A hundred years after the Wright brothers' flight

Gaetano Di Modica.


On 17th December 1903, over a hundred years ago, in North Carolina, USA, two exceptional and visionary brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, were able to take off and fly for a few seconds, covering less than 100 yards with their rudimentary propeller-driven aircraft powered by an equally rudimentary engine. It is a date that stands as a milestone in the history of aviation, and even in the history of man.
Man has always had the idea of being able to fly: a comparison with birds, small or large as they might be, was there at his fingertips. Otzi, that poor man of Similaun, shortly before being encased in his coffin of ice which has protected him up until now, may possibly have thought that if he had had wings instead of legs, he could have made it home.

Of course people tried to invent wings, and a number of legends testify to this. The first flight is said to have been across the Hellespont, from Crete to Santorini. It's curious that everybody remembers Icarus and very few remember that it was Daedalus who was the inventor of the machine, and who with care and attention did exactly what he had set out to do - fly. Icarus, at the end of the day comes across as a fool whose conceit, incompetence and clumsy use of the device's controls make him responsible for the first recorded airplane crash in history. (We can see that even then the media tended to focus on bad rather than good news!). However, it took another three thousand years before a man-powered aircraft really flew from Crete to Santorini. Almost 10 years ago, an airplane powered by a pedal-driven propeller finally achieved this remarkable feat. The endeavour, sponsored by the American "Du Pont" chemical company, which provided special materials to build the aircraft, was aptly named "Project Daedalus"!

Then there is the story of Simon Magus, who at the time of the Emperor Nero proclaimed that he was able to fly, supported by demons. Apparently he was shot down by the well-aimed anti-aircraft prayers of St. Peter. In aeronautical circles it is believed, however, that even without the prayers he would have crashed anyway, demons or no demons! No one at that time had any idea about fluid dynamics, crucial to the control of boats at sea and aircraft in the air!
The Chinese are famous for kite flying, a popular pastime for many centuries, and some of their kites were said to be able to support a the weight of a man! Could it be that the first man to be actually borne aloft by a flying device was an unknown Chinaman?

But the history of flight would be incomplete without mentioning our great Italian genius, Leonardo da Vinci who never lost an opportunity to experiment! He tackled the problem of flight with his distinctive scientific approach. In the "Codex on the Flight of Birds", held in the National Archives in Turin, various suggestions for flying machines are made, some which will only be put into practice five centuries later. Several years ago, an audacious British paratrooper had a parachute built following one of Da Vinci's designs and survived the jump from several thousand feet! When you think about it,  helicopters fly today on the basis of Leonardo's intuition about the lifting effect of a rotating helical surface. The helicopter rotor and the aircraft propeller  work on identical  principles! For centuries, alchemists dedicated their time to trying to turn lead into gold or create the elixir of life. If they had taken the time to study materials instead, and had been able to supply  Leonardo with the right ones, developed by their ingenuity across the centuries, who knows what might have happened!

Not much later, somewhere between 1500 and 1600, various studies and a certain rationalization of approach to the problem showed that air had weight, and therefore could support something that was lighter than itself. There were many who tried to take to the air. Among them it is worth remembering the " air boat " designed by the Italian Jesuit Father Francis Lana in 1670. His idea was certainly aiming in the right direction: a container filled with something lighter than air should be able to lift itself off the ground. He designed a small boat (with a sail to steer it!) sustained by four globes made from thin sheets of copper containing a vacuum. Luckily it remained purely theoretic. Apart from the basic flaw that the combined weight of the whole device needed to be less than that of the displaced volume of air, the globes would have collapsed due to the pressure of the external air.

Towards the end of the 1700's two astute brothers from Lyon came up with another approach to the problem of flight. Their hot-air balloon, which became known as a "Mongolfier" in their honour, took to the sky from Annonay, not far from Lyon. Joseph and Etienne Mongolfier were far from being stupid! They didn't do the test flight themselves ñ they put a couple of animals aboard and no one ever asked them what it felt like to be flying!

