Tuesday, August 22, 2023

The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

By Paul Jackson


Photograph courtesy of Bernard Dupont

Have you seen it yet? Not the one in the room that household guests politely refrain from mentioning, but the other elephant on Huffman Prairie, Dayton, Ohio, which aviation historians have feigned not to notice for the last century. It’s high time you were introduced to Jumbo. Paul Jackson will ‘do the honors’.

The story begins in what is now becoming familiar fashion – at least to regular readers of this blog – when a photograph taken by the Wright Brothers is found to show something different to what they wrote happened. A minor variation in this case is that the picture contains evidence of something significant happening that the Wrights passed-off as a minor hindrance, and over which generations of fawning historians have obligingly maintained the tradition of omertà.

Readily available for research is an image of the incident in question. It is downloadable in a range of resolutions from the Library of Congress at


and also from that repository of Wright information and homage, the Wright State University


For a caption the latter states:

Minor mishap of the 1904 Wright Flyer

The wreck of the Wright 1904 Flyer at the end of the 31st flight at Huffman Prairie outside Dayton, Ohio. Orville Wright was the pilot flying a total distance of 432 feet. The Flyer struck the ground with its front rudder, breaking the support.


All of which is perfectly correct—as far as it goes. The information is taken from Wilbur’s diary of flight testing, also available from the Library of Congress at



showing the date to be August 16, 1904. It says:


Aug 16th

[Flight attempt #] 31

160 ft track

Last 60ft in 2 sec

Wind 5 to 18 N.W.

First flight O.W.

Wind quartering about 45°.

Start good

Distance 432 ft

No anemometer [& time an assumation?]

Shot down and struck on front rudder, breaking off

By way of amplification and explanation:

(a) the Brothers were employing a 160-foot launch rail (compared with 60 feet as used at Kitty Hawk for what Truthinaviationhistory blog March 8, 2018 maintains was a downhill launch fraudulently claimed to have been made from level ground.)

(b) wind direction approximately 315° (from the northwest); speed appears to be in feet per second, equating to 3½ to 12 mph. Observations at previous tests gave anemometer readings in metres per second, accompanied by a second reading in feet.

(c) the wind of 315° was at 45° (“quartering”) to the direction of the launch track. This could mean a the track was laid out at 360° (due north) or 270° (due west), but comparison with the local geography – specifically the turnpike and adjacent railcar track (marked on the map below, and having a straight line of trees and telegraph poles) aligned 060/240° – indicates 270° to be the correct vector.

(d) “shot down” most certainly does not indicate the presence of hostile flak; “suddenly dived” might be a better phrase.

(e) “front rudder” is today called an “elevator” (ie, a horizontal control surface, even though placed at the front of the airplane by the Wright design and often referred to as a “canard elevator”).

We may now proceed to mark a map with all the known factors mentioned above. The basis of the map is one drawn by Orville Wright in 1928 and it conforms to the site as it is today (as checkable on Google Earth), it being preserved land within Wright-Patterson AFB.

Broken line is the intended westerly heading after take-off from the 160-foot rail. The rail was laid close to the (marked) hangar, but its exact starting point cannot be determined. However, the full photograph suggests it was pointing towards the three trees which Orville drew as marking the western boundary of Huffman’s land.

The full image. Huffman Prairie looking west from near the Wright hangar

One further item of reference material is required—a plan view of the 1904 Flyer:


So, we are now equipped to investigate the accident to the Flyer. A close-up of the scene reveals the following picture. (The figure is believed to be Charles Taylor, the Wright employee who built their engines.)

A close-up of the crashed 1904 flyer


Drawing of discernable features of the wrecked 1904 flyer (John Brown)

However, it does not look to be all of 432 feet away from the launching track, where the camera is. Could this be, perhaps, another one of these blatant exaggerations of flight distance—like the “Fourth flight photo” comprehensively disproven in an earlier (November 4, 2019) blog?

But hang on a minute; the curve back (visible in plan view) from the wingtips to the wing trailing edge establishes beyond any shadow of doubt that the Flyer is pointing towards its launching point. The airplane has turned through about 225° (almost two-thirds of a circle) over a distance of just 432 feet – a pretty wild maneuver, up there with the best of the air show “crazy fliers” acts – and during the last 118 years nobody has noticed that; or, at the very least, thought it worthy of remark.

Certainly, as stated in the flight-test diary, the Flyer has nosed into the ground, the front-mounted elevators taking the full impact. The twin (vertical) rear-mounted rudders sit high in the air after having “whiplashed” upward and forward,ripping through the diagonally-mounted fabric on theupper wing’s trailing edge, and coming to rest atopthe wing structure with their base tips pointing skywards. Knowing the wing chord (6 ft 6 in) and gap (6 ft 2 in), it can be calculated that the photograph shows the Flyer in a nose-down attitude of about 35°. Wilbur’s record of the flight testing program admits to a broken-off front elevator, but fails to mention that the entire tail section also detached itself from the wings and turned upside down as a consequence of the sudden arrival of the ground. Like Gaul, in the words of Julius Ceasar, the Flyer “est omnis divisa in partes tres.”

So, what happened? From the known weather on the day and the configuration of the Flyer on August 16, 1904, the following is likely.



Flight 31 - the likely path (John Brown)


The aircraft began its take-off run on the 160-foot launch rail. It proceeded slowly at first, having a meager 16 horsepower installed, because the Wrights were still a few weeks away from commissioning the “falling weight” launch catapult conceived by Albert Merrill and recommended to them by Octave Chanute. Heading west, the Flyer had to contend with a fluctuating crosswind from the starboard (right) side.

On leaving the rail, but still low down and in “ground effect” (the lift of the lower wings being artificially and temporarily boosted by the air cushon “trapped” between them and the ground), the Flyer began to ‘weathercock’. In other words, the tailfins were caught by the ”quartering” wind and turned the airplane about its vertical axis to face the direction the wind was coming from.

