Tag Archives: Smithsonian Institution

Was Orville Wright’s the first flight ever?

Last Monday, December 17, it was 109 years since the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. However, there was some skepticism in Europe about the flight. I had already read about that skepticism in the book “The Airplane: How ideas gave us wings“(1) (by Jay Spencer (2))

In the book, the reader gets the idea of the skepticism, of how in France there was also a race for performing the first flight and how it was not until the Wright brothers flew in Europe years later (1908) that people got convinced of that first flight in 1903. When I read about that, the idea that came to my mind was French chauvinism.

Let me now start connecting the dots…

Flyer I (picture by 350z33, available at Wikimedia)

  • Visiting the National Air & Space Museum, in Washington D.C., you could see a real scale Flyer I, the aircraft with which the brothers first flew. When you see the aircraft you first notice that the surface controls are at the front of the airplane, or that the airplane has no independent ailerons but the wing is bent at the tip…
  • Reading the book “The Airplane” there is chapter dedicated to the evolution of each configuration item of the aircraft. One of them is dedicated to the landing gear. In relation to the Flyer…

[…] European experimenters put the Wrights to shame by adopting wheeled undercarriages from the outset. The Wrights stuck with skids far too long, perhaps because they viewed their airplanes as scientific proof-of-concept vehicles first and practical machines second.

  • Last summer, when we visited the Aviodrome (3) museum in The Netherlands, we found another Flyer model of the Wrights. This one was a bit more complete: it showed the skids and how the airplane was propelled into the air thanks to a system composed of rails and a kind of catapult.
  • Finally, when reading about French aviation pioneers for the previous post in this blog, I got to read in the Wikipedia article about the Brazilian residing in France Santos-Dumont the following passage:

The Wrights used a launching rail for their 1903 flights and a launch catapult for their 1904 and 1905 machines, while the aircraft of Santos-Dumont and other Europeans had wheeled undercarriages. The Wright Brothers continued to use skids, which necessitated the use of a dolly running on a track. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, founded in France in 1905 to verify aviation records, stated among its rules that an aircraft should be able to take off under its own power in order to qualify for a record. Supporters of Santos-Dumont maintain that this means the 14-bis was, technically, the first successful fixed-wing aircraft.

Thus, it was not just simple French chauvinism as the more simple explanation given either in “The Airplane” or Wikipedia article about the Wright brothers may point to, but there was at the time a discussion about the way in which the aircraft were indeed propelled into the air. That is a legitimate discussion, not chauvinism. (4)

Since I am not invested in either position, to me the first flight will always be the generally accepted of Orville Wright on December 17, 1903. That is the one I celebrate (see tweet below). However, you can see how sometimes to get a clearer picture and connect some dots it takes visiting 2 museums in DC and The Netherlands, reading a book and serendipity researching in the Wikipedia. 🙂

(1) “The Airplane” is a terrific book of which one day I hope to write a review. By the way I purchased the book at Boeing HQ in Chicago almost 2 years ago.

(2) Jay Spencer is also coauthor of “747” another great aviation book of which I wrote a review here.

(3) Aviodrome is a great museum north of Amsterdam, at the height of the Smithsonian institution National Air & Space Museum… if only it had free entrance as well. I will have to write about this museum too.

(4) That same federation did not accept as a first flight one made by the French Clément Ader in 1890, because it was an un-controlled flight.

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Radial engine

I found myself thinking back in the National Air & Space Museum recently. Firstly, because a friend announced that she had just visited it and secondly because yesterday we oversaw  reciprocating engines at the class of the theoretical course for the private pilot licence.

The class itself was not telling nothing completely new, but it reminded me that I had a video of a demo of a radial engine recorded last year at the NASM in Dulles. I filmed it in order to upload it at some point… here it is:

For those not initiated, you may find how reciprocating engines work here, and more specifically how radial reciprocating engines work here.

I’ll never get tired of praising the Smithsonian institution.

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Cité de l’Espace

I visited the Cité de l’Espace with my sister during last August holidays. Believe it or not, I had never been there before so I was looking forward to it.

The museum / park is very comprehensive and informative, especially for children and people who would like to know some basics about rockets, satellites and space exploration. Among the different interactive devices you can play with a gyroscope, try to dock into the ISS, launch a vehicle into a stable orbit, experiment how a satellite’s orbit parameters affect its ground-track…

I especially liked the exhibitions about celestial mechanics, space exploration and life in space, the path to the infinite and the real-size replica of the MIR space station.

