Sunday, March 01, 2009

Great Moments in Aviation, Part VIII

The story becomes somewhat crowded between 1896 and 1906. The year 1896 saw three pivotal events in aviation history. Octave Chanute brought together several glider enthusiasts on the shores of Lake Michigan, testing various kinds of gliders. Later that year, Otto Lilienthal died in a glider crash. And an American scientist, Samuel Pierpont Langley, built and flew a small unmanned heavier-than-air flying machine powered by a small steam engine.

Langley was, at the time, the founding director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. In the 1890s he began research into the problem of powered flight. His first attempts were duplications of Alphonse Penaud's work with gliders powered by rubber bands. He was never entirely successful duplicating Penaud's results, but was successful enough to continue his own avenues of research. Langley focused on the problem of power, pushing to develop ever more powerful engines. In November of 1896, one of his powered machines took off and flew for 5000 feet. His success earned considerable recognition. In 1898, he received grants from both the War Department and the Smithsonian to develop full-scale manned versions of his Aerodrome. He soon abandoned steam engines in favor of the new internal-combustion technology. Over the next five years, he would refine the design of his Aerodrome, and that of its engine. Charles Manly and Stephen Balzer developed a 50-horsepower engine for use in the full-scale Aerodrome. In October 1903, the Aerodrome was ready for its first flight.

Or so they thought. Charles Manly took the controls for the first attempt. The Aerodrome, you see, didn't have a landing gear. It was launched by catapult. And Langley chose the Potomac River for his flights, for the stillness of the air. The Aerodrome, then, would reach flight speed by catapult launch off of Langley's houseboat. On the first attempt, a wingtip caught the edge of the catapult, sending the Aerodrome into the Potomac. Manly managed to extricate himself from the wreckage, and swim back to the houseboat. They also managed to salvage most of the wreck, and rebuild the Aerodrome in time for another test on December 8th. (Oh, so close, so close...) But the second test fared little better than the first. The Aerodrome cleared the catapult fine. But the Aerodrome immediately experienced what we now call "wing torsional divergence", and basically disintegrated in mid-air. Manly was once again dunked into the Potomac, along with what was left of the Aerodrome, and once again managed to swim to safety. Manly was 0-for-2, and promptly retired from the test-pilot business. The War Department was singularly unimpressed by these results, and terminated Langley's funding. One of Langley's assistants, Glenn Curtiss, made numerous improvements and upgrades, and eventually flew a heavily modified Aerodrome in 1914, somewhat salvaging Langley's reputation. But they missed their shot at being first to fly, by little more than a week, as it turned out.

Wilbur and Orville Wright also took up the challenge right about this time, in the late 1890s. They first became interested in roughly 1896, when they learned of Chanute's glider experiments at Lake Michigan. They began to study up on what had been done so far, and in May 1899, Wilbur wrote the Smithsonian Institute with a request for information and publications on aeronautics. Their study led them to believe that the key problem to be solved wasn't power so much as it was control. Provided that you could build a glider that was fully controllable in all three axes, you could always put an engine on it and fly. Their key innovation was their development of wing-warping for control. They noticed that birds in flight would control their direction by changing the orientation of their wing-tips, and sought to mimic this method in their biplane gliders. It proved to be quite successful. Within three years, they developed a very efficient and very controllable glider. In 1903, they began work on integrating an engine into this design. The engine they ended up with was a very small 12-horsepower engine, but very lightweight. In December 1903 they were ready to give it a try. On December 14th, the flipped a coin to see who would try it first. Wilbur won the coin toss, but the flyer stalled immediately after takeoff and sustained minor damage. Three days later, after repairs, Orville Wright took to the air, and flew under power and under full control for 120 feet.

Although they were first, the cautionary proverb "be careful what you wish for" is very relevant to their lives after that first flight. They undoubtedly built the first powered, fully controllable airplane. Also undoubtedly, they built the first airplane capable of flying a full 360-degree turn while airborne, which they did in 1906. But their technical success did not always translate into business and financial success. The Wrights had a well-documented penchant for secrecy that made them extraordinarily difficult to work with. They were mortally afraid of giving away their secrets. Most of their time and energy were consumed in battles both over their patents, and with the Smithsonian over credit for the first flight. Neither of them really had time anymore to devote to further work on their actual product. Wilbur died of typhoid in 1912, and Orville sold the company in 1915.

The last of the three major pioneers at work in the late 1890s was Alberto Santos-Dumont. Many Americans will have never heard of him. But if you think about it, there's something very curious about aviation nomenclature. Why, if the first powered airplane was invented by an American, do so many airplane parts have French names? Aileron, fuselage, empennage, and so on ... Well, it's because the world didn't stand still while the Wrights were tied up with all of their legal death-duels. And Santos-Dumont was largely responsible for the popularization of aviation in Europe.

He came late to heavier-than-air vehicles. In the late 1890s, he started building dirigible balloons. That is, hydrogen balloons that mounted both engines for thrust, and movable vanes for directional control. It wasn't a particularly uncommon sight to see Santos-Dumont flying over Paris at rooftop level, sailing over the streets under full control, occasionally stopping at fashionable outdoor cafes for lunch. In 1901, he won a 100,000 franc prize for flying from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back within 22 minutes. After this, he began to turn his attention to heavier-than-air vehicles. In 1906, his first successful design, the 14-bis, flew in full view of the public in France. This became the first flight that was certified by an independent body, the Aero Club de France. His career as an aviator was sadly cut short, though, when he fell ill with multiple sclerosis in 1910. But he had inspired several other Europeans to follow suit, including such aviation pioneers as Louis Bleriot, Louis Breguet, and Henri Farman.

Alberto Santos-Dumont is also notable for another reason. When he was making his record-setting flights with his Number 6 dirigible, he noticed that he was having considerable difficulty consulting his pocket watch for time checks. In any kind of flying machine, one's hands are usually both busy at once, and generally a pilot seldom has a hand free for yanking out a pocket watch. Santos-Dumont took his problem to jeweler Louis Cartier, who devised a simple solution. Ladies had been wearing tiny watches on their wrists for years as jewelry. What Cartier did was to take a small pocketwatch, and affix a leather strap to it so that Santos-Dumont could wear it on his wrist. Then, he could check his watch without ever taking his hands from the controls. Overnight, the multifunction chronometer became the trademark of the aviator. Fashionable gentlemen began to wear them as well, and today the wristwatch is practically ubiquitous.

Today's watches have a few refinements that the originals lacked. Mine, for example, has an E6B flight computer built into the outside dial. It's a circular slide rule you can use to find out how much longer it will take to reach your destination, whether you have enough fuel to make it, and it also has a few built-in unit conversions. It's also useful for figuring tips. I found it curious, though, that wristwatches only became popular in the last hundred years, give or take.

In any case, after Langley, the Wrights, and Santos-Dumont the feasibility of manned heavier-than-air flight had been proven beyond all doubt. Incremental improvements would be made over the next ten years or so, leading to airplanes flying faster and higher, and even capable of carrying a useful load. The next big jumps would take place about ten years down the road, although not necessarily when or where you might expect.

1 comment:

Lizzie said...

Thank you for including Alberto in your great discussion! He is largely forgotten because he refused to patent. His airplane, The Demoiselle, was a monoplane, the first ultra-light, about 45 yrs. ahead of its time. It even had wings that could be folded for transport and was totally self powered on take-off (as opposed to the Wrights' plane that was launched - a system they reluctantly abandoned.) If you have kids, go to for Alberto's story and all sorts if activities they can do.