More than a century after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C., we at The Wright Experience get a steady stream of feedback in one form or another about the brothers, their astonishing machine and unprecedented accomplishment. We thought it might be nice to share a few of these comments and questions.
A note from retired mechanical engineer Phil Billings
Thank you for taking several minutes to answer my questions at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk yesterday. I first learned of your work re the 2003 Centennial and then again from the 2015 Air & Space magazine article.
My own ‘Wright Experience’ began innocently enough with reading Harry Combs’ biography some 30 years ago. Upon reading that their machinist had designed and built an engine in 6 weeks, I assumed it was a misprint until I checked other references. Further investigation convinced me of not only their engineering genius and tenacity, but of their relevance to engineering process today. As an engineer myself–just retired–I was hooked.
Ken, thank you for your tireless efforts in making known the Wright’s story. Wishing you all the best in the future.
Best Regards, Phil Billings
An inquiry from Barry Latter, a docent at the Museum of Flight in Seattle
We’re sharing some of these comments and reactions in an occasional series of online posts. This one originated with an inquiry from Barry Latter, a docent at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where one of our reproductions of the original Wright Flyer may be seen.
In his letter to The Wright Experience President Ken Hyde, Latter writes:
“There is a wooden lever, seemingly accessible by the pilot of our Wright Flyer, which connects to a bellcrank mounted off the engine main crankshaft. Question: What is it? What does it adjust?”
In the answer to your question, Barry, lies a wealth of information about the Wrights and how they solved problems. Bear in mind that their 1903 Flyer was a prototype, and changes were made to it frequently.
But before we get to that, the short answer is that this simple wooden lever, together with a spring-steel latch at the leading edge of the wing, initiate everything necessary to take the brothers’ flying machine into the air. The two devices are naturally related and would have been used at the same time in order to prepare the machine for flight.
The wooden lever had three positions-off, to the pilot’s right, center, and left. The center position enabled fuel to flow to the engine. Movement to the left position required no action by the pilot but took place when the machine began to move.
Once the fuel began to flow and the engine was running, Wilbur or Orville-whomever’s turn it was to fly on that windy Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk-quickly yet carefully settled into the horizontal position-hips in the cradle, left hand on the horizontal rudder (elevator) lever. All set, the pilot’s right hand would reach for the small metal tab, flicking it forward.
That simple movement initiated a sequence of actions as follows: Remember, their craft is running now, straining against its restraining wire, and when that tab is released a connection to the arresting wire is broken and the Flyer immediately starts forward on its takeoff track. At the same instant an engine revolution counter is activated by the machine’s forward motion, as is a precision instrument mounted on an interplane strut that includes a stopwatch as well as an airflow gauge measuring (in meters) how much air has passed through it during the flight.
At the conclusion of each flight (there were four on Dec. 17), the pilot moves the lever to the right, shutting off fuel flow, and shuts down the rev-counter, stopwatch and airflow meter. Post-flight, computations from the instruments would provide distance flown, total engine revolutions and total time in motion.
Unlike some others seeking to fly heavier-than-air machines at that time, the Wrights ran a self-financed operation, supported principally by their Wright Cycle Co. They had neither large sums for experimentation nor did they have a college education, although both brothers were quite good at math and at bookkeeping.
In the four years spent on their successful effort to achieve controlled, heavier-than-air flight, their painstaking record-keeping indicates a total outlay of $1,003 for all expenditures. That’s a bit less than $26,000 today. By any yardstick, these were truly amazing men.
So that small lever, together with the equally simple metal strip, took care of a number of tasks that Wilbur and Orville knew had to be accomplished to get in the air. They were simple but reliable and performed as needed-at minimal expense.
The brothers understood that once the Flyer was in motion, they would need to focus all their attention on control of their creation
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