Last modified on 3 November 2013, at 14:42

Wilbur Wright

It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery.

Wilbur Wright (16 April 186730 May 1912) is generally credited with the design and construction of the first practical airplane.

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For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.
What is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery.
What one man can do himself directly is but little. If however he can stir up ten others to take up the task he has accomplished much.
To even mention all the things the bird must constantly keep in mind in order to fly securely through the air would take a considerable part of the evening... The bird has learned this art of equilibrium, and learned it so thoroughly that its skill is not apparent to our sight. We only learn to appreciate it when we try to imitate it.
We knew that men had by common consent adopted human flight as the standard of impossibility. When a man said, “It can’t be done; a man might as well try to fly,” he was understood as expressing the final limit of impossibility...
Things which seemed reasonable were often found to be untrue, and things which seemed unreasonable were sometimes true.
  • For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.
  • What is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. The flight of the buzzard and similar sailors is a convincing demonstration of the value of skill and the partial needlessness of motors.
    It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery...
    • Letter to Octave Chanute (13 May 1900)
  • My observation of the flight of buzzards leads me to believe that they regain their lateral balance when partly overturned by a gust of wind, by a torsion of the tips of the wings. If the rear edge of the right wing tip is twisted upward and the left downward the bird becomes an animated windmill and instantly begins to turn, a line from its head to its tail being the axis. It thus regains its level even if thrown on its beam’s end, so to speak, as I have frequently seen them. I think the bird also in general retains its lateral equilibrium, partly by presenting its two wings at different angles to the wind, and partly by drawing in one wing, thus reducing its area. I incline to the belief that the first is the more important and usual method....
    My business requires that my experimental work be confined to the months between September and January and I would be particularly thankful for advice as to a suitable locality where I could depend on winds of about 15 miles per hour without rain or too inclement weather. I am certain that such localities are rare.
    • Letter to Octave Chanute (13 May 1900)
  • Lilienthal’s enthusiastic efforts to arouse others may yet prove his most valuable contribution to the solution of the problem. What one man can do himself directly is but little. If however he can stir up ten others to take up the task he has accomplished much.
    • Letter to Octave Chanute (1 June 1900)
  • Hawks are better soarers than buzzards but more often resort to flapping because they wish greater speed. A damp day is unfavorable for soaring unless there is a high wind. No bird soars in a calm.
    The object of the tail is to increase the spread of surface in the rear when the wings are moved forward in light winds and thus preserve the centre of pressure at about the same spot. It seems to be used as a rudder very little. In high winds it is folded up very narrow.
    • Wright's Notebook (1900)
  • The person who merely watches the flight of a bird gathers the impression that the bird has nothing to think of but the flapping of its wings. As a matter of fact this is a very small part of its mental labor. To even mention all the things the bird must constantly keep in mind in order to fly securely through the air would take a considerable part of the evening. If I take this piece of paper, and after placing it parallel with the ground, quickly let it fall, it will not settle steadily down as a staid, sensible piece of paper ought to do, but it insists on contravening every recognized rule of decorum, turning over and darting hither and thither in the most erratic manner, much after the style of an untrained horse. Yet this is the style of steed that men must learn to manage before flying can become an everyday sport. The bird has learned this art of equilibrium, and learned it so thoroughly that its skill is not apparent to our sight. We only learn to appreciate it when we try to imitate it.
  • Herr Otto Lilienthal seems to have been the first man who really comprehended that balancing was the first instead of the last of the great problems in connection with human flight. He began where others left off, and thus saved the many thousands of dollars that it had theretofore been customary to spend in building and fitting expensive engines to machines which were uncontrollable when tried. He built a pair of wings of a size suitable to sustain his own weight, and made use of gravity as his motor. This motor not only cost him nothing to begin with, but it required no expensive fuel while in operation, and never had to be sent to the shop for repairs. It had one serious drawback, however, in that it always insisted on fixing the conditions under which it would work. These were, that the man should first betake himself and machine to the top of a hill and fly with a downward as well as a forward motion. Unless these conditions were complied with, gravity served no better than a balky horse — it would not work at all...
    We figured that Lilienthal in five years of time had spent only about five hours in actual gliding through the air. The wonder was not that he had done so little, but that he had accomplished so much. It would not be considered at all safe for a bicycle rider to attempt to ride through a crowded city street after only five hours’ practice, spread out in bits of ten seconds each over a period of five years; yet Lilienthal with this brief practice was remarkably successful in meeting the fluctuations and eddies of wind gusts. We thought that if some method could be found by which it would be possible to practice by the hour instead of by the second there would be hope of advancing the solution of a very difficult problem.
    • Speech to the Western Society of Engineers (18 September 1901); published in the Journal of the Western Society of Engineers (December 1901); republished with revisions by the author for the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (1902)
  • My brother and I became seriously interested in the problem of human flight in 1899 ... We knew that men had by common consent adopted human flight as the standard of impossibility. When a man said, “It can’t be done; a man might as well try to fly,” he was understood as expressing the final limit of impossibility. Our own growing belief that man might nevertheless learn to fly was based on the idea that while thousands of the most dissimilar body structures, such as insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, were flying every day at pleasure, it was reasonable to suppose that man might also fly... We accordingly decided to write to the Smithsonian Institution and inquire for the best books relating to the subject.... Contrary to our previous impression, we found that men of the very highest standing in the profession of science and invention had attempted to solve the problem... But one by one, they had been compelled to confess themselves beaten, and had discontinued their efforts. In studying their failures we found many points of interest to us.
    At that time there was no flying art in the proper sense of the word, but only a flying problem. Thousands of men had thought about flying machines and a few had even built machines which they called flying machines, but these were guilty of almost everything except flying. Thousands of pages had been written on the so-called science of flying, but for the most part the ideas set forth, like the designs for machines, were mere speculations and probably ninety per cent was false. Consequently those who tried to study the science of aerodynamics knew not what to believe and what not to believe. Things which seemed reasonable were often found to be untrue, and things which seemed unreasonable were sometimes true. Under this condition of affairs students were accustomed to pay little attention to things that they had not personally tested.

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