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The Wright Brothers Mentor – April 24, 2015

“Robert Novells’ Third Dimension Blog”

April 24, 2015

Good Morning and Happy Friday….

Today marks the end of another week, or another chapter, in our lives – Hopefully, we were all able to survive the challenge and have a few good stories to tell our friends this weekend. This week I want to talk about the Wright Brothers and the man, Octave Chanute, who gave them the guidance, and determination, to change the course of history. The best way of illustrating this point is by sharing a letter with you written by Wilbur Wright and also the response from Chanute.

Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute

Dayton, May 13, 1900

For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.

My general ideas of the subject are similar to those held by most practical experimenters, to wit: that what is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. The flight of the buzzard and similar sailors is a convincing demonstration of the value of skill, and the partial needlessness of motors. It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge & skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge, than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery.

Assuming then that Lilienthal was correct in his ideas of the principles on which man should proceed, I conceive that his failure was due chiefly to the inadequacy of his method, and of his apparatus. As to his method, the fact that in five years’ time he spent only about five hours, altogether, in actual flight is sufficient to show that his method was inadequate. Even the simplest intellectual or acrobatic feats could never be learned with so short practice, and even Methuselah could never have become an expert stenographer with one hour per year for practice. I also conceive Lilienthal’s apparatus to be inadequate not only from the fact that he failed, but my observations of the flight of birds convince me that birds use more positive and energetic methods of regaining equilibrium than that of shifting the center of gravity.

With this general statement of my principles and belief I will proceed to describe the plan and apparatus it is my intention to test. In explaining these, my object is to learn to what extent similar plans have been tested and found to be failures, and also to obtain such suggestions as your great knowledge and experience might enable you to give me. I make no secret of my plans for the reason that I believe no financial profit will accrue to the inventor of the first flying machine, and that only those who are willing to give as well as to receive suggestions can hope to link their names with the honor of its discovery. The problem is too great for one man alone and unaided to solve in secret.

My plan then is this. I shall in a suitable locality erect a light tower about one hundred and fifty feet high. A rope passing over a pulley at the top will serve as a sort of kite string. It will be so counterbalanced that when the rope is drawn out one hundred & fifty feet it will sustain a pull equal to the weight of the operator and apparatus or nearly so. The wind will blow the machine out from the base of the tower and the weight will be sustained partly by the upward pull of the rope and partly by the lift of the wind. The counterbalance will be so arranged that the pull decreases as the line becomes shorter and ceases entirely when its length has been decreased to one hundred feet. The aim will be to eventually practice in a wind capable of sustaining the operator at a height equal to the top of the tower. The pull of the rope will take the place of a motor in counteracting drift. I see, of course, that the pull of the rope will introduce complications which are not met in free flight, but if the plan will only enable me to remain in the air for practice by the hour instead of by the second, I hope to acquire skill sufficient to overcome both these difficulties and those inherent to flight. Knowledge and skill in handling the machine are absolute essentials to flight and it is impossible to obtain them without extensive practice. The method employed by Mr. Pilcher of towing with horses in many respects is better than that I propose to employ, but offers no guarantee that the experimenter will escape accident long enough to acquire skill sufficient to prevent accident. In my plan I rely on the rope and counterbalance to at least break the force of a fall. My observation of the flight of buzzards leads me to believe that they regain their lateral balance, when partly overturned by a gust of wind, by a torsion of the tips of the wings. If the rear edge of the right wing tip is twisted upward and the left downward the bird becomes an animated windmill and instantly begins to turn, a line from its head to its tail being the axis. It thus regains its level even if thrown on its beam ends, so to speak, as I have frequently seen them. I think the bird also in general retains its lateral equilibrium, partly by presenting its two wings at different angles to the wind, and partly by drawing in one wing, thus reducing its area. I incline to the belief that the first is the more important and usual method. In the apparatus I intend to employ I make use of the torsion principle. In appearance it is very similar to the “double-deck” machine with which the experiments of yourself and Mr. Herring were conducted in 1896-7. The point on which it differs in principle is that the cross-stays which prevent the upper plane from moving forward and backward are removed, and each end of the upper plane is independently moved forward or backward with respect to the lower plane by a suitable lever or other arrangement. By this plan the whole upper plane may be moved forward or backward, to attain longitudinal equilibrium, by moving both hands forward or backward together. Lateral equilibrium is gained by moving one end more than the other or by moving them in opposite directions. If you will make a square cardboard tube two inches in diameter and eight or ten long and choose two sides for your planes you will at once see the torsional effect of moving one end of the upper plane forward and the other backward, and how this effect is attained without sacrificing lateral stiffness. My plan is to attach the tail rigidly to the rear upright stays which connect the planes, the effect of which will be that when the upper plane is thrown forward the end of the tail is elevated, so that the tail assists gravity in restoring longitudinal balance. My experiments hitherto with this apparatus have been confined to machines spreading about fifteen square feet of surface, and have been sufficiently encouraging to induce me to lay plans for a trial with full-sized machine.

