Sunday, April 6, 2008


For ages people had been fascinated by the thought of aerial flight. Leonardo da Vinci designed a flying machine in the 15th century, and by the 19th century men were airborne in hot-air balloons, gliders, and huge kites. But they still had not built a craft that could fly independent of the forces of nature; flight still depended on the whimsy of the wind. Steam and gasoline engines, however, made it theoretically possible to construct a heavier-than-air craft that could be lifted off the ground and sustained in flight by its own power source. And so, at the end of the 19th century, enthusiasts around the world joined in the race to invent the first flying machine.

CLEMENT ADER (1841-1925)
Clement Ader was intrigued by aerial navigation even as a boy growing up in the south of France. His interest led him to build and design countless kites, and while he was still young he succeeded in producing a kite capable of carrying a man aloft. Ader worked in the Dept. of Public Works for 15 years but quit his job to tinker with his inventions. He designed the first telephone system in Paris, a public-address device, and a microphone, but he never lost his interest in aeronautics. In the early 1870s he created an ornithopter, an engine to which was attached flapping wings, but it failed to fly. Then Ader went to Algeria to study the flight of vultures and discovered that once airborne they rarely flapped their wings. He promptly scrapped the design of the ornithopter as impractical. In order to fly, he decided, a machine must have fixed wings and an engine capable of lifting it off the ground. Back in France, he built his first airplane, the Eole (named for Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds).
The Eole had bat-shaped wings and was driven by a steam engine attached to a four-blade propeller. Ader tested his airplane near Gretz-Armainvilliers on Oct. 9, 1890, and claimed that he accomplished a takeoff and a powered flight of approximately 165 ft. There were a few witnesses to his feat but they were not familiar with aeronautics, and consequently none of them reported what he saw. Ader asserted that he had tested the Eole a second time at the army base at Satory near Versailles in September of 1891 and flew roughly 330 ft. at an altitude of 8 in. above the ground before crashing. There supposedly was only one witness; he did not make a statement to authorities about what he saw. Ader himself did not publicly report this flight until 1906.

Samuel Langley, born in Roxbury, Mass., had a wealthy father who encouraged him to study and to pursue educational hobbies. Langley's childhood love was astronomy, but he eventually chose civil engineering as his occupation. After several years at jobs as a qualified engineer and architect, he changed directions and went back to his study of astronomy and science. He taught mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy, became director of the Allegheny Observatory, and taught physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh though he had never earned a college degree. In the late 1880s his studies on the effects of the sun on the weather and wind currents led him to aviation.
Langley was soon experimenting with models, the first of which were powered by rubber bands. When he became the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he drew on the expertise and knowledge of the technicians and scientists there. The result was the completion of a series of test planes. On May 6, 1896, with his friend Alexander Graham Bell as an observer, Langley sent his Aerodrome Number 5 into the air, launched from a catapult on top of a houseboat in the middle of the Potomac River. This 30-lb. craft with a steam engine flew for 1 min. 20 sec. at an altitude of 70 to 100 ft. for a distance of 3,000 ft. It was the first successful flight of an unmanned heavier-than-air flying machine. Langley's Aerodrome Number 6 had mechanical problems that day, but it flew 4,200 ft. in November of 1896.
In 1898, at President William McKinley's instigation, the U.S. Army awarded Langley $50,000 to develop a plane that would carry a man aloft. In December, 1903, nine days before the Wrights' test at Kitty Hawk, Langley tried out his new gasoline-powered experimental model. A mishap with the catapult caused the airplane to plunge to the bottom of the Potomac, and Langley gave up his experiments after being criticized by the press for the great expense to the taxpayers.

Jules Verne's fictional accounts of flying machines inspired young Alberto Santos-Dumont, son of a wealthy Brazilian coffee plantation owner, to fantasies about flight. At age 18, when his father's death made him a millionaire, Santos-Dumont sailed for France, where he became engrossed in internal-combustion engines and automobiles. In 1897 he flew in a balloon for the first time and thereafter became one of the foremost balloonists in France.
In 1905 he built an airplane consisting of three box kites connected to each other by bamboo poles, powered by a steam engine. Strapping his machine to the undercarriage of a balloon, Santos-Dumont went aloft, started the airplane's engine, climbed into the cockpit, and cut the plane loose from the balloon. He plummeted to the ground. However, he persevered and built a new model, which he tested outside Paris on Oct. 23, 1906. With the same kite-shaped wings but a lighter gasoline engine, this airplane successfully took off and flew 722 ft. before landing. Qualified witnesses verified and documented the takeoff and flight. The French government recognized this as the first time a human being had flown in a heavier-than-air machine.
For the next four years Santos-Dumont continued his aeronautical experiments, but in 1910 he contracted disseminating sclerosis and never flew again. He returned to Brazil in 1928, became increasingly depressed over the fact that world powers were using airplanes in warfare, and committed suicide four years later.
Orville and Wilbur Wright, the sons of a midwestern minister, displayed a high mechanical aptitude even in their youth. This, coupled with investigative natures, made Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) ideal inventors. By their early twenties they had built a printing press and designed a new bicycle, which they also manufactured. They became interested in flight by reading about the glider experiments of German aerialist Otto Lilienthal.
For three years Orville and Wilbur built and tested gliders on the tree-barren sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. During the winters at their bicycle plant in Dayton, O., they experimented with new wing shapes and control systems in a wind tunnel that they also invented. By December of 1903, the brothers were back at Kitty Hawk with their first powered airplane, a double-winged, box kite-shaped contraption with an undercarriage attached to a stationary monorail track. On Dec. 17 Orville stretched out in the middle of the lower wing and took off on a 12-sec., 120-ft. flight. That same day, Wilbur flew for 59 sec., covering 852 ft. The tests were observed by five witnesses. The brothers continued to perfect their machine, and in 1906 they were granted a U.S. patent for their invention. However, they did not publicly demonstrate their airplane until 1908, after which they were awarded U.S. Army and French commercial contracts to manufacture them.

