As an aviation enthusiast, you are no doubt aware of the legend of Orville and Wilbur Wright. You may even be familiar with the exploits of their arch nemesis, Glenn Curtiss. May I say with the best of intentions, however, you probably don’t know the whole story behind these amazingly talented men and the struggles they underwent. What most of us know is the legend, not the fact. The myths that surround real men are intriguing. But believe me, there is so much more to the story than most of us ever suspected.
I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Goldstone’s intensely researched narrative, Birdmen. At 448 pages, it’s hefty. But so is the story Goldstone has to tell. Thank goodness Ballantine Books saw merit to the project. It’s amazing.
Most of us are aware the Wright’s were incredibly gifted engineers. These two men, without a high school diploma between them, bested the sharpest scientists of the day as they methodically experimented with the ever increasing complexity of machines they intended to fly. It’s hard to unsee what you’ve seen, or unlearn what you know—but imagine a time when nobody, absolutely nobody really knew how to get an aircraft into the air. Once airborne, there wasn’t a single person on the planet who had any idea how to control the thing.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There were lots of ideas—but most of them were wrong. It took two ingenious men, well matched and completely driven to achieve their goal, to figure out the basics.
And that’s where the trouble started. Once the Wright’s flew, others wanted to fly. If they can do it, I can do it; or so the thinking went. Although it was a relatively small group of participants, interest was very high. And like today an amazing invention tends to spawn similar inventions. But how similar? When is the line of patent infringement crossed, and what might the cost be to prevent legal action through the payment of licensing fees? It’s one of the great tragedies of our industry that Wilbur Wright, the man who could reasonably be singled out as the driving force behind heavier-than-air-flight, became so embroiled in legal actions that he drove himself into a self-imposed prison of paperwork and unrelenting stress. Orville the craftsman could build the airplane, and tweak the motor, and fly as well as anyone in his day. But it was Wilbur who drove the team forward, and it was Wilbur who became so fixated on the legal processes necessary to gain ownership of the skies that he gave up aircraft design and a seat at the controls of his own aircraft in favor of endless meetings with businessmen, and lawyers, and judges.
Curtiss got airborne after the Wrights, and certainly learned a great deal from what the pioneering brothers had done. But when he got into the game he came on like gangbusters. He innovated, he pushed the limits of the machinery. He became a sensation and so did his aircraft. The former motorcycle racer placed ailerons between the wings of his biplane, doing away with wing warping. He created new control systems, increased horsepower, and built the first functional seaplanes. He even invented tricycle gear.
If you have a penchant for aviation, you really should consider reading Birdmen. Our industry is nearly 111 years old, yet already we’ve lost so much of its history. Lawrence Goldstone rediscovers a significant portion of it for us, packages it up into a beautifully written story, and shares it with the world.
Read it. Seriously. Go read this book.
It may be a stretch to say the Wrights and Curtiss hated each other, but they certainly weren’t exchanging Christmas cards or birthday greetings. Which makes it all that much more ironic that the companies founded by the Wrights and Curtiss would one day become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.
Separated by a fiercely competitive spirit and the quest for wealth and fame, the Wrights and Curtiss have been united by history and commerce. The companies these giants founded, now bound together as a single entity, continue to thrive to this day. You owe it to yourself to know the story behind the story. You’ll find it in Birdmen.