Dinner with Orville: The Vertical Planet

Dinner with Orville

The Vertical Planet

This featured "Dinner with…" series builds on the classic thought experiment: "Which 5 historical figures would you invite to dinner, and how would you seat them?" While the field of astrobiology historically rests on many "shoulders of giants" –too many for one dinner party, the Astrobiology Magazine has selected some initial candidates for our dinner party, and then asks them to introduce their area of expertise in a brief question and answer format.

The answers are their own, as gleaned from some of their most famous, controversial, or seminal contributions to science and technology. In many cases, the selection of commentary is driven by the curiousity to understand these great historical figures as one might imagine them as more modern characters, perhaps joining in on table talk or an informal interview.

Tonight’s dinner introduces Orville Wright, whom with his brother, Wilbur, began the legacy of humans as powered flyers. Before them, there was no real aeronautics nor ultimately aerospace. A flight around the Statue of Liberty by a lookalike Wright brothers’ plane is planned for Sunday, May 25th to help mark the 100th anniversary of powered flight. We interview Orville the night after the brothers’ historic first flight, one-hundred years ago.

flying statue liberty
Wright flyer circling the Statue of Liberty, 1909
Credit: FAA Archives

This century mark commemorates what ultimately started the space age , when in 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright first achieved manned flight on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Remarkably, an average human lifetime separates the first mechanically-powered human flight by the Wright Brothers from the launch of the first spacecraft to the outer planets. Only 66 years elapsed between the first flight and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

The brothers tested over two hundred different wings and airfoil sections in different combinations to improve the performance of their gliders. A replica of the 1903 Wright Brothers’ Flyer was tested in NASA Ames’ 40- x 80-foot wind tunnel in March 1999. The aircraft was built by the Los Angeles Section of the American Institute on Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and was on display for a while in the blimp hangar at Moffett Field, California.

Their first powered aircraft under pilot control flew four times in 1903, covering a distance of 852 feet (or about one football field) and staying aloft just shy of a minute (59 seconds). That distance roughly equals the length of today’s space shuttles. Their engine (12 horsepower) would be just double what a modern lawnmower might require. On the last flight, hard contact with the ground broke the front elevator support and ended the season’s flying.

This achievement was truly one of the most defining moments of the twentieth century. Centuries before, Leonardo da Vinci had filled 160 pages with sketches and notes on possible flying machines–contraptions that would have used human arms to flap wings. "Attempting to quit the confines of the Earth," said Ivan, the 16th century Russian czar, "was a gross and unnatural act." In 1926, only 6,000 Americans flew–a number escalating to more than a half-billion a year today.

Wilbur died suddenly at age 45 of typhoid fever, but electrified both Europe and America during his day, particularly circling around the Statue of Liberty before one million New Yorkers, then flying up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb. He was called the "Man-Bird", when he set speed records at Le Mans, France. Orville went on to the age of 76, where he was a founding member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which became NASA in 1958, when space was added both to the acronym and the collective imagination.

Astrobiology Magazine [AM]: How did you first get hooked by the idea of flying?

Orville Wright [OW]: Though the subject of aerial navigation is generally considered new, it has occupied the minds of men more or less from the earliest ages. Our personal interest in it dates from our childhood days.

Mars plane
Mars airplane design
Credit: NASA

Late in the autumn of 1878, our father came into the house one evening with some object partly concealed in his hands, and before we could see what it was, he tossed it into the air. Instead of falling to the floor, as we expected, it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor. It was a little toy, known to scientists as a "hélicoptère," but which we, with sublime disregard for science, at once dubbed a "bat."

It was a light frame of cork and bamboo, covered with paper, which formed two screws, driven in opposite directions by rubber bands under torsion. A toy so delicate lasted only a short time in the hands of small boys, but its memory was abiding.

AM: So from an early age, this was your hobby?

OW: As we became older, we had to give up this fascinating sport as unbecoming to boys of our ages.

It was not till the news of the sad death of Lilienthal reached America in the summer of 1896 that we again gave more than passing attention to the subject of flying.

AM: There were many in Europe particularly who experimented either with powered flight or soaring. What was different about the Kitty Hawk experiments?

OW: We resolved to try a fundamentally different principle. We would arrange the machine so that it would not tend to right itself. We would make it as inert as possible to the effects of change of direction or speed, and thus reduce the effects of wind-gusts to a minimum.

We would do this ..by giving the aëroplanes a peculiar shape; and in the lateral balance, by arching the surfaces from tip to tip, just the reverse of what our predecessors had done.

AM: So how did you manage changing wind conditions?

