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Orville Wright: Power Past Impossible Pioneer

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 18, 2017

As we approach the weekend, let’s wish a happy 146th birthday to Orville Wright, who was born Aug. 19, 1871, in Dayton, Ohio. Thirty-two years later in 1903, Orville and older brother Wilbur were busy doing this on the sand flats at Kill Devil Hills, N.C.:

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Orville (L) and Wilbur Wright, 1905

At the birth of modern aviation it would’ve been hard to comprehend how far flight and technology would take us – even for a pair of visionaries like the Wrights. Yet, today we traverse the globe in jumbo airliners while shuttle and rocket technology allows travel beyond the bounds of our own atmosphere. Closer to home, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones is skyrocketing. At the core of it all: energy – taking us higher, farther, longer, better. Sure, natural gas and oil are involved as fuels. But in terms of flight, their role is larger than that –as is true in many other aspects of modern life.

Plastics and other materials derived from natural gas and oil make aircraft and spacecraft stronger and often lighter. Plastic shielding is better protection from harmful radiation than, say, aluminum. Components made from natural gas and oil help make up computers, electronics and other gadgetry. More here.

Infographic: Surviving in Space

Meanwhile, UAVs use carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRP), made from petroleum, as the primary material for their airframes. These allow increased payload and performance. Propellers may be made with Kevlar, a synthetic fiber also made from petroleum.

drone

The Wrights? The used what was available at the time – near the end of the horse-and-buggy era – to make their flyer, which they called “the machine” (Orville’s notes for Dec. 17, 1903, below).

orville_notes

The craft’s frame was made with spruce and ash wood. The wings were covered with sealed cotton cloth. There were steel fittings and wire typically used to make bicycle spokes. The flyer’s engine block was mostly aluminum, with other parts made of steel or cast iron.

In the gales of the Outer Banks, it flew. Makes you wonder what Orville and Wilbur could do with the composite materials, plastics, modern fuels and other technologies derived from today’s energy. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.