- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

TO CONQUER THE AIR: THE WRIGHT BROTHERSAND THE GREAT RACE FOR FLIGHT

By James Tobin

Free Press, $28, 433 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY RON LAURENZO

Not many pilots, let alone their passengers, think much about how an airplane carves a turn through the air. That’s not too surprising, as none of us would even think about getting into an aircraft that did not obey its pilot’s commands.

But aside from getting an airplane off the ground in the first place, controlling its path through the air was the greatest challenge to aviation pioneers. And while everyone knows the Wright brothers were the first to fly a powered airplane — as opposed to a glider, balloon or airship, all of which had been invented long before 1903 – their contribution to controlled flight is often less appreciated.

By the time the brothers demonstrated their Wright Flyer for large audiences, five years after their first flight, other inventors had already gotten their own airplanes off the ground on short, usually erratic hops. But Orville and Wilbur Wright’s control — they made flying look easy — stunned their competitors and thrilled the crowds that gawked at their flight demonstrations in Paris, Washington and New York in 1908.

Those triumphant flights are the climax of “To Conquer The Air.” As in the rest of this very readable, entertaining book, James Tobin documents the scenes with plentiful testimony from eyewitnesses, excerpts from press reports and copious quotes from letters written by Orville and Wilbur. The book is one of a slew of new publications coming out this year, the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight, made by Orville on Dec. 17, 1903, on North Carolina’s outer banks after he won a coin toss for the honor.

As the subtitle suggests, the Wrights did not work in a vacuum. Other inventors, in the United States and Europe, especially France, were also working hard to unlock the mystery of flight. Mr. Tobin chronicles this contest in great detail and in a way that creates suspense about who would actually win the race — and, key to the Wright story — who would get credit for winning.

The story alternates between the Wrights and their competitors, especially teams led by Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Langley, an accomplished scientist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institute. As opposed to their competitors, the Wrights understood from the start that controlling their craft was the greatest challenge to success.

Langley, with a small army of helpers, wasted years and considerable amounts of government money to develop an engine light and powerful enough to power his “aerodrome,” an unwieldy craft that his team of researchers had no idea how to control.

As it turned out, they didn’t need to, because it didn’t fly.

The Wrights took another path. Using only their own modest resources, they spent three years testing ideas about lift, aerodynamics and control by flying gliders at Kitty Hawk and in the world’s first wind tunnel, created on the second floor of their Dayton bicycle shop. After thousands of unpowered test flights, they sketched out a design that their mechanic turned into reality in a matter of weeks.

A wing and the concept of controlling by altering the shape of its tips are so simple they were soon taken for granted. But the failure of the Wrights’ competitors to unlock these “simple” secrets emphasizes their genius and dogged tenacity to get to the bottom of what makes an airplane fly. It seems they were born to open the sky to humanity.

But the Wrights made mistakes. When confronted with skepticism about their achievement, they went on the defensive and locked their flying machines away while they waited for patents to protect their discoveries, especially their wing-warping device — their system of bending the tips of the wing to make it turn through the air. Their lawsuits against other inventors, notably Glenn Curtiss, consumed their lives and hobbled the infant U.S. airplane industry, allowing Europe to spring ahead in the development of early airplanes, steered by ailerons, a French improvement over wing-warping that is still in use today.

The idea for wing-warping came to Wilbur while watching a pigeon flying in Dayton. He built a kite to test his theory that the pigeon turned not by shifting its weight — the prevalent belief at the time — but by altering the shape of its wing tips to deflect the air and change the amount of lift they produced.

Nevertheless, the first Wright Flyers were unstable, treacherous craft that demanded all of their makers’ skill to stay in control. That the Wrights managed to die of normal causes is testimony to their ability to manage risk, balancing a lust for the unknown with self-preserving caution.

Not long ago, while flying above a snowy Maryland landscape in a Piper Super Cub, I eased the small craft into a tight 360-degree turn. There was no reason to turn. I did it for the sheer pleasure of feeling a light G-force and admiring the rosy light of the sun, setting behind the Appalachian mountains, on my wings.

It was a rare moment for a modern pilot, encumbered by radios, instruments and air-space restrictions, to forget about everything and drink in the beauty of flight.

And say a quiet thanks to two brothers from Dayton.

Ron Laurenzo is a commercial pilot and a reporter for Defense Week.


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