Not Within A Thousand Years Will Man Ever Fly. (Wilbur Wright 1901)

110 years after the first powered flight, I revisited Kitty Hawk with my college roommate John Mitchell and our wives. In the 31 years since my last visit, the surrounding area had become much more urbanized, but the park itself still tasted like that modest test facility that the Wright brothers had put together in the dunes.

However, 31 years of engineering experience, often related to engineering failures in all its phantasmagorical perturbations, left me with an entirely different appreciation of the Wright brothers.

In 1982 I thought the site was interesting, but, today, I simply cannot think of a more spectacular engineering program than the Wright brothers put together in four years of hobbyist pursuit.

Only when one puts the pieces together, step by step, does that become apparent:

  • Man has been completely unsuccessfully trying to fly for centuries
  • The US government is paying academics large sums to develop airplanes
  • Two brother bicycle shop owners curiously follow efforts at human flight
  • Somehow they are bitten by the flight bug and they decide to do their own experiments
  • They realize they need a good site for testing kites and set up a test camp about 700 miles from home
  • They build and ship man sized kites and gliders, test them and realize they have a long way to go
  • After their 1901 test season Wilbur says: “Not within a thousand years will man ever fly”
  • Meanwhile they decide to go completely back to basics and develop their own basic data rather than rely on published data
  • They work the numbers
  • They build new theoretical models
  • They develop methods for flight control
  • They build gorgeous gliders from scratch and test them again
  • In 1902 they know that it is now down to finding the right power source
  • With crucial help of their own shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor, they build their own engine that beats all power to weight ratios of their time
  • They build a much larger airplane that is truly clever in all its details
  • They design and build two beautiful propellers
  • They ship the whole thing back to their test site
  • And in 1903 they fly.

It is simply a stupendously awesome engineering feat. These men were not college trained engineers, but they were very smart, self funded, never confused, an excellent team and living proof that great engineering is not related to college degrees, but rather to a cold eyed iron will to succeed at difficult problems.

There are other claims for first powered flight, but the evidence is incredibly thin, not because others might have actually flown before the Wrights, but rather because none of those claimants can even show a tenth of the engineering that the Wrights did in just four years.

Even if the Wrights did not achieve the first powered flight, they undoubtedly engineered the first powered flight. They solved the problem in the most classic engineering fashion and they will be an example of sterling engineering as long as there will be engineers.

Meanwhile, weird mindbenders often occur in events such as these:

First of all, Wilbur was spectacularly wrong, he was only off by 998 years, or about 50,000%.

Next, the photo we know so well was taken by John T. Daniels, one of the lifeboat station men, who came out to help the Wright brothers. He had never taken a photo before, but he was given the shutter bulb and told to squeeze it if the plane flew. When the plane flew he was so surprised that he simply did not remember if he squeezed the bulb. He did though, and he captured one of man’s most iconic images. He claimed he never took photos again, which, with a batting average like that, makes him the world’s most successful photographer.

Here I tried to recreate a bit of that image with my college roommate John Mitchell posing as Wilbur.

110 years ago, in that spot, stood one of the greatest engineers who ever lived. (John is “just” an eye surgeon, and I am obviously not a successful photographer.)

After a number of successful flights there was a gust of wind that lifted the flyer and damaged it severely thereby ending the season’s test program. John Daniels had tried to hold the plane down, but, instead, was carried into the air with it, which also provided him with a valid claim to being the third person to fly on a real airplane and the first to crash on a real airplane.

Next the Wrights went to the telegraph station in Kitty Hawk and there a telegraph operator named Joseph Dosher tapped out the message to Dayton that informed the Wright family that the brothers had flown.

Joseph Dosher had a one year old daughter named Gertrude Dosher who later married a marine engineer named William T. Ottaway who, together with his son Harry, in 1961 bought an engineering firm that is now called Martin & Ottaway.