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Learning to Fly – The Story of Wilbur and Orville Wright

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Flying is now so commonplace. 67.91 million passengers took a flight in 2019. We forget the struggles and challenges the earlier pioneers went through in learning how to fly. Most people thought that the idea of flying was a wasteful dream. Great authorities such as Lord Kelvin, in 1895, dismissed heavier-than-air flight, saying it was impossible. 

Then on 17 December 1903, Orville Wright became the first to fly a motorized heavier-than-air aircraft at Kitty Hawk (a town in North Carolina, US). Orville’s elder brother, Wilbur, made a follow up flight later that same day. 

The invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers has been revolutionary. What is less well known is the approach the Wright brothers took to learning how to fly. The lessons from the Wright brothers on how to learn is perhaps of even greater importance than their actual feat of being the first to fly in a plane.

Early Life

James Tobin, in his book “To Conquer the Air,” recounts the story of the Wright brothers’ lives as being “short [and] full of consequences.” The brothers were always inventive and curious, but neither went to college. 

Wilbur studied hard as preparation for college but had an accident while playing ice hockey that broke many of his teeth and injured his face. Wilbur recovered, but something inside him seemed to change due to his facial injury. Wilbur gave up his plans to go to college. 

Orville did not finish high school, and when he was seventeen built a printing press out of scrap parts. Wilbur joined Orville in printing a weekly magazine that they then converted into a daily newspaper. While this venture was not a great success, it gave the brothers experience in starting and running their own business. 

The 1890s was called the era of the bicycle craze. The Wright brothers took advantage of the demand for bicycles and started a second business selling and repairing bicycles. At the same time, Wilbur again began dreaming about going to college. He wrote to his father, saying, “I do not think I am fitted for success in any commercial pursuit. Intellectual effort is a pleasure to me. I have always thought I would like to be a teacher.” But once again, Wilbur seemed to lack confidence in pursuing further college studies, and the two brothers focused on making the bicycle business a success.

1. The first step – Find out the current state of knowledge

In 1894, Wilbur read an article about a German engineer Otto Lilienthal, and Lilienthal’s experiments on flying. The brothers became passionate about human flight. The Wright brothers conducted a thorough survey of how others tackled the problem of flight. The brothers studied and obtained data generated by earlier pioneers, especially George Cayley (1790s) and Otto Lilienthal (1860s).

2. Verify whatever anyone else says

The Wright brothers then tested what has been said by others to determine if what was written had any validity. There was no blind belief or acceptance of any aspect about flying, no matter how well known the authority. For example, Otto Lilienthal arrived at certain “coefficients of lift” for different wings’ shapes and sizes. The Wright brothers tested these coefficients and when they found that the lift predicted was much less than what they found by direct experiment, they chose their experimentally determined “coefficient of lift” values and not the statements of Otto Lilienthal. They then changed their wing designs.

3. Observe Nature Carefully

Combined with their reading, the Wright brothers spent a lot of time observing how buzzards, hawks, and pigeons flew. From these observations, Wilbur discovered that birds “adjusted the tips of their wings…so as to present one tip at a positive angle and the other as a negative angle, thus for a moment turning [themselves] into animated windmills.” This was a critical insight into how wings obtained enough “lift” to allow an airplane to fly.

4. Experiment

Wilbur Wright explained the best way of learning as:

“There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse. One is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast for a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. If you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

In this way, the Wright brothers were grounded in experimentation and observation. The brothers first built kites, then gliders, and finally their plane. Experiments also included the use of an innovative “wind tunnel”. The Wright brothers were so focused on their experimentation that Wilbur said, “We could hardly wait to get up in the morning.” At each step, they “rode the fractious horse” learning by direct experimentation.

Feedback Loop Learning

The Wright brothers’ method of learning how to fly can be summarized as utilizing “feedback loops.” The Wright brothers built over 200 different wing designs. They experimented with these various designs in their wind tunnel and by actual flights in their glider. When the expected lift did not correspond with the measured lift, the brothers modified the wing design, a new cycle began, and this process of iteration continued till they obtained the required lift. Learning how to fly was thus an iterative process resulting in knowledge accumulation.

There is one other aspect to the Wright brothers learning how to fly that is not well publicized. This was the constant encouragement they received from their father and sister. Orville Wright later said, ““We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity.”

The Wright brothers’ success at flying could have resulted in making them very rich. But money for the Wright brothers was only a means of getting the freedom to “pursue our investigations” further. The Wright brothers’ invention became widely known and several manufacturers with more commercial drive dominated the early start of plane manufacturing.

Wilbur died in 1912, aged just 45. Wilber and Orville’s father wrote on Wilbur’s passing, “A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance, and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadfastly, he lived and died.” Orville died, aged 76, in 1948. In his old age, Orville was honored and referred to as one of the “fathers of flight”. 

Wilbur and Orville Wright had no college education, no well-funded research laboratory and no financial backers. What the brothers had was enthusiasm and most importantly used a successful method for learning. Before he died Orville said, “If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true, really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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