The Flying Wrights

The Flying Wrights

Now that there are fewer planes in the sky, it has made me ask the question, how do planes stay up there in that great expanse of sky. Yes, I know that birds go flap flap and it’s a miracle that they can do it and we can’t, bats have been doing it for over 50 million years. I won’t question how they know it is that period of time, and not ten million years either side, that is for boffins to know and inform. No, what I am intrigued about is why that great big strange shaped tube manages to stay up there.

Alexander the Great, who lived some time between 200 and 400 BC, was supposed to have constructed a chariot powered by two giant vultures, or four winged Griffins. They pulled him as they flew, the incentive being large pieces of meat on a long pole in front of them, just like a donkey and carrot on a stick. But then he ran out of meat.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Leonardo da Vinci had the basic principles right when he penned his first ideas more than 500 years ago, without the courage of his convictions because they never progressed further than the drawing board, that Greek bloke Daedalus and his son Icarus saw birds flying, tied wings to their arms, and whoa, up up and away they went, flying too close to the sun so the younger man fell to ground. But that is the stuff of legend, not reality. I know that there were balloons, people jumping off high buildings and cliffs, but nothing really happened until the steam engine came along, the first man to fly was a Frenchman in 1852, who was in a machine powered by a steam engine. He flew 15 miles without crashing. A French army airship flew two men in 1884 that was powered by electricity, an 8 ½ horsepower electric motor. That went for 5 miles.

The French and English aerial inventers in the 19th Century took a long time to develop their ideas. In the early part, some men tied feather type wings to their arms and jumped out of towers, amazingly they didn’t all die, one man got away with a broken leg. By the 1850s the British Aeronautical Society was formed for the development and research into flight, the wind tunnel was invented in 1871 for example, when it was realised that the wide bat wing shape was unsuitable.

Early Wright Flyer

Early Wright Flyer

Now we come to the Wright brothers. Orville and Wilbur were only two who were attempting motorised flight, but their machine differed in one significant way – they weren’t obsessed with the power of the engine, but more about the aerodynamics. They had their own wind tunnel, where they gathered data about the type of machine that could be controlled by a man while flying. Their principle of man being in control of the direction and equilibrium is still relevant to modern day flying. It was the wings and the propeller system that made them so successful, which was patented by them.

When they were boys their father brought home a toy helicopter. It was a French device, the other children were not particularly interested, but the boys took it to pieces to see how it worked. It was just over a foot long, using an elastic band for propulsion, but when they had finished, they then made their own, an experience they later said stood them in good stead for their experiments. The family was a wealthy one, a remote strand of the Vanderbilts, their father was a clergyman of independent means. After publishing their own newspaper, the brothers then opened a bike repair shop, but it still took them many years to get it right. Looking at their early attempts, the wing design didn’t differ greatly, the uplift was there all the time, it was the propulsion and steering that required attention. Once they had that right, the rest fell quickly into place – excuse the pun. This was called the Wright Flyer, but suffered severe damage when strong winds picked it up, flipped the plane over, never to fly again. It is now in the Smithsonian Institute in the USA.

It looks pretty advanced

It looks pretty advanced

Within three years of their initial 1902 flight the brothers were flying for almost 40 minutes, the time limit before the fuel ran out. They then had a flying machine that they could sell to the intrepid public.

So the reason why those planes can fly is thanks to those pioneers who had vision. They worked out that air had to go under the narrow wing while the engine forced it forward. At least, that’s how I see it, and have the confidence to get in a plane secure in the knowledge that if it wasn’t safe, then those people up front with the scrambled egg on their hat peaks would not be there.

Man trying to fly

Man trying to fly