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The Wright Flyers

In Military History, Featured

On the blog today, Richard P. Hallion, author of The Wright Flyers 1899–1916, explains how his book came about. 

 

The Wright Flyers Cover

 

Google “The Wright Brothers” and one sees over 8 million hits, putting these two sons of rural America in roughly the same class of public recognition as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Not surprisingly, therefore, the two men who brought the world the aeroplane have featured in countless articles, essays, monographs, and books.  Therefore, any author who takes the time to write about them has to answer a fundamental question: Why?

The answer is threefold. First, much that has been written about the Wrights has focused on their invention of the aeroplane, effectively stopping shortly after noon on 17 December 1903, following the fourth flight the brothers made that day. Secondly, many accounts still overemphasize the brothers as rural craftsmen who seemingly casually turned with hardly a thought from bicycles to aeroplanes, without adequately examining how thoroughly the brothers studied and then worked – more so than any of their predecessors and contemporaries, in fact – to solve the problem of powered, winged, human flight. Finally, third, there is still much that is unappreciated or unpublicized about the Wright’s work. 

It was because of these three reasons that Osprey, to its very great credit, determined that the Wrights deserved a volume of their own in the fascinating X-Planes series, one that would go well beyond just the invention of the iconic Kitty Hawk Flyer and which would, instead, cover the entire sweep of Wright technical work from their earliest conceptions through their last aircraft, built on the eve of America’s participation in the Great War.

For my part, my interest in the Wrights came as a by-product to my fascination with the technical evolution of aviation, particularly the progressive advancement of flight research. Above all else the Wrights were, like the great (and tragic) German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal before them, quintessential flight researchers, captured in Wilbur Wright’s famous comparison between riding a horse and flying an aeroplane. “If you are looking for perfect safety,” he said, “you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.” Those words, like Lilienthal’s own “One can get a proper insight into the practice of flying only by actual flying experiments,” were, at once, both prophetic and the key to the Wrights’ success.

As a Curator of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) from 1974–1980, with particular responsibilities for flight testing and flight research, I spent a great deal of time studying the Wrights and their work. The Smithsonian had a troubled history with the Wrights – it had, after all, denied for many years the primacy of their achievement in favour of the Institution’s own Samuel Pierpont Langley and his notorious “Great Aerodrome,” a bizarre episode leading Orville Wright to send the Kitty Hawk Flyer to Britain’s Science Museum.

Fortunately, in 1943, a particularly courageous and forthright Secretary, Charles Greeley Abbott, issued a complete and total repudiation of the Institution’s previous position, thereby clearing the way for the Wright Kitty Hawk Flyer to take its place in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building on December 17, 1948 as the foremost specimen among the Institution’s aeronautical collections. As a child growing up in Washington, D.C., I spent many an hour looking up at it and, just behind it, at Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

Not surprisingly, as the Institution assembled a curatorial team and began preparations for the opening of the National Air and Space Museum in 1976, the Wright family took a particular interest in how the Museum intended to display the Kitty Hawk aeroplane. This afforded me and many others the distinct pleasure of meeting Ivonette Wright Miller, and Wilkinson “Wick” Wright, the children of Lorin Wright, and thus, respectively, niece and nephew of Orville and Wilbur Wright and their sister, Katharine Wright. Both were exceedingly gracious, generous, and helpful, and we could not have done the brothers’ credit in our exhibits and restorations without their encouragement and assistance. Ivonette, incidentally, had yet another distinction: she was the last person alive who had flown as a passenger with Orville Wright, longest-lived of the two flying brothers (he died in 1948).

Additionally, my Smithsonian experience afforded me the chance to closely examine the surviving Wright aircraft, other artifacts, and surviving documents; oversee a 75th anniversary commemoration of their first flights at Kitty Hawk; and, in 1979, co-curate (with Tom Crouch and Claudia Oakes) a Gallery on Early Flight that remained open until just this last fall, when it closed as part of a larger rebuilding project of the entire NASM.

