Flying Towards Success
Every successful story has a history of struggles, untold tragedies and much-needed failures. However, every successful story also has a history of inspiration, virtues of persistence, hard work and perseverance, invaluable lessons for everyone.
One such story of inspiration is that of the Wright brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who pioneered in the fields of both, invention and aviation, becoming inspiring idols for a long line of generations of inventors. Their fascination and obsession with birds brought about the most iconic invention of all time – the aeroplane.
The Wright Brothers (2015), by David McCullough, gives a deep insight into their lives, and how hard work and passion can make anything possible.
A Winning Team
The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, born four years apart, were virtually inseparable throughout their lives. They ate together, had joint bank accounts, and even had similar handwriting. Yet, they both had unique personalities. Being the elder of the two, Wilbur was more scholarly and was clearly the leader of the two. Orville was more gentle, sensitive to criticisms and more cheerful than his brother. While Wilbur had nerves of steel, Orville was more adept at business.
Having a modest upbringing, their house was always stocked with books. Their father, Bishop Wright always encouraged the children to be open-minded and hardworking. The Wright brothers lived with their mother Susan, and a younger sister Katherine. They also had older siblings, Reuchlin and Lorin, who lived elsewhere.
While their father encouraged education, he never stopped them from taking a day off from school to enjoy the books at home.
The early exposure to books helped Orville develop a keen business sense. By the time he was in high school, Orville had already started his own print shop. The same habit instilled a fascination for flight and birds in Wilbur. Wilbur was also a keen follower of the work of Otto Lilienthal, a German glider enthusiast, and Pierre Mouillard, a French poet and farmer who also shared a profound love of flight.
A few years later, Wilbur and Orville opened a bicycle shop. This shop funded their research and work on airplanes.
The Early Tests
By the twentieth century, many had dreams of flying and had failed. The press would jump at every failure and those dreamers would face mockery from the rest of the world. One such inventor, Charles Dyer had tried to build an airplane in the shape of a duck in 1870.
Wilbur and Orville, however, weren’t deterred by the risk of failure and ridicule. They pressed on with developing important insights, especially surrounding equilibrium.
They realised that flight sustenance could be achieved when all the forces of the airplane were balanced, had the ability to change with the wind, and to do so, the pilot would need to have that ability by controlling the airplane quickly and precisely.
The solution came to Wilbur. He realised that the wings of their glider needed to ‘warp’, or bend to enable the plane to turn and achieve different angles. Essentially, the plane could be controlled if the pilot could control the ‘warping’. Thus, they began their work on their first glider in 1899, in the fields of Kitty Hawk, in Dare County, North Carolina. It was in this isolated area where they first staged their successful trials with their glider. Kitty Hawk had the ideal conditions of steady winds that helped lift the glider, and sand dunes that could cushion any crash landings.
Their first assembled glider weighed only 50 pounds, with two fixed biplane wings on top of each other. It had a movable rudder in the front and could be manoeuvred with warping controls. The pilot would need to lie stomach-down on the middle of the lower wing, facing forward.
The brother had a safety pact in place. They decided to never pilot the glider together so that if one of them died, the other brother would be alive to continue their work.
These first test flights took place in September 1900 and were remarkably successful. They were able to achieve glide heights of 300 to 400 feet at 30 miles per hour.
Moving On To The Motor
The success of their test flights fuelled a hunger to improve the designs of their plane. The brother built a lab, just above their bike shop. This lab housed a custom-made wind tunnel. It was a 6-foot long wooden box, with a fan on one end and an opening on the other, allowing them to test different curvatures and shapes of wings.
By August 1902, the brothers had a new and improved model. With more than 2000 tests of this glider at Kitty Hawk, and one test spanning a height of 600 feet, the results were brilliant. Their next move, after perfecting gliding, was to introduce a motor.
However, they were unable to find anyone who would build them a motor light enough for their plane. Finally, their friend, Charlie Taylor, a mechanic, built them a custom-made, 12-horsepower, 125-pound motor. The Wright brothers made the propellers for this plane on their own from scratch.
