By the Seat of Their Pants
by John Stuart Clark

"Have you ever ridden a bicycle?"

I was barely across the threshold and Ranger Robert Patterson was on me.

"I'm a thousand miles into a 3,000 mile bike ride, if that helps," I told him. His beaming smile faltered. After all, this was America, where bicycles are toys and cars are king. Most visitors probably reply, "Well, I know where the handlebars are."

Robert was ensconced in 22 South Williams Street, Dayton, Ohio. It wasn't the most salubrious 'hood in the city, and I had been warned to watch my back. The address was the home of Wilbur and Orville Wright's bicycle and printing business. Set amongst run-down housing, burnt out cars and empty lots, the corner store had recently been renovated by the National Parks Service and designated a historic landmark. Opposite, a memorial to the bike brothers who 'invented aviation' had been erected and an Aviation Trail was being developed that required a car if you didn't want to spend a week on it.

Inside, Ranger Robert took me on a guided tour of the ground floor rooms, guarded in what he told me. There was a printing press, a lathe and a work bench, "like the ones they used." Even the two antique bikes in the window -- one with wooden handlebars, the other a tandem with 'stoker' steering -- were not actually Wright brothers bicycles. On the walls were lots of photographs and plenty to read, and Robert poured out facts and figures like he was Norris McWhirter. But when I walked away from The Wright Cycle Co. I was no wiser as to how the brothers cracked the big mystery of aeronautics. Whether I had ridden a bike or not seemed irrelevant.

Possibly because there is much to be ashamed of, America packages its past wrapped in wads of numeric details. More often than not, broad understanding is frustrated by a burden of minutiae and dates, presented in reams of display text. In this most disposable of disposable societies, machines, artifacts and objects of historic interest have often been destroyed, and heritage becomes a dry history lesson devoid of context. It was interesting that the Wrights gained their mechanical aptitude from their mother, and that they spent two years conducting secret tests at Huffman Prairie, mastering the principles of powered flight, but it didn't tell me where and how they gained the insight to cross the Rubicon.

In Washington DC, at the Smithsonian, I studied the Wright's first Flyer, suspended in the entrance hall of the National Air and Space Museum. I listened to the guide trot out more mind addling details, but picked up that the two rear propellers, by being uniquely mounted the opposite way round to each other, allowed the pilot to adjust the Flyer's axis in flight. I was getting somewhere, but the guide couldn't explain why the dummy lying in the pilot's position on the lower wing wore a leather strap round his waist, with cables extending to each wing tip. "They applied the same principles used in steering bicycles," he said, then walked away.

At a Smithsonian workshop for children, I learnt the basic principles of how an aerofoil works. Wilbur and Orville were not just bike builders and retailers, they were passionate sports cyclists and raced. They where aux fait with the benefits of slipstreaming and the pitfalls of air resistance. It was logical they would invent and build a wind tunnel in which to explore the different profiles of aerofoils as a stage in designing wings. At this point they were developing a better powered glider than used by aerialists who had gone before, and openly acknowledge a debt to Samuel Langley, whose steam powered heavier-than-air flying machine was in the air for a minute and a half.

Controversy still rages over who invented the first aircraft, and what actually constituted flight in the formative days. However, the brothers were more interested in aeronautics, and systematically experimented with different generations of the Wright Flyer, perfecting control. By 1905 they were making flights lasting half an hour over distances of twenty-four miles. More remarkably they were banking, turning, proscribing circles and figure-of-eights, and landing, all controlled by a pilot who was handling the aircraft in ways not a million miles from that of a cyclist on a bicycle.

At the U.S. Patent Office, close to D.C.'s Reagan Airport, I learned that earlier designs for aircraft were devised on the principle that stability was all. They were 'wagons of the sky', lumbering hybrids of the buck-board or early automobiles, too rigid to adjust to the fluctuations of wind in flight. But the air environment gliders travelled through was very similar to what the brothers contended with when they raced bicycles. Just as a cyclist has to continually make corrections to maintain their balance, counteract oppositional forces and steer a twisting course, so the Wright brothers realised pilots would have to do likewise. This was the breakthrough that heralded in aeronautics and aviation.

Clearly the cycle manufacturer's concern about lightness and strength contributed to the development of lightweight aircraft structures. However, it was an understanding of the gravitational, momentum and wind forces at play when we whip round a pothole and maintain our balance that took manned flight a quantum leap forward. Stretched across the wing, the pilot of the Flyer controlled elevation with their left hand. Lateral control was achieved by warping the wings and steering was through the rudder, both activated by the pilot's hips, much like a cyclist uses their hips. The leather strap around Orville, the first to try their new design, was the key to what later became the joystick.

I should have expected a country that largely dismisses cycling as a viable mode of transportation would fail to understand the subtlety of riding skills that ultimately led to their plonking a man on the moon. According to the Smithsonian guide, when Armstrong departed from the moon he left behind a small rectangle of canvas snipped from the Wright Flyer hanging in the museum. It might have been more appropriate to leave a bit of leather, clipped from one of their bicycle saddles. Perhaps then the world would better understand the origin and meaning of 'Flying by the seat of their pants'.


© John Stuart Clark

other stories by JS Clark