Whether or not this was what the test plan called for is immaterial*; the turn into wind was inevitable unless the pilot pulled the right “levers” to counter the swing and maintain the take-off heading for the climbout. In a “normal” airplane, the pilot wishing to continue westward despite a northerly wind component would apply port (southerly, in this case) rudder to cancel-out the turning tendency, balancing that with counter-intuitive application of starboard (right) stick. The technique is known as “crossing the controls” or “applying top rudder” and is equally effective in lining up for a crosswind landing.

*The setup of the camera suggests a slight drift to the south was expected after take-off; not a swing to the north.

Thereby is dramatically revealed the disadvantage of the permanently linked rudder-to-same-side-aileron (or warping wingtip) system the Wrights copied from a December 1902 photograph and written disclosure by Gustave Whitehead in the Ohio-based journal, Aeronautical World. They patented it without acknowledgement; flew it; regularly crashed it (as here); eventually discarded it; and, cynically, still kept enforcing the patent even after they realised its dangers. (Furthermore, the Wrights’ 1906 patent specifically describes [page three, lines 78 to 87] the moveable, coordinated rudder as a means of maintaining a straight line in flight. Some “straight line!”)

As it was being involuntarily turned onto a northerly heading, the Flyer’s port wing would be on the outside of the turn and, thus, moving faster than the starboard wing. Lift varies proportionately to speed, so the port wing would rise and, as a result, the starboard wing would fall. With the whole airplane traveling slowly and still in ground effect to boot, there would be precious little daylight under the starboard wingtip and an urgent need to interrupt the cycle of inexorably unfolding events.

The straightness of the northerly track drawn on the diagram probably fails to do justice to the frantic control movements being attempted by Orville. If he made the usually correct move with the ailerons (warping tips) then the “reverse-control-effect” – which occurs at very low speeds and is known these days to all student pilots as part of their training curriculum – meant that the aileron movement normally intended to raise the wing created so much drag that it actually caused it to drop. A classic no-win situation.

At length, the starboard wingtip probably scraped the ground and spun the Flyer to the right in a semi-cartwheel ground-loop. Everything went quiet. Orville walked away and the three parts of the airplane were joined up again within the commendably short time of six days. So, does all this matter?


The result of the crash which ended Flight 31: Flyer broken into three parts, but the picture caption (above) describes this as a "minor mishap"

I believe it does. The airplane may have traveled 432 feet, but in a wildly fluctuating path not conforming to the pilot’s wishes; his control inputs; or, indeed his instinct for self-preservation. A traveled distance of, say, 1,432 feet** would have permitted a more sedate flight path between the known starting and finishing points, but 432 feet only allows for perilously rapid changes of direction, including the insane act of racking the 16 HP airplane into a tight turn immediately after leaving the ground. Evidently, on this flight – and, one suspects, others – Orville (and Wilbur) was just along for the ride. There was no control.

**The next time Orville flew the aircraft (sortie #33), by a staggering coincidence he added exactly 1,000 feet to the flight distance, making it 1,432

Yet the plaque beneath the Flyer in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, claims the Wright airplane was capable of “controlled and sustained” flight from Day One at Kitty Hawk. The pages of Wilbur’s diary are regarded by some historians as a faithful record of the development of the airplane, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this cannot be, in view of its downplaying of embarrassing occurrences.

More informative is MacFarland’s Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright pages 469-472, from Wilbur’s February-March 1912 First Rebuttal Deposition in the 1911-1912 Herring-Curtiss legal case. This deposition discussed the 1904 flight testing and originally appeared in the court record of that case on its pages 519-521. Said Wilbur: "Usually the [1904] machine responded promptly when we applied the control for restoring lateral balance, but on a few occasions the machine did not respond promptly and the machine came to the ground in a somewhat tilted position"This is a remarkably underplayed statement by Wilbur, since Wright daily records indicate numerous crashes requiring repairs or replacement of wing spars, ribs, struts, skids, propellers, the engine, etc, and even minor injuries to themselves. As in this instance, they no doubt made the understatements to conceal their prolonged befuddlement at what was going on—despite repeated, incorrect fixes.

The suspicion must remain that the description of Flight 31 glosses over the unfortunate division of the Flyer into three parts, and passes the occurrence off as a minor “ding,” the culprit possibly being a downdraught while landing: AKA an “act of God.”


"'Tis but a scratch." (The Holy Grail; Monty Python)

For this and other reasons – not the least of which is the downward incline of the launch rail on December 17, 1903 (this blog, March 8, 2018) – it is the belief of this writer that while the Wrights usually told the truth, they often did not always tell the whole truth. Let none deny that they worked long and hard on “the problem of flight”—but it is clear that their record-keeping was more angled towards convincing historians that they flew under perfect control in December 1903 than to explaining to engineers how and why they only succeeded in doing so after September 1905.

A month after Flight 31, on September 20, 1904 (sortie #52) the Flyer is claimed to have demonstrated its navigational capabilities by flying a complete circle and overflying the start point, obediently following its pilot’s commands. See this blog for June 15, 2017 for detailed debunking of that assertion and view a written disclosure by key witness, Amos Root, that it crash-landed in an adjacent cornfield on that day, yet again out of control. That’s another date with the ground that the diary conveniently forgets to mention and current histories celebrate as a fully-controlled 360 degree turn—which, by any objective measure, it most certainly was not. Indeed, in late 1904, the Wrights were still devoting all their energies towards stopping the Flyer from uncommanded turning, and making it fly straight.

After a further year - in September 1905, and with significant modifications embodied - the Wright Flyer was at last showing the promise of achieving the “free, controlled and sustained” flight which was first documented in public during August 1908. On Flight 31, however, it was still rampaging like a rogue elephant—only mahout Orville was too ‘polite’ to mention it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Wrong Wright Story Series: #4 The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age , by Joe Bullmer

This, the fourth article in this series, addresses the book The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age, ISBN-0-7922-6985-3, a 2003 publication of the Smithsonian press. It was cowritten by the authors of the last two books addressed in this series, Tom Crouch, the Senior Curator for Aeronautics, and Peter Jakab, an Associate Director of the National Air and Space Museum. As one might expect, many of the mistakes by these authors noted in the previous reviews of their individual books are repeated in this book. Most are at least briefly mentioned here since an effort was made to make each of these articles complete.