The new plane, the ‘Flyer’, had 2 8.5-foot propellers spinning in opposite directions to avoid the plane from getting pulled to one side. They got back to Kitty Hawk for tests, where Wilbur won the coin toss to ride the Flyer first. However, he crash-landed when he pulled too hard on the rudder.
After a few days of repairs, it was Orville’s turn, and on 17th December 1903, at 10:35 AM, the Flyer took off, flew of exactly 12 seconds over a distance of 120 feet successfully charting a new course for motorized flying!
Nevertheless, their work was far from over. They started straight off on more improvements on the Flyer.
Next, Wilbur and Orville began to look for a new location to test their flights, in order to save on time and the cost of transportation to Kitty Hawk. They found a cow pasture in their home state, Ohio, called Huffman Prairie.
However, the winds in this new location weren’t as ideal as Kitty Hawk, so they built a catapult to assist the plane with take-offs. They would drop weights from a height of 20 feet, which triggered a sling to push the plane on the attack. They were soon able to manage a half turn to land back where they started, despite many failed attempts.
Despite their success at perfecting motorized flying, the local press didn’t seem to be interested. In fact, the publisher of Dayton News, James Cox, later confessed that they thought the reports of the Wright brother’s successes were bogus, and hence never bothered to check.
One of the reasons for this scepticism was that Professor Langley of the Smithsonian Institute had recently failed at a motorized flight in December 1903. Funded by the government, Langley’s $50,000 aircraft was receiving much ridicule for its failure from the press. In fact, the first accurate account of the achievements the Wright brothers’ had, came from a beekeeper and flight enthusiast, Amos I. Root, in his periodical Gleanings in Bee Culture in 1905.
The lack of press coverage and shown scepticism didn’t deter the brothers. They soon started to think commercially. After patenting their motorized plane in 1903, they approached the military with their ideas. The military too, sceptical due to Langley’s failure, didn’t respond to the brothers despite two different proposals.
Wilbur and Orville then turned to French and British representatives and signed a contract in France in December 1905 with a team of businessmen. This contract included public demonstrations – eventually taking them halfway around the world – and $200,000 per Flyer!
From New York To Europe
By 1907, the brothers had received a patent for the Wright Flying Machine, and their business in the European nations picked up. While their deal with the French was still underway, the Germans offered them $500,000 for 50 Flyers.
The brother hired a New York firm, Flint and Company, who had experience in selling military goods in the European market, as their sales representatives. They included a 20% commission only on the European sales, leaving the US markets to the brothers.
A few months later, Hart O. Berg, the European representative of the firm advised that one of the brothers should address the buyers in Europe in person. Being the natural leader of the two, Wilbur boarded the RMS Campania in May 1907 to Europe.
Accustomed to opulence, Berg ensured that Wilbur travelled first class, got him a tailored suit from the Strand, and put him up at the New Hotel Meurice in Paris, replete with a rooftop garden and a panoramic view of the city.
Unfazed by the luxury, Wilbur was more interested in European architecture. He wrote a letter home describing his opinions on the city’s museums and buildings, and how he preferred the obscure John the Baptist to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Their business in Europe began stalling, and soon, by late July 1907, Orville and their mechanic friend Charlie Taylor joined them, along with their latest model The Flyer III, for demonstrations. However, the demonstrations got delayed, and with the Flyer II stuck at customs in France’s Le Havre, they returned home in November 1907.
Tasting Early Success
With public demonstration still schedules for the summer of 1908 in France, they got the good news that the US War Department was interested in their planes. The department accepted their offer for $25,000 with a condition that the plane had to pass various tests.
Before Wilbur left for France again, the brothers demonstrated a new model at Kitty Hawk, which not only allowed the pilot to sit in the plane rather than lie down but also included space for a passenger.
However, when Wilbur got back to France, he found that their Flyer sitting at the customs was severely damaged by the agents at Le Havre. Wilbur, remarkably, rebuilt a new Flyer from scratch on his own. When the plane was ready two months later in August, he took to the skies at the Le Mans racetrack in front of an influential crowd.
