17 December 1903 has been universally accepted as marking the beginning of modern aviation and flying. The famous picture of Orville on board, Wilbur observing at the right wing tip, has dramatically immortalized the event. Especially in the US, a widespread impression is that the Wright Brothers virtually alone founded aeronautics, a somewhat nationalistic view that obscures much technical research and aeronautical history in the preceding century. Hints that there must be more to the story are the facts that by 1912 the French had invented and used monocoque construction in a winning racer; and in Russia Sikorsky (age 22 at the time) was flying his own designs of two- and four-engine aircraft. Wilbur died of typhoid in 1912; Orville sold a failing Wright Airplane Company 1915, and died in 1948. Both events raise questions, rarely addressed previously.
Aviation in the US progressed little for a decade, as three countries in Europe produced nearly 500,000 aircraft during World War I; the US produced no first-line aircraft, and no domestically designed airplanes in the same period. As often the case, especially when the results in a technical field are recorded and retold by historians educated in other fields, one must reexamine sources and their interpretations to learn the actual causes of successes and failures. In the case of the Wrights, only one of their biographers has had the benefit of a technical background.
One of the purposes of this lecture is to discuss the changes in aeronautics from its beginnings to 1915 or so. Coincidence with the progress made in engineering and 19th century physics is not an accident. From the Mongolfier's invention of the balloon to Wilbur Wrights' discovery of three-axis control as essential to controlling motion in the earth's atmosphere, progress rested on application (occasionally trial and error discoveries) of basic physical principles. Among the many 'cranks and crackpots', at most six men contributed discoveries, on whose work the successful first aircraft rested. Wilbur actually used specific experimental results of two previous experimenters. His greatest contribution was perhaps his intuitive formulation of the first systematic R & D program. Contrary to accounts of the history subsequent to Wilbur's death in 1912, Orville's role was that of a helper and supporter; all important ideas and test results were due to Wilbur. A strong indicator is that according to the Wright Papers published in 1953, all flying was done by Wilbur until after a successful glider had been made in 1902. It was his decision to stop flying, and improving the aircraft, and to sell their invention, a process that took nearly three years. His 1908 flights in Paris, the first publicly witnessed, confirmed many claims, and dispelled French doubts.
Perhaps the most obvious, and interesting, technical questions arise from the familiar canard configuration of the Wright aircraft used until their change to a conventional form in late 1910. Wilbur invented the use of a forward surface, but the Brothers were forced to change to the aft (or Penaud) tail by their competitors' superior performance achieved with conventional horizontal control surfaces. Few aircraft have since used the canard, for good reasons.
Much can be learned from the Wright program leading to the first aircraft, one of the most important parts of modern society. To understand its importance, what new technical devices and their possible consequences, might be anticipated, one must begin with a proper interpretation of the history of aeronautics.
Since fire destroyed the AIAA replica in 1979, the local AIAA Section has built two full-scale replicas of the 1903 Flyer. The first, finished in 1999 and tested in the NASA AMES 40' x 80' tunnel, is displayed in the Los Angeles FAA Museum near LAX. The second is finished and after FAA approval, will be tested on the Flabob Airport runway, near Riverside, CA. Visitors are welcome any Saturday morning.