WYSO

Ohio Weather Forces Innovation In Early Flight

Jul 6, 2015

The rainy weather had our aviation commentator Dan Patterson a little frustrated. And he has some thoughts about Dayton weather and the early days of flying.

The great writer, poet and pilot, St. Exuperey wrote in 1939, "A pilot's business is with the wind, and with the stars, with night, with sand, with the sea.  He strives to outwit the forces of nature."

For flyers, the weather is the constant variable.  It determines where you're going to fly, if at all, and this weather lately...makes flying a challenge.

The Wright Brothers wrote to the US Weather Service to find a good place to even try to fly.  They found the constant winds of the Outer Banks in North Carolina to be just what they needed.

After they flew their powered airplane in 1903 on the beach, they decided to experiment closer to home and worked at Huffman Prairie, now a part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The summer of 1904 was a typical Ohio summer, hot and humid with thunderstorms.  At times, the Wrights had to wait for weeks for the weather to calm and for the prairie to dry out.

Mark Dussenberry’s replica Flyer III on the rail, rope in place and ready to fly.
Credit Dan Patterson

Their take-offs were determined by the direction of the wind.  Ohio is nearly a thousand feet higher in elevation than Kitty Hawk so the 60 foot launch rails had to be much longer, four times longer on occasion.  Setting a 240 foot rail was slow going, and, as we know around here, the weather is always changing.  Wind out of the west would suddenly be out of the north, and the rail had to be reset.

To fly a fragile Wright Flyer, conditions had to be ideal.  Orville and Wilbur were trying to make a practical flying machine, and so the wind direction issue had to be solved.  As always, they had to invent a solution.

The summer after they flew at Kitty Hawk, they created a launch catapult that allowed them to establish a consistent take-off direction.  They built a 16 foot tower and hoisted a 1600 pound weight to the top with a rope. The rope was then run along a series of pulleys and wheels and connected to the Flyer, perched on a 60 foot long rail.  Once one of the brothers was on board and the motor was running and the propellers whirling, they would release the rope.  The weight would drop, and the Flyer was catapulted into the air.

Wilbur Wright on top of the derrick in France, 1908
Credit Dan Patterson Archival Collection

With that invention, they solved the wind direction issue and were able to continue their flying experiments.

Those efforts continued through the summers of 1904 and 1905.

Over time, they learned that as cooler autumn weather arrived, flying improved because the air is thicker in cooler and drier weather.  There's more for the wings to grab onto and create lift.

The fall of 1905 saw the success they had working toward for five years.  They were flying in circles and figures of 8 until they ran out of fuel and landed next to the catapult, completing the journey.

Summer weather in Ohio, just like in 1904, is hot, rainy, hot again...and then there's the inevitable Canadian cold front with clear air and skies, meant to be flown in where you can see forever.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.