Analysis / Those Magnificent Flying Machines

In-depth discussions and controversies about the trope and real-life issues related to it should go here, rather than the main page, so as to avoid natter.

Controversy surrounding the Wright Brothers' claim:

  • Even if the description of the Wrights' "first heavier-than-air flight" is refined to 'manned and powered' heavier-than-air flight, it still leaves much room for debate. Suffice to say that many people and groups of people tried many different things and the lines between actual flight, gliding and short hops were not always clear. The Wrights may in fact only be able to claim having the first extensively recorded example of the narrowed category above... but that is also debated.
    • The reason the Wrights are so widely attributed credit for being the first is because they are the first known to build a piloted, heavier-than-air machine, that was capable of controllable flight. The key element here being that the pilot could control and maneuver the plane.
    • Another thing that favors the Wright's claim is that they extensively documented their work, including considerable photography. The evolution of their designs from glider to powered flight is clearly evident from their records. Wilbur Wright's correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Weather Bureau (which led to the selection of Kitty Hawk, NC for their experiments because of its consistent winds) is also a matter pf public record. Even if there was any doubt about their flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, they also flew on multiple occasions at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, OH in 1904 (flying for up to five minutes at a time, including complete circles) and 1905 (flying up to 38 minutes at a time). These flights were witnessed and reported by journalists.
  • While the Wright Brothers' twelve second flight is the most famous, they actually made four flights that day, with the longest lasting a full 59 seconds. While the first "flight" may be debatable, the last one certainly counted as a controlled flight. They had also refined their design to be practical by 1905 (practical here meaning that it flew until fuel ran out. Meanwhile, Santos-Dumont, who made the first flight in Europe (and who is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the "true father of flight"), did not fly until 1906.
  • Supporters of French-Brazillian Santos-Dumont often claim that the Wright brothers' first flight was assisted by a catapult that propelled the plane at take-off (while Santos-Dumont's plane took off on its own power), but this is probably not true: The Wrights used catapults for their later demonstration flights, but insisted that their first flight was taken under its own power. However, supporters of Santos-Dumont still point that the first Wright flight was assisted by a headwindnote , while Santos-Dumont's first flight was not. Santos-Dumont's claim to fame being that the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale's requirement that the flight be unassisted, while ignoring Dumont's own design being, much like all non-Wright designs at the time, uncontrollable projectiles that could only move straight forwards. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale's priorities were making it seem as if a European, and preferably, a Frenchman was the father of flight, instead of two Americans.
  • The Wrights' original Flyer was not an astonishing or unexpected innovation in itself: very many were attempting more or less the same thing, and once a sufficiently light and strong engine was available someone was going to get up in the air. The brothers deserve more recognition for their scientic approach to solve the problem reliably and efficiently. They used wind tunnel technology (fairly widely used in Europe but almost unknown in USA) to work out the design of the wings, inventing the airfoil in the process. They also worked out the basics of three-axis control (invented by them) before even attempting to take off. This is in contrast to some of their contemporaries who seem to have had simply dreamed up something vaguely flying-machine-like and then pushed it off a roof to make it fly.

