In 1903, the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, made the first powered aircraft flight. Their first flight’s distance was less than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. But they had done it – they had achieved powered flight. That story is well known.
But what happened next? Well, five years later, after more messing around as backyard hobbyists, the US Army awarded them a $25 000 contract to make a military aeroplane.
There were stipulations. The plane had to be able to carry two men. It had to be able to fly at a top speed of 65 km/h and have a total travel distance of 200 km. In addition, the brothers had to train three pilots. The army also offered a bonus: they would be paid an extra $2 500 for every mile per hour that the plane could fly above the benchmark.
The first ‘flight school’ candidate to go into the air was the perfect choice, from the Wright’s point of view. He weighed only 59 kg. No doubt, flying then was something like jockey school. This guy was Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, a 29-year-old enthusiast who was hooked by the flying bug. He described the experience as “a surge of joy through my whole body that defied description”.
Foulois’s flight lasted only ten minutes, but that was a really long time, compared with the few seconds of the Wright brothers’ first-ever flight.
Crowds gathered to watch, and Orville complained that he did not have time to answer “thousands of questions that people were asking about the aircraft”.
The Wrights and their trainee pilots tinkered and fiddled and, on October 9, 1908, Orville Wright took the final prototype up to fly in front of three members of President Theodore Rooseveldt’s Cabinet. Orville Wright stayed aloft for an incredible 57 minutes and 13 seconds, a ‘world record.’
After a few minutes of refuelling and prodding, he took off again and broke the ‘world record’ by staying up for 62 minutes and 15 seconds. Then, for a third flight, he took off with a passenger, Lieutenant Frank Lahm.
During the days that followed, Orville Wright repeatedly broke his records for a single-person flight and a two-person flight.
Clearly, they were improving various things all the time. Every so often, when I board a plane, I think how much I wish that I could wave a magic wand and bring the Wright brothers back for a few minutes. I would love to say: “Look at that huge thing. It has food on board and movies and toilets and reclining seats, and it will fly to New York from Johannesburg.” And then add: “That is a real aeroplane.” No doubt, they would not believe it until they saw it take off.
My point in all this is to show how technology development takes place. The first-ever flight was so low and short in both time and distance that it almost did not count. But just over a decade later, when the First World War broke out, aircraft soon made an entrance into the war.
The development process of the Wright brothers was to keep trying and changing. They must have had written records, but most of it was a case of trying and testing. They did not have computers to carry out flight simulations. They did not have wind tunnels to test for structures with optimum lift. They did not have a materials lab to develop lightweight aluminium alloys.
Today, we have those sorts of wonderful aids. Today, we can ‘fly’ an entire aeroplane on a computer simulation before it is even built. However, I have spoken to test pilots and they still tell me that, as they race down the runway on the first-ever flight of the Airbus A340, for example, and as they feel the wheels start to lift, they are still not sure if it will actually fly. They tell me that they fervently thank their lucky stars when such an aircraft finally lifts up into the air.
My point is that, although today the approach to modern development is so computer- and lab-based, there is still a place for the Wright brothers-type of intelligent tinkering. Development is development and that means trying various angles and approaches until you find the one combination that works best.
The mind-machine interface really counts.