Man’s First Powered Flights

Feature, Modern Era

First Step in the Conquest of the Air

“I would hardly think to-day of making my first flight in a strange machine in a twenty-seven-mile wind, even if I knew that the machine had already flown and was safe, yet faith in our calculations and the design of the first machine, based on our tables of air pressures, had convinced me…”

So wrote Orville Wright in 1913, ten years after the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. It had been a tense and tiring morning, full of frustrations, and bitterly cold, but at last the brothers’ “Flyer” was in position. “After running the motor a few minutes to heat it up, I released the wire that held the machine to the track and the machine started forward into the wind. Wilbur ran at the side of the machine, holding the wing to balance it on the track, Wilbur was able to stay with it until it lifted from the track after a forty-foot run, this flight lasted only twelve seconds, but it was nevertheless the first in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started”

It was the morning of 17 December 1903, and a stiff wind was kicking up sand from the dunes. Orville made the first and third flights; Wilbur the second and fourth. There were five witnesses of the four short hops, astonished local residents who had watched the brothers come back each year, 1900, 1901, 1902, with wood-and-cloth gliders in which they made trips of up to six hundred feet. The one they had brought from their home in Dayton for the 1903 season was a great improvement, the Wrights felt, over its pre­decessors: its details, its refinements, had been tried again and again in their wind tunnel, an open-ended wooden box sixteen inches square by six feet long. Back home in Dayton, they had tested, in the intervals of running their cycle shop, no less than two hundred kinds of wing: by September 1903, when they set off again for Kitty Hawk (a sandy stretch on the coast of North Carolina, the only place, according to meteorological experts, which had ideal winds and plenty of room) they had not only perfected the design but had made themselves an engine to power it. A number of men had experimented with gliders, but no one had tried attaching an engine and an “airscrew” to see if the machine could take off by itself.

On this fourth visit to Kitty Hawk, they were beset by difficulties: a backfire from the motor twisted a propeller shaft, a sudden storm nearly removed the camp in which they were living. It was not until 12 December that the machine, with new, reinforced, propeller shafts (it had one engine, but two propellers, chain driven), was ready to fly. Then the wind vanished and the test was postponed. On the 14th, the machine stalled after three seconds in the air and damaged itself on hitting the ground. As this “flight” had demonstrated that their new method of take-off, from a wood-and-metal track on the sand, really worked, they were, according to Orville, “much pleased”. They spent two days on repairs and on the morning of 17 December the four flights were made, as we have seen, in wind velocities of up to twenty-seven miles per hour.

And so the first powered flight took place. Such, however, was the hostility, hostility, and disbelief, with which the reports were received that the United States Army, to whom the invention was offered, refused even to see a demonstration until 1908. At last, on 3 September of that year, while Wilbur was in France demonstrating to the French government (both French and British governments had shown interest after the first “incredible” reports, but had done little else), Orville took off from a field near Washington before a small, apathetic crowd of officers and civilians. From an eye-witness account, we learn that when the plane left the ground, “the crowd’s gasp of astonishment was not only at the wonder of it but because it was unexpected, a sound of complete surprise”.

When Orville descended, a minute and eleven seconds later, he was met by reporters with tears pouring down their cheeks. Yet, even now, there was suspicion, disbelief: no one who had not actually been present would believe in an “aeroplane” that actually left the ground under its own power. On 12 September, Orville, still demonstrating outside Washington, circled the field seventy-one times in an hour and fifteen minutes, reaching a height of three hundred feet, but still the Press ignored it, it was a freak, a phoney: even though reporters on the spot wired ecstatic stories, these were edited down to small paragraphs for the back page.

Then, on 17 September, Orville and his army passenger had an accident. The passenger died of a fractured skull and Orville went to hospital with broken leg, hip and ribs. Now, at last, the Press took notice, an accident was news, flying was not, and the Wrights became front-page material in their own country: thanks to Wilbur’s demonstration flights on the Continent, they were already well known in Europe. Now companies began to be formed, to manufacture Wright Aeroplanes under licence.

The idea of powered flight had exercised men’s minds for years. The Royal Aeronautical Society in Britain had been established years before the Wright brothers’ flights, had been formed in fact in 1866, but the chief stumbling block in the production of a practical “aeronautical machine” had been the absence of a suitable engine. Nothing was light enough. As Lord Brabazon, holder of British Pilot Licence Number 1, was to reminisce years later, “I remember talking to Wilbur Wright as to the possibility of building an aeroplane that would do a hundred miles an hour. His answer was simple, ‘Get me the engine.’ So it has been all the time, engine power.”

Aeroplanes had been designed and even built for centuries, but they never flew. Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century sketched a flying machine which, if suitably powered, might conceivably have flown, but no suitable power was available and he never made it. At the end of the eighteenth century, Sir George Cayley in England devised and published the principles on which the modern aeroplane is based. To this extent he may be considered its inventor. The basic requirements were and have remained over the years, a light fuselage, cambered wings and a tail unit consisting of rudder and elevator. In 1804 Cayley built and flew his first model glider; then, late in life (half a century later, in fact), he built the world’s first man-carrying glider and made two successful flights with it.