My business requires that my experimental work be confined to the months between September and January and I would be particularly thankful for advice as to a suitable locality where I could depend on winds of about fifteen miles per hour without rain or too inclement weather. I am certain that such localities are rare.

I have your Progress in Flying Machines and your articles in the Annuals of ’95, ’96, & ’97 and also your recent articles in the Independent. If you can give me information as to where an account of Pilcher’s experiments can be obtained I would greatly appreciate your kindness.

Octave Chanute to Wilbur Wright

Chicago, May 17, 1900

I have your very interesting letter of 13th, and am quite in sympathy with your proposal to experiment; especially as I believe like yourself that no financial profit is to be expected from such investigations for a long while to come.

You will find in the Proceedings of the Conference on Aerial Navigation a paper on “Flying devices,” by G. C. Taylor, who tested much the same method that you propose, he having used a mast 35 ft. high. See also in same book, of which I enclose a folder, “Learning how to fly,” by Duryea, and “A program for safe experimenting,” by Mouillard. You will also find in Progress, &c., an account of de Sanderval’s experiments suspended to a rope, pages 158 & 161, and a discussion of various methods, pages 261 & following.

Hargrave experimented with aspiration kites suspended from a rope stretched between two masts, and it would be most interesting to endeavor to repeat the performance with a full-sized machine. You will find the accounts in the Aeronautical Journal for April ’98, Oct. ’98, and July ’99. I send you the issue for April ’99, which you can keep, as I have others. There is in the issue for Oct. ’98 an article by Prof. Fitzgerald who suggests “Experimental soaring” by raising the machine as a kite, with several guide ropes, which I consider quite feasible.

As for myself, I have always felt that restraining ropes were a complication which not only vitiated the results but might lead to accidents from rotation of apparatus or collision with supports, and I have preferred preliminary learning on a sand hill and trying ambitious feats over water. I send you a report of my gliding experiments which you may not have.

The two most suitable locations for winter experiments which I know of are near San Diego, California, and St. James City (Pine Island), Florida, on account of the steady sea breezes which I have found to blow there. These, however, are deficient in sand hills, and perhaps even better locations can be found on the Atlantic coasts of South Carolina or Georgia.

The accounts of Pilcher’s experiments are scanty. They are to be found in Aeronautics, which is now out of print, in the Aeronautical Annual for 1897, page 144, and in several issues of the Aeronautical Journal. Also in newspaper clippings which have not much value.

If you have occasion at any time to be in this city, I shall be glad to have you call on me, and can perhaps better answer the questions that have occurred to you. I intend to make further experiments myself, when my business and means will allow. If you do not expect to come to Chicago soon, I shall be pleased to correspond with you further, and to have a more detailed account of your proposal.

[P.S.] You may find in McClure’s Magazine for June an article I have lately written.

An interesting exchange between the two but what we really need to talk about is….who is Octave Chanute.

