A Century in Review - The 1900s: Where it all began

 - January 8, 2008, 6:48 AM

It was late on an autumn night as I swung the car into the rough lane that leads to our house. A few feet beyond the mailbox post, the headlights caught something in the grass. At first it could have been a rabbit standing tall, but closer inspection revealed it to be a magnificent bird, most likely a Peregrine falcon but possibly a gyrfalcon, and it had chosen our lane as a resting place on its migratory route. The bird stood fast, boldly staring at the car, not six feet in front of the headlights, shifting from one leg to the other and sometimes swiveling its head to take in the wider scene.

Neither bird nor observer showed any inclination to move, and we scrutinized each other respectfully for fully five minutes. The strength and majesty of this masterful creature were palpable. Eventually the bird chose to fly, and with a few powerful beats of its elegant wings it climbed away effortlessly into the darkness and perched in a tree, lost from sight in the night. Bidding the bird safe passage to wherever it was drawn, I admired its perfect blend of form and function, its mobility and mastery of the sky, its ability, on the command of impulses from a small brain, to leave the surface of the earth, rise into thin air and fly wherever it chooses.

But I didn’t envy the bird its vantage of seeing our world from the heavens, because I know what it is like to move through the air and look down on a soft blanket of trees, the planet’s lungs; lakes and rivers, its lifeblood, shimmering in sunlight; rolling green meadows, its flesh, bathed in the rich hues and long shadows of late afternoon; and jagged white mountains, its bones, laid bare against a cobalt sky.

Our forebears could but dream of the view and the freedom of flight, and we are fortunate indeed. What a time to be here. The 20th century may be just a fraction of a moment in the chronology of the cosmos, but for mankind as a relentlessly ingenious life form, what an extraordinary time it has been. Before this blink of the cosmic eye, controlled and sustained flight remained the province of the Peregrine and its avian brethren, bats, insects, a few aviating dinosaurs and our dreams. Now, as we count down the months to mark the centennial of controlled, heavier-than-air flight, mankind straps on wings and vaults state lines, continents and oceans as a matter of routine. For most of the herd in back, any sense of wonder at entering the domain of birds and clouds has long since been numbed by the mass-transit nature of the experience. But for those at the helm of aviation, flying stands as a continuing celebration of man’s triumph over the impossible.

Actually, aviation was always possible. It was just waiting to be discovered and developed, and this column for the remainder of the year 2003 will chronicle the fantastic journey of discovery and advancement that followed the achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright almost 100 years ago. The column will look at (give or take) a decade a month, opening in this issue with the beginnings, the realization that we could enter the birds’ domain if we studied them intelligently enough.

Lighter-than-air navigation of the firmament might have come first, with the Montgolfier balloon ascents over late-18th-century Paris, but it was an aeronautical dead end, mimicking nothing in nature beyond the upward surge of heat or certain gases. The bag of trapped hot air was at the mercy of the wind, but it goes down in history as being the first vehicle to carry living things into the sky. On Sept. 19, 1783, a sheep, duck and rooster floated aloft beneath a 41-ft-diameter Montgolfier hot-air balloon at the Court of Versailles, watched by King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their Court. The balloon climbed to about 1,700 ft and landed in the forest of Vaucresson, two miles downwind, its occupants none the worse for their eight-minute aerial excursion. Less than a month later, on October 15, François Pilâtre de Rozier became the first human to leave the surface of the earth in a man-made vehicle–a 49-ft-diameter Montgolfier balloon that, propelled upward by the heat of burning straw beneath its envelope, ascended to the 84 ft allowed by a tethering rope. On November 21 de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes made the first free balloon flight when they ascended from the gardens of the Chateau La Muette in the Bois de Boulogne and drifted to and fro across Paris for the next 25 min, at altitudes of up to 1,500 ft, before landing on the Buttes-aux-Cailles, about 5.5 mi from the launch point. The following February, Jean-Pierre Blanchard ascended to more than 12,500 ft in a hydrogen balloon.

However, Zeppelins notwithstanding, the concept of navigating the skies beneath a bag of trapped hot air or flammable gas never ignited. The gas sometimes did, and the 1937 explosion of the Hindenburg as it moored in New Jersey after a transatlantic crossing sealed the fate of lighter-than-air aviation for anything beyond recreational and a few military applications.

Although flapping would be a misleading diversion for man’s mission, birds held the key, and it was an English baronet and scientist by the name of Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) who first took that key to unlock the mysteries of controlled flight. Sir George was first to demonstrate that a curved airfoil provides lift by creating reduced pressure over the upper surface when moved through the air, and he was first to define the principles of heavier-than-air flight (lift, thrust and drag) that have stood us in such good stead ever since. In 1852 a 10-year-old boy rode on a Cayley glider and became the first human to fly on a heavier-than-air craft.