The authors from left, Tom Crouch , Senior Curator, Ret., Smithsonian NASM, and Peter Jakab, Chief Curator, NASM.

Again, the period from 1899 through 1905 is specifically addressed since this is the period during which the Wrights developed a controllable powered airplane. However the period after that up to Orville’s death is also covered in the subbook, so a few comments on that are included. 

Page 48: Combining two of the sentences in the sixth paragraph, they collectively say “an airplane pilot…..must make constant control movements…..to stay in the air”. As stated in previous articles, anyone at all familiar with flight knows that, once a properly designed airplane is trimmed out, no control movements are necessary to maintain steady straight flight in reasonably smooth air.

Page 51: The authors discuss conflicting statements by the brothers regarding how they came up with wing warping, but don’t mention that twisting wings for control had been done by a number of the Wrights’ predecessors, a few even patenting it. This was also covered in Chanute’s book which the Wrights obtained in 1899.

Page 53: They claim warping was superior to previous methods of control. But separate winglets and ailerons, both causing less drag imbalance and thus superior to warping, had already been used by others. Eventually warping would be abandoned, even by the Wrights, in favor of ailerons.

Page 56: Here adulation for the Wrights’ supposed ability to correctly “visualize aerodynamics” gush forth once more. And again the statements made are not true. The comment in the second article of this series for page 66 of Jakab’s Visions lists seven examples of the Wrights’ failure to properly envision air flow and its effects.

Page 57:  The often-repeated comment on the similarity of airplanes to bicycles is made, to wit, since they both bank to turn, they must both be constantly rebalanced. Although every aviator knows this is wrong, this assertion has become standard fare among aviation historians discussing the Wrights.

Page 58: Here they repeat a whole series of errors on the Wrights’ wing design that were first stated in Visions of a Flying Machine. First, that the Wrights initially used Lilienthal’s camber shape which they didn’t, an error that plagued them with inadequate lift for a couple years until their wind tunnel showed that they had to use Lilienthal’s basic wing shapes. Then the Wrights are credited with discovering the center-of-pressure (actually lift) reversal on wings by just thinking about it. In fact, they never knew of the reversal of center of “pressure” movement until Dr. George Spratt and Edward Huffaker, visitors to their camp in 1901, told them about it. Then their visitors proceeded to prove it with tests showing where one of the Wrights’ wings balanced at various angles of attack.

Dr. George Spratt and Edward Huffaker.
Visitors to the Wright camp in 1901, these aviation pioneers taught the Wright Brothers about the reversal of the center of pressure movement on the wing of a plane

Finally, this rant is concluded by claiming an aircraft is in equilibrium when the center of pressure (lift) coincides with the center of gravity. This is not really true unless the vehicle’s configuration is such that it tends to remain that way. Equilibrium is not a fleeting instantaneous condition. That was the basic problem with all early Wright aircraft. They had no inherent stability allowing them to maintain a state of equilibrium.

Page 61: Here the authors make an astounding blunder only equaled by the Wrights having made the same mistake. They talk about moving “the center of pressure on the bottom of the wing” back and forth to regain coincidence with the center of gravity to maintain balance. This sounds as though they didn’t know that what they called the center of pressure on the bottom is actually the center of lift which primarily results from a partial vacuum on the top of the wing. This distinction is crucial to understanding the science behind the movement of the center of lift.

In the next paragraph a truly staggering blunder is made by saying that a constantly moving elevator is used by every airplane today to maintain balance with the constantly moving center of “pressure”. Apparently they have no concept of how a trimmed horizontal stabilizer is set to stabilize an airplane so that no elevator movements are required to keep it there.

Page 62: The hits just keep coming. Here the assertion is made that the greater efficiency of a cambered surface (as opposed to a flat one) had been established by 1900. Actually Sir George Cayley established that nearly a century earlier in 1804. That’s why cambered wings had been used by most aviators since then.

Sir George Cayley, aviation pioneer, who established by 1804 that a cambered wing is more
efficient than a flat one.

Then they say experimenters such as Lilienthal and Chanute used “perfect arcs”, i.e., circular sections, on their gliders when any decent photos show they did not. They go on to give the Wrights’ erroneous thinking that led them to put all of the camber within the front ten percent of the wings, without mentioning that this degraded both lift and longitudinal stability.

Finally, they claim incorrectly that Lilienthal used a wing maximum camber that was eight percent of the wing chord whereas the Wrights used five percent. Actually, Lilienthal also used five percent on his gliders.

Chapter 3

Octave Chanute, mentor to the Wright Brothers.

Page 68: Here the absolute falsehood that “Octave Chanute provided the Wrights with little genuine technical assistance and few, if any, useful theoretical ideas” is repeated. This was also stated on page 84 of Jakab’s solo book Visions of a Flying Machine. This statement is so egregious that I will repeat here, in full, the comments I made in that Critique:

According to records of their correspondence, Chanute provided the Wrights with:

  • His 1894 book that was the basis for their study of earlier aviation.
  • Realizing the biggest problem remaining to be solved was control.
  • The need to master control with gliders before adding power.
  • Trussed biplane wing construction according to both brothers’ statements.
  • The idea of first testing gliders unmanned with tethering lines.
  • The best gliding areas being the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas.
  • His cohorts Huffaker and Dr. Spratt showing the Wrights the critical reversal of the center of lift’s movement, thus largely solving their control problem.
  • Doing tests with a wind tunnel to determine better wing shapes.
  • Photos of wind tunnels and the design of their lift/drag balance.
  • The basic design of a falling weight catapult enabling them to achieve controllability and maneuverability through testing near Dayton, and essentially enabling all of their flying for the next six years.

