The Wright Story: The True Story of the Wright Brothers’ Contribution to Early Aviation
by Joe Bullmer, BookSurge, Charleston, S.C., 2009, $19.95
“There are often very fine lines between perseverance and stubbornness, confidence and arrogance, and the desire for compensation and greed,” writes aeronautical engineer Joe Bullmer in this knowledgeable reexamination of the Legend of the Wright Brothers. “We have no right to expect perfection from the Wrights, but we have no obligation to portray their work as such either.”
Yet too many generations of aviation historians—yes, me included—have done exactly that, increasingly accepting as genius what a century ago was viewed with skepticism by many in the aborning aviation industry. Bullmer, with 30 years of work at Wright-Patterson AFB as a specialist in aircraft performance studies, is irked by the fact that at least one well-known Wright biographer proudly boasts of knowing nothing about aeronautical engineering, because “such professional knowledge would tend to be a handicap, even a severe one, in any attempt to evoke the bright simplicity of the brothers’ work.”
In fact “the bright simplicity of the brothers’ work” led them to believe for many years—even after they’d flown—that lift was produced by the relative wind hitting the bottom of a wing surface, like a kid “flying” his flattened hand out a car window. The only reason the Wrights curved the leading edge of their wings downward was because they thought a bit of wind hitting the top of the wing would keep their aircraft from flipping over backward. That “bright simplicity” also meant the brothers persisted in making ramp/catapault skid launches and landings for years after the rest of the aviation world realized that you needed wheels to make airplanes practical, and retaining a canard horizontal-control surface that made pitch control dicey.
The Legend has it that in December 1903, the Wrights made the first powered, controlled flight. Really? Controlled? The Wright Flyer was controllable only in that it could barely be kept dead straight and level. When the Wrights’ airplanes—gliders and powered—were turned by errant wind gusts, they crashed. And even today, the plaque under the Wright Flyer in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum claims that the Wrights “discovered the principles of human flight,” utterly ignoring the work of, among many others, Otto Lilienthal, Octave Chanute and Percy Pilcher, who between them made more than 5,000 gliding flights in the 19th century, sometimes as much as a fifth of a mile long and many involving turns and banks. (The weasel word is “human,” since the Wrights of course carried a man aboard their glider.)
The Wright Story is neither a casual polemic nor an engineering textbook, but it does presuppose at least a basic understanding of aerodynamics. Bullmer doesn’t guess or theorize; he does the math. It is reassuring, though, to see that he still needs us aviation historians—if only to tell him how to properly spell “DeHaviland,” Walter “Beach,” “Beachcraft,” “Glen” Martin and a few other clangers.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.