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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Retreat and Irrelevance - Part 7 of "First to What?"

In 1909 the three Wrights stood triumphant - sought after by royalty, followed by the early paparazzi, everyone knew their names.  The Kings of Britain, and Spain paid homage in France, and the brothers traveled to Germany and Italy to demonstrate their Flyer to the Italian king and German Kaiser.  In February, Wilbur took his sister Katharine flying for the first time.

The Wrights in Paris, 1909

After transferring the two Model A's to their European partners and starting to train demonstration pilots, the Wrights sailed for home.  President Taft invited them to a reception at the White House, and Dayton gave them a two day homecoming celebration to remember.  No-one questioned their dominance in the world of aviation.  Except Glen Curtiss.

In 1908 Curtiss had independently invented a moveable wing control, the aileron, and in 1909 sold his first airplane using them.  The Wright's 1906 patent used wing warping for roll, and also covered the use of a vertical rudder to overcome the resulting adverse yaw and an independent elevator control for pitch.  Curtiss claimed that hinged ailerons were not covered by the wing warping patent and refused to pay royalties.  The Wrights sued.  They also sued any foreign pilots who flew at US airshows.  Resentment grew.

The Wrights founded the Wright Company in November 1909, and assigned their patent for the airplane to it in return for $100,000 and 1/3 ownership.  In 1910 they introduced a redesigned Model B, moving the canard elevators to the back and using more a powerful engine.  With sales slow, they created an airshow team that traveled the USA exhibiting the Model B at airshows.  In 1911, a modified Wright Model B (designated Model EX. and sponsored by drinks company "Vin Fiz") flew coast to coast (and is now on display at the National Air & Space Museum).

The Model B/EX ("Vin Fiz") on display at the Air & Space Museum

In February 1913 a US federal judge ruled that the Wrights patent covered all means of varying the angle of attack of a wing tip to generate a rolling motion, and that therefore Curtiss' ailerons were an infringement.  Curtiss appealed, but a year later the Court of Appeals seconded the lower court.  Curtiss still refused to pay, and used legal wrangling to avoid sending royalties.

In the meantime, Wilbur caught typhoid fever, and died in 1912.  Without his brother and closest friend, Orville began to withdraw into the Wright's new mansion with Katharine and their father Milton until his death in 1917.  Following that, Orville became even more withdrawn.  Wilbur had always been the one passionate about flying and aircraft, Orville didn't get interested until late in 1900, and didn't fly until 1902.  Without Wilbur's drive, Orville settled into a routine of tinkering with minor inventions for the control of heating his new home.

The Ill-fated Model C (scale model, as all were destroyed in crashes)

The US Army bought 6 Wright Model C aircraft - they all crashed along with several Curtiss designs - killing 11 pilots between 1912 and 1913.  An investigation found that the current designs were all too unstable, and recommended that future aircraft should have the engine ahead of the pilot, who was vulnerable to being crushed in a rear engine configuration.  Curtiss adopted the change readily, but Orville resisted.  In 1918 he made his last flight (in a Model C), and retired from running the Wright Company.

The US Army drastically reduced it's efforts the develop a military airplane after the carnage of 1912 and 1913.  However, European pioneers continued to advance, with Bleriot crossing the English channel in 1909, and further feats followed   In 1909, Glenn Curtiss won the Gordon Bennet air race (held in Paris) with an average speed on 46 mph, narrowly beating Bleriot.  The next years winner flew a Bleriot XI at an average of 61mph, in 1911 the winner topped 78 mph.  By the last race in 1913, the winning speed was 124 mph.  The Wrights were being left behind.

Then came The Great War (World War I).  Within 4 years European aircraft design progressed from flimsy kites held together with string and wax to well designed sleek fighters capable of almost 200 mph and carrying fixed machine guns, and heavy four engined bombers carrying over a ton of bombs.  When the US entered the war in 1917, it had to buy Niewport and SPAD aircraft from the French, so badly had it been eclipsed.

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Best aircraft of WWI - Fokker D-VII - which far eclipsed US designs - only 5 year after the Vin Fiz

Following the Great War, and with Orville retired, the Wight Company was merged with the Martin Company but in 1929 it was divested and sold to Glenn Curtiss to form the Curtiss-Wright company, which focused largely on aircraft engines (including the engines used on the B-17 Flying Fortress).  The merger resolved all the remaining legal disputes. Later the name Wright was dropped, and the Curtiss company went to build World War 2 aircraft such as the P-40 Warhawk (and now builds subcomponents).  Meanwhile the Martin company after several mergers and acquisitions became part of Lockheed-Martin, keeping at least some the Wright's design legacy alive in modern aircraft such as the F-35.

Orville Wright in 1945
Orville lived to see his invention become an instrument to shrink the world, break the sound barrier, and to kill millions in the Second World War.  His sister Katharine married in 1926 at the age of 52, but died soon after from pneumonia.  In 1948, while fixing a doorbell at his mansion, Orville collapsed of a heart attack and died.  He was 72 years old, and a virtual hermit.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Paris Triumphant - - Part 6 of "First to What?"