In fact, it is evident that without these inputs the Wrights may well not have succeeded. If they did, it would have taken them far longer, probably denying them the distinction of being considered the first to accomplish powered, controlled, manned flight.

Pages 72 & 76: The gliding tests at Kitty Hawk in 1900 are described as validating the pitch and roll controls. In fact, the machine had such poor lifting capability that it was mostly tested unmanned and tethered. Finally, with winds exceeding 20 knots, Wilbur managed just a few short hops, almost all with erratic pitch control and the warping inoperable.

Page 77: They claim the Wrights discovered the reversal of their wing warping roll control by attempting turns. This is absolutely not true. They discovered it by trying to maintain a constant heading while correcting inadvertent rolls caused by wind gusts and the anhedral, or droop, in their wings. They were not interested in developing a turning capability at Kitty Hawk, and the 1902 and 1903 vehicles could not be intentionally turned.

In their first patent they stated that “the machine is apt to become unbalanced laterally” and “The provision which we have just described [mechanically linked warp and rudder] enables the operator to meet this difficulty and preserve the lateral balance of the machine.” In other words, to keep the machine flying level, not to turn. They did not attempt turns until 1904 near Dayton, and could not reliably accomplish them until October of 1905.

In his sworn deposition for the Montgomery case Orville testified, “Sometimes in warping the wings to restore lateral balance….” and “When the wings were warped in an attempt to recover balance….”.  Clearly, they were attempting to fly level, not turn, when they discovered warp reversal. In spite of these numerous absolutely clear statements directly contradicting these books, every “historian” since these books were published parrots this same error. Tour guides in the Air and Space Museum still repeat it.

Pages 84-89: On these pages the authors attempt to once more heap credit upon the Wrights for something they didn’t think of by simply saying that “the Wrights decided to build a wind tunnel”. Reiterating, the subject was brought up during talks with Chanute, Spratt, and Huffaker when they visited the Wrights at Kitty Hawk during the summer of 1901. There is no mention of such a device in any of the Wrights’ records before then. During that discussion Chanute showed them photos of wind tunnel components, and Dr. Spratt showed them the scheme for the lift vs drag balance that the authors credit the Wrights with as a “brilliant intuitive leap”. The Wrights admitted they got this information from their visitors in later correspondence and a legal document.

These authors go on to write “The brothers’ artful weaving of their clear, straight forward conceptualization of the problem and their clever, effective means of experimentally obtaining results illustrates the Wrights’ engineering talents at their finest.” All this for equipment and procedures that were shown to them by visitors at Kitty Hawk, visitors to whom these authors give no credit at all for providing any help.

The authors also claim that the tunnel tests showed Lilienthal’s lift data to be “off” and that the tunnel allowed them to determine a more correct value of Smeaton’s coefficient. These are both colossal untruths. In fact, Wilbur informed Chanute that they had arrived at the correct value of Smeaton’s coefficient (actually the same value as that determined by professor Langley at the Smithsonian) from gliding data months before they built the tunnel. Also, Wilbur wrote Chanute that “for a surface….like that described in his [Lilienthal’s] book [his] table is probably as near correct as it is possible”.

The authors also wrote that “The wind tunnel experiments showed the brothers that long, narrow wings [i.e., higher aspect ratio wings] are more efficient than short, wide ones….”. Since Cayley published this in 1804, they also could have discovered it years earlier by simply reading. They subsequently abandoned their aspect ratio of 3.1 and adopted Lilienthal’s favored value of 6.5 for their 1902 glider.

Finally, on November 24th, 1901 Wilbur wrote Chanute that “It is very evident….that a table based on one aspect [ratio] and [wing section] profile is worthless for a surface with different aspect and curvature. This no doubt explains why we had so much trouble figuring our machines from Lilienthal’s table.” In other words, the Wrights admitted, in writing, that their tunnel showed them that different wing shapes produce different lift coefficients. So the Wrights admitted that their lift problems were their own fault, and nothing was wrong with Lilienthal’s data.

These astounding and egregious errors by these authors have led to everyone who has ever written or spoken about the Wrights since, repeating their same false statements. They can be seen in museums, on placards, in numerous books, and heard in nearly all documentaries. Thus, important technical history has been falsified by careless, incompetent research at the highest levels of a Smithsonian museum.

Pages 89 & 90: Here they extol the virtues of tethered testing, what the Wrights called “flying it as a kite”, as though it was yet another wonderful idea the Wrights originated, although their copy of Chanute’s book has a whole section on kite style testing.

Wilbur left, Orville right, “flying it as a kite.”

They also fail to mention that when kiting, the brothers, being nearly 20 feet apart (one at each wing tip), couldn’t tell that when warping was applied, one end of the wings were pulling on the lines harder than those on the other end. So the tendency of warping to cause the vehicle to yaw, then bank even steeper, and finally spin into the ground, was completely masked to them. This actually set them back a couple years until they had enough lift to do extensive free glides and address the problem in 1902. Another aid in solving the spin problem may well have been their wind tunnel which clearly demonstrated the effect on a wing’s drag by a small change in its angle of attack.

Page 91: This page is ripe with exaggerations concerning the Wrights’ wind tunnel. These authors write that the device “carried the progress toward mechanical flight to another new plateau”. But of course, once more, they don’t mention that this was thanks to Chanute and his cohorts at Kitty Hawk.

Next a comment, similar to one in Visions, is made claiming that after the tunnel tests, the 1902 vehicle “flew just as a 747 or modern jet fighter flies”. Well yes, it used cambered wings and could go in the air in a straight line fairly level, but it couldn’t turn or maneuver, rather desirable qualities in a 747 or fighter plane. In fact, it would take three more years for the Wrights to develop limited versions of these capabilities in their aircraft. By the end of 1905 the aircraft the authors refer to as “only refined” had lengthened structure, relocated center of gravity, changed location, size, and loading of the canard, a fundamentally altered version of their patented control scheme, modified propellers, and oil, fuel, and water pumps added to the 1903 engine. Some “refinements”.

