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The Wright Brothers Myth

A list of the most significant of 'the first men to fly'
...and an answer to the question of when was the first proper flight

The Wright Brothers did not fly the first powered plane.
They didn't even fly the first plane, or the first plane with a human pilot... much less were they the first men to fly.

Why are we now celebrating the 'Centenary of Powered Flight'? Or are you sitting there angrily rejecting my suggestion that there's more than a little myth about what people believe? My belief that the History of Flight did not begin in December 1903? The purpose of this essay is to argue that instead of what happened then, there is another date, place and aeroplane which we ought to celebrate as representing the birth of practical aviation.

The 'first flight'I think this famous picture is a major factor in the perpetuation of the myth. It shows that along with their engineering and research skills, went a certain shrewdness in PR. Kill Devil Hills was well off the beaten track in 1903, and the brothers knew that if they were to make their mark in history, a photographic record of the occasion would help an awful lot. I don't blame them for that; one of their main rivals, the Brazilian Santos-Dumont, well surpassed them for flamboyant showmanship and made sure his first flight was witnessed by large crowds in the middle of Paris. Ironically, the impact the Wrights should have made was diluted amongst other things by a grossly exaggerated report in the local newspaper which had them vaulting through the clouds and making extended circuits of the area. But it's a great picture, isn't it? So evocative - the bare sandy landscape, the fragile craft, the lone observer teetering in perpetual anticipation...

I have no idea who was the first man to fly. There are so many myths, ranging from the fantastical (eg. Daedalus) to the vaguely plausible - a number of stories involving men strapping wings on themselves, jumping off cliffs or towers and turning themselves into crude gliders. What, you won't accept that as any kind of flight? Why not? Some of them at least must have had an experience significantly different from simply jumping from a height and plunging. However, my vote for the first man to fly goes to some anonymous Chinaman who went up in the first man-carrying kite. A few centuries ago?

Have another look at that picture above and consider this: a similar photograph could have been taken in 1874 in Brest, France; in 1884 in Russia; in 1890 at Armainvilliers in France, in 1894 in Kent, England; and, indeed, earlier in 1903 in Germany. And they'd all have been just as misleading about their pilot's mastery of flight.

at Kill Devil HillsI could not resist visiting the Kill Devil Hills site back in March 2003. Whatever my doubts about the myth, I still regard it as a truly historic site, and I'm addicted to 'standing on the very spot where... etc.' Here's my picture of the rock which marks the point at which the Flyer took to the air. There are other markers which mark where the flights touched down; they aren't very far away, except for one down the end of the field, over 800 feet away. Hmm... and here's my first little niggle: you see that rail, buried in the sand? The take offs all went down that. It wasn't directly responsible for getting it into the air, but some might regard it as providing a bit of assistance. I mean, aren't we looking for the first aeroplane to get into the air entirely by itself?

at Kill Devil Hills
Above: wide view of the site, including the reconstructed hangar and workshop. They seem to be very accurate, going by photos. It may not seem like much, but I found it fascinating to look around; and if you visit you should also walk up the hill from which the brothers launched their crucial glider flights.

The Wright monumentDo you remember learning to ride a bike? No doubt a few of you would claim to have managed the feat as soon as you sat on a saddle and pushed off, but if you're honest you'd say that, however far you got with your first few faltering pedallings, it took a few before you knew you'd done it. What I'm saying is that it's ludicrous to think that the Wright Brothers had achieved proper flight the first time they put an engine in an aeroplane and powered it up. In December 1903, they did not yet have a practical aeroplane and they knew it.

Real history is gradual, and often messy. Much though you might want there to be a simple answer to the question of who invented manned flight, you're not going to get it. I haven't the space to describe all the men involved (to my regret, I've yet to find any women who tried to fly), but I will here mention a few who I've no doubt were crucial to the achievement.

There were very many pioneers; many were crackpot inventors, but some gained a true grasp of aeronautics. Their work is the reason why I am certain that even if the Wright Brothers had never existed, aeroplanes would still have flown, possibly very soon after the Wrights. Any great delay would have been quickly caught up with once the First World War had got under way.

So: who did achieve all those things we think of as constituting flight?

I think the most important achievement, if you like the biggest single step, was that of making an actual journey through the air. This, surely, was the occasion of the biggest imaginative leap, and the attainment of an entirely new perspective in our outlook on the world. We know who did this, namely the Montgolfier brothers with their hot air balloon. It's funny, it's one of the more obvious examples of something which could have been invented many years earlier, maybe even centuries; but it was they who actually did it. People forget now, that by the middle of the Nineteenth Century, air travel wasn't a bizarre idea to people at all. Balloons were used for recreation, transportation, and aerial observation in war.

