FIRST IN FLIGHT?
This is the Wright Brothers National Park at Kill Devil Hills (NOT at Kitty Hawk, or Kittyhawk either if it comes to that). This is where the Wright Brothers had their camp and successfully took to the air in powered flight on 17 December 1903. The admission fee was only three dollars. I wasn't expecting this. This isn't like the America we had come to know and to ... er ... love. Not quite "the Land of the Free" yet, but we were getting there.
The Main Hall
There are a couple of large buildings that dominate ths site, inside one of which is a small exhibition and a "Wright Flyer".
Unfortunately, and to my complete surprise, it's only a replica of the "Flyer" and not the real thing. It was commissioned for the centennial of the Wright Brothers' flights in 2003. The original is in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
I would have expected the Smithsonian to be first to want to restore the "Flyer" to the site of its original triumphs. It's not as if it's a private museum here - it's part of the U.S Government's National Parks Service.
But isn't this just like me? I've only been here 30 seconds and already I'm embroiled in controversy! And it gets worse further on.
The talks take place to some kind of time schedule, so while I was waiting and while sufficient numbers were gathering, I had a good look around at the displays inside and on the wall.
We were treated to a very interesting talk about the attempts that the Wrights made in their efforts to take to the air and, more importantly, how their fourth flight seemed to demonstrate that they had mastered the principle of fully-controlled flight. The guide also explained how, after Wilbur and his plane had come to rest after their accident, a savage gust of wind tore the machine free, overturned it and smashed it to pieces.
One question about the theory of flight had always puzzled me, and here I received an answer. I'd always wondered what exactly "wing-warping" was. I could understand its relevance (it stops the aircraft sliding out of control when turning) and what the theory could be. What I didn't get was how the Wright Brothers incorporated it into their design. It was quite simple - in that the edges of the wings are hinged from the fuselage in some fashion so that pulling on the rudder doesn't just turn the tail, it tilts the edges of the wings. On one side, the wings tilt upwards and on the other side the wings warp downwards. This alters the lift characteristics so that the airflow rises normally over one side of the plane and is impeded over the other side. This means that even if the aeroplane is tilted in a tight turn, the airflow over the wings remains constant and the aeroplane stays in the air.
It was interesting to watch the demonstration of this by the guide. I was tempted to ask if this system wasn't already obsolete at the time the Wrights used it, as Richard Pearse has already patented the more appropriate aileron, but I didn't think that this was the moment.
One thing of which the museum made no mention was the American government's total scepticism (if not downright disbelief) and disregard of whatever achievements the Wrights may have made, and how it took over 40 years for these achievements to be recognised by the very people who are now running the museum. But then again the cynic inside me would have been very surprised if there had have been.
Returning to the history of first flight, and the "Birthplace of Aviation" and "First in Flight" that I talked about while discussing Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. It is of course well-known that the United States authorities for a long time did not recognise the achievements of the Wright Brothers, and their applications for patents were challenged by many others on many different grounds. The U.S Government refused the Wright Brothers' offer of the donation of their aeroplane, and it went on display at the Science Museum in London while American aviation was essentially sliding quietly into a kind of rustic backwater.
It wasn't until 1948 that the "Wright Flyer" returned to the United States and the Smithsonian Institute. But what isn't often recounted are the terms and conditions under which the aeroplane was returned. Effectively, the Smithsonian had to renounce its belief in any other flyer preceding the Wrights.
Many people see this as being some kind of acceptance by the Smithsonian that the contributions of Langley and Curtiss, two early pioneers in the history of aviation, had been overstated in the past, but this is not necessarily the case. This is because contemporary research had uncovered two other seemingly excellent candidates for the title of "First in Flight"
One of them, a New Zealander by the name of Richard Pearse to whom I briefly referred above, has a good claim to the title, 6 months ahead of the Wrights. Discredited by many due to his subsequent incarceration in a mental establishment, his papers nevertheless, when published by the public trustee, proved to be eminently practical. This publication led to many witnesses coming forward to say that they had indeed witnessed such flights as Pearse claimed.
A search of his farm turned up many of the parts of his flying machine, and a reconstructed machine flew just as Pearse claimed that it did. His machine was a monoplane tractor (as opposed to a biplane pusher of the Wrights) and looked much more like the modern idea of an aeroplane. What can't be denied of course are the patents that Pearse held for the aileron and for the variable-pitch airscrew. He was way ahead of the competition in this area.
