What We Can Learn from the Wright Brothers on National Aviation Day

Tomorrow is Orville Wright’s birthday and we celebrate National Aviation Day and the incredible progress made in aviation in just over 100 years. It was December 1903 when Orville became the first pilot of an engine powered aircraft, staying aloft for 12 seconds and covering a distance of 120 ft. at 20 ft AGL. Five years later he was able to stay aloft for an entire hour, reaching an altitude of 350 ft.

Indeed, the Wright brothers are a great example for all those who want to innovate. Many pioneers lost their lives or were badly injured in their attempt to demonstrate their ideas, test new concepts and to tame phenomena they were still not able, sometimes very far, to understand and master.

The Wright brothers made history and it was not by chance. They spent a lot of time at the design desk and they become very methodical in testing and learning before making any trials. You can clearly spot their mindset from the letter that Wilbur Wright wrote to the Smithsonian Foundation. It said:

“I have a quite precise idea on how to build a flying machine. I’d like to read all you have about it and, if it would be possible, to add my contribution for whom, in the future, will succeed in flying.”

Knowledge management and teamwork
What Wilbur is saying in his letter is that he thinks he knows how to build his airplane, but before moving forward he wants to check his ideas through the knowledge and the experiences available to that point.

Today, many aerospace companies are struggling with capturing, managing, retaining and re-using the information available — not to mention best practices created by the industry or even by themselves. A lot of silos have been created and in my discussions within them I often find out that the company’s culture and people’s mindset is still linked to old legacy workflows and processes, and it is actually slowing down their potential innovation pace. They are often underestimating the need of a change management plan, supported by training.

Looking at their simulation platform, I’ve often seen a collection of linked tools but quite seldom something that was able to really facilitate communication, teamwork and knowledge management.

In his diary, Wilbur Wright mentioned how often he was talking to his brother, how much time they were spending in brainstorming. Extended teamwork is of paramount importance when you face complexity. In this field, I think the big game changers are startups, above all else in the Space 2.0 sector. They come with a fresh mind and their approach is to foster collaboration between departments. I talked about that here.

Test and refine before trying
Another amazing thing to me about the Wright brothers is that they wanted to understand as much as possible the complex physics of flight. If you go to Washington, DC or Seattle, you can see in the local aerospace museums the small wind tunnel they created, in order to test dozens of miniature wings. Yes, they made their own lift tests on their own wing profiles and they come to conclusions that made their airplane maneuverable. We are still following their approach, now with the benefit of working in digital environments where we can now test thousands of hypothesis and validate entire systems’ prototypes without any manned flights.

A whole vision of a flying machine
There were two other remarkable things that did while designing their aircraft. The first one is the aircraft engine. No automobile manufacturer could supply an engine both light enough and powerful enough for their needs. So they designed and built their own. They were already facing one of the main challenges we still have in aviation: lightweighting vs performances.

The other factor was due to the fact that the engine was not powerful enough for a safe take off. So they also built a catapult to bring the aircraft to take off speed in a few meters, while it was running over a rail. It looks like the grandfather of the launcher we have today on carriers, a concept that we are also exploring when we envision electric powered aircraft and the need for additional thrust during take off.

The “startup mindset”
One last point I want to make is about the Wright brother’s background. They started in the printing industry by printing their own newspaper and then designing and building printing machines. They then managed a bicycle shop, again ending up designing and building their own bicycles. Like many others, they came to aviation with neither an aviation background or education in physics and mechanics, but they had a big love for technology and innovation. They came with a fresh approach, like many startups today, and thanks to their willingness to succeed and their scientific approach they actually made history.

Startups are bringing a revolution even today. They started in the space sector but I see them more and more in commercial aircraft systems design, bringing revolutionary ideas on topics like the propulsion of the future or the More Electric Aircraft. That’s why ANSYS launched a program to help startups explore their ideas faster and better, to be able to test like the Wright brothers did but with the power of today’s technology.

National Aviation DaySo as we celebrate National Aviation Day on August 19th, I really hope this will help you and contribute to the next mind-blowing innovation in aerospace.

All the pictures are from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

This entry was posted in Aerospace & Defense and tagged , , by Paolo Colombo. Bookmark the permalink.

About Paolo Colombo

Paolo Colombo is the Aerospace & Defense Global Industry Director at ANSYS.
He was born in Italy in 1970, joined the Air Force as student pilot in 1992 and, though his career took a different path, he is still regularly flying. From 1999 his passion for advanced technologies brought him to work with companies’ managers and executives on emerging technologies in product engineering, rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing and engineering simulation. He joined ANSYS in 2010.
Paolo holds a BSc and an MBA majoring in Innovation management.

2 thoughts on “What We Can Learn from the Wright Brothers on National Aviation Day

  1. The Wright brothers just had a copy-paste approach for Octave Chanute gave them all they needed. They probably had a “scientific” approach though they did not understand it: after stating they had improved the lift equation, the stubbornly kept low-powered engines while Gustave Whitehead had already flown with engines three times more powerful (30hp compared to Wrights’ 12hp). Although it is fairly simple – velocity squared in the equation – they changed engines when the French insisted to do so. They used an anhedral wing pattern which is highly unstable moreover within ground effect heights. Sorry, but they were poor businessmen: they barely sold a hundred Flyers while Voisin and Farman sold tens of thousands aeroplane. They pretended that they could fly for a few tens of kilometers but the UK and French DoD rejected the bid for they never demonstrated that claimed performance. When the Deutsch-Archeacon 50,000 Francs was offered, they never showed up… I am sorry, the Wrights broke records but overflowing publicity managed to start up a legend that did not exist at that time – the so called “flight” photo was a hop that did not exceed Clement Ader’s flight distance in 1890…

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