Soaring for 2 miles at 30 to 35 feet off the ground, he made two successful half turns and landed gently. The massive success of this demonstration immediately caused a shift in public opinion, making Wilbur’s flight international news. The London, Paris, and Chicago papers were heralding its success, putting a firm stopper in any scepticism that would tarnish the success of the demonstration.
As Wilbur continued with his popular demonstrations to crowds that rose to thousands, Orville was about to put up an equal fascination show at For Myer, Virginia.
On 3rd September 1908, Orville demonstrated in front of a small military crowd. Starting tentatively, he became more confident and daring in his demonstrations, garnering the title of the new star of aviation. In just a few weeks, Orville had set seven new world records in altitude, speed, and duration.
But challenges were far from over.
A Brush With Death
Egged on by the world records and daring demonstrations, disaster struck. On 17th September 1908 at For Myer, Orville took flight with a passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, a distinguished young officer.
Though Orville had experience in flying with passengers twice before, this time around, one of the propeller blades cracked mid-flight, tangled with one of the wires controlling the rear rudders, and caused the plane to thrash around wildly before it dived 125 feet down. While Orville was seriously injured, the young officer died of a skull fracture.
With a hip and a leg fractured, and four broken ribs, he recovered slowly as his sister Katherine nursed him back to health. His injuries left him with the use of a cane for a while.
Yet, this accident did not deter the brothers from continuing to make history.
As Orville recovered, Wilbur resumed flight demonstrations after a break. The success returned too, with a crowd of 200,000 watching his demonstrations at Le Mans. He soon started training 3 French aviators, a condition that was part of his agreement with the French businessmen. By January 1909, he had earned $35,000.
The brothers were winning many awards in France. Including the Legion of Honor, Wilbur himself won the Michelin Cup of Aviation for setting a record for distance for covering 77.5 miles. Soon Orville and Katherine joined Wilbur in France for an opportunity to meet King Edward VII of England and King Alfonso XIII of Spain. The accolades kept pouring in and the Wright brothers were a resounding success in Europe.
Wilbur and Orville returned to the US with many awards in hand and about $200,000 richer. As they arrived in New York, they were met with a swarm of reporters and fans that followed them all the way to Dayton. The real celebrations and festivities were just about to begin!
About 10000 people, waiting for them on their front porch, a two-day-long celebration, and a parade that covered the history of America and Dayton in their honour, received them. The parade included 15 floats, 560 historically dressed actors, and 2500 school children dressed in red, blue, and white, singing the national anthem, to commemorate the achievements of the Wright brothers.
Topping the celebrations was a trip to the White House, with President Taft presenting them with gold medals.
All the celebrations and honours in the world could not, however, stop the brothers from continuing their work. Just 48 hours after the parade ended, Wilbur and Orville were back at Fort Myer to finalize the US Army deal, and so that Orville could complete the endurance and speed tests that were unfinished.
Additionally, a pending legal case against Glen Curtiss, a celebrity pilot who was illegally using their wind-warping technology needed to be addressed. This case – an all-out patent war – went on for about a decade.
The aviation industry was touching heights all over the world. The Wright brothers too were flying higher. Wilbur flew alongside the Hudson River encircling the Statue of Liberty. Soon, one of Wilbur’s trainees, a Russian aristocrat named Charles Lambert flew over Paris and the Eiffel Tower touching about 1300 to 1400 feet.
On 25th May 1910, the brother completed a personal milestone at Huffman Prairie. Bishop Wright, their father, at 82, was present to see his sons flying together for the first time! The next round was a memorable one for them too when Orville took the Bishop as a passenger.
His pride and exhilaration were summed up when he leaned over to Orville as they soared over Ohio, and said, “Higher, Orville, higher!”
The story of the Wright brothers is one of the remarkable success, perseverance, and undeterred determination. In the face of hard scepticism and challenging hurdles, they managed to, through sheer talent, change the face of the aviation industry.