eclipsing the wright brothers -- 3/01/17

Today's selection -- from Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone. The Wright brothers were the first to fly. But their preoccupation with finding a commercial buyer for their invention meant that there was little if any advancement of their technology for two years after their first flights. And their penchant for secrecy to avoid giving competitors a clear view of their technology meant that other aviation pioneers began stealing the industry limelight from them. So it was that names like Glenn Curtiss and Louis Blériot began to appear alongside theirs in the public's mind:

"On July 27, [1909] Orville took army lieutenant Frank Lahm as a pas­senger on a record-breaking flight of more than one hour, twelve min­utes. Ten thousand spectators crowded the airfield to watch, including President Taft and most of his cabinet. ... But before Wilbur could sit down with the generals [to discuss selling planes to the Army], even before Orville's two brilliant test flights, the Wrights' dream of dominating aviation had been smashed. ... On July 25, an event occurred whose immense significance not even the Wrights could deny. On that day, in a monoplane of his own design, with a foot so badly burned that he had to be helped into the cockpit, Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel.

"Nine months before Blériot's flight, in October 1908, inspired by Wilbur's demonstrations, Lord Northcliffe, owner of the En­glish newspaper Daily Mail, had offered a prize of £1,000 ($5,000) to the first man to achieve the crossing. Northcliffe was in awe of the Wrights and as with most everyone involved in aviation expected Wilbur to immediately declare his intention to claim the prize. He even offered Wilbur an additional $7,500 under the table to under­take the flight. But unwilling to risk failure in the harsh Channel winds, especially after Orville's crash at Fort Myer, Wilbur declined to make the attempt. ...

 Starting the engine, 25 July 1909

"Wilbur could certainly have then attempted the twenty-three-mile Channel flight, less than a third of the distance he'd already flown, but again he declined. He missed an enormous opportunity. Crossing the Channel in 1909 was like crossing the Atlantic in 1927. The prestige that would accrue to the man who succeeded in traversing the most famous geographical barrier in Europe spurred a rush of activity and innovation. By summer 1909, ... French aviators had airplanes they thought equal to the task. ...

"[In July, Louis] Blériot was nursing a left foot with third­-degree burns, suffered on an earlier flight ... when the asbestos insulation on his exhaust pipe had shaken loose. Blériot needed crutches to walk and intended to strap them to the fuselage so that he might make his way about when he reached England.

"Finally, just after midnight on July 25, the wind abated. Blériot and his wife were awakened at two in the morning. He ate breakfast, tested the aircraft, and waited for ... sunrise ... Blériot took off at 4:30 A.M. ... After six years, a string of failures, and countless crashes, he was flying uncontested to celeb­rity and renown -- assuming he didn't end up in the water. ... Even with the cork lifebelt Blériot wore, with his foot bandaged and the water particularly rough, there was little chance of survival if he were forced into the waves. But ten minutes later, the Blériot XI emerged from the clouds. Cheering on the English side told those aboard ship that the monoplane was still airborne.

"Shortly after 5 A.M., Blériot landed in a field marked by supporters waving tricoleurs. Oil thrown from the engine covered his face and he complained that the wind over the Channel had stung, but he was helped out of the XI, unstrapped his crutches, and limped into im­mortality. ... Blériot ... became an instant international icon. He was awarded the Legion of Honor and mobbed in London and Paris. Among the attendees at the luncheon in his honor to re­ceive his £1,000 check was Ernest Shackleton, recently returned from the Antarctic.

"Orville Wright, when told of Blériot's feat at Fort Myer, agreed it 'was a great flight,' and that the Frenchman was one of the most dar­ing of all aviators. But Orville also hastened to note that Blériot's was a personal triumph and not 'an advancement in the art of flying' as 'the monoplane has not as good a method of control as the biplane we use.' Orville also noted that Blériot had 'added movable wing tips to his machine.' But no backhanded praise could obscure that the Frenchman had stolen headlines out from under him. Blériot's flight, noted a Wright biographer, 'was one of those rare moments when the entire world sensed that something extraordinary had occurred.' "


Lawrence Goldstone


Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies


Ballantine Books


Copyright 2014 by Lawrence Goldstone



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