OW: Lilienthal and Chanute had guided and balanced their machines by shifting the weight of the operator’s body. But this method seemed to us incapable of expansion to meet large conditions, because the weight to be moved and the distance of possible motion were limited, while the disturbing forces steadily increased, both with wing area and with wind velocity.

x33 space pane
X-33 space plane design
Credit: NASA

In order to meet the needs of large machines, we wished to employ some system whereby the operator could vary at will the inclination of different parts of the wings, and thus obtain from the wind forces to restore the balance which the wind itself had disturbed. This could easily be done by using wings capable of being warped

AM: At that time, what was most challenging about human’s flying?

OW: The period from 1885 to 1900 was one of unexampled activity in aëronautics, and for a time there was high hope that the age of flying was at hand.

But Maxim, after spending $100,000, abandoned the work; the Ader machine, built at the expense of the French Government, was a failure; Lilienthal and Pilcher were killed in experiments; and Chanute and many others, from one cause or another, had relaxed their efforts, though it subsequently became known that Professor Langley was still secretly at work on a machine for the United States Government.

The public, discouraged by the failures and tragedies just witnessed, considered flight beyond the reach of man, and classed its adherents with the inventors of perpetual motion.

AM: So you went to North Carolina then?

OW: We began our active experiments at the close of this period, in October, 1900, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Our machine was designed to be flown as a kite, with a man on board, in winds of from fifteen to twenty miles an hour. But, upon trial, it was found that much stronger winds were required to lift it.

AW: Was there any particular danger to you or your brother?

OW: To make doubly sure that it would have sufficient lifting capacity when flown as a kite in fifteen- or twenty-mile winds, we increased the area from 165 square feet, used in 1900, to 308 square feet — a size much larger than Lilienthal, Pilcher, or Chanute had deemed safe.

Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville
Credit: Wright Museum Archives

Upon trial, however, the lifting capacity again fell very far short of calculation, so that the idea of securing practice while flying as a kite, had to be abandoned. Mr. Chanute, who witnessed the experiments, told us that the trouble was not due to poor construction of the machine. We saw only one other explanation — that the tables of air-pressures in general use were incorrect.

AW: So did you have to rewrite standard textbooks of tabular data?

OW: The experiments of 1901 were far from encouraging.

We saw that the calculations upon which all flying-machines had been based were unreliable, and that all were simply groping in the dark. Having set out with absolute faith in the existing scientific data, we were driven to doubt one thing after another, till finally, after two years of experiment, we cast it all aside, and decided to rely entirely upon our own investigations.

AW: Did you try to emulate nature? Things like bird-wings?

OW: In the field of aviation there were two schools. The first, represented by such men as Professor Langley and Sir Hiram Maxim, gave chief attention to power flight; the second, represented by Lilienthal, Mouillard, and Chanute, to soaring flight. Our sympathies were with the latter school, partly from impatience at the wasteful extravagance of mounting delicate and costly machinery on wings which no one knew how to manage, and partly, no doubt, from the extraordinary charm and enthusiasm with which the apostles of soaring flight set forth the beauties of sailing through the air on fixed wings, deriving the motive power from the wind itself.

[But] to work intelligently, one needs to know the effects of a multitude of variations that could be incorporated in the surfaces of flying-machines. The pressures on squares are different from those on rectangles, circles, triangles, or ellipses; arched surfaces differ from planes, and vary among themselves according to the depth of curvature; true arcs differ from parabolas, and the latter differ among themselves; thick surfaces differ from thin, and surfaces thicker in one place than another vary in pressure when the positions of maximum thickness are different; some surfaces are most efficient at one angle, others at other angles. The shape of the edge also makes a difference, so that thousands of combinations are possible in so simple a thing as a wing.

We had taken up aëronautics merely as a sport. We reluctantly entered upon the scientific side of it.

AM: So you put your energy into getting good air-pressure tables then?

OW: Further corroboration of the tables was obtained in experiments with a new glider at Kill Devil Hill the next season. In September and October, 1902, nearly one thousand gliding flights were made, several of which covered distances of over 600 feet. Some, made against a wind of thirty-six miles an hour, gave proof of the effectiveness of the devices for control.

The wrightflyer
Wright flyer
Credit: Wright archives

With this machine, in the autumn of 1903, we made a number of flights in which we remained in the air for over a minute, often soaring for a considerable time in one spot, without any descent at all. Little wonder that our unscientific assistant should think the only thing needed to keep it indefinitely in the air would be a coat of feathers to make it light!

AM: So it was time to make a powered flyer, once you had estimates of wind effects?

