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°.
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 Truthinaviationhisory 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.)
|Close-up of the crashed 1904 Flyer|
|Drawing of discernible 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 the upper wing’s trailing edge, and coming to rest atop the 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  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.