Octave Chanute


Widely considered to be one of the most important pioneers in the field of aviation, Octave Chanute also boasted a significant role in Illinois Railroad history.

Born Octave Chanut in Paris, France on February 18th 1832, Chanute emigrated to the United States with his father in the fall of 1838. Fascinated by technology and engineering from a young age, Chanute eventually began his training as a civil engineer in 1849 at the age of seventeen. Chanute quickly rose through the ranks in the engineering field; by 1853, Chanute was working as the chief engineer of the Peoria and Oquawka Railroad, Eastern Extension, also designing and then building the first railroad bridge across the Illinois at Peoria.

Trying the cross the state of Illinois in an east-west direction, the owners of the Peoria & Oquawka were in the midst of an ambitious eastern expansion project, to cross Livingston and Iroquois Counties. Knowledge of this expansion led a number of settlers to purchase lots of land in all the counties along the proposed railroad tracks. In late October 1857, land owner Caleb Patton made a successful bid with the railroad company to have the railroad pass through his property. The success of Patton’s bid was based around a deal that he made with Chanute: offering one half of the potential town lots in exchange for the development of the property. Following the deal, Chanute laid out a 24-block community, one that Patton originally wanted to call Pattonsburg but it was eventually christened as Fairbury.

The tracks were laid down through Patton and Chanute’s land on Sunday, October 31st, 1857. Despite the attention and conveniences brought to the region by the railroad, a number of residents were openly hostile to the development; with one resident securing a court injunction forbidding the railroad from passing through his property. However, the railroad tracks were already laid on his property before the papers could be served.

The first town lots in Fairbury were sold in March of 1858 at a cost of $155 a piece (1). Chanute undertook a number of similar deals with most newly established communities along the railroad extension. It was reported that these real estate deals were a source of steady income for Chanute during periods of economic instability.

The Peoria & Oquawka, Eastern Extension, was sold in July 1859 and renamed the Logansport, Peoria & Burlington Railroad on February 21st, 1861. The new company defaulted on payments and was again sold on July 11th, 1862. The line east of Peoria was again sold under foreclosure on March 21st, 1864; the road became part of the Toledo, Peoria & Warsaw Railway Company on May 14th, 1864.

Chanute retired in 1883 as railroad engineer, moved to Kansas City and opened a consulting business for various railroad related projects. During his career as an engineer he worked as chief engineer for a number of the major Midwestern rail lines; including the Chicago and Alton, Kansas City, Fort Scott & Gulf Railway; Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad, the Atchison & Nebraska Line and the Erie Railway. As an engineer, he was particularly distinguished as an innovator in bridge design, creating the first railroad bridge to cross the Missouri River and a number of noteworthy structures on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Chanute is also credited for the design of the major railroad stockyards in Kansas City and Chicago.

As part of his retirement, Chanute threw himself into the field of aviation; researching the topic extensively and eventually publishing his findings in a series of articles that were ultimately collected in his 1894 book “Progress in Flying Machines”. In 1896, Chanute began a series of groundbreaking glider experiments, first at Millers and then at Dune Park, Indiana. Utilizing his experience as a bridge engineer, Chanute concocted a glider design that trussed together a number of wings in order to ensure maximum strength and rigidity. Chanute’s designs were considered to be among the most successful pre-Wright Brothers aircraft, attaining heights of 300 to 400 feet over the course of his experiments.

The prominence of Chanute’s experiments brought him into contact with a number of other pioneers in aviation. Around the turn of the 20th century, Wilbur Wright contacted Chanute and the brothers struck up a friendship with this eminent engineer. Chanute provided extensive feedback and advice to Wilbur and Orville Wright as they prepared their early glider experiments that eventually lead to the first powered, controlled flight in December 1903.

Source Document

A very interesting conversation between Wilbur, and Octave, and it is not often that we get to look back at personal correspondence between aviation pioneers – a real treat for me. Have a good weekend, enjoy life with family and friends, and take care/fly safe/be safe.

Robert Novell

April 24, 2015