This year is the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight,
an appropriate time to review How Airplanes Fly. There is a widely
held notion that the brothers were just a couple of bicycle mechanics who
tinkered with a few airplane ideas, one of which flew. Of course,
nothing could be further from the truth. The Wright Brothers clearly
possessed true genius. They researched all of the information they
could find, built and methodically tested their ideas, conceived the notion
of flight control and invented the means to achieve it. When the information
from Lilienthal's glider testing appeared deficient, they designed
and built the world's first wind tunnel and ran a series of tests to obtain
the information needed. When they found that ship propellers lacked
adequate performance for their needs, they developed propeller theory, designed
and built propellers, using their wind tunnel data, with efficiency equal
to the current state of the art. When they realized that there were
no engines available that were light-weight enough, they designed and built
an adequate one utilizing the craftsmanship of their shop mechanic, Charlie
Taylor. Following their successful first flight 100 years ago, they
knew their airplane needed significant improvements to be marketable. The
design needed a great deal of work and they accomplished it in just two years
of intense development and flight testing near their home in Dayton, Ohio.
A truly remarkable achievement! At the time, the Wright Brothers were
by far the most advanced in aeronautics of anyone in the world. They
were truly the world's first aeronautical engineers.
It is not actually known how much the Wright Brothers knew about the fundamentals
of flight. Wilbur had planned to write a book about their work but
most unfortunately died of typhoid. Since it was derived in 1738, they
may have known about Bernoulli's theorem, which states that an increase in
fluid velocity is associated with a decrease in pressure, and visa versa.
But it is doubtful that they were aware of why the velocity is faster
on the top of a wing than on the bottom, since that understanding was just
being evolved in the early 1900's and not fully understood until 1918.