Giffard's airshipThere were French engineers attempting to design an airship by reshaping the balloon in the Montgolfiers' time. But giving it propulsion was a problem. Henri Giffard was not the first person to power an airship, an Englishman by name of Monck Mason did that in 1843, with a barely practical clockwork engine, getting up to 5 mph. But Giffard made the first controlled flight, in 1852, when he flew his 144ft airship (left) about 17 miles, driven by a small steam engine. Development after that was slow; Giffard's main interest was in balloons. But by the 1880s, mainly in France, airship flight was beginning to be useful. Their engines were amazingly varied: coal gas and electric motors were used as well as steam. But things came together famously with the work of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who designed a true dirigible, a rigid airship, powered by two Daimler engines, which first flew, rather uncertainly, in 1900 over Lake Constance. A lot more work was needed, but by 1905-6, they had been made to work.

Personally, I think the story of lighter-than-air flight considerably pre-empts the Wright Brothers, but you want more than that, don't you, specifically to do with aeroplanes?

Cayley's triplaneOkay. In my view, Sir George Cayley invented the aeroplane. He wasn't the first person to design a plane-like flying machine - Leonardo da Vinci famously did so - but he was the first to do so with some practical engineering, and understanding of aerodynamics. There are designs and a famous little model, of glider-like machines dating from around 1800. We know he also worked on various types of engine, one alarmingly dependent on gunpowder. More than that, he built successful model gliders; and in 1809 a man-carrying one which more or less achieved the first manned flight. It's recorded, apocryphally or not I wouldn't know, that said man promptly resigned his position, declaring that flying was not the employment he had expected. Cayley's flights, frequently carrying men, continued into the 1850s.

Henson's aerial steamerHenson and Stringfellow are heroes of mine. You might wonder why, because except for John Stringfellow's powered models of 1848 onwards, they didn't achieve much. By then they had split up, Henson emigrating to America. But in the early 1840s, in Somerset in Southern England, William Samuel Henson was inspired by Cayley's work to design the Aerial Steam Carriage, patented in 1843. As you can see, it was remarkably modern in its basic shape. It would have been steam powered and most unlikely to get off the ground. But their vision was remarkable. Remember the power of the Wright Flyer photograph? Well this picture to the left was equally potent in the 1840s, in promoting the formation of a public concern, the Aerial Transit Company. It all ended in ridicule, when tests of the model Ariel produced what could only be described as 'a powered glide'. It was greatly underpowered. But I can't quite escape that picture, fantasy though it might be. These ideas of powered flight and its possibilities were far more in the real world than they had ever been before.

Ader's Eole

Clement Ader more than anyone before the Wrights has a claim to have flown first. His first aircraft models date from 1874; his Eole (above) was flown in secret on the 9th October 1890. This was from level ground, and it was a powered aeroplane. But modern history, except in France, discounts the achievement, for all sorts of reason. For one thing, it wasn't a very long flight, about 164 feet only a short distance above the ground. For another, it wasn't well controlled. It was steam powered, and steam engines were never going to be practical for aeroplanes. But I think it's mainly because he was French. Now, he did build a larger machine, but that never flew, and its only achievement was to give the word avion to the French language.

I also want to tell you about Sir Hiram Maxim. If you recognise the name, that's because he's the same guy as produced the famous (infamous?) machine gun. He was an American resident in England (look - they made him a Sir), and in 1894 the giant test rig he'd built did manage to get off the ground. It's not an official flight because the thing ran along a railway track fitted with guard rails to prevent it lifting off. One imagines it would have been unmanageable in the air. But it's remarkable for its size, its capacity - it had a crew of 4 - and the fact that it had a useful amount of power for the first time, 360 hp. A pity Maxim didn't carry on his testing.

Phillips multiplaneI really feel for Horatio Phillips. I'm convinced he suffers for his archaic name, and very much so because of the appearance of his multiplane machines. He's forever connected with that comic film sequence of ludicrous flying machines. But this one (left) did briefly fly, in 1907. And he had several other planes of varying success in various configurations. He deserves huge credit for the fact that he understood the science of aerofoils better than anyone, and his planes looking like Venetian blinds put the science into practice. More powerful engines would have let him achieve a far higher reputation. He took out his first wing section patent in 1884, and built aircraft with narrow chord wings in 1893 and 1904. Did they fly, we ask breathlessly? Oh, I'd love it to be true. There are rumours... but history's set in stone now, isn't it?

