Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Wrights' 1903 Photographs, Part II. More About the Third (Fourth) Flight Attempt

  A study of the Wright brothers' "third flight photo"

"The Blind Leading the Blind" by Peter Breughal the Elder
Note from our editors: The typical aviation historian presents the Wright photograph, below, as proof of the third flight, claimed by the Wright brothers on December 17, 1917. Expert examinations of the photo reveal that these historians are blindly accepting its authenticity.

We are pleased to provide our readers with an essay
by one of our own expert aviation historians
to rebut the credibility of the third flight photo if we accept Orville Wright's statements in his diary.

Alleged third flight photo of the Wrights brothers,  December 17, 1903?

I Wouldn't Stand There If I Were You
One of the oddities of the third claimed Wright flight of December 17, 1903, is that the photograph of the event is significantly at odds with Orville Wright's diary description of the same.That's strange, because the diary was, supposedly, written up that evening, while details were still fresh in the mind.

Here's what he says about, and leading up to, that flight: 

"After repairs, at 20 min. after 11 o'clock Will made the second trial. The course was about like mine, up and down but a little longer over the ground though about the same in time. Dist. not measured but about 175 ft [...]

With the aid of the station men present, we picked the machine up and carried it back to the starting ways. At about 20 minutes till 12 o'clock I made the third trial. When out about the same distance as Will's I met with a strong gust from the left which raised the left wing and sidled the machine off to the right in a lively manner. I immediately turned the rudder to bring the machine down and then worked the end control. Much to our surprise, on reaching the ground the left wing struck first, showing the lateral control of this machine much more effective than on any of our former ones. At the time of its sidling it had raised to a height of probably 12 to 14 feet.
[....} Will took a picture of my third flight just before the gust struck the machine.

The widely published history of the Wrights' records of the third flight of the day (actually, Orville's second) was 200 feet.
The photograph that Wilbur took, "just before the gust struck the machine" is preserved in the Library of Congress (ref 00628). It shows the right wing scraping the ground and a general pose which any pilot would recognize as the consequence of an unexpected gust from the left. (The intent was to fly into the  prevailing wind, which was, apparently, slightly east of north that day.)

Orville says the picture was taken just before the "sidling," but he also says the aircraft was at "12 to 14 feet" when the crosswind struck. One of these statements can't be right; the picture shows the aircraft skimming the ground. Generations of Wright historians have been too polite to mention that discrepancy.

Moreover, Orville says the "sidling" took place where Wilbur's flight had ended--175 feet 'down-range.' He says that effective rudder control allowed him to right the machine and, in fact, slightly over-correct, so that it landed left wing down.

The aircraft was covering the ground at a speed of about 10 mph (31 mph air speed in a 20+ mph headwind). Control began to be lost at 175 feet ("Will's distance"), and the "Flyer" landed 25 feet later. It was covering 15 feet per second, so the recovery episode--from picture to landing--took just over 1 1/2 seconds.

Such response from an under-powered airplane with a 40 feet wing span and anhedral, in ground effect, and fighting a sudden veer in wind direction, would be reckoned incredible, bordering on supernatural, even in one of today's aircraft. And a modern pilot would be able to "cross the controls" to escape the effects of a crosswind gust, whereas this option was closed to the Wrights in 1903-5. Their vaunted, patented interconnection of wing trailing edge controls and rudder meant that once hit by a crosswind, they would only be going in one direction to one place--as the photograph makes clear. The (over) correction to the flight path was wishful thinking.

Wilbur Wright's Narrow Escape

But even more deserving of a "miracle" epithet is Wilbur's narrow escape from death on the ground. Having, somehow, avoided being skewered by a broken strut three days earlier when he declined to respond to the force of inertia induced by his crash landing, * we now find him setting up the camera\ tripod about 150 feet down range, where he stands a good chance of being decapitated if the aircraft is even a few feet off course. Examine the diagram below.


The scale diagram (above) shows the cameraman's position and the track of the plane's right wing, assuming that  the Wrights' description of the event is accurate.

Alleged third  flight of the Wrights brothers, December 17, 1903.
 Note that it is provably full frame.
Another pertinent observation--the archived picture is, clearly (because it has ragged edges), full-frame and not an enlargement--so the camera is even closer to the "Flyer" than in the famous "first flight" photograph. For a camera of the day, that's close.

Suppose, however, that the camera was set up close to the end of the launch rail and and far enough back to miss the journey of that wing tip. If so, the flight exhibited in the photograph could not possibly have reached anywhere near 200 feet. The plane is obviously "in distress," as is apparent to any pilot, [obviously not to any historian] and it's demise is only a matter of a second or so away, too late for any possible chance of recovery.

Finally, of course, Life Saver John Daniels, who is credited with taking the "first flight" picture earlier that day, testified several times to only two flight attempts on December 17.* According to him, the event depicted in the photograph never happened on the day in question.*


The Wrights' wing warping illustrated
According to the "third flight photograph," did Orville attempt to recover from his wing tip's fatal collision with the ground, as he stated in his diary?

Or did the plane crash before it he could manipulate the controls?
A comparison of the alleged third flight photo (top, above) when there is no wing warping being applied (according to Joe Bullmer, M. A. Aeronautical Engineering), with a similar photo of the Wright glider in 1902 (below) where wing warping is being applied, to demonstrate the observable  difference in the conformation of the wings.

When author Joe Bullmer, aviation historian and aeronautical engineering expert,*** was queried whether the aircraft in the third flight picture had any control applied, he graciously filled us in with more detail why he decided that no control movement was evident in the photo.

According to Bullmer, "First, I couldn't see the pilot's position since it was obscured by the right vertical rudder. But if you examine the right wings you see that the distances from the highest edges (which are near the max camber lines) to the trailing edges on both wings are consistent over the entire span. If any aerodynamically significant warping had been applied you would see an increase or decrease in the distances between these lines over the outer portions of the wings. It is quite evident in other photos with warping applied. On a photo this close and clear, if you don't see any warping there is none of any aerodynamic significance. With coordinated controls, this also indicates that the vertical rudders were undeflected. I can't completely rule out that the horizontal canard elevators might have a couple degrees of upward deflection, but nothing of significance that would affect the conclusions I drew.

I thus felt safe in saying that apparently no control had been applied at the instant the photo was taken."

(Editor's note: Joe Bullmer has written his own separate study of the "third flight" photo. It  will be forthcoming on this blog.) 


*A reference to the photo supposed to be of the aftermath of the flight attempt on December 14.
"Truth in Aviation History" is planning an essay on this photograph, as well as others attributed
 to 1903

**See, for example, "Pieces of the Wright Puzzle, Part II" in this blog. The Saunders interview of John Daniels for "Colliers" is recounted in the book "The Published Writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright," edited by Peter L.Jakab and Rick Young, The Smithsonian Institution, year 2000, pp 274+

***Joe Bullmer is author of "The WRight Story" (sic), a must read for those interested in the truth in aviation history. Joe is a writer of aircraft performance studies and worked for the U. S. Air Force for over thirty years as an intelligence analyst on aircraft and missile designs.

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