A more difficult opponent to dispose of was a citizen of the United States by the name of Gustave Whitehead. There is a considerable number of newspaper reports and eyewitness testimony to state that Whitehead, a German immigrant, flew over 800 yards in 1901 at a height of 50 feet, and the most astonishing distance of almost 7 miles over Long Island Sound in 1902. These claims however are compromised due to conflicting eye-witness testimony (but then again, how many people from that era would be able to accurately judge distance and height?)
Modern reproductions of his machine have never been able to reproduce the efforts that are claimed for his original flights, 500 metres being the maximum that has ever been flown. What isn't in dispute is the fact that Whitehead manufactured engines for Glenn Curtiss, and was visited by the Wright Brothers. He certainly has all the right credentials to be well-placed in aviation circles.
It goes without saying that the Smithsonian goes to great length to discredit the claims of the supporters of Whitehead and Pearse (and several others who have made claim to precede the Wrights), but one wonders how much of this is based on scientific grounds and how much of this is down to the agreement that the Smithsonian made with Orville Wright. There was no mention at all of Whitehead and Pearse during the guide's speech, and but a little mention of Curtiss. They did talk at some length about Lilienthal and Langley, and their influence on the Wrights.
On the subject of modern reproductions of historic aircraft, we shouldn't allow ourselves to be carried away by their relative "failure" to reproduce the contemporary claims that were made for them.
The Silver Dart was a plane built in the USA in 1908 by a group known as the Aerial Experiment Association, a group inspired by Alexander Graham Bell and which included such luminaries as Glenn Curtiss. It is a fact that the "Silver Dart" flew for a respectable distance (I've seen half a kilometre, almost a kilometre, a kilometre as figures claimed for the flight) in front of a crowd of people, some of whom were scientists whose powers of observation cannot be reasonably be called into question, even if they might not be accurate judges of long distances.
However, for the centenary celebrations of the flight, a modern replica piloted by a modern pilot took off
"and flew for about 10 metres before setting down" according to the Canadian Press. This demonstration of modern aeronautical prowess tells us everything about these so-called "replica flights" and the proofs that they can offer about contemporary conditions.
To further enlarge upon the subject, let me leave you with I story that I was told about Lindbergh's plane, the Spirit of St Louis.
I have been lucky enough to sit in the pilot's seat of the replica of this plane
and I recall the words of Paul Mantz, the famous stunt pilot and mate of the controversial Amelia Earache. He was the sponsor of the replica of the Spirit of St Louis and when it was completed, he took it for a spin. His subsequent opinion was that
"it was absolutely hideous to fly and I could not understand how they had gone so far wrong when they built the replica"
Next up was Charles Masefield. He was luckier than I was in that he also had the chance to fly the plane. He called it
"an absolute heap. It's completely unstable, controls unco-ordinated, ailerons enormously heavy, elevator terribly light, rudder totally ineffective, you can't see where you are going, the engine vibrates like mad and there are hardly any instruments"
However, the final word on this goes to Lindbergh himself. He took the replica up into the air and flew it for over an hour, probably the only example of a contemporary pilot flying a modern-day replica of his own personal machine. Although having once famously described his own plane as feeling
"more like an overloaded truck than an aeroplane" on his trans-atlantic take-off, his comment upon landing the replica was
"Do you know? I had forgotten just how nice that little aeroplane was! You've got it exactly right. Not quite up to modern standards of course, but it flies just like the old Spirit did"
This just goes to show that contemporary pilots were made of much sterner stuff than the modern-day variety.
In other words, these "replica flights" prove nothing at all and no-one should take them seriously as a means of scientific research.
The exhibition was quite interesting, too. I certainly learnt a few things here. Now, one thing that many Americans believe is that Lindbergh was the first to fly the Atlantic. Most of the British know differently, and you have the famous story
"Who was first to fly the Atlantic?"
"Actually, it was Alcock and Brown"
Some people (yours truly included) know the story of Commander Read whose team of flying boats crossed the Atlantic several weeks prior to the flight of Alcock and Brown, but his crossing was anything but non-stop, consisting of several stages, losing a couple of aircraft along the way, and taking 19 days.
The first to make a non-stop attempt however was the Australian aviation pioneer Harry Hawker. He took off from St John's, Newfoundland on the 18th of May 1919 in his Sopwith Atlantic together with his navigator, Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve. They crashed into the Atlantic 750 miles from the Irish coast within swimming distance of the Danish steamer "Mary", as a result of their engine boiling up - a problem that had plagued them for almost all of their crossing. Their aeroplane was later recovered by an American steamer, the "Lady Charlotteville", and adorned the roof of Selfridge's in London for a while.
