December 17, 2012
On Dec. 17, 1903, John T. Daniels nearly blew it.
Orville Wright asked Daniels, an Outer Banks coast guardsman who had been watching the escapades of the brothers Wright for several years on the sand dunes of a narrow island in Dare County, North Carolina, to stand watch and squeeze the pneumatic bulb to trigger Wright’s camera when he saw the “Wright Flyer” take off.
Daniels later commented that he was so fascinated by the sight of the Flyer rising into the air that he forgot to squeeze the bulb, and was afraid he had not taken the picture. Apparently in his excitement he did, in fact, trigger the shutter of the Gundlach Korona box camera. The image he captured was called the “photograph of the century.” (Of course the century was only a few years old.)
It was an image that captured America’s attention. The Wright Flyer just lifting off into the air, with Wilbur standing, arrested by the sight of success.
After testing unpowered versions of their aircraft for three years, 1900-02, the Wright’s had had settled on a design, which they built using wood from the giant spruce. The engine was built by Charlie Taylor to power two propellers via a chain drive.
On Dec. 14, the Wright’s made their first attempt. With Wilbur laying down in the pilot’s cradle the Flyer slide down the 60-foot rail runway, as it lifted into the air he pulled up too sharply and the aircraft stalled and crashed. It took three days to repair the damage.
Wilbur, having blown his shot at being first, watched as Orville made the first controlled, powered flight of a heavier-than-air machine on Thursday, Dec. 17. The flight lasted for 12 seconds and 120 feet.
The brothers flew four flights on that blustery day, the final flight lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet, more than the first three combined (120, 175, and 200 feet respectively). The “landing” broke the aircraft, but they hoped to fix it quickly and attempt the four-mile flight to Kitty Hawk village. A gust of wind dashed the aircraft and their plans, tumbling the machine over several times. The 1903 Flyer never flew again.
The Wrights achieved fully controlled flight in 1905 with the third Flyer, with Wilbur piloting the machine through a 39-minute, 24-mile course requiring turns and circles on Oct. 5.
The Flyers demonstrated the viability of controlled flight, and their concept of simultaneous coordinated roll and yaw control is the innovation, which they patented in 1906, that survives. The Wright’s other innovations, their wing and propeller designs, enabled them to achieve flight with a low-power engine; as power and aircraft speed increased, designers turned to rigid wings, ailerons and rear control surfaces.
The Wright patent on aircraft control was broad stymied aircraft development in the U.S. European designers ignored the patent fight and developed more advanced aircraft much faster. The impact of the patent fight was made obvious when the U.S. had no competitive aircraft to deploy in World War I and had to purchase aircraft from the French and British.