And finally in this short set of diversions amongst the pioneers, there's another interesting what-if. Insignificant in the great scheme of things, but tantalisingly close to getting there in 1899 when he was killed in one of his gliders, was Percy Pilcher. Yes, I know, another quaint name. Lilienthal gliderHe was important as a follower of the great German scientist Otto Lilienthal who I really ought to be talking about more except that his practical work in aerodynamics centred on his gliders (see right - no, he's not in the process of crashing). Carefully recorded with photography, just like the Wrights, hence his huge influence. From 1893 Pilcher was testing a series of his own gliders. Americans may mock, but one nice little bit of celebration of 100 Years of Flight by the BBC was to screen a documentary on Pilcher, in which they built as accurately as possible - the claim needs caution because the records aren't good - a replica of the powered triplane Pilcher was on the verge of testing. Which he would have, on the day of his death, if there hadn't been an engine malfunction. Well, they got the replica into the air, thanks to a small bit of tinkering which it's reasonable to think Pilcher would have rapidly spotted to be necessary. Three years before the Wrights.

xSo where does this leave the Wright Brothers?

However it was written up later, by the Wrights and others, it's perfectly clear that at the time they didn't consider 'they'd done it'. It does seem stupid to regard those hops in 1903 as proper flights when they managed little more than any other pioneer had done for the last ten years. If you regard the 1903 hops as proper flights, then you have to think that Clement Ader and others had also conquered the air. Don't give me that guff about 'controlled, sustained' etc. It was neither of those. Don't you appreciate, logically, that they wouldn't have managed proper practical flight straight off? Please grasp my point: there was no 'quantum leap', this was an incremental improvement, and a slight one. The Wrights knew they didn't have a useful aeroplane. Yet.

Maybe an analogy here will help my argument. Consider the history of man-powered flight. What, there's a history of that?? I think there is! You haven't heard of the Gossamer machines? The first successful one hangs in the NASM in Washington like a ghost, weighing almost nothing thanks to the materials science which led to a machine light enough for a man to get it into the air. But: actually, engineers and scientists alike had been achieving hops on (very long!) runways for years. I can think of lots of old black and white films of weird looking British and Japanese glider types creaking into the air for a few seconds, powered by champion cyclists who would be helped out afterwards, shattered. They hadn't 'done it'. What they were aiming for, and which motivated all these efforts was a prize, the Kremer Prize, set up by a British industrialist, which crucially demanded the ability to fly a figure-of-eight over a set course. You get the idea? To manage anything truly useful, you had to show endurance, control, and manoeuverability. Wilbur and Orville certainly hadn't done that in 1903.

Glen Curtiss' June BugLeft: Glenn Curtiss' June Bug, which on July 4th 1908 won a prize for the first officially recorded flight of 1 kilometer to be made in the U.S.A. Of course, it wasn't actually the first, Orville and Wilbur were. But you see the point? To make history, it's not enough to do the thing, you also have to have a PR operation behind you.

The Wright Brothers had a lot to digest. They went back to Dayton, Ohio and planned their next steps in secret, desiring that no other of their many competitors should steal a march on them. They built a second Flyer, and a third. Their flights lengthened; their best was something like 5 minutes, covering nearly 3 miles. But they had problems, particularly with manoeuvering; tight turns usually resulted in stalls. It was only in June 1905 that they made a small-sounding but crucial modification which gave full independent movement to the control surfaces in all three axes. And between the 23rd June and 16th of October they made over 50 flights, some over half an hour long. But despite this, publicity was slow in coming. The military authorities, for one thing, were extraordinarily pig-headed and unwilling to see what they'd done.

You know, contemporaries would struggle to recognise the history of flight as it's now written. Aviation is now seen as an American achievement, and the Twentieth Century as dominated by American technical progress. But the reality is that American progress in aviation went in fits and starts until the Thirties, when they began to pull ahead in the field of long range transportation. And it was only from the Sixties onwards that other nations were unable to compete in a substantial way.

xAviation really got off the ground in Europe, from around 1908 - if you want a specific event, how about the great meeting at Reims (left) in August 1909? While in the US there was indifference to the achievements of the Wrights - and don't forget also the important work of other Americans like Glenn Curtiss - in 1914 the great preponderance of the world's aircraft were in Europe.