The road was now open and a few months later, a French physicist, a certain Charles, made a balloon which he filled with hydrogen rather than hot air. Hydrogen, the lightest element in the world, had been isolated in 1766 by Henry Cavendish, an English chemical scientist. This balloon was known as a "Charlière". The first to fly with what would later be called a "lighter than air" device was the Frenchman Pilatre de Rozier. He, however, wanted to be too clever, and after a number of ascents, tried to combine a hot air balloon with a hydrogen " Charlière". As can be easily imagined, after only a few minutes of flight, the hydrogen caught fire. This was the end of de Rozier, who however, being a nobleman, would have most likely been guillotined a decade later during the French Revolution!
It is worth noting that on December 11, 1783, only six months after being founded and only a few months after the Montgolfier brothers' flight, the Academy of Sciences of Turin managed to launch a hydrogen-filled balloon for the first time in Italy. At 11 am, just outside the city entrance known as Porta Susina, the balloon ascended into the clouds and disappeared. However, lighter than air flight continued in its development up to the great airships of the 1930s: even today there are several airships around, mainly used for publicity purposes, with the most famous being the ones sponsored by Goodyear. These are sustained by the much less dangerous, but more expensive, helium. Airships have significant aerodynamic limitations, but none-the-less, the first flight across the Atlantic, from Scotland to Long Island was made on July 19, 1919 by a British airship which took 108 hours at an average of about 90 km per hour.

In the 1800's many people began to study ways to make a heavier-than-air machine fly, driven by the insights of Leonardo and those of a genial English baronet, Sir George Cayley. Like Leonardo, in the early 1800's, Cayley studied the flight of birds. In addition, he knew about Torricelli's discoveries about the nature of air - that this mixture of gases offered resistance to objects which moved in it and thus was able to support birds and flying insects. But could it also support man?. He built several models, some of which were large enough to support a man. He persuaded his rather reluctant coachman to try one out. After the test, despite it being successful, the coachman resigned and went to look for another, less eccentric, master. Hard times for coachmen!
The nineteenth century saw a plethora of studies and attempts to fly supported by wings and engines able to power them. One of these, by an Englishman called Stringfellow, employed a small steam engine, obtaining interesting, although extremely modest, results. There were even those to attempted flight with models equipped with propellers driven by elastic bands! Among others, Penaud, Chanute and Mouillard contributed in varying degrees to the gradual improvement and refinement of models. Thanks to them, rudimentary control surfaces, among other things, began to appear.
A robust Austrian, Otto Lilienthal, devised a system of wings (very similar to some of todayís hang gliders) with which he effected many flights, inventing among other things, the first true directional controls.
Around the same time, Clèment Ader, a clever French engineer, built a rudimentary craft powered by 20 HP a steam engine driving a bamboo propeller. It is said that in October 1890 he allegedly made a flight of about 50 metres in the grounds of the Castle of Armainvilliers, near Paris. However, there were no witnesses to the event, and it was never repeated, so this flight was not homologated! Nonetheless, he was a prophet of the possibilities offered by this new medium. In an essay he wrote: "He will be master of the world who is master of the air."

In short, by the beginning of the 1900's, the time was ripe for a more practical and feasible approach to the problem of flight. And on the scene they came - Wilbur and Orville, the legendary Wright brothers. They hailed from Dayton, Ohio, where they had a bicycle shop. Bicycles were gradually replacing the horses of the cowboy era, and in their  workshop they built and repaired bicycles and farm machinery. Enthusiastic readers,  they became aware of these aviation events in Europe, and were eager to fly, inspired by the things the pioneers were doing. They experimented with wing design, building gliders and finding answers to problems like longitudinal and directional control and stability, things almost unknown to the scientific luminaries of their time (they even made a rudimentary wind tunnel in which they did laboratory tests!). After many experiments and several years of failed attempts, they finally managed to build a flying machine capable of responding safely to directional lateral tilt and trim inputs. Into this they put an engine they had built by themselves - a water-cooled four-cylinder engine, weighing 77 pounds, capable of developing 12 horsepower and driving two contra-rotating screw propellers (to compensate for the gyroscopic effects of their rotation) through a transmission based on bicycle chains. It was rudimentary, but sufficiently effective! And so at 10.35 on December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright made the world's first real powered flight in a craft which they had named  "Flyer". The flight lasted about 12 seconds, covering a distance of some 36 meters! Considering the headwind of 24 miles per hour, this was equivalent to a much greater distance in still air. Both Wilbur and Orville made several more flights on the same day, one of which lasted nearly a minute, in which the aircraft flew a distance of about 250 meters. The "Flyer" had a wingspan of 12 feet and weighed 275 kilos empty! Towards the end of the day, a blast of December wind flipped it over, damaging it beyond repair, but the world was soon to know of this amazing achievement!