During all this I met and worked with some notable authorities on the Wrights, individually and collectively a group to whom I owe a great deal. Foremost of these was the late Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith, who came to the NASM from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, having produced a series of analytical studies on early flight and pioneering aviators that remains unmatched. So profoundly did he influence my own thinking (and that of many others) about early flight that I dedicated this Osprey book to him, convinced, as I wrote, that “All who study Early Flight follow in his wake.”

Others who influenced my own work were: Tom Crouch, the most painstaking and thorough of all Wright biographers, the world’s leading expert on early aviation, and an authority on ballooning; Peter Jakab, author of the definitive account of how the Wrights actually invented the first aeroplane, and (with Rick Young) a fine compilation of the published writings of the Wrights; Howard Wolko, author of an excellent technical study of the Wright 1903 Flyer from the standpoint of a widely experienced structural engineer; and Dominic Pisano, NASM Librarian and a bibliographer of works by and about the Wrights. All of these contributed to my first foray in Wright scholarship, a National Air and Space Museum book of essays entitled The Wright Brothers: Heirs of Prometheus, which, published in 1978, commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Wrights’ historic flights at Kitty Hawk.

Others outside the Smithsonian were equally influential upon my thinking. First among these were two superb scholars at the U.S. Library of Congress: Marvin McFarland, the great compiler of the two-volume Wright papers and his colleague Arthur Renstrom, who assembled the definitive chronology of the Wrights and their flights. Next were three great British aviation historians: Philip Jarrett, a noted authority on early aviation in general and the work of Percy Pilcher (like Lilienthal, a supremely gifted yet tragic figure) in particular; Brian Riddle, the librarian of the Royal Aeronautical Society who (with Colin Sinnot) assembled a notable collection of Wright letters held by the RAeS; and J.A.D. Ackroyd, an outstanding authority on the early history of aerodynamics, the development of aerospace technology in Great Britain, and, particularly, the life, work, and contributions of the single most important aeronautical pioneer prior to the Wrights, Sir George Cayley, a man whose foundational research and conceptualizations were even greater than those of Lilienthal.

What drew me to write this book was the chance to produce a work that would introduce the reader to the “other” Wright aircraft, not just the well-worn path from kite to glider to Kitty Hawk Flyer. The opportunity to trace where the Wrights fit into aviation after 1903, and, in particularly, how their efforts eventually failed to keep up with developments abroad (ironic, given how influential their work had been overseas in the 1908–1909 period) seemed to me an outstanding opportunity, one not to be missed. I had touched upon some of this in a 2003 book, Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity Through the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2003), but Osprey afforded me the opportunity to look at the Wright aircraft in much greater detail, and to work with a fine group of editors and artists – hat tips to Tom Milner and Adam Tooby! – to assemble not only a text but evocative illustrations and meticulous drawings. 

The research for the book turned up some pleasant surprises, such as the discovery that the transcontinental Wright EX Vin Fiz had that name painted on the upper surface of the horizontal tail early during its cross-country flight, but that as a result of multiple accidents and repairs, by the time it reached the West Coast it only showed the name on the underside of the wings! I particularly enjoyed a research trip to the Smithsonian in the company of Peter Jakab, who had supervised the preparation of a spectacularly successful exhibition of the Wright Flyer for the 100th anniversary of Kitty Hawk (including the Flyer’s meticulous restoration, better, even, than that undertaken before the opening of the NASM in 1976). In this trip I had the chance to examine the Kitty Hawk Flyer, the Vin Fiz, and the 1909 Military Flyer, not only refreshing my memory, but learning much as well, looking at it 40 years later with much greater acumen and knowledge of the flight research and test and evaluation world.

I thank Osprey for the opportunity to write this book. I hope all who read it will find it of at least passing interest.

 

Order your copy of The Wright Flyers 1899–1916, to find out more. 

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