Chapter 4

Page 119 & 120: Picturing a propeller as a rotating wing is characterized as a “breakthrough” and an “intellectual leap”. If it appeared so, it was only because of a lack of research by the Wrights. As explained in the last article, Sydney Hollands presented the concept of a propeller as a vertically rotating cambered twisted wing at a meeting of England’s Aeronautical Society in 1885. In fact, he also pointed out that it should be tapered toward the tips of the blades, something the Wrights totally missed. Hollands even gave values for the twist angles. All this was covered in Chanute’s book which the Wrights obtained four years earlier. Nonetheless, this is another falsehood that has become a staple in subsequent accounts of the Wrights’ work.

Wright propeller reproductions (from Ash, Robert & Miley, Stanley & Landman, Drew. (2001).
Evolution of Wright Flyer Propellers between 1903 and 1912 By. 10.2514/6.2001-309.)

The propellers of the Sopwith Camel, a World War I British fighter, clearly show
a taper toward the tips of the blades.

In fact, three other designers of ships’ propellers, Lanchester in England, Drzweiecki in France, and Prandtl in Germany, had also addressed the design of air propellers as cambered twisted rotating wings. Chanute provided material on Drzweiecki’s work to the Wrights in 1903.

Also mentioned on page 120 is that, for the 1903 powered airplane, the Wrights chose a maximum wing camber depth of five percent. As previously mentioned, and contrary to assertions in this book, that is precisely the camber depth used and recommended by Otto Lilienthal on his gliders.

Otto Lillienthal poised for a glide.

Page 121: At the top of this page they claim that one of the “instruments” the Wrights had onboard in 1903 was a tachometer for both the engine and propellers. In fact they had no tachometer. All they had was a total revolution counter for the engine. This, in combination with the stopwatch, would yield the average engine rpm for a flight attempt. This is a minor unimportant point, but these kinds of totally unnecessary errors lead one to wonder what kind of research was done, and by whom, for this book.

Page 130: The first three flight attempts on December 17th, 1903 are discussed without mentioning that none of them were actually measured for time or distance. These were simply estimated by the Wrights. Also, they don’t tell us that, according to the Wrights’ descriptions, the aircraft was out of control throughout all three attempts. Finally they don’t mention the 27 mph headwind that supplied 90% of the airspeed and 80% of the lift required for the airplane to leave the ground. Without those head winds there would have been absolutely no flying at all by the Wrights in 1903. This is proven by their 1904 aircraft not being able to leave the ground with light winds, although it had more power and launch rails up to four times longer.

Page 131: Here the authors discuss the fourth attempt, Wilbur’s last, without telling us the aircraft was out of control at its beginning and end, the Wrights claiming it only flew fairly level for a short period during the middle of the trial. They quote the Wrights’ claim for that attempt as lasting 59 seconds and covering 852 feet, a distance the Wrights said they measured.

Four decades later Orville identified a photograph as having been taken after the end of that attempt. But four independent measurement calculations from the photo reveal the aircraft to be less than 280 feet from the end of the launch rail. Also, the propellers are stopped and three dark objects at least three feet tall are on the center of the lower wing. This is all clearly shown on a large cropped version of the photo on pages 126 and 127 of this very book.

At the bottom of this page one of Jakab’s contradictions reappears with the statement that, in spite of the success of the 1903 airplane, “marketing and exploiting the [Wright’s] technology would require an aircraft capable of making turns….”. While correct, this is in direct contradiction to the statement back on page 90 claiming that even the 1902 glider could make coordinated turns.

Page 133: The claim from the Visions book that the Wrights invented a “fundamentally new technology” is repeated here. It’s not clear what fundamentals they are talking about since the only feature of Wright aircraft (besides engines and drive chains) that hadn’t been used by predecessors, namely mechanically coordinated roll and yaw controls, had to be abandoned in 1905 in order to make turns.

Chapter 5

Diagram from the famous Wright patent, granted in 1906.

This chapter, discussing the Wrights’ patents and early efforts to sell their airplanes, is most noteworthy for its numerous omissions. It discusses their first patent without mentioning that it

  • Gave a totally incorrect explanation of how their aircraft were actually able to fly.
  • Locked them into a configuration that was dangerous and rejected by other designers.
  • Had the primary purpose of protecting a control system they already had to abandon.
  • Was intended to freeze out competition worldwide, but primarily stifled aviation research and production only in the U.S.

The chapter also discusses the Ft. Myer crash that killed Lt. Tom Selfridge, the world’s first airplane fatality. Although the authors relate that the crash was due to a propeller failure, they don’t mention that one of the propellers had previously split and had been hastily repaired with glue and nails. What’s more, the split was at a tip, their propeller tips being excessively loaded due to the improper reverse taper of the blades.

The Flyer - and propellers - that crashed in 1908, killing Lt. Thomas Selfridge.

Chapter 6

Page 196: This chapter covers the period up to World War One. At the bottom of this page they mention that “The world was not beating a path to their [the Wrights’] door in a mad rush to buy flying machines.” No mention is made of the fact that numerous competitors were doing quite well. That was because Wright airplanes were considered obsolete, poor performing, hard and dangerous to fly, with no useful capabilities beyond lifting someone into the air.

Page 199: The book mentions that flying exhibitions were quite profitable at that time. But it does not reveal that Glenn Curtiss paid his pilots and crews far more generously than did the Wrights. That, along with safer and better performing airplanes, enabled him to put on far more thrilling shows.

Chapter 7

This chapter discusses the era between Wilbur’s death in 1912 and Orville’s in 1948, in particular the wrangling between the Smithsonian and the Wright family regarding the Smithsonian’s claims that Langley’s “Aerodrome“ aircraft was “the first airplane capable of manned flight”. It also contains one last enrichment of the Wright image by avoiding mentioning Orville’s disownment of his sister Katherine when she got married.