Primacy of Samuel Pierpoint Langley

Samuel Pierpoint Langley, director of the Smithsonian from 1887 until just before his death in 1906, made several gliders and small powered aircraft in the 1880s and 1890s.
  • In 1896, his Model #5, a 25 lb aircraft powered by a small steam boiler and twin propellers, was launched by catapult over the Potomac River and flew as much as 3300 ft before landing in the water. This is regarded as the first successful and sustained flight of an unmanned aircraft of "substantial size." Though the vehicle was unmanned and uncontrolled, it nonetheless exibited far greater directional stability and endurance than anything before.
  • Emboldened by this success, Langley sought to scale this model up to sufficient size to support a pilot, and received a War Department grant for this purpose in 1898.
  • In 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote to the Smithsonian requesting information and publications about aeronautics, and subsequently exchanged several letters with Langley regarding their shared interests. Both parties were careful not to share too much about their own experiments.
  • Upon receiving word from fellow aviation enthusiast Octave Chanute that the Wright brothers had demonstrated great success will a man-carrying glider in 1902, he requested a meeting to observe. The Wright brothers politely declined, as they were in the midst of patenting the methods of control that led to the success of the 1902 glider and the powered 1903 Flyer then under construction.
  • Langley scaled up his successful models to a piloted aircraft called the Aerodrome. Unfortunately, Langley's design didn't account for the larger aircraft having disproportionately larger forces acting upon it in flight. In highly publicized launches in October and December 1903, Langley's fragile Aerodrome tore itself apart and fell into the water. The reputation of Langly as well as the Smithsonian suffered greatly, and Langley gave up on his experiments.
  • After Langley's death in 1906, his colleague and fellow aviation enthusiast Charles Walcott expended great effort in memorializing Langley and attempting to vindicate his work.
  • In 1910, the Wrights offered the 1903 Flyer to the Smithsonian. Walcott refused and instead requested a more modern Wright aircraft. This unusual request led the Wrights to suspect Walcott meant to create a narrative where Langley's 1903 Aerodrome led in some way to the Wright's success. In fact, the Wrights had already built their 1903 Flyer before the Aerodrome's first crash, and would assemble and fly it successfully just ten days after the Aerodrome's second crash, and had plenty of intervening prototypes and documentation to demonstrate that no signficant aspect of Langley's aircraft ever entered their designs.
  • In 1914, Walcott offered Glenn Curtiss $2000 to take Langley's Aerodrome, make whatever modifications were necessary to enable it to fly, and demonstrate this flight publicly to demonstrate it was mere luck that the Wrights flew before Langley's invention, and the Aerodrome was truly the first aircraft "capable" of flight
  • Glenn Curtiss was an extraordinarily talented aviation pioneer and pilot, every bit the intellectual equal of the Wrights, and his improvements on Wright's designs quickly made his aircraft superior to any of theirs. However, the Wrights aggressively protected their patent on their method of controlled flight - effectively, the only practical method of operating a fixed-wing aircraft. After 5 years of this battle, Curtiss had lost his last appeal and was understandably bitter. However, if Curtiss could take an aircraft built before the Wrights and prove it to be able to fly, he may have some chance to make a prior art argument and weaken or invalidate the Wrights' patent.
  • Curtiss thus took the 1903 Aerodrome and - taking advantage of 11 years of intervening progress in avation and his own expertise in aircraft developed over that time - determined it was unflyable. Rather than admit this, he immediately tore the aircraft down and completely redesigned it into a modern aircraft with superficial appearance to Langley's design. The extent of Curtiss's improvements and his resulting flights, if anything, helped proved how far away the Aerodrome was from a useful aircraft.
    • The flimsy wings and support structures were strengthened with modern bracing.
    • The inefficient wings were reshaped to modern airfoils to provide greater lift.
    • To allow for water takeoff rather than a catapult, the aircraft was fitted with state-of-the-art hydroplane pontoons.
    • Perhaps most egregiously, because the aircraft as built by Langley had effectively no controls, Curtiss installed his version of the Wright's control system so that he could operate the vehicle safely.
    • Despite Curtiss's expertise, the fundamental shape of the Aerodrome was so unaerodynamic that he could only manage a quick hop.
    • Once finished with his experiments, Curtiss returned the aircraft to the Smithsonian, which quickly removed all of Curtiss's improvements, rebuilt the aircraft to Langley's 1903 configuration, and, beginning in 1918 exhibited it as the first aircraft capable of flight.
    • Suspicious of all this, Orville Wright (Wilbur had died in 1912) had a colleague attend the tests and surreptitiously inspect the aircraft and document the many improvements over the original design. With this extensive documentation, he called out the Smithsonian for its fraud; the fact not even Curtiss could fly the aircraft as-built ought to have been incontrovertible proof the Aerodorome was unflyable. The Smithsonian refused to back down, even after a series of exposes in the 1920s and 1930s documented the extent of the fraud.
    • In 1942, the new director of the Smithsonian and Orville came to an agreement mediated by Charles Limbergh; the 1903 Flyer was subsequently granted to the Smithsonian in exchange for the Smithsonian dropping its fraudulent and (by then) fully debunked claims about the Aerodrome's airworthiness and primacy over the Flyer. Shortly after Orville's death, and the conclusion of WWII, the Flyer was returned to the Smithsonian.