“The problem of flight” was the phrase used often by the Wright brothers. While others were out trying to solve it, the brothers thought about it. All family members were involved in the thought process, too. Baby sister, Katharine, complained that “the problem” consumed the boys and she wished they would socialize more.
Thoughts varied such as balloonist were not true pilots. Ascending because one’s craft was lighter than the surrounding air was hardly a skilled flight. The pilots did not control the airship but floated about as the wind wished. The boys would have to look elsewhere for concrete evidence of flight.
The brothers suspected current flight enthusiasts were throwing money at the problem void of scientific facts. Wings, blades, wires, wood, etc. were paced together in arrangements that people thought would work based on bird shapes. It was after meeting Octave Chanute that their suspicions were confirmed. He could not produce any papers to back up his designs.
The brothers were baffled the most by men willing to strap their bodies to an untested machine for the sake of the problem. Many times these same men would be memorialized a week later and the obituary wrapped around fish, but nothing was gained. If the boys were to risk their necks, somewhere there better be proof of the possible.
It was Wilbur that insisted the problem could be solved. He turned to the experts – birds – spending hours observing their patterns in the sky. He went to the Dayton library and checked out as many books on birds that he could find. He read, watched, and thought about the physics of flight.
Wilbur’s eye for the larger birds such as hawks, eagles and albatross lead him to solve the problem. Birds are not lighter than air thus must provide lift and thrust with their powerful wings and legs. Birds also do not float midair but turn, climb and descend. He noticed the birds using their wings and tails in combination or apart to make directional and height changes.
For Wilbur, the key ingredient for flight was wind. “No bird soars in a calm,” stated Wilbur. It was only after many hours in the air that Wilbur changed his mind realizing wind could be generated with more power from the props.
Although, we know Orville was the first to fly, it was thanks to his big brother. Wilbur, as you will find out from David McCullough’s new book The Wright Brothers, was a genius. Delightful reading, I now follow the Mississippi Kite through the sky with greater admiration.