CHAPTER XXVI. How the Wrights launched their Biplane
Those of us who have seen an aeroplane rise from the ground know that it runs quickly along for 50 or 60 yards, until sufficient momentum has been gained for the craft to lift itself into the air. The Wrights, as stated, fitted their machine with a pair of launching runners which projected from the under side of the lower plane like two very long skates, and the method of launching their craft was quite different from that followed nowadays.
The launching apparatus consisted of a wooden tower at the starting end of the launching ways - a wooden rail about 60 or 70 feet in length. To the top of the tower a weight of about 1/2 ton was suspended. The suspension rope was led downwards over pulleys, thence horizontally to the front end and back to the inner end of the railway, where it was attached to the aeroplane. A small trolley was fitted to the chassis of the machine and this ran along the railway.
To launch the machine, which, of course, stood on the rail, the propellers were set in motion, and the 1/2-ton weight at the top of the tower was released. The falling weight towed the aeroplane rapidly forward along the rail, with a velocity sufficient to cause it to glide smoothly into the air at the other end of the launching ways. By an ingenious arrangement the trolley was left behind on the railway.
It will at once occur to you that there were disadvantages in this system of commencing a flight. One was that the launching apparatus was more or less a fixture. At any rate it could not be carried about from place to place very readily: Supposing the biplane could not return to its starting-point, and the pilot was forced to descend, say, 10 or 12 miles away: in such a case it would be neces- sary to tow the machine back to the launching ways, an obviously inconvenient arrangement, especially in unfavourable country.
For some time the "wheeled" chassis has been in universal use, but in a few cases it has been thought desirable to adopt a combination of runners and wheels. A moderately firm surface is necessary for the machine to run along the ground; if the ground be soft or marly the wheels would sink in the soil, and serious accidents have resulted from the sudden stoppage of the forward motion due to this cause.
With their first power-driven machine the Wrights made a series of very fine flights, at first in a straight line. In 1904 they effected their first turn. By the following year they had made such rapid progress that they were able to exceed a distance of 20 miles in one flight, and keep up in the air for over half an hour at a time. Their manager now gave their experiments great publicity, both in the American and European Press, and in 1908 the brothers, feeling quite sure of their success, emerged from a self-imposed obscurity, and astonished the world with some wonderful flights, both in America and on the French flying ground at Issy.
A great loss to aviation occurred on 30th May, 1912, when Wilbur Wright died from an attack of typhoid fever. His work is officially commemorated in Britain by an annual Premium Lecture, given under the auspices of the Aeronautical Society.