On 17 December 1903 at 1035 Orville Wright took to the air in the Wright Flyer, covering 120 feet at Kill Devil Hills, NC. In the span of 12 seconds he took off in one era and landed in another. The Wrights had proven that controlled, powered flight in a heaver-than-air machine was possible. Over the next two years, they’d show that it was practical.
What set the Wrights apart from their contemporaries and from previous aeronautical pioneers was their engineering approach to the problem of manned flight. While others based their designs on received, and often erroneous, data, the Wrights tested every aspect of aerodynamics and aircraft design. They built their own test equipment and meticulously recorded data from hundreds of hours of wind tunnel time and thousands of flights with kites and gliders. They left nothing to chance. If they couldn’t find suitable equipment, they built it, including the engine and propellers used on their first airplane.
The Wrights signature contribution to the development of the airplane was their understanding and development of three-axis control. This allowed a pilot to maintain full control authority over the aircraft in a three-dimensional environment. They were also the first test pilots, in that they could achieve predictable results based on knowledge gained through testing.
The Wrights didn’t go to college, nor did they have public funding. While they did have superior intellects and prodigious mechanical talent; they also had a vision, and a near-obsessive drive to realize it.
There isn’t enough wonder anymore. The world, as Wordsworth noted, is too much with us. Today’s mundane was yesterday’s impossible. The next time you hear a noise overhead or happen to be at the airport, spare a thought for two brothers on a lonely windswept beach who made magic.
I made a brief history-of-flight video last fall, and you can see it here.