And another thing: do you know when the first airline flights were? If you look it up, you'll typically be told about the Benoist Flying Boat of 1913, which carried a single passenger in an open cockpit between St. Petersburg and Tampa in Florida. A glorified taxi service, really, but these were scheduled flights. However, contrast that with the Delag airline, which carried thousands of passengers in some comfort all over Germany from 1909 onwards. The reason it 'doesn't count' is that Delag was set up by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, and airships haven't counted since the Hindenburg crash of 1937. It's hard to think of other news images which have changed history to the same extent; did you know that only 13 passengers died in that conflagration, and no passengers at all died in any commercial airships before or after? They'd be even safer now. Something else: in the four years up to the beginning of the First World War, Delag flew 170,000 miles and carried 35,000 passengers.

Too bad. It's still a fact that it was balloons which introduced man to the air; that it was airships which first demonstrated the ability to travel through the air wherever we wanted; and it was the Zeppelins which established the idea that anyone could pay for a ticket and go somewhere just like they could by train or bus. Aeroplanes? Well, in 1913 Claude Grahame-White set a 'world record' by taking up 9 passengers for 20 minutes in his 'Aerobus'...

Wright 1905 Flyer IIIRight: the rebuilt Flyer III as it is now displayed in Dayton Ohio.

But I must return to Wilbur and Orville Wright. After all that I've said, I have to note that what fired up the Europeans like nothing else, more than Santos-Dumont's flatter-to-deceive or the fitful efforts of such noble souls as Horatio Phillips, it was the demonstration flights of the Wright Brothers. They'd stolen across the Atlantic with their new Flyer packed into a crate, in something like secrecy, because they were struggling in their negotiations with authorities in both America and Europe for official tests.

Eventually, things fell into place: in August 1908 at a racecourse just South of Le Mans, Wilbur took to the air for some public demonstrations. At long last, they made headlines. As everyone could see, they had patently 'done it'. This plane broke all existing records, and could climb, bank and turn. Observers saw straight away the importance of lateral control such as the Wrights had managed with wing warping. It set in motion an explosion of pioneering effort, of building and hopping and crashing and before you knew it, rickety contraptions buzzing around everywhere, setting records, getting faster, going further.

History says it's the Kitty Hawk flights which were the first. I guess if someone asked the Wrights when they first flew, that's what they'd respond with. And it was only the first Flyer which they themselves made a point of preserving, and which you can now see in the Smithsonian in Washington. But as the Brothers knew, their true mastery of the air dated from June 1905, when they took their third Flyer up into the Dayton skies, and stayed up; they went where they liked, and they liked what they saw. That was the real beginning of manned powered flight.

27 January 2004


The Pioneer Aviation GroupStart here! This site contains a multitude of pages which seem to give a very fair picture of the relative achievement of the various aviation pioneers. And there is a lot of them - see the list on the front page, and look at the dates. It gives you a sobering perspective on how many people, in many countries, were attempting, and achieving, hops in the air before the Wrights. If nothing else, the evidence here should make you demand more of the Wrights than what they achieved in 1903; and maybe you'll agree with me that the 1903 Flyer offered nothing special and it was the 1905 Flyer which we should celebrate.
NB: you should definitely read the pages on Clement Ader, and Henson and Stringfellow.

About John StringfellowAnother interesting essay, to help you judge the interesting question of whether or not John Stringfellow really did fly the first powered aeroplane. It's interesting, because if he did, that takes the achievement back to 1848! If you still aren't satisfied, note that Samuel Langley, the Wrights' close rival, flew his Aerodrome a considerable distance in 1896. And the first ever successful petrol engined plane in 1901. But of course he didn't manage to fly it with a man aboard before the Wrights.

NASM Wright Brothers Online ExhibitionPages devoted to the Wrights, part of the very large NASM site. That very first machine now hangs in the entrance, complete with a stuffed Orville.
Er sorry that wasn't very respectful I know.

ASME InternationalThe best account I found of the 1905 Wright Flyer III. The original machine is now looked after in Dayton - see here, though there's less information.

Scientific AmericanThis article, The Equivocal Success of the Wright Brothers, is an excellent, intelligent and balanced account. It gives the Wrights all the credit I would want, but takes the story on and gives some proper perspective on what really had been achieved in 1903. Yes, definitely, read this too.

AIAA Wright Flyer ProjectAs it says on the can. Except that as they state emphatically, the failed attempt to fly a replica on the centenary date was nothing to do with them. There are several replica groups.