin tires stays upright by making constant adjustments.
By late 1903, the brothers had built and were eager to test their single-engine biplane. It was fashioned of strong, light-weight spruce, weighing a bit over 600 pounds. Its wing span was 40 feet. Their bike mechanic, Charlie Taylor, built the 12-horsepower, gasoline-powered engine. Their twin, counter-rotating propellers, slung with bicycle-style drive chains, were almost as efficient as the wooden propellers of 21st-century airplanes.
Astonishingly, in 1903 dollars, four years of designing, testing, and building cost the Wrights less than $1,000. An aviation historian termed their work the “most crucial and fruitful aeronautical experiments ever conducted in so short a time with so few materials and at so little expense.”
The morning of December 17, 1903 was bitterly cold, with a 27-mph headwind at Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk. Orville laid chest-down on the open-air plane, grasping the controls. He released the restraint, and the plane fought the wind to gain a height of ten feet, and traveled 120 feet before touching ground. Three more flights ensued, with the fourth lasting 59 seconds, and the distance leapfrogging to 852 feet. Then gusts rolled the craft over, damaging it, ending the historic day. Yet the Wrights had made the first pilot-controlled, engine-powered, heavier-than-air flight in history.
Five years later came the triumphant flight over New York harbor. Sixty-one years after that, in 1969, during the first Apollo mission to the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong honored his air-borne predecessors by bringing along bits of wood and cloth from the 1903 Wright Flyer.