Seven Miles per Hour

Robert Macfarlane

  • First to Fly: The Unlikely Triumph of Wilbur and Orville Wright by James Tobin
    Murray, 431 pp, £9.99, November 2003, ISBN 0 7195 5738 0
  • The Wright Brothers: The Aviation Pioneers who Changed the World by Ian Mackersey
    Little, Brown, 554 pp, £20.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 316 86144 8
  • Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight by Paul Hoffman
    Fourth Estate, 369 pp, £18.99, June 2003, ISBN 1 84115 368 0
  • Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity to the First World War by Richard Hallion
    Oxford, 531 pp, £20.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 19 516035 5

It’s hard, in our age of budget flights and short hops, to appreciate the glamour of early aviation. Yet for fifteen years or so – from the late 1890s until the opening months of the Great War – powered flight was one of modernity’s greatest romances.

Wilbur and Orville Wright, bicycle makers from Ohio, became famous as the Wright Brothers, but at first it was only Wilbur who had what he called the ‘disease’, the ‘belief that flight is possible to man’. He spent much of 1899, when he was 32, steeping himself in the literature of aeronautics; he scrutinised the flight patterns of hawks, buzzards and pigeons; he assembled and flew kites. And, on a drawing board in the spare room of the family shop, he tackled the three large-scale problems that impeded him: how to build wings of sufficient lift, how to build an engine which reconciled lightness and power, and how to balance and steer the aircraft once it was in motion.

By August 1900, Wilbur had designed and partly built a prototype powered glider, and was eager to test it. What he needed was a suitable laboratory: ideally, a coastal region with steady wind speeds and high dunes to launch from. He settled on a village called Kitty Hawk, in the Kill Devil Hills, a remote stretch of littoral on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In early September he moved there, and wrote a reassuring letter to his father about the experiments he had planned (‘I think the danger much less than in most athletic games’). Orville arrived at Kitty Hawk later that month.

Faced with a history of calamitous aeronautic design stretching back to Icarus, the Wrights took none of the preconceptions about flight on trust. They were equally circumspect in their testing methods. ‘Skill,’ Wilbur observed, ‘comes by the constant repetition of familiar feats rather than by a few over-bold attempts at feats for which the performer is yet poorly prepared.’ This lesson had not been learned by Otto Lilienthal, the author of Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation (1889). On what was intended to be his final glide in 1896, Lilienthal’s unstable apparatus had lost its balance ‘at considerable height’ and he had fallen to his death.

James Tobin’s history of the four remarkable seasons the brothers spent at Kitty Hawk shows their progress to have been marked, like so many technological breakthroughs, by periods of painstaking effort and bursts of inspired improvisation. By scrupulously testing craft after craft, the Wrights were able to solve the remaining problems of rudimentary aeronautics, and their solutions have been intrinsic to aircraft design ever since. Faced with the difficulty of how to stop the craft ‘skidding’ when the pilot tried to change direction, for instance, the brothers realised that the answer was to install a fixed vertical tail. In an attempt to enhance the roll control of his 1901 glider, Wilbur tried warping the leading edges of its wings: if you look along the length of a Boeing 747’s wing you will see that a slight twist appears in the last thirty feet or so. Tobin includes images of the gliders that the Wrights built during those years. They are fragile, aviform constructions of wire, pine and sateen, which resemble in miniature the endoskeletons of modern planes.

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