Had there been a computer to analyze the marginal aerodynamics of it all, had a free-flight wind tunnel been available to show that their flying machine was prone to fatal spirals, if a modern dynamometer could have measured the sorry oomph of their 12-horsepower engine . . . well, the Wright brothers would have had sense enough to know one thing.
Their airplane simply would not get off the ground.
Yet in 1903 it did. Thanks to good fortune compensating for a borderline design. Thanks to an operational requirement eminently satisfied by an elementary, flat, low, 12-second flight. And because the Wright Flyer was opposing a 27-m.p.h. head wind that December day at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk.
"Without that (wind) I don't think they could have accelerated to flying speed," said Fred Culick, professor of applied physics and jet propulsion at Caltech. "But with it, all they had to do was accelerate to 6 m.p.h. to reach flying speed.
"I don't think it could ever get out of ground effect (a cushion of air between the ground and a low-flying airplane) with the engine and the propellers they had. It was a very unstable airplane, very difficult to fly."
It should be noted that Culick's view is somewhat more than personal opinion springing from the hindsight of modern technology. He is project engineer on a learned team (from the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) that is using computers to dissect the pioneering of brothers Orville and Wilbur. They have built scale models and worked improvements on the Wrights' original design. Soon they will have a full-scale model of the Wright Flyer mounted in the unrelenting environment of a wind tunnel.
And then, having corrected all the tiny wrongs that made two Wrights, they intend to build a flying version.
Culick, of course, will be the pilot.
Why? "Well, when you like airplanes you don't really need to know why," he said. Try again. "OK, I like to fly and there haven't been too many people who flew the first airplane, right?"
Right. On the other hand, isn't this a classic case of building a better bird cage? Or reinventing the wing? No, Culick said. The project is continuing what the Wright brothers would have done if they had today's technology. Call it numerical archeology.
"We want to clarify what they did," he said. "The primary purpose of a full-scale (flying) test is to do a complete documentary of the airplane."
Culick, 52, also needs a flight test to confirm the accuracy of group research and development to date.
"And I emphasize 'confirm,' " he said with a grin. "I hope we don't confirm that what we've done is wrong."
Culick, despite his 1961 doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a relatively new fan of the Wright brothers. He blames that on a streamlined educational process that succeeded in rooting his knowledge of aeronautical rudiments somewhere in the '20s.
Like many others, he even presumed the Wrights to be a couple of tinkering, doodling bicycle mechanics who somehow lucked their way into history.
Then, in 1977, while visiting the San Diego Air and Space Museum, he examined a replica of the Wright Flyer. He also obtained a copy of the Wrights' collected papers covering their work from 1899 gliders to the production aircraft of 1909.
"I really was amazed when I read that first paper and suddenly realized that they were technically very astute," Culick said. "They only had high school educations . . . but it was clear that
they innovated a great deal, that they were very thoughtful.
"They started out from zero, read all the literature, made a proper literature search, then took off from there. The first important event was noting--Wilbur noted it really--that birds twisted their wings for roll control.
"He (Wilbur) was making good observations and interpreting them precisely. They had very keen powers of observation, good reasoning, very good ideas, and they did everything just right with no tangents or sidetracking along the way."
Their in-flight wing twisting, in fact, was aviation's first aileron. The Wrights eventually learned, albeit the hard way, that anhedral, a downward arch to the wing, aggravates spiral instability and produces unstoppable, descending turns. Their propellers were rotating airfoils almost 50% more efficient than the crude air paddles of the competition.
"They flew for (a total of) 59 seconds in 1903," Culick said. "It wasn't until 1907 that someone else flew for a minute. So they were four years ahead of their time."
Much more than stumblers, Culick concluded, the Wright brothers were spectacular achievers.