She abandoned her young teaching career to care for Orville after his back injury at Ft. Myer in 1908 and never went back to teaching. After devoting her life to her brothers and their aircraft business, finally in 1926 she decided to marry an old college sweetheart. Upon hearing of her marriage plans, Orville disowned her for “abandoning” him. Unfortunately, she was to have only two years of marriage before dying of pneumonia. But Orville had refused to have any contact with her until she was on her deathbed. This episode may well provide some insight into the attitudes he had regarding employees, their competition, the Smithsonian, and his legacy.

Pages 216 – 232: The book concludes with seven photos and over ten pages of text discussing the protracted, nearly four decades, of feuding between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian over who actually came up with the first airplane capable of manned powered flight. Was it the Wrights or Professor Langley, the director of the museum at that time, and creator of the ill-fated “Aerodrome”. In a pique, Orville sent the 1903 Wright “Flyer” to England for exhibition rather than give it to the Smithsonian. Finally, after WWII, a contract was signed, with the Wrights agreeing to bring the Flyer back for exhibit in the Smithsonian in 1948.

The relevant passage of the Wright-Smithsonian contract.

A very brief summary of the once-secret contract is given, saying that the Wright family can take the Flyer out of the museum if the Smithsonian ever says that any other aircraft was capable of, or accomplished, manned powered flight before the Flyer did. This really does not do justice to the actual legal document which appears in The WRight Story. But it does capture the threat under which the Smithsonian and its Air and Space Museum has operated since 1948. One wonders if this has something to do with museum personnel going out of their way to aggrandize the capabilities and accomplishments of Wilbur and Orville at every opportunity.


Unlike the previous discussions, for this book specific sources for specific comments were not referenced in this article. This publication is more in the nature of a “coffee table” picture book than were those. Still, its common use as source material warranted it’s review here.

This book’s value is actually in the photographs presented. Its large size and print quality, along with the quantity and enhanced quality of the photos are outstanding. However the value of its text is another matter entirely. Perhaps the motivation of the authors may have again been to instill admiration and pride in Americans (and in their museum) by explaining all the Wrights’ accomplishments as due entirely to their “brilliance” and “genius”.

But as an American, I am offended at such inadequate research and frequent fabrication as this coming from the top levels of a Smithsonian Museum. This is an Institution supported by American citizens, and expected to be the world leader in such research. The Smithsonian evidently does world class research on non-technical historical subjects, and in some technical areas. Evidently its history majors and PhDs are capable in such areas. However with the Wright brothers they stepped off into a highly technical area for which they were obviously unprepared. Worse yet, there existed a plethora of records of the Wrights’ work which largely refutes nearly all of their guesses and fabrications. And perhaps worst of all, those eager to take credit for such publications as these by claiming authorship evidently were completely unqualified to verify contributions to their publications.

It’s easy to find out such information as the ten vital contributions to the Wrights’ work provided by Octave Chanute, or a half dozen examples of the Wrights’ wrong guesses at aerodynamics, or indeed all the other falsehoods cited in these critiques. All one need do is simply read and comprehend all of the first volume of Marvin McFarland’s compilation of original Wright-related correspondence and records, along with Orville’s 1920 affidavit. These resources were in existence at least a half century before the books addressed in this series were written and published by the Smithsonian.

In recent years it has become evident that many people are quite comfortable with fantasies in place of truth. However, having devoted much of my professional life to the science of aeronautical theory, design, and performance, I cannot ignore the origin of the entire technology being falsified. So, along with a growing contingent of others, I will continue to contribute to the establishment of truthinaviationhistory


Author Joe Bullmer has a Masters Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan with additional graduate studies in the subject (the exact same academic background as Kelley Johnson, designer of the U-2 and SR-71). He subsequently worked in aircraft design and performance and related subjects for the United States Air Force for thirty years. A substantial portion of this time was spent as an aircraft performance engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. During that time he had the rare opportunity to work with some of the top designers at Boeing, North American, General Dynamics, Lockheed (including Kelly), and McDonnell corporations.  He also collaborated with some of the best designers in the U.S. Air Force.
His areas of greatest interest have always been aerodynamics and stability and control. These are the keys to understanding the thoughts and testing of the Wright brothers.
Much of his work was in the field of technical intelligence. In this capacity he often was examining someone else’s airplane designs and determining what they did, why, and what the resulting performance would be. This turned out to be excellent preparation for his book since it is precisely what he had to do with the Wright brothers, designs. Intelligence work also developed his investigative and deductive skills which are prerequisites for any historical investigation.
Joe has presented aircraft design and performance briefings to U.S. Congressional and Senate committees, Presidential Cabinet members, and at the White House. Now 77, he has been retired for 25 years and has written The WRight Story, and a number of articles on early aviation. He maintains contact with a number of designers, flight test engineers, pilots, and historians.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Wrong Wright Story Series: Wings

The Wrong Wright Story 3

Tom Crouch's Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age

a critique by Joe Bullmer

This is the third article in a five-part series presenting critiques of four of the most popular books and the most prominent TV documentary produced concerning the Wright brothers’ development of a manned, powered, controllable airplane.  Previous reviews discussed Fred Kelly’s 1943 book The Wright Brothers, A Biography, and Peter Jakab’s 1990 book Visions of a Flying Machine. 


This article discusses Tom Crouch’s book Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age published in 2003 by the Smithsonian, ISBN 0-393-32620-9.  This 725-page book undertakes the monumental task of covering all airplane development from da Vinci to the 21st century.  In this review, a couple of the book’s comments on 19th century developments are addressed, along with its description of the Wrights’ work leading to the final version of their Flyer III aircraft in October of 1905. 

