First in Flight
You always thought the Wright Brothers were the first to fly a plane? Well, it depends what country you're from.
by Brian Dunning
November 15, 2016
If you watched the opening ceremonies of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, you might have been surprised to see a celebration of the first manned flight in an aircraft, and it wasn't the Wright Brothers. What's this, you might have said. Flagrant pseudohistory? Well, maybe, and maybe not. Historical "firsts" are not always cut and dried. We saw this in stark detail back in episode 154 about who was first to break the sound barrier. Not only are some historical claims questionable, some goalposts are subject to interpretation. Need a flight be powered to be called the first? Need it be controlled? Need it travel a certain distance, last a certain duration, crest a certain altitude? All of these come into play when we try to learn who was the first to fly an airplane.
Many inventors were part of the saga toward the first flight, but we can only include a few here. Those we'll discuss today have the strongest claims, and since there's no firm place where we can draw the line, I'm going to draw it at how many we can squeeze into a Skeptoid episode. (Gustave Whitehead and Richard Pearse are two I omitted because their claims are not considered reliable.) So without further ado, let us now delve into history's timeline, and see what our characters were up to, and when.
We'll pick it up in 1886 when Frenchman Clément Ader drew up the design for a craft he called the Éole, part steampunk, part bat. It didn't look like it would be much of a flyer, but when he took it for a spin on October 9, 1890, it actually made a few short hops into the air when its lightweight steam engine — of Ader's own design — was at full throttle, a few meters at a time at most.
His contemporaries focused on the basics, building gliders. The whole decade of the 1890s saw gliders refined worldwide to a high degree. A pilot could launch from the top of a dune and glide perhaps a hundred meters or more. It seemed that soon someone was bound to take it to the next level.
And so someone did: On May 6, 1896, Smithsonian secretary Samuel Langley launched an unpiloted drone from a spring catapult atop a houseboat on the Potomac River. Aerodrome Number 5 flew for one kilometer, powered by a one-cylinder steam engine, before splashing down. Six months later, on November 11, Aerodrome Number 6 flew 1.5 kilometers.
Ader took note, and was now ready with the third generation of his flying machine, which he called Avion III. It was a great, gorgeous, bat-winged machine straight out of H.G. Wells. On October 14, 1897, Avion III crashed and was severely damaged before it could get off the ground. Ader never tried again.
This left Langley as the leader in world aviation by default, and his successes (coupled with his considerable political connections) prompted the War Department to grant him $50,000 in 1898, and the Smithsonian added another $20,000, to continue his work.
On the 18th of August, a German inventor and public servant built a triplane that looked like a person seated between stacked dinner plates. Karl Jatho was his name. He had no flight controls either, but he did manage to get about a meter off the ground and covered a distance of 18 meters in his odd-looking craft.
Finally Langley was ready to try again with his well-financed and powerful new plane, the 50-hp Aerodrome A. On October 7, he set it up on the catapult atop the houseboat again, piloted by his assistant Charles Manly. Unfortunately, at launch, part of the plane caught on the catapult mechanism and it was dumped unceremoniously into the river.
Jatho pulled on his goggles again, this time having removed one of his plane's wings, making it nominally a biplane, if visually still a stack of dinner plates. In November of 1903 he flew for 60 meters, achieving an altitude of 3 meters. But he still had no flight controls, and he wrote that his motor was simply too weak to go any higher or faster.
And it was Langley's turn again on December 8. Manly revved the engine, Langley pulled the control to fire the catapult, and... disaster stuck again. The plane was pulled apart by the catapult action, again dumping Manly and the wreck into the river. Manly announced his retirement from Langley's program.
Meanwhile, two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, had been spending a lot of time at some sand dunes south of their camp in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, designing, flying, and perfecting gliders. Six days after Manly's second swim, on December 14, the brothers set up their first powered plane dubbed the Flyer on a rail. It had skids instead of wheels, so to take off, it rode on a dolly along a rail. With Wilbur lying at the controls, the Flyer took off and flew 34 meters. But it landed a bit hard, damaging the front elevator (which they called a rudder). They elected not to "count" this flight, as the rail was sloped downhill. The next day, Wilbur telegrammed their father about the 112-foot flight:
MISJUDGMENT AT START REDUCED FLIGHT ONE HUNDRED TWELVE
POWER AND CONTROL AMPLE
RUDDER ONLY INJURED
Three days later, on the 17th, they'd fixed the elevator and had a good strong wind of 21mph. They put their launching rail on flat ground, pointed into the wind, and this time made four flights. The brothers took turns, Orville then Wilbur. Each flight was longer than the last, and all went perfectly. A number of friends and assistants witnessed and took excellent photographs. The last flight of the day rose to an altitude of about 3 meters, and covered 260 meters. Wilbur attempted no turns but had excellent control and kept the Flyer straight and level. This time the telegram said:
FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING
ALL AGAINST TWENTY ONE MILE WIND
STARTED FROM LEVEL WITH ENGINE POWER ALONE
AVERAGE SPEED THROUGH AIR THIRTY ONE MILES
LONGEST 57 SECONDS
OREVELLE WRIGHT 525P
Unfortunately, while carrying the Flyer back to its shed, a gust caught it and it got away from the men and cartwheeled, and was severely damaged. Rather than repair it, the brothers elected to build an improved replacement. The original Wright Flyer never flew again.