Other names preceded the Wrights, among them Octave Chanute (1832-1910), a French-born civil engineer who headed the 1893 International Conference on Aerial Navigation in Chicago. Chanute recognized that sustained, powered flight could be achieved only by solving the problems of stability within a churning atmosphere. Chanute (in his sixties and wise enough to delegate the actual flying to younger men) was demonstrating manned gliders at Kitty Hawk more than a year before the Wrights made history there, and on Nov. 23, 1903, he declared: “I believe the new machine of the Wrights to be the most promising attempt at flight that has yet been made.”

Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896) didn’t live to see his research into wing lift bear fruit. He crashed his hang glider on a German hillside seven years before the Wrights flew, and legend has it that his dying words were, “Sacrifices must be made”–as true throughout the history of aviation as they were at the very beginning. Three years later the English glider builder-pilot Percy Pilcher met a similar fate when, having been towed off the ground by a team of horses, he crashed his glider near Market Harborough and died two days later. Pilcher had been working on a four-horsepower gasoline-fired engine at the time.

Mathematician and solar radiation scientist Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), backed by U.S. Army funding, competed fiercely to make the first manned, powered flight, and he very nearly succeeded. On May 6, 1896, Langley flew an unmanned, steam-powered airplane above the Potomac River in Washington for about a minute. He flew the first unmanned gasoline-powered airplane in 1901 before setting out to build a full-scale manned airplane, the 48-ft-span, 52-hp Aerodrome, completed in 1903. Two attempts were made to fly the machine above the Potomac, both with Charles Manly at the controls, but on both tries the Aerodrome fouled the catapult launcher atop the houseboat from which Langley had chosen to make his attempts. On both occasions (on October 7 and December 8) the airplane fell into the river. (Glenn Curtiss later flew the machine using floats, proving that it would have flown in 1903 had it not been for the flawed launching method.)

Everyone knows that an airplane called the Flyer, designed and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, made the first powered, manned, controlled flight on Dec. 17, 1903. At 10:35 a.m., with Orville at the controls, the Flyer lifted off a track on the sand dunes at Kill Devil Hills in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and made an undulating flight covering 120 ft in the course of 12 sec. The brothers made three more flights that day, the longest covering 852 ft and lasting 59 sec, the culmination of three years’ experimenting by the bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio. Power for the Flyer came from a gasoline engine built by Charlie Taylor, the Wrights’ assistant. It weighed 180 lb and produced a scant 12 hp, but it propelled the Flyer into history.

The same acumen that drove the Wrights’ bicycle business back in Dayton kicked into high gear after their achievements at Kitty Hawk. Fearful that their “invention” would be purloined, the Wrights shrouded their progress with an obsessive secrecy and claimed the airplane as their exclusive property. Only a few friends saw their airplanes fly over the next five years, and the credit for the first public flight in America goes to the aforementioned Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport, N.Y.

On July 4, 1908, Curtiss flew his June Bug before a crowd of thousands. Curtiss’ list of firsts was a long one: first to sell an airplane commercially in the U.S.; first pilot license; and first to fly from one city to another (Albany, N.Y., to New York City). Curtiss is also credited with devising the aileron, which consigned the Wrights’ wing warping to the roadside of progress in aviation. In the true tradition of emerging commerce, it got ugly, and the Wrights filed lawsuits alleging that Curtiss was violating a far-reaching patent that locked up virtually any method for controlling an airplane in flight. The feud lasted years as the Wrights tried to shut down Curtiss’ airplane business.

Some historians blame this feud for America’s failure to capitalize on Dec. 17, 1903. American aviators fell behind their European competitors, well known names such as A.V. Roe (the A.V. standing for Alliot Verdon, and his company becoming known in 1910 as Avro); Leon Levavasseur, whose graceful Antoinette IV placed everything where it belonged by today’s standards (engine and tractor propeller in front, wings, complete with dihedral and ailerons, just aft, and a long fuselage tapering into horizontal and vertical tail surfaces); Louis Breguet (who redirected his failed attempts at a helicopter in 1907 toward a tractor-engine steel-tube biplane in 1909); Armand Deperdussin, whose aircraft established a speed record of 100 mph before he was jailed for fraud; Bristol, whose Boxkite was an improved version of an Henri Farman design; Tommy Sopwith; Alberto Santos-Dumont, son of a Brazilian coffee-plantation owner, who in 1901, before turning his attention to airplanes, flew one of 14 dirigibles that he built from the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud around the Eiffel Tower and back in 30 min, winning him a prize of FFr100,000; Louis Bleriot, he of English Channel crossing fame; and the transplanted American Samuel Cody, who made the first officially recognized airplane flight in Great Britain when, on Oct. 16, 1908, he flew the British Army Aeroplane No. 1 a distance of 1,390 ft at Farnborough before making a crash landing from which he emerged unscathed.

The world air speed record fell to French pilots and airplanes almost exclusively in the decade of the 1900s: 25.65 mph by Santos-Dumont in 1906, rising to 47.85 mph by Bleriot in 1909. Alarmed by progress abroad in the years leading to World War I, the U.S. government scuttled the patent issue, paid off the Wrights and Curtiss, and ordered both innovators to get on with the business of designing and building better airplanes. And what a business it became, on both sides of the Atlantic.