How To Fly

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According to aeronautical pioneer (and Wright Brothers' arch-nemesis) Glenn Hammond Curtiss



Do Get Into Bicycle Repair
It's easy to forget, but biking was a high-tech, geeky hobby around the turn of the 20th century. Chains, gears, and rotors formed the backbone of brand new field of motor engine development and adaptations in lighter, more aerodynamic bike construction gave a boost to would-be flyboys. In fact, you might say that bike repair was to airplane invention what hacking would one day be to the creation of the home computer. In that train of thought, the Bill Gates of biking was definitely New Yorker Glenn Hammond Curtiss. A champion cyclist and self-taught mechanic, Curtiss spent the first few years of the 20th century designing the world's best racing bikes and light, powerful motorcycle engines. Then he went into the airplane business and ended up the most praised and simultaneously reviled figure in the history of flight. He also ended up filthy rich.
Don't Be Afraid to Be the Bad Guy
Curtiss moustache-twirling reputation began in 1906 with a fateful (some might say, mercenary) visit to the Wright Brothers' Dayton, Ohio workshop. Technically, Curtiss was just in Dayton for the state fair where he was helping a friend demonstrate some dirigibles. But after the Wrights helped corral a particularly feisty airship, the three bonded over their mutual interest in flying machines and headed back to the Wright's place for a guided tour. Although they'd flown at Kitty Hawk three years previous, the Wrights were still knee-deep in the patent process and wouldn't show off their plane. However, they did discuss the flier's mechanics in enough detail that when Curtiss suddenly became an airplane entrepreneur a year later, the Wrights sued him.

Do Justify Bad Behavior with Good Technology
A lot of historical accounts begin and end with Curtiss' bad boy side. But, here at mental_floss, we are objective and, thus, willing to point out that, whether or not he stole his original ideas from the Wrights, Curtiss was hands-down the better innovator. Case in point: First flight. The Wrights' 1903 jaunt at Kitty Hawk was a success, as we all know. But just barely. Only a couple feet off the ground, the Wrights managed cover only a few hundred feet in distance and couldn't stay airborne longer than a minute before crash-landing. In comparison, Curtiss made the first public flight in U.S. history in 1908, behind the controls of his "June Bug" plane. He flew for over a mile and won the Scientific American Trophy. The next year, he went up against the Wrights at the first international aviation exposition in France. They brought three different planes and were expected to dominate the event. But Curtiss' one plane ended up besting them in every category. He went on to start the first airplane manufacturing company, design the first hydroplane, and make the first plane capable of taking off and landing on a ship.

Don't Let Old Feuds Stand in the Way of Future Profits
Shortly after his public success with the June Bug, Curtiss got a letter from the Wrights "reminding" him that if he were going to commercially manufacture airplanes, he'd need to pay them a cut. Curtiss apparently filed the letter in the waste bin, thus touching off nine years of increasingly hostile litigation. Curtiss' legal battles with the Wright Company even outlasted the Wrights themselves; after Wilbur's early death, Orville Wright sold his share of their company in 1915. The Curtiss/Wright conflict wasn't resolved until 1917, when the U.S. government simplified their World War I manufacturing by pooling all aircraft patents into one, thus nullifying the Wright Company's claims for restitution. With this forced peace, Curtiss and the Wright Company joined forces. Today, Curtiss-Wright still designs engines and components for aircraft and spacecraft.

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November 22, 2006 - 5:48am
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