Controversy still rages over who really invented the first airplane because it's not just a matter of who devised a craft that got off the ground. It depends on how one defines flight. Which of these inventions, if any, took off from the ground and stayed in the air under its own mechanical power rather than depending on forces such as momentum or wind? In order to be considered true flight, did it have to be sustained and well controlled? Does 10 sec. in the air count as much as 10 min.? If the machine lost power and crashed, does that count as much as a three-point landing? Finally, based on modern-day knowledge, were any of these machines compatible with proven theories of aeronautical design?
Ader's claims are often attacked because of his lack of qualified witnesses, but the Wright brothers in 1903 had only five witnesses, none of whom was a qualified aeronautical engineer. In fact, one of the Wrights' witnesses, A. W. Drinkwater, stated in an interview in the early 1950s that the Wrights had not achieved powered flight but only a powered glide in 1903. They had launched their plane into a strong headwind, down a sand dune, using their monorail undercarriage system; all the engine did was power the plane as a glider once it was airborne. Compared to this, Ader had the testimony of General Mensier of the French Army General Staff, who at one point in time stated that at Satory in 1897 Avion III took off by itself from the ground.
Another argument against Ader is that he did not achieve sustained or controlled flight. Ader's supporters counter that any number of qualifications can be added to the definition of flight and that although Ader's machines lacked sophisticated controls and never flew great distances, they still satisfied the basic requirement of taking off under their own power.
Later investigation showed that Ader's steam engine was a highly efficient mechanism, powerful but amazingly light. Some experts, including certain of Ader's detractors, contend that his engine was far more suitable for flight than the engine used by the Wright brothers.
Ader's proponents maintain that, although his flights were largely uncontrolled and brief, he successfully flew at least six years before the Wright brothers.

Langley's supporters have had to refute two major arguments concerning his claim. First, that his 1896 airplane was unmanned and therefore only a model, while his man-carrying plane was a failure. But his adherents assert that his machines met all requirements for controlled, lengthy flight. The manned airplane failed, not because of any inherent mechanical difficulties, but simply because of the faulty catapult. Second, some argue that Langley's airplanes did not, and could not, use their own motive power for takeoff. Langley partisans claim that he could have ascended from the ground but was concerned with the damage that might occur on landing. It is also asserted that the engine of Langley's flying machine was efficient enough to power a takeoff.
Even Wilbur Wright once admitted that Langley had a stronger claim than any other contender, saying Langley had provided "the first practical demonstration of the possibility of mechanical flight," and that he and his brother were influenced in their work by Langley's skills. The Langley claim is in agreement with the Wrights' claim that Ader's aircraft never flew, but it points out that Langley's machines had achieved flight some seven years before the Wright brothers and ten years before Santos-Dumont.
A number of aviation historians assert that none of these contenders--not Langley or the Wright brothers--was the first to invent a viable heavier-than-air machine. These authorities argue that the Wrights' supporters are correct in their evaluations of Ader. They also claim that Langley's unmanned, unguided, catapult-launched airplane cannot be seriously considered, and that the Wrights achieved only a powered glide in 1903. They contend that Alberto Santos-Dumont on Oct. 23, 1906, became the first man to fly. They point out that the French government, in spite of its later patent award to the Wright brothers, officially recognized this 1906 event as the first witnessed powered flight. Unlike the case with the other claimants, no aeronautics experts dispute the fact that Santos-Dumont's flight met all the necessary definitions and criteria. That would make him the father of the airplane.

Supporters of Orville and Wilbur Wright deny that Ader flew in 1890, in 1891, or in 1897. They underscore the fact that Ader did not press his claims until 1906, when the Wrights were already acknowledged as the inventors of the airplane. Only after Ader could not officially prove that he flew in 1897, since his witnesses disagreed as to whether Avion III actually became airborne or simply made short hops off the ground when it was buffeted by crosswinds, did he assert that he had also flown in 1890 and 1891. He named dates and places but could not produce witnesses.
Pro-Wright authorities also contend that Ader's craft lacked the proper aerial design for controlled and sustained flight. Even if his engine could launch the craft, that did not constitute flying, for a sky-rocket powered by gunpowder could do the same. It was not until the Wrights took off in an aeronautically feasible craft, with its well-designed stabilizers and wings, that man flew for the first time, they assert. And in spite of the fact that there were no public or formal demonstrations, Orville and Wilbur had so well mastered aviation that by the fall of 1905 they could claim flights lasting half an hour covering distances of up to 24 mi.
As further proof there are the patents awarded by a French patent court in 1911 and an American patent court in 1914, which named the brothers as the inventors of the airplane. Charles Dollfus, honorary curator of the Paris Air Museum, who was assigned by the French government to examine Ader's papers after his death, stated categorically: "Ader did not fly for a single instant at Satory in the course of the tests of ... 1897." And, finally, the Wrights went on to prove their claims by perfecting the airplane and producing it commercially.

© 1975 - 1981 by David Wallechinsky & Irving WallaceReproduced with permission from "The People's Almanac" series of books.


Manoj Singal said...
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Manoj Singal said...
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