flyers or liars? the wright brothers' achievement was ignored -- 10/18/16

Today's selection -- from Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone. Though the Wright brothers had their first successful flight in 1903, this monumental achievement was largely ignored in America until a highly celebrated 1908 exhibition of their plane in flight in Le Mans, France. They had made successful glider flights before 1903, but added an engine that year to achieve the first machine-powered flight. In 1904 and 1905, they made numerous flights with varying degrees of success in a field outside of Dayton, Ohio, but attracted little public attention. One publication, reporting on rumors of their efforts, ran a headline asking if they were "Flyers or Liars." They made no flights in 1906 and 1907 while they concentrated their efforts on selling their flying machines to both the U.S. and European governments. Notably, the U.S. military showed no interest in their claims. Then came Le Mans:

"On August 8, Wilbur [Wright] made the first public flight of a Wright Flyer at Hunaudières race track near Le Mans, 125 miles from Paris. By the time he landed, aviation had been changed forever. The French, who had been so smug after the successes of [Henri] Farman, [Leon] Delagrange, and [Alberto] Santos-Dumont, were stupified. Although his first flight lasted less than two minutes and Wilbur was using the stick control for the first time, the grace and control of the Flyer left onlookers literally gasping. Over the next two weeks, Wilbur made about ten more flights, none of them more than eight minutes. He flew easily and gracefully, turn­ing in deep banks, carving circles and even figure eights in the sky, all with control of the aircraft far beyond anything seen before. 'French­men seemed to vie with each other in giving the praise and credit so long overdue,' Aeronautics reported, 'and all hasten to say "never had any doubts." '

"On September 6, after a flight of almost twenty minutes, Wilbur wrote Orville that 'the newspapers continue exceedingly friendly and the public interest and enthusiasm continues to increase.' While Wil­bur noted that some in the French aviation community 'do all they can to stem the tide,' others, such as Louis Bleriot, 'are very decent.'Success had a good effect on Wilbur. His tone in these letters of early September 1908 is uncharacteristically lilting; after a decade of experimentation, success, and then frustration, the battle to create a monopoly was nearly won. The only difficulties seemed to be an end­less flow of dinner invitations from French luminaries, the inability to find anyone to work on the Flyer who could understand what Wilbur was saying, and a cranky motor that he could not get to work properly for any length of time.

"The motor problem, while never totally solved, became moot on September 16, when Wilbur made headlines around the world by keeping the Flyer in the air for nearly forty minutes, covering twenty­-nine miles at an average speed of forty-six miles per hour. ... Wilbur was equally gushing to his sister. 'When I made my first flight over here, the sudden change from unbelief to belief raised a furor of excitement I had not expected ... but the news from America seems to have been sufficient to repeat the stir.' ...

Wright Brothers First Flight (1908) - Le Mans, France

"[The news from America was that] on September 9, [Orville Wright] shattered all records by flying, albeit unofficially, for fifty-seven minutes over the Fort Myer [Virginia] parade ground, traveling an estimated forty miles, landing only to perform minor maintenance to his motor. He then returned to the air, this time staying aloft for sixty-two minutes and reaching speeds of perhaps fifty miles per hour. A third flight lasted only six minutes but was made with a passenger sitting next to him. During the practice runs at Fort Myer, Orville flew higher, farther, and faster than anyone had before. His banked turns elicited the same awe in the United States as had Wilbur's in France. 'He drove his ship down the field far past the aerodrome and into the broken country beyond. Over the roofs of the post buildings he sailed, and he looked down on the graves in Arlington through the tree tops ninety feet beneath.' "



Lawrence Goldstone


Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle o Control the Skies


Ballantine Books


Copyright 2014 by Lawrence Goldstone


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