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The only downside I find is the price of the ticket, above 20 €. It’s true that there are discounts for students, Airbus employees, etc., but when I compare it with the National Air and Space museums of the Smithsonian institution in DC which are entry free I am disappointed. I believe museums and especially science-related museums should be very affordable for families with small children, when they are most captivated by science at play.

The Cité de l’Espace was definitely worth a visit.

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National Air & Space Museum at Dulles

Let me quote from the Wikipedia:

“The Smithsonian Institution was founded for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” from a bequest to the United States by the British scientist James Smithson (1765–1829), who never visited the new nation. In Smithson’s will, he stated that should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without heirs, the Smithson estate would go to the government of the United States to create an “Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men”.

“The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world, and many of its buildings are historical and architectural landmarks.”

During our last trip to USA, Luca and I visited both locations of the National Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian institution. I had already been at the one in the Mall and I already talked about it briefly in a previous post. I wanted to write about the museum at Dulles, close to DC international airport.

That museum is named after Steven F. Udvar Hazy, who is the CEO of Air Lease Corp, an airplanes leasing company. Previously he was chairman and CEO of ILFC, another leasing company, together with GECAS, one of the 2 biggest. The guy is a living legend or commercial markets: when he blessed or criticizes an aircraft it is seriously noticed by the manufacturers. He donated 65M$ to the Smithsonian to set up this museum and that’s why it carries his name. Thanks Steve! What a museum! The NASM is awesome!

The museum has dozens if not over a hundred of airplanes, satellites, rockets, helicopters, etc., in display, all tagged with small explanation of the aircraft.

On our visit we joined a free guided tour, another fabulous feature of the museum. Our guide was Bill Laux, a veteran pilot from the Navy. He was originally from Omaha where we would be going in a couple of days while he would be heading also in a couple of days to Belgium… crossing roads.

We stayed with Bill for about 2 hours, following one explanation after the other, one curiosity here, another detail there, etc. I remember visiting Ellis Island in NYC 2 years ago with a ranger who also filled the tour with stories. This is something I really like: instead of paying for a quick tour or audio-guide, they make use of the willingness of these volunteers to pass on their knowledge.

I have to admit that the session was for core aviation geeks, and I want to commend Luca for standing it. At the beginning we were a group of 10-12 people, wives and children included. The guide asked: “Who has got an aerospace background?” 4 or so of us raised hands… after 30 minutes of tour only Luca and those with aviation background continued with the tour (no sight of wives and children). After 1 hour 30 minutes, only Luca and me. After 2 hours the guide went “well, we’ve seen pretty much everything” :-). Thanks Bill!

I scanned one of the sides of the map of the museum to post it here. The map covers the Boeing hangar, but bear in mind that there is another hangar missing (James S McDonnell, which hosts a Space Shuttle), an IMAX cinema, the restoration hangar and the control tower.

I wanted to post it here so you can get a grasp of what we’re talking about. Airplanes packed side by side, one of top of the other… and not any airplane, some are unique pieces. Let me just comment on a few of them (of which below you can find the pictures):

  • The Space shuttle Enterprise: which never went to outer space as it was used only for training purposes, to let astronauts command the powerless flight after re-entry. Believe it or not, it was going to be named “Constitution”, trekkies had not stepped in.
  • A Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird: the reconnaissance aircraft which set the record as fastest aircraft back in 1976.
  • The Boeing 367-80 “Dash-80”, which as I already mentioned in a previous post, was the prototype Boeing built to test and market a new configuration for commercial jet aircraft, a configuration which all commercial aircraft have followed more or less ever since.
  • A Concorde.
  • The infamous B-29 Enola Gay.
  • The Langley Aerodrome A: a model that Samuel Pierpont Langley (a manned flight pioneer and secretary of the Smithsonian institution at the time) used to try to set the first heavier-than-air flight… he didn’t, as the model crashed in the Potomac river.
  • A Junkers 52 built by the Spanish CASA.
  • A Boeing 307 Stratoliner: the first pressurized commercial aircraft.

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I would only give one point of improvement for the museum: now you cannot get into the aircraft except for simulators, if they would just change that policy it would be just perfect (in the Mall you can actually enter in some models, e.g. Spacelab).

I forgot to mention some extras: the museum is free (free as in zero dollars), it has a transport leaving every hour to and from Dulles airport which costs just 50 cents, has lockers for big luggage free of charge, has a nice souvenir shop with plenty of aviation books and even a McDonald’s to recover some strength at half way of the visit…

In future posts I will comment some of the details of some aircraft… give credit to Bill, our guide.

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