The Flyer II was brought out for a press demonstration on May 24, 1904, but this time they elected not to travel all the way to the coast from Ohio, and instead set up at Huffman Prairie Flying Field in Dayton. The winds there were slack, without much of a headwind to take off into, so they built a catapult. It was a wooden tower, inside of which a weight dropped, pulling a rope which launched the Flyer II along its rail — like the original Flyer, this plane had no wheels either. The brothers made many flights over the next few months, with their best on November 9 when the Flyer II made two 5-minute flights in circles. Most used the catapult, but on windier days, it was unnecessary.
The next year in 1905, their Flyer III made its maiden flight, and by October 5 it proved it could fly as long as its pilot wanted to. Wilbur stayed aloft for 38 minutes, flying 40 kilometers, until his fuel ran out.
This is when the French began to take notice. A week after Wilbur's flight, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) was founded in Paris, intended to be the governing body of the sport of flying. The FAI also offered prizes for aviation milestones — milestones which, oddly, had already been obliterated by the Wright brothers — for example, flights of 25 meters and 100 meters, while the Wrights had flown 40 kilometers only a week before. The prizes required that the flight meet seven criteria:
- The flight should be done before an official organization, qualified to ratify it;
- The flight should be done in calm weather and over a plain ground, and properly documented;
- The machine should be able to take off from a designated area by its own means with a man on board;
- The machine should carry on board the necessary source of energy;
- The machine should fly in a straight line;
- The machine should make a change of direction (turn and circle);
- The machine should return to the starting point.
Obviously none of the Wrights' flights could satisfy the first criterion, because the FAI (being the only official organization) had not yet existed. The Wrights were also excluded on the second and third criteria, that of a "calm day" and using "its own means" since the Wrights either flew into headwinds or used the catapult. They had demonstrated taking off on skids alone without the catapult; it was just that the catapult provided a smoother, quicker launch.
Enter Alberto Santos-Dumont, born in Brazil but a longtime resident of France. He'd had success building airships and now turned to aircraft, inspired by the Wrights' success and hungry for the FAI prizes. By August of 1906, he'd began ground taxiing tests of his 14-bis box kite aircraft. The pilot, who stood in an airship basket, had a limited amount of control by leaning side to side. On September 9, Santos-Dumont got off the ground, traveling about 7 meters for a large cheering crowd. By October 23, he made a 60 meter flight and claimed the first of the FAI prizes (despite Jatho and the Wrights both having already done that much). He added ailerons hoping for more control, and on November 12, made the 14-bis' longest flight, at 220 meters. Like all of the 14-bis flights, it took off upwind (as did the Wrights), as there was really no other way to get off the ground (even today, all planes take off upwind). Nevertheless, the FAI was satisfied that powered, controlled flight had finally been achieved, and awarded the 100 meter prize to Santos-Dumont.
Critics have noted that the 14-bis never met either of the FAI's final two criteria, turning and circling, and returning to the starting point. The 14-bis was never capable of controlled turns, certainly not a circle; and it returned to its starting point only once it was back down on the ground. Some wags have noted that some French sporting bodies tend to apply rules selectively to favor Europeans over Americans, but I will leave that to you to debate on your own.
It was three years after the Wright brothers, was a much shorter flight, and had little meaningful control; but it is still considered by much of the world to be the first successful flight, due to its recognition by the FAI. The question of who was first comes down to how you choose to measure it. It's clear that the Wrights were flying far better and much earlier than Santos-Dumont achieved, and even before the FAI and its criteria existed. But what's not clear is whether that's how you choose to make the call. As in all subjective comparisons, science is not always the determining factor.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "First in Flight." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
15 Nov 2016. Web.
21 May 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4545>
References & Further Reading
Curator. "The Case for Alberto Santos Dumont." History Wing. Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, 7 May 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2016. <http://www.wright-brothers.org/History_Wing/History_of_the_Airplane/Who_Was_First/Santos_Dumont/Santos_Dumont.htm>
Gibbs-Smith, C. The Aeroplane: An Historical Survey. London: HMSO, 1960. 319-320.
Gray, C. "The 1906 Santos-Dumont No. 14bis." World War I Aeroplanes. 1 Nov. 2006, Issue 194: 4-21.
Jakab, P. Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 1997.
Lissarague, P. Ader, Inventor of Aeroplanes. Tolouse: Editions Privat, 1990.
Smithsonian. "Langley Aerodrome Number 5." National Air and Space Museum. Smithsonian, 5 Jul. 2016. Web. 2 Nov. 2016. <https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/langley-aerodrome-number-5>
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