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The Wright Story 

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n 1906, the anti-Wright skeptics in the European aviation community had converted the press. European newspapers, especially in France, were openly derisive, calling them bluffeurs (bluffers). The Paris edition of the New York Herald summed up Europe's opinion of the Wright brothers in an editorial on February 10, 1906: "The Wright have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It's easy to say, 'We have flown.'"

And the French had some reason to be cocky. The French aeronautical revival, inspired by Octave Chanute's address to the Aero-Club de France in early 1903, was beginning to bear fruit. At the urging of Ernest Archdeacon and Ferdinand Ferber, French aviators had experimented with gliders derived from Wright designs. Their success was limited — none of them repeated the careful research in lift and drag that had enabled the Wrights to build their record-breaking 1902 glider. More importantly, they misunderstood the function and necessity of the Wright's control system and discarded it. Instead, the French endeavored to build an inherently stable flying machine that would need little control input, and they were satisfied with their own results. Ernest Archdeacon recruited a young architectural student, Gabriel Voison, to pilot glider of a design that had come to be known as an aeroplane de type Wright. After testing it for several weeks, Voison was making flights up to 65 feet in length, and Archdeacon gleefully announced to the Aero-Club de France that Voison had mastered skill of piloting an aircraft. It mattered little that the Wrights had made flights almost ten times as long in their 1902 glider. Archdeacon was confident that the French could now design a glider that would "do as well as the Wright brothers."

To spur the progress of aviation in Europe — especially France — well-heeled enthusiasts offered rich prizes. Archdeacon himself put up the Coupe d'Aviation Ernest Archdeacon, a silver trophy that would go to the first person to fly a powered airplane 25 meters (80 feet). The Aero-Club de France offered a prize of 1500 francs to the first person to fly 100 meters, or 330 feet. And Archdeacon collaborated with Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe to establish the Grand Prix d'Aviation, a prize of 50,000 francs to the first person to fly a kilometer in a circular course.

Europe got to work. Voison and Louis Bleriot — a manufacturer of automotive components —designed and flew improved gliders. Samuel F. Cody, an American cowboy is Great Britain, flew a kite-glider with ailerons. Ferdinand Ferber added a 12-horsepower engine to his most successful glider to date, but it could not sustain flight. Rumanian Trajan Vuia made a series of short hops in a monoplane powered by a carbolic acid motor. In Denmark, J. C. R. Ellehammer made a 42-meter circular flight in an odd biplane while tethered to a post. Leon Levavasseur perfected two light airplane engines of 24 and 50 horsepower he named "Antoinette" motors after his daughter. These engines would become the mainstay of European aviation during its earliest years.

But the aviator that captured Europe's attention was Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian-born immigrant to France and the son of a wealthy coffee-plantation owner. Santos was a talented engineer who began racing motorized tricycles, then turned to lighter-than-air flight. He puttered about in odd-shaped dirigibles of his own design over the rooftops of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, often crashing slowly and safely into trees and chimneys. In 1904, he visited the St. Louis Exposition in the United States, where he saw demonstrations of Octave Chanute's gliders and heard about the work of the Wright brothers. Inspired, he turned his talents to powered aircraft.

In July of 1906, Santos-Dumont suspended an odd-looking airplane beneath his dirigible Airship No. 14 for flight testing. Called the 14-bis ("14 encore"), this aircraft was a type de Wright, but the wings met a sharp upwards angle or "dihedral" to give it stability. At the front was a pivoting box-kite assembly that acted as both an elevator and a rudder. A 24-horsepower Antoinette engine turned a single propeller that stuck out from behind. The pilot stood upright in a wicker basket, much like a balloon pilot.

On September 13, 1906, Santos coaxed his ungainly aircraft off the ground for a brief hop of 7 meters (23 feet) and made a hard landing. After making repairs and refitting the craft with a 50-horsepower Antoinette, Santos tried again. On October 23, he flew the 14-bis 60 meters (198 feet), winning the Archdeacon prize. He modified the craft once again, adding ailerons and eliminating the rudder function of the front control surfaces. On November 12, he flew 220 meters (726 feet), capturing the 1500 franc prize from the Aero-Club for the first 100-meter flight. It hardly mattered that the craft cumbersome and uncontrollable, or that Santos abandoned the design a few months later, never to use it again. He had flown — in public — and the French were beside themselves with aeronautical optimism and national pride.
 

Archdeacon s.jpg (66126 bytes)
Ernest Archdeacon.

Ferdinand Ferber 2s.jpg (119108 bytes)
Ferdinand Ferber in his chariot automobile designed to test propeller thrust.

1902 Ferber s.jpg (95769 bytes)
Ferber's interpretation of the Wright glider, as described by Chanute in 1903.


Archdeacon's interpretation of the Wright glider.


The 1905 Voison Archdeacon glider of  was mounted on pontoons and launched by towing it behind a motorboat.

1906 Vuia s.JPG (49876 bytes)
The 1906 Vuia could hop but not sustain flight.

1906 Ellehammer s.jpg (64679 bytes)
The 1906 Ellehammer flew tethered to a pole.


Santos-Dumont flew his 14-bis suspended from a dirigible in August 1906.

1906 Dumont in 14bis s.jpg (105201 bytes)
Alberto Santos-Dumont in the cockpit of the 14-bis.


The prize-winning flight of the 14-bis on October 23, 1906.


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"Aviation is proof that – given the will – we can do the impossible."
 Eddie Rickenbacker

 

 

The Wright Story/Showing the World/Santos Dumont Flies in France

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers

 

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