With the legendary flight of the "Flyer", a new era in the history of flight had begun. The Wright brothers dedicated themselves to their aviation activity, building other models which gradually became more and more refined, with enhanced performance and with more powerful engines. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, but Orville lived on through both World Wars, dying in 1948, after having seen their creation progress in a way which no one could have imagined way back in those early days.
The development of the airplane seems to have been along an exponential curve. The first modest exhibitions (one of which saw the Frenchman Delagrange in Turin around 1908) gave way to the most spectacular performances. In 1909 the Frenchman Louis BlÈriot won the £1000 prize for the first flight across the English Channel. He took 36 minutes from Calais to Dover. In 1910, the Peruvian Geo Chavez crossed the Alps from Brig to Domodossola, 1911 saw the Paris-Rome flight by Andrea Beaumont, and in 1913 Roland Garros crossed the Mediterranean from St Raphael to Bizerte in Tunisia (he had fuel for 8 hours of flight, but made it in 7 hours and 53 minutes!).

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the airplane was still in some ways little more than a toy, but, none-the-less, only three years earlier in the Libyan campaign against the Turks, the Italians had shown that it could be a dangerous toy. In those early days, aircraft were mainly used for reconnaissance purposes, a role for which they were superbly suited, but other possibilities soon became evident. On November 1st 1911, the Italian pilot Lt. Giulio Gavotti launched the first airborne weapon over Ain Zara. This was a Cipelli two pounder bomb, whose international echo was far in excess of any damage it caused, but that was it - another era had begun. For the first time, an airplane had been used to attack an enemy! The aircraft in question was a Etrich-Taube monoplane with a 15 meter wingspan, powered by a Mercedes D1 6-cylinder in-line liquid-cooled, 100-horsepower engine. It had a top speed of 100 kmh and 4 hours of autonomy. The Arabs, who up until then, had been led to believe that those large things that flew over their heads were Islamic holy men urging them into battle, were very upset! It was only ten years since the first flight at Kitty Hawk but already airplanes capable of flying at over 100 kmh, capable of climbing to 10000 feet and flying distances of hundreds of kilometers had been built. The Wright Brother's engine generated one horsepower for each six kilos of weight, while the Liberty 12, the best aircraft engine of World War I yielded one HP per kilo (and the Rolls-Royce Merlin of World War II was almost twice that again). As had happened in Libya, the start of the First World War saw aircraft mainly in the reconnaissance role, but before long, pilots began firing at each other with pistols, then rifles and then machine guns. Aerial warfare had begun!
Faster, heavier armed planes were built, able to carry bombs whose destructive potential was far beyond that of Giulio Gavotti's grenade! The Italian General Douhet, who was born in Vercelli, although his father was from Nice and in 1859 had opted to remain in Italy (1859 was the year of the infamous and highly manipulated referendum which, almost by Bulgarian proportions, ceded the county of Nice to France as part of Cavour's bargain for French support in the wars against Austria), published a famous essay on war in the air in 1922, in which he stated among other things that: "...the next war will be won by that of the two opponents which can destroy with its air force the industrial potential of the otherî but added, "... assuming similar technological development !..."
How right he was! And the observation finds its confirmation in the more recent Vietnam conflict. Extremely sophisticated bombers, whose value would be more or less ten billion US$, with a crew of 6 or 7 men, each costing around 500 million to train, trying to damage supply routes through a jungle, used by people who at best were on bicycles, but for the most part were on foot! It made no sense!

