How it all began
17 December 1903 is a date that changed the future of mankind. On that cold winter’s day, on a desolate beach in a little known corner of America two bicycle mechanics, Wilbur and Orville Wright, made the world’s first sustained and controlled flight in a powered heavier-than-air machine.
To call the fragile and odd-looking device an “aircraft” would be generous. But for the first time, humans were able to become airborne in something other than a balloon or glider. Appropriately enough, the Wright’s achievement came on the 121st anniversary of the first human flight ever – that of the Montgolfier brothers in their hot-air balloon in France.
The brothers would seem, to our contemporary eyes a hundred years later, rather odd. Orville and Wilbur Wright were austere men with only a high school education and very little money. They built and sold bicycles in the summer months and spent all the money earned that way in the winter, experimenting with airfoils. “They were men of exceptional courage and determination and ceaseless curiosity. When they worked together, no problem seemed to be insurmountable. Wilbur was unquestionably a genius. Orville had such mechanical ingenuity as few had ever seen. Nothing was gong to stop them in their mission to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off, they risked being killed.” says David McCullough in his excellent biography of the brothers. To us today their personal lives would also seem strange – neither brother ever married and they were cared for by their sister until their deaths. Wilbur died prematurely at the age of 45 in 1912, but Orville lived on until 1948 seeing his invention develop to astonishing levels of maturity.
But the world’s reaction to their feat that cold morning was oddly muted. An obscure paper named (ironically) the “Virginian Pilot” carried a rather inaccurate account as the headline. But the nationally read New York Times and Washington Post largely ignored the story. The United States government rejected an offer from the brothers for the device and it was left to the French and British governments to pursue the matter.
Perfecting controlled flight
To some extent, this reaction was understandable. Made of wood and canvas, terribly fragile and very under-powered, these first creations of the Wright’s were barely able to take one person into the air, for just a few feet at a time. But that, the Wright Flyer did brilliantly, as Wilbur demonstrated to an ecstatic crowd near Paris, France almost four years later in August 1908. For the Wright’s greatest achievement, other than the wing and engine which they hand-built, was the flight control system that allowed the pilot to steer the craft and maintain equilibrium. They perfected controlled flight – a huge achievement for the time.
Describing that demonstration flight near Paris in 1908 a contemporary French report recalls, “Wilbur Wright took off to cheers, then turned, and came flying back toward the crowd. He maneuvered gracefully, made several complete circles and ended by landing gently within yards of where he had started. He’d been in the air for a little less than two minutes. The crowd went wild. Louis Blériot, who was a flyer himself and present, was overwhelmed. So was France itself. There was immediate acclaim. Doubt about the Wrights’ achievement vanished; people were aware that another era had begun.”
Innovation in Europe
Europe became the epicenter of innovation in the field as the clouds of war gathered. Over a hundred companies were frantically designing, building and improving these new flying machines. The military were the main promoters as the commanders quickly saw the many applications of having a soldier in the air.
Most of the early companies focused on fixed-wing flying machines. One notable exception was a German Count named Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who had patented a hydrogen-filled airship as early as 1895. In fact the world’s first company offering revenue service by air, was DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft “German Airship Travel Corporation”) which successfully operated passenger airships made by Zeppelin. Founded in 1910 it had a thriving business, carrying over 34,000 passengers on 1,588 commercial flights at the advent of the war in 1914. The fleet was merged into the German Navy once the war began.
As war between the great powers seemed inevitable, the frantic pace of innovation increased. The French Aéronautique Militaire, accepted by many as being the first air force in the world, was formed. This was soon followed by the Royal Flying Corps of the British Army and the Imperial German Flying Corps. These fledgling units were to play a decisive role in the tragic war that would soon engulf the entire world.
A surge of progress post-war
No one could foresee that what the Wright’s invented would go onto become what we have today. Orville lived long enough to see some of it. Regular airline service would connect the continental United States, replacing the trains of his youth. The exigencies of two World Wars would lead to innovations and new aircraft he could not have imagined, including the jet engine. Huge machines which flew further, faster and more reliably, than anything the Wright’s could have conceived of, including faster than the speed of sound – all within the lifetime of the man who achieved that first flight.
Yet, just like the Wright’s, who despite numerous patent battles never made a fortune from their invention, the entire aviation industry they spawned has struggled to be commercially profitable in the long-term. Warren Buffet, who when talking about what bad investments airlines have been, famously said, “…. if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.”