The Wright Brothers Versus the Wrong Brothers
The Wright Brothers were always great heroes of mine, but when I learned how to fly gliders in the late 1970s (with considerable difficulty), Orville and Wilbur took on even greater stature. Not only did they build the first plane, they also learned how to fly it without the customary benefit of a flight instructor.
So why did their plane fly while so many before them stayed on the ground? In a word, models. A critical insight occurred, for example, when Wilbur sat idly twisting a long thin bicycle inner tube box with the ends torn out. Suddenly he realized that the same principle could be applied to warp the wings of an airplane to make it turn right or left. The two brothers immediately built a kite to test this concept, which was one of the cornerstones of their design. Thus the first model of the first airplane was a bicycle inner tube box.
Before they achieved their initial flight, they had built many more models, including several unpowered gliders that they flew themselves. Orville stated in a letter at one point that “Wilbur and I could hardly wait for morning to come, to get at something that interested us. That’s happiness.”1 This remark conjures up images of the famous brothers soaring above the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in their glider. But, no, Orville’s comment actually referred to their pivotal wind tunnel experiments with model wings. They were back in Ohio for the winter, making the breakthrough ...

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