OW: With accurate data for making calculations, and a system of balance effective in winds as well as in calms, we were now in a position, we thought, to build a successful power-flyer. The first designs provided for a total weight of 600 pounds, including the operator and an eight horsepower motor.

Our tables made the designing of the wings an easy matter.

AM: So you left the soaring school for powered flight then?

OW: What at first seemed a simple problem became more complex the longer we studied it. With the machine moving forward, the air flying backward, the propellers turning sidewise, and nothing standing still, it seemed impossible to find a starting-point from which to trace the various simultaneous reactions. Contemplation of it was confusing. After long arguments, we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other’s side, with no more agreement than when the discussion began.

High efficiency in a screw-propeller is not dependent upon any particular or peculiar shape, and there is no such thing as a "best" screw. A propeller giving a high dynamic efficiency when used upon one machine, may be almost worthless when used upon another. The propeller should in every case be designed to meet the particular conditions of the machine to which it is to be applied.

AM: Who was with you during that season?

OW: Only five persons besides ourselves were present.

Although a general invitation had been extended to the people living within five or six miles, not many were willing to face the rigors of a cold December wind in order to see, as they no doubt thought, another flying-machine not fly.

AM: What was it like in 1903, on the day of that first flight?

OW: We got the machine out early… After running the engine and propellors a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles [per hour]. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks.

wright century
Commemoration of flight’s century
Credit: FAA

I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when stated so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds (not know exactly as watch was not promptly stopped). The lever for throwing off the engine was broken, and the skid under the rudder cracked.

AM: That was the first time?

OW: The first flight lasted only twelve seconds, a flight very modest compared with that of birds, but it was, nevertheless, the first in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in free flight, had sailed forward on a level course without reduction of speed, and had finally landed without being wrecked.

AM: You travelled what kind of distances finally that day at Kitty Hawk?

OW: The distance over the ground was 852 feet in 59 seconds.

AM: So how did you celebrate?

OW: After removing the front rudder, we carried the machine back to camp. We set the machine down a few feet west of the building and while standing about discussing the last flight, a sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it. Will who was near one end ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us.

Mr. Daniels, having no experience in handling a machine of this kind, hung on to it from the inside, and as a result was knocked down and turned over and over with it was it went. His escape was miraculous, as he was in with the engine and chains. The engine legs were all broken off, the chain guides badly bent, a number of uprights, and nearly all the rear ends of the ribs were broken. One spar only was broken.

After dinner we went to Kitty Hawk to send off telegram.

AM: You always flew against the wind–figuratively and literally. Can you put us in the passenger seat, as you saw it?

OW: Let us fancy ourselves ready for the start. The machine is placed upon a single rail track facing the wind, and is securely fastened with a cable. The engine is put in motion, and the propellers in the rear whir.

lunar module
Looking back
Credit: NASA

You take your seat at the center of the machine beside the operator. He slips the cable, and you shoot forward. An assistant who has been holding the machine in balance on the rail, starts forward with you, but before you have gone fifty feet the speed is too great for him, and he lets go.

Before reaching the end of the track the operator moves the front rudder, and the machine lifts from the rail like a kite supported by the pressure of the air underneath it. The ground under you is at first a perfect blur, but as you rise the objects become clearer.

At a height of one hundred feet you feel hardly any motion at all, except for the wind which strikes your face. If you did not take the precaution to fasten your hat before starting, you have probably lost it by this time.

The operator moves a lever: the right wing rises, and the machine swings about to the left. You make a very short turn, yet you do not feel the sensation of being thrown from your seat, so often experienced in automobile and railway travel. You find yourself facing toward the point from which you started.

The objects on the ground now seem to be moving at much higher speed, though you perceive no change in the pressure of the wind on your face. You know then that you are traveling with the wind. When you near the starting point, the operator stops the motor while still high in the air. The machine coasts down at an oblique angle to the ground, and after sliding fifty or a hundred feet comes to rest.

Although the machine often lands when traveling at a speed of a mile a minute, you feel no shock whatever, and cannot, in fact, tell the exact moment at which it first touched the ground. The motor close beside you kept up an almost deafening roar during the whole flight, yet in your excitement, you did not notice it till it stopped.

The Wright Brothers are credited with demonstrating controlled, powered flight: they themselves gave credit to Hiram Maxim for making the first takeoff in 1893. Hiram however couldn’t control his aircraft, and it crashed without much direction, scraping along through the English countryside, going where it wanted to– until Hiram shut down the steam engine.

Related Web Pages

Wright State Special Collections
Flying the 1902 Glider in 2002: NASA Ames
NASA’s Wright Brothers’ Info