Sunday, November 17, 2013

The "First Flight" Picture: Puzzling Questions

A close study of the iconic picture (third picture, below) of the 1903 Wright flyer reveals strange anomalies. If you observe the cast shadows, you can easily see that they are contradictory. 
A bright, sunny day will produce dark crisp shadows like the cast shadows on the box in the foreground shown above. An overcast day like it was on Dec. 17, 1903, will produce fainter, softer shadows like that to the left of Wilbur. One could say a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds hitting the box. But then there would be a cast shadow just as strong to the left of the box on the sand. Note that the cast shadow beneath the plane is dark as opposed to the one cast by Wilbur, which is faint and barely discernible. These shadows should be relatively consistent in the same cloudy conditions.  Adding to the inconsistent shadows, the perspective of the shadows is questionable  

The Wright Flyer is in a stall here, John Brown says. Note the extreme upward angle of the front canard wing and the proximity of the launch track.
Position of the elevator is more than 5-6 degrees
The position of the elevator on the plane also raises serious questions. (Magnified in picture above) Wind tunnel tests in 2003 on a full size replica of the 1903 flyer at Cal Tech  have proven that if the elevator was above 5-6 degrees on the Wright flyer, the plane would stall. See page 11 of linked AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) summary. The elevator position in the picture above indicates that if the plane is in the air, it is about to crash.

Adding to that, the flexible wings indicate that they are not lifting the plane. Even though they were built anhedryl (drooping), they are drooping almost exactly as they do in photographs when the plane is sitting at rest on the ground. Compare photos below. (Note: The air moving past flexible wings will lift up the wings noticeably before the plane lifts up. The wings provide the lift for a plane. In other words, the plane doesn't rise up in flight, then lift the wings. It's the reverse.)

The shadow on the box in the foreground indicates a sunny day.

The Wrights claimed the plane flew 100 feet beyond the rail, which can  be seen below the plane in the iconic Wright flyer picture at right. How can it be? The plane is 2-3 feet off the ground, in a full stall, with little to no apparent lift to the wings.

Another question. Is the plane in the photograph really flying? Why question that? Why not?  I suppose because the speculation then resembles a full conspiracy theory. But moving into that forbidden territory is tempting.
The plane certainly looks like it's in the air. But.a good first year art student that studies the science of light and shadow can tell you that the shadow beneath the plane is the only real indication the plane is in the air. Adding a crude cast shadow and changing the background a little in the photograph
wouldn't be too difficult. But note the absence of cast shadows from the rudders!
Wright flyer at rest. Note more consistent cast shadows.

The Wrights were photographers.
They had a darkroom and developed their own pictures.

They had a print shop and an old fashioned "photo shop."


Conspiracy or not, a very real conclusion from all of the above is 
that given the anomalies presented and only the brothers testifying as to the photograph's authenticity, I strongly doubt that the photograph would stand up in an unbiased court today. Or even be admitted as evidence.

To be continued---

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Wright Photo Shoot: 1903 or 1908?

The picture that the Wrights claimed was taken just as their plane took off from the rail December 17, 1903, has been displayed as a record of the first flight ever made.

Orville is piloting the plane, Wilbur has been running alongside, some say, to support the wing. Or to steady it. That's the generally accepted story.

The date the famous picture was taken is another case where we have to rely on the word of the Wrights. They said that one of the five witnesses, John Daniels, took the picture but Daniels doesn't remember doing so. (

In fact it's well documented that in 1908 the Wright brothers returned to Kitty Hawk. The picture could easily have been taken in 1908.*

December 1903 or May 1908?*
Here is some of the story:

After their last claimed flight of four in 1903, the Wrights packed their bags and went home to Dayton, Ohio. They continued their experiments there in new planes, flyers 2 and 3. Flyer 1 had crashed, then blown to pieces by the wind.

After 1905 they discontinued their flying and tried to sell their plane to various governments sight unseen. In the spring of 1908, four and a half years later, they returned to Kitty Hawk, to practice, they said, before they were essentially contracted to fly in public at Fort Meyers and in France later that year. Had they run out of money between 1905 and 1908?

The Wrights were very secretive about their flights, they said to protect their patents. But in the U. S. and abroad, the world was catching up to the Wrights--or what they claimed they had achieved. "Bell's Boys," the AEA had designed and flown three planes in Hammondsport, NY. On July 4,  Glenn Hammond Curtiss flew over a kilometer in the first pre-announced public flight in America to win the Scientific American Trophy. The Wrights couldn't enter the competition because they were still using a catapult to get off the ground. Curtiss was already using wheels, a requirement of the competition--and his own engine, light and powerful for the time.

