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The Safe and Useful Airplane

By Edward H. Phillips
3/10/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

As Allied fighters fell in droves to the Germans during “Bloody April” 1917, Orville Wright predicted that airplanes would render war obsolete.

Little more than a decade before the terrible slaughter and devastation that defined World War I, Orville and Wilbur Wright had sealed their place in history as the patriarchs of powered, heavier than-air, controlled flight. In April 1917, Harper’s Magazine interviewed Orville to learn what he envisioned as the airplane’s future role. The younger Wright’s comments provide an interesting glimpse into the rapid evolution of the flying machine.

Despite the bloodletting in Europe at the time, Orville was chiefly concerned about the airplane’s use as an instrument of peace. “I really believe that the airplane will help peace in more ways than one,” he said. “I think it will have a tendency to make war impossible.” Orville hailed the airplane’s potential power to keep the peace as its “greatest triumph.” He based his comment on a conviction that “had the European governments foreseen the part the airplane was to play, especially in reducing all their strategic plans to a devastating deadlock, they would never have entered upon the war.”

As a result, he believed that in the future civilized countries “will hesitate before taking up arms…a fact which makes me believe that the airplane will exert a powerful influence in putting an end to war.” Although early on a majority of European militarists did see the airplane’s potential as an aerial platform for scouting and reconnaissance, “few foresaw that it would usher in an entirely new form of warfare,” he said.

The general public was fascinated by the war in the air and the airplane’s development. Magazines and newspapers ran fanciful illustrations of future aircraft as large as the White Star Line’s massive Lusitania ocean liner. Orville was quick to deflate such expectations, saying: “We shall have no airplanes as large as the Lusitania. It is a law of nature that the larger the bird, the poorer its flying ability.” He viewed aviation’s ascendance as the harbinger of a “new world and a new type of civilization,” and believed the airplane was destined to give birth to “an entirely new form of transportation which will serve many ends and contribute in many ways to the welfare and happiness of mankind.”

Despite his optimism about the airplane’s role, however, Wright was pessimistic about its ability to replace existing forms of steam and gas-powered transit such as the locomotive and the automobile. “I do not believe that all transportation in the future will be through the air,” he said. “The airplane will not supplant the railroad, the trolley or the automobile,” but would be limited to “certain things that it will do better than the railroad or the automobile.” Looking ahead, Wright recognized that “it is not impossible that other forms of aircraft, built upon other principles, may be invented and accomplish all the wonderful things certain imaginative people prophesy for the present airplane.” That prediction was realized in the late 1930s, with the development of the practical helicopter.

Orville also addressed the hotly debated question (then and now) of safety. “It is a new idea that the airplane is a safe means of transportation in safe hands, yet it is an idea that we must firmly get into the popular mind,” he said. Flying at speeds typical for that time, about 80-100 mph, “there is no means of transportation that is so safe. ”Whereas a locomotive must follow tracks and a car is restricted to roads, Wright pointed out that the airplane goes wherever the pilot wishes to go. He did criticize “certain performers that have done much to instill the notion that flying is exceedingly dangerous.” These “daredevil exhibition flyers cultivate the circus aspects of the art and by words and deeds have associated the airplane with the idea of danger.”

Wright noted, however, that he did not wish to “criticize too harshly these circus performers for they have accomplished much good.” He specifically praised the first pilot to perform a loop (Russian aviator Peter Nesterov in September 1913) for making “a solid contribution to the cause of aeronautics by demonstrating the wonderful stability and righting power of the airplane.” He added, “What other means of transportation, except the airplane, sails just as well upside down” or can “turn turtle with out fear of serious consequences.”

Regarding the dangers associated with normal flying, Wright said, “There are no difficulties which ordinary prudence and common sense cannot provide against, for the greatest danger of aviation is not the flying but the landing.” He urged aviators to avoid flying too close to the ground because if the engine failed “it may be fatal to land in the top of a tree or somewhere in the neighborhood of a skyscraper.” In general, “I may say that the higher one flies the safer he is…you are less likely to have a serious fall at the higher altitude than at the lower.”

Orville pointed out that a major fear of flying was the “stopping of the engine,” noting that the public was convinced that a “dead engine is one of the greatest perils of flying.” In an effort to alleviate such concerns, Wright commented that an engine failure “is not necessarily a serious matter” because the engine does not make the airplane fly, “it merely propels it.” He explained that if the engine stops running, “it merely means a descent to earth,” adding, “Thus safety in the air is almost entirely a matter of maintaining a sufficient height.”

Asked at this early stage in aviation’s development if the airplane of the future would carry passengers, he responded, “Yes, because there are certain things the airplane can do better than the railroad, particularly whenever the necessity is for great speed.” He was convinced that given the choice between an express train traveling at 60 mph and an airplane flying at more than 100 mph, people would choose the airplane. He said that “even the suggestion of such speeds almost takes one’s breath away; it seems inconceivable that human beings could physically endure such rapid traveling. In a very few years the flying machine will do all the work that the special train does now.” By the late 1920s and early ’30s, airlines and railroads worked together to achieve coast-to-coast passenger transport in only a few days. But just as Orville had predicted, it was the aircraft’s speed that led to the demise of transcontinental rail service.

Wright noted the chief impediment to implementing passenger service by air was the “scarcity of good landing places.” In 1917 only Detroit, Mich., and Dayton, Ohio, could boast of rudimentary landing fields, but Orville was adamant that for air service to flourish, “All large cities will have to build such accommodations.” With these established at important waypoints across the U.S., “the day of passenger traffic will begin.

“Perhaps the greatest service of the passenger airplane is that it will make accessible parts of the world that are now little used,” Wright noted. He correctly predicted that the airplane would become a “potent agency in the development of Alaska, for here we have an extremely rich country where railroads are difficult and extremely expensive to build.”

Orville said that although the airplane would not be suitable for carrying wheat or coal, it would prove ideally suited to transporting small packages. He was less optimistic about its potential for carrying the mail, saying, “I do not think it will supplant the steamship and the railroad as a mail carrier because it will be too expensive.” However, he believed that one day “We shall have a special, rapid mail service by airplane for which we will pay a higher price and buy a special stamp.” America’s official airmail service, which would begin on May 15, 1918, did feature a special stamp, and airlines eventually took over the airmail routes.

The final question put to Orville centered on whether the airplane would have any appeal for sport flying. His enthusiasm was clear in his response: The airplane is the “greatest sport yet devised and is far more exhilarating and delightful than the automobile for high speed, and far safer.” The only obstacle to private flying was eliminating the “foolish impression that it is a dangerous sport.”

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