I could have easily imagined a couple of successful Transatlantic flights with a handful of passengers prior to Lindbergh. What I didn't realise was that there were in fact 12, with a total of 91 people and one kitten. That is quite an incredible number. What distinguished Lindbergh's feat from the others was that he was the first to cross alone, and that he was one of the very early few (Alcock and Brown, and Bieres and de Castillo being the others who crossed before him) to do it non-stop in an aeroplane. Many of the others who made non-stop flights did so in airships.
The Mystery of Pierre de St. Roman
Some sources suggest that 13 flights and 93 people successfully made the Transatlantic crossing, if the flight of de St. Roman is accepted. Pierre de Saint-Roman and Herve Mouneyres left Senegal en route for Brazil on 5th May 1927 and although several sightings were claimed to have been made in mid-Atlantic and several radio messages claimed to have been heard, they disappeared without trace.
On 16th July, about 10 weeks later, a liferaft made of bits of de Saint Roman's aeroplane was found in the sea off the estuary of the Para River in Brazil, a long way off their charted course. There is no dispute that this raft had been purposefully assembled, rather than being a mere collection of flotsam and jetsam. Many agree that because of the insurmountable difficulties that would have been encountered in assembling the raft while they were floating in the sea, it could only have been built on dry land.
Taking into account the prevailing currents and the lack of damage to the tyres that were being used to give bouyancy to the raft, there is much support for a theory that they landed correctly somewhere close to, if not actually upon the Brazilian mainland. Whether or not the foregoing is true, what happened to them once they assembled the raft is a matter for conjecture. One can only assume that they were stranded and needed to sail off to reach civilisation, but were lost at sea.
After I returned home, I spent months searching for a book on the flights across the Atlantic prior to that of Lindbergh. Then, by pure good luck, I unearthed this one in July 2006 at a book sale at the Manston Battle of Britain Museum near Margate, Kent. It is pretty poorly researched with several obvious errors and atrocious writing, but at least it gives a great deal of information that doesn't seem to be available anywhere else. And you can't fault the writer for his enthusiasm either. It is a good place to start off any research.
There were all types of things here at the museum, all sorts of notices and descriptions recounting the stories of the flights that people had flown here. And it was here I learnt something else.
One of the things they were explaining was about Blériot taking off from Cap Griz Nez and flying, not knowing where he was going and not knowing which direction to take, then suddenly seeing the White Cliffs of Dover in front of him. It was quite a narrative that they recounted, with loads of emotion and gratuitous description. However this must be for the benefit of Americans who have for the most part never stood on the cliffs at Cap Griz Nez in France. I know I have, on numerous occasions, and each time I have quite clearly seen the White Cliffs of Dover with the naked eye with no trouble at all. So there you have it. It's official. I bet you didn't know that Blériot was the world's first blind pilot?
Outside the visitor centre, you can see on the left on the edge of the photograph some balloon-type structures. These were constructed for the centennial of the Wrights' achievements and are not intended to be permanent. Inside is another exhibition as well as a cinema where they show a film of all of the events that took place here at the turn of the 20th Century. That was certainly fascinating.
In the centre of the photo in the far distance is the memorial to the Wright Brothers. It's at the top of the sand dune that they used to run down with their glider, to get the most lift possible. All the grass here is a later addition by the way. When the Wrights were here, there was nothing but sand. But there were also three large sand dunes too, and after two of them had blown away in the wind, the authorities decided to do something before the third and most important blew away too. Hence, they sowed grass seed everywhere.
That was the two permanent buildings on the site duly visited. And I had made a terrible discovery. No coffee. Would you believe it? How could you possibly have a visitor centre anywhere in North America that didn't sell coffee? Not even a machine. Never mind "First in Flight" - more like "Thirst in Flight" if you ask me. Mind you, talking of coffee, you know my opinion anyway that American coffee is pretty terrible, but it would have been nice to have had some all the same.
Another terrible discovery I made was that remember I told you an hour back that there was a storm brewing? Well, it had broken while I was in the Visitor Centre. The temperature had plunged by at least 10 degrees and the rain was coming down in sheets. I had to run to the car, grab a jumper and my jacket, and prepare for a soaking wet walk.
From the car, I walked through the storm up to the top of the sand dune. The Wright brothers had undertaken many glider flights over a period of a couple of years to work out the control system for their flights prior to actually putting everything together in a powered machine. Those glides that were made from here had taken off from the top of this dune.