When they went back to Kitty Hawk in 1908  the Wrights used their 1905 flyer. Why not use the same plane designs they had agreed to fly at Ft. Meyers and in France? Why did they need to practice at Kitty Hawk instead of Dayton? Of course, it helped to have the area and the Kitty Hawk wind to assist in take off. But it would also be convenient to get the real Kill Devil Hills background for needed pictures. The various planes claimed to be flyers 1, 2, and 3 are hard to tell apart in the photographs; the Wrights claimed they were essentially the same.

The practice in Kitty Hawk ended in a crash by Wilbur. Rather than haul the plane home and repair it, the brothers left it there. The history of the 1905 flyer, after its demise in 1908, is intriguing. It was to rise again like a phoenix, years later.

Coincidentally, the famous picture claimed to be the first flight of the Wright flyer appeared after the Wrights' return from Kitty Hawk in 1908. Before that no one knew of  its existence. It was  published in a 1908 Century magazine article written by the Wrights to establish their primacy as first to fly.

Other pictures appeared as well. There is the picture of Wilbur (below), claimed to be taken after his crash on December 14, 1903.

A long wait. Wilbur after his crash December 14, 1903.
  To a critical, unbiased viewer, Wilbur looks posed, waiting for someone to set up that difficult old fashioned camera they used in those days with a tripod and glass plates. It couldn't have been set up and focused beforehand, because how could they have known in advance whether or where the plane would crash.

Below right, is another picture claimed to have been taken at Kill Devil Hills in 1903. Note that the rail 
(to the right) is set on level ground, and that would support the Wrights' claim that they took off from level ground. But Wright witnesses Daniels and Etheridge plus a number of other documents indicate that they set the plane on the rail on the hill in  1903.

Claimed to be Wilbur on his 852 feet flight on December 17, 1903

Indeed, there shouldn't be any doubt that by 1908, the Wrights needed proof of their claim to be the first to fly. They didn't have enough credible witnesses. Other pioneers were invading "their" airspace, both here and in Europe.  If the Wrights were to have the monopoly they wanted, they needed to act fast if they were going to prove in court that they were the first, and all the others were infringing on their patent

To what extent would the Wrights go to prove they were the first to fly?.

To be continued

*Wright proponents will argue that this photo could not have been taken in 1908 because the "Flyer" had an upright engine in 1908, not a horizontal engine as it did in 1903. However it wouldn't be such a difficult task for the Wrights to switch engines. The Flyers were put together at Kill Devil Hills, not in Dayton, and revisions could have been made there at will.. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Wright "Story" -- Not So Sure

We are taught in our history books that the Wright Brothers were the first to fly on December 17, 1903. The narrations about that day usually begin dramatically, something like this: "On a cold, windy day near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers lifted off the sand in their small plane and became the first in the history of mankind to fly."

Obviously there were manned flights before that in balloons, kites, and gliders. Man even made powered flights. So the definition of what the Wrights claimed that day was changed to be more precise: the Wrights were "the first to make a manned, powered, controlled, sustained flight in a heavier than air machine."

But we're looking for truth in aviation history. How do we know the Wrights actually flew that day? Well, there were witnesses who were there, five of them. They were three life guards, John Daniels, Adam Etheridge, and Willie Dough, W.C.Brinkley, a farmer who was said to be beach combing, and Johnny Moore, an eighteen year old lad who wandered onto the site that morning. We have the statements of the Wrights themselves, of course.

Then there is the picture that Daniels supposedly took just as the first flight took off, Orville on the plane, Wilbur standing to the right of the plane. (See previous blog post) There is little to no proof, other than that. Five witnesses, the Wrights' statements, and a photograph, allegedly taken by Daniels.

The Wrights' account was summarized in a telegram (below) that Orville sent to his father after the events of the day. But the statement in the telegram can't be true.

Orville states that they made four flights from level ground with engine power alone against a 21 mile per hour wind. But the plane couldn't have taken off with engine power alone if it was assisted by either a 21 or a 27 mph headwind.
(The Wrights said they checked after the flights and the wind was clocked at 27 miles per hour by the life saving station at Kitty Hawk.)

Another problem is that Orville
states they took off from level ground. However, one of the witnesses, John Daniels, signed a statement (at right) that the Wrights took off from the hill. Later in 1935, Daniels signed another statement that the men placed the plane on the rail on a hill. Witness Etheridge agreed with him.

Assisted by the wind? Assisted by the hill?
That's not a take off with engine power alone. Moreover, by any definition, that was not a powered flight. Controlled? Not by the Wrights' later accounts. Sustained? Orville's first "flight" was a "hop" of 120 feet. And the plane did not come down due to the will of the pilots. In other words, you might say, it crashed.

What about the photograph? (To be continued)

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