The between the wars period saw the evolution of bigger and faster transport aircraft , higher performance and spectacular flights over great distances, like the crossing of the Atlantic. The first ever transatlantic flight was made by Alcock and Brown, two British aviators, who, in 1919, with a twin-engined Vickers Vimy flew from Newfoundland to Ireland in 15 hours. Then in 1927, Charles Lindberg made his famous flight from New York to Paris. This epic flight lasting more than 33 hours was the first solitary flight across the Atlantic, between New York and Paris with no intermediate stops! Lindbergh won the prize of $ 25,000 for this achievement. By that time, radio transmissions (or 'wireless' as it was then known) had reached a standard that made it possible to follow his flight as it occurred. Several radio stations in the United States, Iceland, Ireland, England and France, reported his passage. At Le Bourget, thousands of spectators awaited him in a frenzy of enthusiasm! Thanks to Lindbergh, aviation came out if its experimental period, going from a romantic phase to one of practical use. Lindbergh became famous and worked in a decisive way to create a network of air connections all over the world, not only in the United States.
The thirties were particularly significant for the Italian Air Force. In 1933, after training operations in the Mediterranean, 25 Italian seaplanes flew from Italy to the United States and back, with a double crossing of the North Atlantic (the route went from Orbetello to Amsterdam, Reykjavik, Montreal, Chicago, New York, Azores, Lisbon and back to Rome. One year earlier, the South Atlantic route had been similarly pioneered). It was an amazing feat, cited in all the texts dealing with aviation history (especially foreign ones, since its protagonist was none other than Italo Balbo, the grand Minister of the Air, but, alas, a Fascist from the earliest days!), and underlines even now that the formidable preparation which was necessary was highly advanced for its time. From the memories of General Nannini, who was a Captain at the time, and leader of the second squadron, was the first time that airways had been tried using radio broadcast from specially-outfitted ships at sea. The planes used were the legendary Savoy Marchetti, of 24-meter wingspan, with two floats containing the fuel and radio compasses as navigation aids. They had two Isotta Fraschini engines of 800 horsepower each (on the first flight across the Atlantic from the South they used Fiat 600 hp engines). Their range was about 2000 miles and they had an average speed of about 270 kmh. The impact on the American public, and not only them, was huge. It especially aroused interest in the military potential of large aircraft and triggered the start of the study of those American strategic bombers which in World War II would contribute to the destruction of both Italy's and Germany's industrial power, exactly as predicted by Dohuet!

In 1934, a seaplane, the Italian Macchi Castoldi, set the world speed record of 710 kmh for piston-engined seaplanes, a fantastic speed in those days and a record which still stands today! The plane, piloted by Agello, was powered by two coaxial FIAT engines, which provided 3000 hp and drove two coaxial contra-rotating propellers (to null-out the gyroscopic effects, making it easier to handle especially during taxiing, takeoff and landing phases). The power-train was made by Eng. Zerbi, of Fiat, and the plane was designed by Eng. Castoldi.
In 1937, the Italian Air Force Colonel Pezzi, flying a single-engined Caproni biplane (in which I would not even put my photograph, let alone my body!) climbed to an altitude of over 17,000 feet, setting a record which was beaten only a few years ago by a highly-specialized, twin-engined piston aircraft, made of new composite materials by one of the best German designers, and pressurized. This climbed to a height of 18,000 meters. Pezzi had got round the pressurization problem by having a semi-rigid diving suit installed in the open cockpit of his plane.
But, unfortunately, something bad was brewing. Aeronautical effort was aimed at making aircraft ever more efficient in military terms. It produced fast and well-armed fighters as well as bombers with high load capacity and considerable autonomy. 
By the end of the thirties, Italy also had some pretty good aircraft. One of these, the legendary S 79 trimotor, won a major air race along the route Istres-Damascus-Paris, and set a record time for the South Atlantic crossing. It had a strange emblem painted on the fuselage - three green mice. This was the origin of the saying: "I'll make you see green mice." In its various versions, the S79 was equipped with three 1000 hp engines, either by Fiat, Alfa or Piaggio, and had a cruising speed of 400 kmh and a range of 2,000 km.