These critiques are being done by an aircraft design and performance engineer and author of The WRight Story, The True Story of the Wright Brothers’ Contribution to Early Aviation. That book contradicts much of the content of the books and videos reviewed in this series.  The author of these reviews has also published four reviews of technical papers presented in The Wright Flyer-An Engineering Perspective, and two articles concerning the Wrights’ testing at Kitty Hawk, all of which have appeared at this site over the past couple years.

Some explanations appearing in previous articles are repeated in this one. A number of the same mistakes are made in this book, and each of these articles is intended to stand on its own. Forbearance is appreciated. Technically competent comments on these articles, or The WRight Story, are welcomed.

Chapter 1 

Page 33:  The author, without citing a reference, claims here that Sir George Cayley, in his 1809 article in Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philisophy, Chemistry, and the Arts, identified an area of low pressure on the upper surface of a cambered wing.  Actually, Cayley mentioned “a slight vacuity immediately behind the point of separation ….under the anterior [forward] edge of the surface.”  He envisioned this air trapped under a thin cambered wing moving back under the wing and eventually being forced downward by the aft portion of the cambered wing, thus imparting the upward force on the wing.


Sir George Cayley, aviation pioneer


On the same page, Crouch claims “Cayley had a lifelong preference for oars as propulsion.”  Actually, in spite of an early drawing showing oars, Cayley was well aware of the futility of such a scheme.  Over most of the second, third, and fourth decades of the 19th century, along with activities unrelated to aviation such as serving in Parliament, Cayley searched for a lightweight mechanical source of rotary power.  Unfortunately, by the middle of the 19th century studies of contained explosions of petro-chemicals were just beginning, so Cayley gave up his search for mechanical power and returned to gliders.

Page 36:  Orville Wright is quoted as saying “Henson, Stringfellow, and Marriott made no contributions to the art or science of aviation worth mentioning.”  But then Orville went on, “Every feature of Henson’s machine had been used or proposed previously.  His mere assemblage of old elements certainly did not constitute invention.”  I find it curious these statements were included in this otherwise complimentary book.  Except for their chain drive of propellers and interconnected rudder and warping, which soon had to be abandoned, Orville’s statement applies exactly to what he and his brother did.  In this one statement Orville’s judgement actually disqualifies himself and his brother as inventors.


William Henson and his Aerial Steam Carriage

Page 43:  Here Hiram Maxim’s huge 1893 flying machine is described as having a 180 hp steam engine driving one 18-foot propeller.  In fact, numerous photos show that it had two such engines driving two 18-foot propellers.  This is important since the engines were to be independently throttled to yaw the vehicle which, in conjunction with dihedral on the outer wings, was intended to enable turning.  The vehicle was never flown freely and this scheme was never validated.  It also was the only prominent vehicle prior to the Wrights to feature an adjustable horizontal forward surface or canard (which was also never used).


Chapter 2

Page 65:  The author credits the Wrights with the “genius” that was “never more apparent” than in devising their wind tunnel balance that, through a mysterious “cascading chain of forces”, could indicate the relative magnitudes of the lift and drag forces on a miniature test section of a wing.  In fact, the device, indicating lift versus drag, was simply a flexible parallelogram that was explained to them by Dr. George Spratt during his visit to their Kitty Hawk test site during the summer of 1901.  Wilbur admitted this in an October 16th, 1909 letter to Dr. Spratt, and Orville admitted it in his sworn deposition for the 1920 Montgomery case.

George Spratt's visit to Kitty Hawk, 1901

Wind blowing on the test wing would allow it to pull the parallelogram to an angle, the trigonometric tangent of which would yield the wing’s lift-to-drag ratio.  The Wrights modified this design to show the force on a test item versus the drag on flat plates perpendicular to the air flow.  It appears the whole idea of a wind tunnel was raised by Octave Chanute, Dr. Spratt, and Mr. Huffaker at Kitty Hawk during their visit in 1901.  There is no record of Orville or Wilbur even mentioning one before discussing it with Chanute and his cohorts that summer.  Chanute also showed them detailed photos of wind tunnel components during that visit.

On this same page the author claims the Wrights “discovered” the proper wing camber and aspect ratio with their wind tunnel.  What they discovered was that they had to abandon the totally inappropriate wing shapes they had been using for two years in an attempt to suppress the instability caused by their canard. Instead, to get sufficient lift they had to revert to the wing shapes that had been used previously by Lilienthal and many others.  They also admitted this in a November 24th, 1901 letter to Octave Chanute.


The Wrights' letter to Octave Chanute

Page 66:  Here it is claimed that the original 1902 glider “sport[ed] a rudder”.  In fact, it did not.  What it had were two fixed vertical stabilizers.  Only later, when it was found that this made the spin problems worse, was it changed to one moveable vertical rudder.  (A fixed aft surface is a stabilizer.  A moveable one is either a rudder or elevator.)  Deflection of that rudder kept the glider from spinning in when warping was used to correct an inadvertent roll.  (See The WRight Story, Chapter IV, or the discussion in the previous article concerning page 112 of the book “Visions of a Flying Machine” for more detail.)

The 1902 Wright glider.

Page 67:  It is claimed that the Wrights’ first engine developed 12 hp “after it had been running for a few minutes.”  Actually, with only convective water cooling and a poor oiling system, the first engine would overheat within little more than two minutes of running.

Page 70:  The ludicrous statement attributed to Orville Wright by the Dayton Journal in 1923 is presented, claiming that the 1903 “Flyer” could have flown for 20 minutes at 1,000 feet of altitude.  Not only would the engine have overheated and seized in little more than a couple minutes, but the vehicle only had enough power to climb about half way out of ground effect, i.e., only about 15 feet above the ground.  And this vehicle could not be effectively controlled!  It’s disturbing that the National Air and Space Museum’s Curator for Aeronautics would write a book without being aware of any of this.

