The Wright flight and the wrong math

Published 9:50 pm Thursday, October 29, 2015

By Frank Roberts

Everyone knows about the achievement of the Wright Brothers. It was a great and exciting moment in history, and visitors to the Kitty Hawk site can listen to guides who will reiterate what they probably already know.

Classes in northeastern North Carolina and southern Virginia often make trips to see — well — a replica of the Wright Brothers’ craft. The original is in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institute.

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You probably didn’t know that the first manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight succeeded thanks to Wilbur’s questionable mathematic skills. Otherwise, those wild blue yonder honors would have gone to Great Britain.

Percy Sinclair Pilcher had experimented with gliders at his Eynsford home, in Kent, and he was successful enough to get a patent for the world’s first practical design for a powered aircraft. In 1899 he designed an engine that was light enough to fly, but powerful enough to power the craft, according to Phil Mason, an historian-author who noted that Pilcher began his glider experiments in 1896.

“It was at a time when the Wrights had only just decided to start experimenting with gliders,” he said, rubbing a bit of salt into the wound.

Pilcher accepted an invitation from a friend to display his glider, the Hawk. The date was Sept. 30, 1899. He was flying at an altitude of 30 feet when a small rod in the tail broke. He crashed, seriously injuring himself. He died three days later.

He was only 32 when he dreamt of “a British first flight,” Mason wrote, ruefully adding, “history’s accolade for inventing powered, sustained, and controlled heavier-than-air flight would go elsewhere.”

Here, actually.

In 2003 to mark the centenary of the first manned flight, Brit enthusiasts built a replica of his powered triplane, which had gone untested when the engine that was to have powered it failed the week before its scheduled inaugural flight, causing Pilcher to choose to make his fateful final flight on the Hawk, instead.

The triplane built from Pilcher’s plans, 104 years after his death, flew for 38 seconds. That was three times longer then the Wrights’ first foray into the wild blue yonder.

In the good, old U.S.A. in 2003, there was a similar celebration, but with a different cast of characters. Working with the help of a computer, they learned that Wilbur and Orville’s flight had come perilously close to failure.

Mason said the Wright flight succeeded “only because of a combination of fortunate weather and Wilbur Wright getting his sums wrong.”

Mason said analysts discovered the Wright flight was saved from stalling only because of the propeller was more efficient than Wilbur had calculated. Another big help was the weather — winds blowing from the right direction and at the right speed.

“The Wright Flyer was 75 pounds heavier than originally designed, but was saved by the unexpected performance from the propeller,” he said. A replica built for the centennial celebration would have been required to fly significantly faster than the 30 mph achieved in the real first flight to prevent it from catastrophically stalling.

Where the weather had helped the Wright brothers, though, it conspired against the ceremonial commemoration on Dec. 17, 2003. High winds prevented any lift-off of the replica flyer at all.

The moral of the story: Even if you’re getting a D in math, fret not. You could eventually become an achiever.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at