Friday, August 8, 2008

Famous flight at Le Mans

Although Orville Wright’s first controlled, powered and sustained flight famously took place on 17 December 1903, today, 8 August 2008, is the 100 year anniversary of a flight by Wilbur Wright which was the first official public demonstration of the Wrights’ invention. Both brothers kept diaries of their aviation experiments, and many of these entries are freely available online.

Wilbur and Orville, born into a large religious family, in 1867 and 1871 respectively, started their professional lives in Dayton, Ohio, as printers, but then opened a bicycle repair and sales shop in 1892. In less than five years they were manufacturing their own design and brand of cycles. The business brought in enough money for them to fund a growing interest in flying machines, and they set their focus on how such machines might be balanced and controlled in the air.

Before the end of the 1890s, the brothers were already deeply involved in the technicalities of flying, and were experimenting with gliders. But it was not until December 1903, that they made the first sustained, controlled flights in a powered aircraft (at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the shores of the Atlantic). It was to be another five years before they would officially launch the idea of powered flight with a public demonstration (at Le Mans, France).

There is a wealth of information on the Wright brothers’ story available on the internet: Wikipedia’s article is extensive and informative but a bit dense; the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company has good resources on its First-to-Fly website; and the National Air and Space Museum (Washington DC) maintains an excellent online exhibition about the brothers.

Very usefully for aviation historians, the Wright brothers kept technical diaries about their experiments. Two websites provide good extracts from these diaries. Wikisource has extracts of Orville’s diaries of 1902 and 1903, including a long extract from 17 December 1903, the day of the first flight. Here’s a part of that entry:

‘When we got up, a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north. We got the machine out early and put out the signal for the men at the station. . . . After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (corrected) 27 miles according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks. I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not known exactly as watch was not promptly stopped). The lever for throwing off the engine was broken, and the skid under the rudder cracked. After repairs, at 20 min. after 11 o'clock Will made the second trial. . .’

Unfortunately, I cannot find any diary entries online for 8 August 2008, the day of the first official public flight. There is, though, a good description of the event on the WrightStories website.

Joyner Digital Library, at East Carolina University, has a digital exhibit on the Wright Brothers which includes many diary extracts by Orville and Wilbur, as well as their brother Milton, and these cover more than a decade from 1900 to 1911. Here is Wilbur on 2 May 1908:

‘We spent a comfortable night, the air being more quiet than the preceding night. We spent the day on actuating devices, &c. As this is all new work it takes much time. Charley worked most of the day on track and finished up a dozen rails each about 14 ft. long. The sitting position for the operators will probably be more comfortable but will require practice before we can tackle high winds. The N.Y. Herald has telegraphed the Weather Bureau operator at Manteo for information regarding us. Mr. Dosher also telephoned the K.D. Station today for information. He evidently had been asked by some paper to get news.’

As a postcript, and apropos of nothing but my inner bicycle being, I’d like to include a link to a photo of one of the beautiful Wright bicycles at the National Air and Space Museum. Only five still exist in the world.

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