Ten years before this, W. S. Henson, a young engineer in the lace trade in England, had published designs for an “Aerial Steam Carriage”. Because of its impossibly heavy and cumbersome steam engine it never worked, but its design aroused a great deal of interest and argument in Europe. One of those most involved in the orgy of experiment which followed on Henson’s design was the German, Otto Lilienthal. By the time Lilienthal was killed flying in 1896 he had proved that a man-carrying glider could be successfully and continuously flown and controlled in the air. Following in his footsteps, and using Lilienthal’s designs, the Englishman Percy Pilcher had actually begun constructing his first powered machine when he was killed in a glider accident in 1899.

It was left to the Wright brothers in America to take up the challenge. So great was the prejudice against ideas of human flight that no manufacturer would design an engine for them, or build one to their own specification, and they were forced to make it themselves. No doubt there was embarrassment among the manufacturers of the internal combustion engine, the first car-makers, when the Wright “Flyer” flew with a home-made engine. At any rate, this flight triggered off a burst of activity all over the United States and Europe: if the Wrights could fly with an engine put together in their bicycle shop, think what others might do with a powerful one, designed and built by professionals!

The French, the English, the Belgians, immediately produced “aero engines”, one of the most remarkable and long-lived being the French “Gnome”, an air-cooled, seven-cylinder mechanism that rotated about its stationary crankshaft and thus cooled itself. As the “Gnome” grew bigger, and the whirling, gyroscopic effect of its cylinders threatened to become uncontrollable, they were anchored to the fuselage and the crankshaft allowed to rotate, as in the surviving piston engines of today.

In 1916 the French Hispano-Suiza came into service, an improvement on everything before, and immediately afterwards Rolls-Royce produced their remarkable twelve-cylinder “Falcon” and “Eagle” engines of 250 and 360 horsepower and established a lead in aero engines which they have maintained ever since. In 1919 a Vickers Vimy aircraft powered by two Rolls-Royce “Eagles” crossed the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland with Alcock and Brown in sixteen hours. In these early days, an aero engine only had to keep the aircraft airborne, but within a few years it had become a complete power-plant, providing electricity from its generators for lighting, radio, cabin pressure pumps, hydraulic undercarriage pumps, and a host of other essential equipment. It also, as altitudes increased, had to have an automatic arrangement for restricting fuel with height, in step with the thinning air. This was followed by the supercharger, for maintaining atmospheric pressure, rather than restricting fuel. The next step was a variable-pitch propeller which allowed the engine to revolve faster for the same forward speed, in order to obtain more power for climbing, exactly as with a car’s gear-box.

Slowly the various components were improved, with intense development taking place during the Second World War, as, in a more elementary way, had happened in the First. The famous Spitfire began the 1939 War with a speed of 367 miles per hour and ended it almost a hundred miles faster.

But the greatest step forward during the war, a development which occurred too late to have much effect on the war’s outcome— was the development by Flight Lieutenant (later Sir Frank) Whittle, of the jet engine. A gas turbine, consisting of a compressor for incoming air, a combustion chamber in which the air was mixed with fuel and ignited, and a turbine, similar to the larger steam turbines in ships, to drive both compressor and an airscrew, had been discussed for years, but it was Whittle who suggested that the aircraft could be more conveniently driven, not by an airscrew but directly from the high-speed jet of hot gas coming from the engine exhaust. The idea of using some sort of jet for propulsion had been considered from the days of da Vinci, hot air, men working a bellows, steam, but it was not until Whittle recognized the gas turbine as the ideal system that the idea could be developed.

The Gloster Whittle, a single-engined jet plane, was built and flown: from then on, the jet in its several forms gradually superseded the piston engine for almost all sorts of aircraft. The earlier idea of a turbine-driven propeller, the “turbo-prop”, was developed for short-range operations, as it had the advantage over a pure jet of being economical at low speeds and heights, and requiring a far shorter runway. Its chief advantage over the piston engine, apart from a startling absence of vibration, was its lightness: it became possible to hang four engines on an aircraft’s wing where only two had been before, with a consequent increase in power of consider­ably more than one hundred per cent.

Pure jet and turbo-prop engines are now highly developed. Although improvements still take place, the main development in aircraft propulsion is likely to be the use of rockets, which, because they require nothing from the atmosphere, can fly in a vacuum, are the only means yet devised of travelling in outer space. Speeded by a “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States, an all-out, fantastically expensive contest to have the first man on the moon, and beyond, development in this field has been ex­tremely rapid.

And yet probably no foreseeable development is likely to have the significance of that first powered flight in December of 1903, the first time an aircraft with a man on board had left the earth, like a bird, and “sailed forward, without reduction of speed and finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started”.