The Wrights had competitors.  In the US, motorcycle racer Glenn Curtis, Smithsonian director Samuel Langley, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and gadabout and sometime compatriot Augustus Herring, who flew for Octave Chanute.  In France, Henri and brother Maurice Farman, motor vehicle inventor Louis Blériot, and Brazilian coffee heir Alberto Santos-Dumont were all making strides.  Flashy Santos-Dumont had built a series of successful airships and used to fly them to restaurants in Paris, leaving them tied up outside like horses.  There were also lesser known US competitors such as John Montgomery in Seattle and Gustave Whitehead in Bridgeport CT.  What they all had in common is that they worked on the problems of lift and power, and neglected control and stability.

Bleriot V airplane, 1907 (note lack of control surfaces)

The Wrights had taken a different approach.  Perhaps coming from their experience as bicycle builders, they had approached control and stability as the primary issues, and solved lift and power along the way.  After not flying during 1906 and 1907 and with their patent for wing-warping granted, the Wrights felt it was time to unveil their invention to the world.

The 2 year break in flying had done major damage to the Wright's reputation.  By early 1908, Blériot in France and Curtiss in the USA had both managed to get off the ground and were setting official records, with Curtiss flying over 5,000 ft  in a straight line to win a prize issued by Scientific America magazine in June Bug, an airplane designed by Bell.  Farman won 50,000 francs for a flight of  first 1, and then 2 kilometers in a circle in January 1908 (his airplane didn't use banked turns, a large vertical rudder turned the aircraft in a large skidding turn like a boat on water).  Never mind that 4 years earlier, the Wrights had already flown further, and in well controlled circles and figure eights too - they didn't enter the competitions.  The feeling arose in the US that the Wrights were "liars - not fliers", and in France that they were bluffeurs (fakes).
June Bug - designed by Alexander Graham Bell
In the Spring of 1908, Wilbur took a ship to France, where an updated version of the 1905 Flyer III was awaiting him.  The 1908 Flyer (Wright Model A) was larger still, with a 35 HP engine and two wicker seats replacing the old prone piloting position, with the controls modified to permit their use while sitting upright.  During their hiatus, the Wrights had built seven Model A Flyers, with one later to be modified in 1909 to US Army specification #486 and renamed the Military Flyer.

The aircraft had been severely damaged during shipment and customs inspections in France, and Wilbur began work to repair it, an effort which took 3 months and didn't enhance his reputation at all in the French press - he was still clearly not flying.

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Wright Model A (this a/c still exists and on display in the Deutsches Museum in Munich

By August 8th, 1908 all was ready.  Crowds gathered at the Hunaudières horse racing track near Le Mans, among them Blériot and other French pioneers and writers.  Some expressed disdain at the Wrights use of a launch catapult, believing it was cheating, and others at the size of the Flyer, expecting that Wilbur would find it difficult to shift his weight fast enough to control the very large machine in the air.

The first flight lasted for only 1 minute 45 seconds, but was complete triumph.  Launched towards some trees, initially the crowds thought they were about to witness a disaster, but without discernible effort, sitting still in his chair, Wilbur guided the aircraft smoothly into a banked, controlled turn, and then another, and another and finally landed where he had taken off.  Rather than admit they were beaten, the French press declared the Wrights to be not Americans, but "Men of the World".  L'Aérophile editor Georges Besançon wrote that the flights "have completely dissipated all doubts. Not one of the former detractors of the Wrights dare question, today, the previous experiments of the men who were truly the first to fly".  French aviation promoter and Wright critic Ernest Archdeacon wrote, "For a long time, the Wright brothers have been accused in Europe of bluff... They are today hallowed in France, and I feel an intense make amends."

Meanwhile 4 weeks later in the USA, Orville duplicated his brother's feat flying another Model A at Fort Myers VA, making the first flight over 1 hour on September 9th.  8 days later, carrying Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, a propeller failure in flight led to the first fatal airplane crash.  Selfridge was killed, and Orville badly hurt with multiple bone fractures.  Katharine came to Virginia to help nurse him back to health, and he continued flying and setting records.

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Flying Brothers - Orville flying the Model A at Ft Myers, Wilbur in Le Mans (with the maligned catapult)

In France, Wilbur's fame climbed as he continued flying, carrying passengers including the first woman, Edith Berg, the wife of the brothers' European business agent Hart O. Berg.  She tied her skirts together with rope to prevent them flying up in the slipstream, inadvertently creating the fashion of the moment, the "hobble skirt".

Edith Berg and Wilbur
The "Hobble Skirt"
In January 1909, Orville and Katharine joined Wilbur in France.  They were suddenly the most famous 3 people in the world, and everyone wanted to be seen with them -“Princes and millionaires are thick as fleas.” Wilbur wrote in letter home.  They stood triumphant and vindicated.

The brothers with King Edward VII of England.
Meeting King Edward VII of Great Britain, and King Alphonso VIII of Spain
Wilbur discussing the finer points of flying with King Alfonso XIII of Spain