Page 81:  The device that allowed the Wrights to accomplish a successful test program at Huffman Prairie in 1904 and 1905, their catapult, is mentioned, again without any credit whatsoever being given to Octave Chanute for introducing the concept and basic design to the Wrights.  This suppression, or ignorance, of Chanute’s contributions to the Wright’s efforts (as listed in the discussion in the previous article in this series regarding page 84 of the Jakab book) is universal with Wright authors, as is lack of recognition of Chanute’s and Spratt’s contributions to their wind tunnel.  These, and other such omissions, are used to build the myth of the Wrights’ legendary “genius” enabling them to see the solution to every problem they encountered completely on their own.


Further along on page 81, disconnecting the rudder from the warping control to enable maneuvers is mentioned.  Their 1903 aircraft couldn’t lift itself off of the ground on its own, couldn’t climb even half way out of ground effect, damaged itself in half of its landings, was totally unstable, couldn’t be controlled or turned, and had an engine that couldn’t run more than two minutes.  But by October of 1905 they had developed an airplane that could be catapulted into the air with no headwind, could climb out of ground effect with an engine that could run over a half hour until fuel depletion, was much less unstable and could be kept under control, could be turned at will, and could be landed without damage.  In this book this is all attributed to “growing experience in the air”.  Nothing is mentioned of having had to lengthen and strengthen the airframe, completely change the balance of the machine, changing wing anhedral to dihedral, changing size, location, loading, and pivoting of the canard, devising aerodynamic turning aids, also creating cooling, an oiling system, and the fuel feed and mixing systems of the engine, and going through numerous propeller designs.  To say nothing of numerous crashes, busting up airframes, wings, propellers, even engines, along with a few minor injuries to themselves. 

Left: Wilbur with the 1903 Wright Flyer; Right: the 1905 Wright Flyer III

I understand a book that purports to cover the entire evolution of flight up to the present day must take occasional shortcuts.  But two years of testing, modification, and results were just summarized here in one paragraph.

Page 124:  The erroneous and demeaning assertion is made that the Wrights “were far less interested in scientific theory or the fundamental physical principals underlying flight”.  The author of Visions made the same assertion in person, putting it more strongly by saying that “They were engineers, not scientists”.  Obviously, these history majors don’t appreciate what it takes to do competent professional aircraft design engineering.

The Wrights thought they understood the physical principles involved.  That is what distinguished them from most of their predecessors.  Unfortunately, in some cases they were wrong, including the physics principal most basic to their airplane: how a cambered wing generates lift.  This is verified by a number of their writings, including their major patent, giving erroneous explanations of lift.  And they paid dearly for that mistake, largely wasting their first two years of development work and testing, and adopting a configuration that soon put them behind their competition.


The Wright's 1908 patent designs

In the next two paragraphs the author goes even further into unfamiliar territory, claiming that engineers don’t agree on how a horizontal spinning cylinder generates lift.  He then goes on to settle this dispute for them by giving an explanation without mentioning boundary layers or stagnation points, key elements to understanding the phenomenon.  Perhaps the “engineers” advising him should go back to their first semester aerodynamic texts - if indeed any of them ever did study aerodynamics.

Pages 134 & 135:  The expenditures by various countries on aviation up to WWI are listed showing the United States ranked fourteenth behind such countries as Chile and Bulgaria.  But no mention is made of this largely being due to the Wrights stifling the development of aviation in the U.S. with their various patent suits and legal actions.  Much of this was enabled by judgements from the notoriously inept and corrupt New York District Judge John R. Hazel.  They were demanding 10 percent royalties from any airplane related incomes, including exhibitions, and 20 percent from their only real competitor, the Curtiss company.  Not only did the Wrights suppress aircraft production and development in the U.S., but even basic aviation research in academia was largely eliminated because of the resulting lack of industry interest or funding for such research.


Judge John R. Hazel

How ironic that the very guys that, up through 1908, had put the U.S. first in the world in aircraft development, managed in the next five years to drag the U.S. down to a handful of uncompetitive unserviceable military airplanes while the major European nations each had hundreds of modern capable combat aircraft.  In fact, the original Wright Company only lasted five years, and the second, the Dayton Wright Company, only survived WWI by building a faulty British design under license.

Page 147:  For some unstated reason the Wrights’ commercial failure is primarily attributed by this author to their pusher propeller designs having the propellers located behind the wings.  This is odd since the success of everything from the Republic Seabee to the Convair B-36, the U.S.’s first true intercontinental bomber, would indicate otherwise.  Hundreds of B-36’s were produced, constituting, along with B-47’s, the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent from the late 1940’s through the 1950’s.  Obviously its six huge pusher propellers were no impediment to its success.


Republic Seavee and Convair B-36

No mention is made of early Wright aircraft’s lack of wheels complicating ground handling and requiring a rail and large catapult for launching, canard induced stability problems, warp-induced spins, no useful load capability, and a disproportionate share of crashes and crew deaths.  These deficiencies rendered Wright airplanes essentially useless for the military, the first large American user of aircraft.  By the time the Wrights eliminated these problems the rest of the aircraft industry had left them far behind.


Wings was an ambitious undertaking, attempting to cover over two centuries of aircraft development and production in 725 pages.  Over 100 contributors are listed in the Acknowledgments.  However, again, as with Visions, the last book reviewed, only very few of these contributors were ostensibly qualified to contribute any technical assistance, and these people apparently had woefully inadequate knowledge of the Wrights.

As would be expected in a Smithsonian book of this scope, many hundreds of notes were listed at the back.  However, only one of the comments made in this summary pertains to a passage in Wings supported by any of these references, that to an article in the Dayton Journal in 1923 quoting a universally discredited statement by Orville Wright.

It appears this author relied heavily upon the advice of the author of Visions of a Flying Machine since a number of the same exaggerations and errors appear in both books.  Also familiar is the technique of replacing research with assumptions and opinions.  One would expect more on such an important subject from the highest level of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Any book of this scope would, of necessity, omit much detail.  But that does not excuse the inclusion of incorrect information, particularly on what is universally considered the origin of the entire technology and industry.  This is particularly unfortunate since so many “aviation historians” have relied on this material as the basis for their work.