Yes, we had some nice airplanes. Too bad that others had better ones. On the experience gained in the famous "Schneider Cup" Trophy for seaplanes, a skilled English engineer conceived and created one of the best fighters of WWII: the Spitfire. 
In its 14 different versions with the fabulous Rolls Royce Merlin engines giving over a thousand horsepower, the British built over 20,000 examples! The Americans made their great strategic bombers capable of carrying tons of bombs. Their biggest bomb, called the "grand slam", weighed 10,000 pounds, about 5,000 kilos (our weighed 850 kg!, And our poor S79 was beginning to have trouble at over 2000 pounds of cargo). Just for the records, the Americans, between 1942 and 1945, built more than 250,000 aircraft (over five years of war we were able to put 10,000 on the line!). The Germans were no exception. They also produced tens of thousands of aircraft, including the legendary Messerschmitt 109 fighter and the lesser known but more appreciated by the pilots Focke Wulf 190. On the outskirts of Vienna, those Viennese woods of Straussian memory, in that delightful little village called Modlig, where they say that Beethoven had composed his "Pastoral" Symphony, today you can still see the underground aircraft factory in the salt mines - aircraft which then took off from the highway right there at the doorstep. In 1944 they built more aircraft than in 1940! The Germans were, however, a little short of bombers. The Heinkel 111 was a nice aircraft, twin engined, although with a limited payload compared to the Allied bombers. The Stuka dive-bomber was an interesting creation, although had many limits. It could only carry a single bomb, it was slow and had poor defensive armament. It had done well in Poland (the Poles, poor people, had virtually no air force), but during the Battle of Britain, against the faster, more agile and better-armed British fighters, it was almost courting suicide. And us? We had a good Fiat engine of 840 hp which powered three fighters: the CR42 biplane with two machine guns, designed by the great Fiat designer Engineer Celestino Rosatelli, and completely outclassed by the British monoplanes with engines of 1,200 horsepower and 8 machine guns, plus the Macchi 200 and the G50, designed by Prof. Gabrielli, of the Turin Polytechnic and member of the Academy of Sciences (which celebrated its centenary last year).
Their speed ranged from about 400 to 480 kmh, against the 600 kmh of the British! As a cadet pilot I was at Reggio Emilia airfield in the summer of 1943 (I flew the RO41, a 400 hp biplane!). I watched the Re 2005ís with the 1250hp Daimler Benz engines which the Germans had given us taking off, as well as the Macchi 202ís and 205ís and the G 55ís with the same engine. They were jewels from a boutique, but we could only make a few each week!
Towards the end of the war, there came the swan song of the German Air Force: the Messerschmitt 262, the "Schwalbe," the swallow. Two jet engines, 800 kmh. Beautiful, but it was too late.
And afterwards? the tragic experience of war drove civil aviation into a global dimension. The new jet engines allowed supersonic speeds, which combined with new materials which chemists, in the era of "plastic" came up with (without chemistry, neither orthopedics nor aeronautics would have made the strides they have!) allowed the achievement of performance inconceivable 60 years ago.

If only the Wright Brothers could see the hundreds of airplanes which cross oceans in a few hours with hundreds of people on board (mostly bored, who do not even look out of the windows)!
And speaking of the Wrights, their earliest attempts at flight were with gliders, before adding an engine. When I started flying gliders in 1939, in the machines that were then available (the legendary Zoegling glider, with its open cockpit and no instruments, speed was judged by the noise of the wind!) It had what we call an "efficiency" value of around 10-12, which means that from 1000 meters of altitude we could glide about 10 to 12 km. When I resumed flying in the early '50s, a good glider, the Spatz (the Sparrow), had a ratio of height to distance of about 25/28. Today, with new materials that allow even better airfoils and wings with an almost unbelievable span of 25 meters, this latest generation of gliders has an efficiency of around 60!
The data on the latest records made by gliders are almost stupefying: the world height record in these peculiar conditions which occur in the United States downwind of the large wave current across the Rockies is more than 14,000 meters from the plane tow release at about 2000 meters! Distance record made in New Zealand: 2002 km! Speed over a triangular course of 500 km: 187.2 kmh! There are reports of flights of 3,000 miles along the Andes, demonstrating not only the perfection of machinery, but also of an evolving knowledge of weather forecasting.
Yet another is the recent production of a composite solar-powered flying platform, to be used as an artificial satellite - 70-meter wingspan, 700 kg, powered by 65,000 solar cells driving propeller engines, remote controlled!
In short, in a hundred years, the wing has made remarkable progress, something which the sail and the wheel, two other inventions that have revolutionized the history of humanity, took thousands of years to do! Thanks to wings, the earth has become smaller, enabling man to quickly reach the most remote corners of the planet, maybe even to penetrate into areas which it would have been better not to have gone.
It is true that we are made "... to follow virtue and knowledge "! But perhaps we are exaggerating just a little?

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