The dune overlooks the modern-day community of Colington, as well as the Currituck Sound and the mainland. The view is probably quite impressive from here. But not today, unfortunately, in this dreadful weather. nothing, but wind, rain, and mist.
More Technical Considerations
Nevertheless, height is certainly might, as you can see from the photo here on the left overlooking their "landing strip". You may recall that yesterday late afternoon and on some other occasions I talked about the almost constant off-shore wind that was blowing from the sea, and from up here you can see how steep the slope of the sand dune is and how high up we are.
The wind comes blasting over here, so it's no surprise to me that the Wright Brothers launched all their glider experiments from the top. Absolutely anything would take to the air in the face of the prevailing wind at this height and at the kind of speed you would build up going down a slope as steep as this. The Outer Banks, and this sand dune in particular, which must be one of the highest natural features, have all the right kind of considerations that would make it the ideal place to launch a glider. There can't be anywhere else better in the whole of the USA for the experiments that they had in mind.
The two wooden cabins in centre-shot are replicas of those the Wrights used. The building just to the right is the Visitor Centre. The take-off point of their powered filght is to the left of the wooden cabins at the edge of the concrete strip.
From here, as the rain gradually slowed to a mere downpour, I walked back down the dune and over to look at the replicas of the cabins. One had been their living quarters, and the second one had been their hangar and machine shed.
Don't forget that it was November and December when they were here, so they wouldn't want to be camping outside.
Both the sheds were closed to the public, but the shed that was the living quarters had a window through which you could see the accommodation that they had. It was spartan to say the least.
There was a knot-hole in the rear of the machine shed just large enough to admit the lens of a camera, as you can see in the photograph just here. Well, not that you can actually see very much, which was a shame.
The weather had by now dried up (only temporarily of course) so I sauntered over to the take-off strip for the powered flights, which is behind the visitor centre.
The large cairn you can see on the left-hand edge of the photos just here is said to be the take-off point for the flights of 17 December 1903. I'm totally intrigued to know exactly how the Wright Brothers managed to take off at exactly the same point at each of their four flights here.
The four cairns in the distance over to the right in the photograph here indicate their landing points. But are they the actual landing points? How did anyone remember so precisely after all those years? Are they simply symbolic distances measured from a symbolic take-off point?
You have to admit that when you consider the first three landing points, the fourth one, although only 850 feet or so, is a major advancement and looks like Wilbur Wright had actually mastered the machine and the controls to have it stay in the air for so long. The brothers decided by toss of a coin who was to fly which flights. Orville was to fly the odd-numbered flights and Wilbur the even-numbered ones.
Contemporary accounts suggest that Wilbur had made several manipulations of the controls during the fourth flight in order to keep the aeroplane on course, but a sudden gust of wind had hit the plane while he was still making corrections from an earlier manoeuvre. He did not have the time to change the controls to cope with this particular gust, and this was what drove him into the ground.
Leaving aside the story of Richard Pearse and Gustave Whitehead, anyone can attain flight if they have sufficient forward motion and sufficient lift, as Blaster Bates proved, with the story of his rocket-assisted plank in "Humble Beginnings". And, to be quite honest, looking at the windspeed records from around here, you are halfway there already with the forward motion and the lift without actually doing anything at all.
The key, as Kenneth Williams said in Carry On Camping, is that you don't just have to get it up, you have to keep it up. And this is where control comes in. It's controlled flight that's important. And this is maybe where the Wright brothers scored.
The patents that the Wright brothers took out were on the control mechanisms and not on the machine itself, and this leads us on to another more unsavoury aspect of the Wright Brothers' history about which the museum is strangely silent. By virtue of these patents, the Wright Brothers were able to extract a full 20% of the profits from anyone who made any kind of contraption that left the ground, and to sue those who didn't pay up.
There are allegations that they personally visited the Belmont Park airshow in October 1910 as well as many others, simply to make a collection from not only the contestants but the promoters too, and even from pilots whose machines did not originate in the USA. Orville Wright was still contesting cases as late as 1919.
This stranglehold that they exerted over American aviation is claimed by some to be the biggest single factor in the slow growth of the American aircraft industry. It is no surprise that there was a great deal of resentment towards the Wright Brothers. Their opponents held the view that they would stand a better chance of winning a dispute over the royalty demands if there was disagreement over the achievements that the Wright brothers had claimed for themselves.
This is quite possibly one of the main reasons why the achievements of the Wright Brothers were not recognised until 1948.
So that was that. From here, I returned to the car and returned to my itinerary.