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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.

File:Fokker D VII SE-XVO OTT 2013 04.jpg
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.


Karlene Petitt said...

This is fascinating. Something I never realized that one of the Wright Brothers saw what they created.

When I walked around my 747, I often thought of the brilliant minds who made an 800,000 pound machine fly.

And thought how wonderful it would be if the Wright Brothers could see what they inspired.

Thanks for a great post!
And Happy Thanksgiving!

Chris Houston said...

D.B. - Thanks for sharing this well-done series of posts.

To your point of "first to what?"... Years ago, I gave tours at an aviation museum. I always started beneath a full-size mock-up of the 1903 Flyer hanging from the ceiling. Virtually everyone recognized what it was, but asking, "what did the Wright brothers do?" would elicit a fascinating array of inaccurate responses. Few people understood what the Wrights actually accomplished and the notion of controlled flight was rarely included in people's responses.

Whenever I contemplate the Wrights, I cannot help but think about the phrase inscribed on the Wright Brothers Memorial: "achieved by dauntless resolution". What a wonderfully appropriate phrase!

Along the lines of Karlene's comment, I suspect they would be astounded by the technology their work inspired. On the other hand, we flew through the DC SFRA on our way to the Wright National Memorial last summer. That set me to wondering what they would think about THAT.

Thanks for a great, well-researched series, D.B.!