Gravity, Lift, Drag, Velocity, Flight

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 8:45am

A very small percentage of people who climb into a sleek, shiny and very heavy commercial airliner have any idea how the machine stays in the air. Answers will vary: engines, clouds, air currents, and wings are some of the things people will say when asked how an airplane flies. The title of this column is a crash course in the physics involved with how an airplane stays in the air — my dad explained this to me when I was a kid. If you’re so inclined, Google "Bernoulli’s Principle" for more information. Moreover, you’ll note the physics-in-action the next time you’re leaving the ground for the wild blue yonder.

At age 21, I was wandering around the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and saw the “Spirit of Saint Louis,” John Glenn’s capsule, “The Friendship 7” and “The Wright Flyer.” I’d never flown in an airplane at that time, but as stated earlier I understood the physics of flight — it was like sailing to me only the forces were used vertically and not horizontally — as a result, I stood for a long time examining the Wright Brother’s brilliant design. Author David McCullough has just written a book, “The Wright Brothers” (Simon and Schuster), and it is no surprise to me why I read the book in only four sittings. McCullough has written a book — albeit about a broad and complex topic — that can be read on the quick.

Flight is a topic where a writer like John McPhee could give you a couple of hundred pages about the physics alone. McCullough, however, does a very different thing. He goes light on the hard science and instead focuses on the Wright’s family dynamic. Now, one important thing must be noted here. The title of this column states a simple, proven fact; however, these forces and the result of these forces could never have happened if it were not for the most important force, which is the observation of a brilliant and intuitive mind. Without a human being observing these physical certainties that are inherent in nature — the foil shape of a bird’s wing — then we wouldn’t be flying off to vacations in different hemispheres. By focusing on the personalities of the brothers, their dad Milton and sister Katherine, McCullough has humanized the discovery of one of the most profound — besides the computer — inventions in the 20th century.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were given a toy helicopter that their father brought them from France. He was a believer in the value of toys. It was called a “bat,” which was nothing but a stick with twin propellers and some elastic bands. Subsequently, one day Orville’s first-grade teacher saw him messing around with some pieces of wood and asked what he was doing. He told the teacher that he was making a machine that he and his brother were going to fly one day. Another thing that their father gave to his children was a love of books. They were all voracious readers. He also encouraged his kids to be aggressive learners. Someone told Orville once that he and his brother were examples of how far a person could go in the world without having special advantages — they came from humble beginnings. Orville replied, “But it isn’t true, to say we had no special advantages ... the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.”

McCullough’s seamless and readable narrative explores the tenacity and focus of these bicycle-building brothers from Dayton, Ohio. The sheer determination of experimenting with the designs of their “Flying Machines” is the bedrock of the “can do” attitude that is essentially the true spirit of the American experience. First of all, they had the vision and belief they would someday fly — a fait-accompli — from their observations of birds and their glider experiments. Furthermore, from these important and dangerous experiments they fine-tuned the design of the wings. Secondly, they knew that they needed wind and a place for a soft landing, so they ventured to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for their experiments. Here the author exemplifies their forthrightness. Simply getting to this barren outpost to conduct their glider experiments was a feat of total belief in their mission. It is here that McCullough informs us of the collective effort of some of the colorful locals of Kitty Hawk who were rooting for what at times appeared to be a couple of eccentric brothers. It was also here at Kitty Hawk that the title of this column was realized. After their research, experimentation, design and manufacture, the Wright Brothers made a quantum leap for mankind and brought us soaring into our collective future.

David McCullough has written a book that gives a respectful nod to the pure genius that mankind is capable of exhibiting. His book makes it clear that for boundaries to be pushed and records to be broken there must be a sacrifice. While Wilbur was taking Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge for a flight at Fort Myer, Virginia, the aircraft crashed. Selfridge was killed and Wilbur was very badly injured. We learn in McCullough's book that along with success and fame there comes a price — a Faustian pact. After the Wright's success with retooling their designs, for example, warping the wings to affect better control of the aircraft, and moving on from breaking altitude and speed records, we learn of the downside of their success. There were lawsuits and patent infringements et al, which interfered with the very essence of these two taciturn brothers who simply dared to dream and made that dream happen. McCullough has given a salute to Orville and Wilbur Wright and all others who are willing to dare. The next time you’re flying off somewhere, take a look out the window at the wing and say to yourself, “Gravity, Lift, Drag, Velocity, equals Flight,” and think a kind thought for these two brothers named Wright.