Did somebody beat the Wright brothers to the world's first powered flight?

August 8, 2008

Dear Cecil:

What's the straight dope on the world's first powered flight? Sources on the 'Net claim people from New Zealand, Scotland, and France flew earlier than the Wrights, and one claims John Stringfellow from Somerset, England, managed a powered flight in 1848!

My Brazilian wife tells me the Wright brothers weren't the first fliers, but that a Brazilian named Santos-Dumont beat them into the air. True?

Cecil replies:

Folks, I assume you've all tumbled to the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy; I think you're ready for the truth about inventors. They rarely cook up a new device or process from scratch; more often they merely add a few essential twists to an almost-there technology that's waiting to be born. Just so with aircraft. Even discounting man-lifting kites, balloons, parachutes, gliders, and airships, lots of people beat the Wrights to powered heavier-than-air takeoffs. What the Wrights invented was the first practical airplane — one capable of controlled, sustained flight.

First, Stringfellow. He recorded a successful indoor flight with a small steam-powered model propeller plane in 1848. So sure, Stringfellow achieved powered — but unmanned — flight.

The next major contender was Felix du Temple, whose manned powered plane launched from a ramp in 1874 and was airborne only briefly. This was less a sustained flight than a powered glide.

In 1890, Frenchman Clement Ader piloted the first manned plane to take off from level ground under its own power, in uncontrolled but arguably sustained flight (definitions vary). A worthy feat, but Ader loses points for his discredited claims of an 1897 flight.

Your Scottish entrant, Tony, was probably Preston Watson. His brother once claimed Preston had flown a powered plane in 1903 but later determined the craft in question was a glider. Not everyone got the memo.

New Zealander Richard Pearse made short semisuccessful flights in a gasoline-powered plane, probably in mid-1903 (the year is disputed). If so, they were the first powered flights with theoretically reasonable controls. Most of his attempts were interrupted by hedges in the testing area, and Pearse later admitted the plane was "uncontrollable." Practical airplane, no; first powered hedge clippers, maybe.

Other notable manned but uncontrolled planes before the Wrights include those of Mozhaisky (1884, Russia), Hiram "Machine Gun" Maxim (1894, England), Wilhelm Kress (1901, Austria), Karl Jatho (1903, Germany), and Langley (1903, U.S.).

That leaves the flights of the Wright brothers in 1903, right? Actually, that plane, taking off from a rail under its own power and flying upwards of 260 meters, was fully controllable in theory only. The Wrights had tested their wing-warping system for executing banked turns on gliders but didn't risk powered turns at this point.

In 1904, the Wrights tested a new plane in Ohio. Early flights disappointed, the fault of both Dayton's undependable winds and oversensitive pitch controls. To combat the former, they built a starting derrick (read: a catapult) to pull them up to flying speed quickly. (The plane could take off without it but that required a much longer rail.) To improve pitch control, they added ballast and modified the elevators.

Only after licking these problems did the Wrights attempt turns. By late 1904 they were flying in circles, a convenient standard for controlled flight. They made flights up to five minutes long in 1904 and, in a third plane, up to 38 minutes long in 1905. It's this third plane that many regard as the first practical airplane.

It's sometimes said the Wrights' early flights weren't witnessed. In fact, dozens attended their 1903-'05 flights, and photographs show these planes aloft. One witness was Octave Chanute, another aviation pioneer. What's undeniable is that the flights weren't certified by an official body such as the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. FAI rules, which postdate the early Wright flights, don't allow starting assistance like the brothers' derrick (or for that matter aircraft carriers' steam catapults). Whether the Wrights could have made such impressive flights sans catapult is probable but unknowable. They flew well after unassisted takeoffs in 1908 at Kitty Hawk using the 1905 airframe, but these results aren't directly comparable because they'd installed a more powerful engine.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian expat in France, won the honor of the first FAI-certified flight with a somewhat poorly controlled 220-meter trip in 1906. At the time Europeans doubted the Wrights' claims, and Santos-Dumont contended he was first, period.

In everything but certification, though, the Wrights were well ahead of the pack. Their longest flights of 1903, '04, and '05 and their first circular flight weren't matched for three to four years. When Wilbur flew in Europe in 1908 without a catapult, he shattered all previous FAI records for distance, duration, and altitude.

In later patent disputes, the Wrights were prickly, which cost them friends, including Chanute. They come off like money-grubbing SOBs — but SOBs who nonetheless invented (all together now) the first practical airplane.

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