How were the Wright brothers' motorcycles

The Wright brothers in Berlin Brandenburg

Official historiography records December 17th, 1903, as the date when a person first took to the skies, propelled by the power of an engine. The scene of this event was the dunes of Kitty Hawk in the US state of North Carolina, actors were the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, bicycle designers and dealers from Dayton / Ohio. Their first flying machine, the Wright Flyer I, had a wingspan of 12.25 m, the drive power of the self-made 4-cylinder petrol engine was a maximum of 16 hp with a weight of 75 kg. The drive was carried out by means of extended motorcycle chains on two counter-rotating pusher propellers. In this first model, the pilot was still lying on the lower wing, it was not until the second that this and the arrangement of the controls were changed. The basic principle of the entire flying machine remained relatively unchanged until 1912, and adherence to this design principle was then also to be the cause of the company's early decline.

The distance achieved on December 17th looked quite modest from today's perspective - 260 m distance and 59 sec. Flight time - but it was the first successful start of a flying machine heavier than air by means of engine power. This historic aircraft, after being removed from the boxes in which it was previously stored in Dayton and restored in 1948, is now an eye-catcher in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

This large historical framework is more or less known to the general interested, at least at certain points. However, if you continue to follow the brothers' path, it quickly becomes apparent that this is largely beyond the current view and that only a relatively narrow circle of aviation specialists has knowledge of it. This seems all the more astonishing since the flying center of life of the brothers shifted to Europe, even if only for a limited period of time. Not to be forgotten is the fact that the Wright brothers, in the run-up to their experiments, had used the theoretical knowledge and practical experience of Otto Lilienthal, who died in an accident in 1896, extremely intensively and with great appreciation.

For various reasons, not least the conditions for the exploitation of the invention in the USA, the brothers first went to France, the leading aviation nation at the beginning of the last century, and then quickly to Germany. The main reasons for this orientation were the growing interest there in aircraft heavier than air (both in France and in Germany, the military became increasingly interested in these new aircraft) and the growing competitive pressure in this field. It was precisely this competition that prompted Wilbur to take on the task of convincing the public, the media and political decision-makers of the potential possibilities of the now further developed aircraft. And this succeeded in all places where he presented his flight program in an almost impressive way - new flight records were constantly being set and the name Wright became a household name. In 1909 the negotiations in Germany were also brought to a successful conclusion. Flugmaschine Wright GmbH was founded in Berlin on May 13th, making it the second aircraft factory in Germany after the Euler factory in Darmstadt. The shareholders' contributions came from the coffers of Krupp, Loewe, Borsig, AEG and Delbrück, among others. Walther Rathenau was also one of the leading figures in the young company. City offices were set up in Kleiststrasse and Nollendorfplatz. Production on Spandauer Weg in Reinickendorf started as soon as possible. The necessary flight tests took place first on the Tegeler, then on the Tempelhofer Feld, both of which were military training and parade areas at the time. Today these sites are in logical use - on the one hand as Berlin-Tegel Otto Lilienthal Airport and on the other hand as Berlin-Tempelhof Airport. But the Bornstedter Feld in Potsdam was also used for flight tests. But back to 1909. In front of an illustrious audience (the Kaiser was not present, he had already attended flight attempts in Tegel in August) Orville Wright started for the first time in the German public on September 4th and showed an excellent and spectacular flight program in front of thousands of spectators. This event, like others throughout Germany, filled them Order books and were of course also a powerful advertisement for this new type of transportation. However, the distance between the production in Reinickendorf and the "airfield" in Tempelhof, which was temporary and only to be used temporarily, had an extremely inhibiting effect the aircraft dismantled each time and carried through with horse-drawn vehicles Berlin to be "carted". They quickly looked around for a cheaper location and quickly found what they were looking for. With the inauguration of the first German motor airfield on September 26, 1909 in Berlin-Johannisthal, the most favorable conditions were brought together in one place. Almost everything that had a reputation for and above all in the then still young German aviation was concentrated here - this airfield offered all the conditions for production, testing, training and demonstration, it was practically "everything under one roof". Until the completion of Wright's new production building in Adlershof on Rudower Chaussee, the transport routes were longer for the time being, but this was a thing of the past when it went into operation in early 1911 right next to the factory's own flight school.

Without any exaggeration, the Wright biplanes (different types were created, but all followed the example of the basic design outlined at the beginning) can be described as the standard training aircraft of the early days of aviation until around 1911. By the end of 1910, around a third of the pilots had obtained their aircraft license on this make. The performance of the Wright pilots in competitions or in setting flight records was also impressive. Names like Engelhard, Sedlmayr and Thelen were on everyone's lips, altitude and endurance flight records proved the efficiency of the products. In particular, the performance of the so-called "storm fliers", who also flew at wind speeds of up to 60 km / h in winter, made headlines. These services are achieved in an aircraft whose pilot's seat was completely open and which had no ailerons, but whose inclination had to be achieved by twisting a wing when turning.
Already in the course of 1911, but especially in 1912, it was noticeable that Wright's aircraft had technologically passed their zenith. At this point in time, the competition went over to the still classic form of a closed hull with a forward engine and a directly driven tension screw. Wright couldn't (and didn't want to) follow this principle. Aircraft accidents increased, and the military also showed increasing disinterest in these aircraft. The economic situation deteriorated rapidly, fatally Wilbur Wright died of typhus in 1912 at the age of 45. This sealed the company's fate and patent disputes accelerated the disaster.

Dr. Bernd-Rüdiger Ahlbrecht
Chairman of the Society for the Preservation of Sites in German Aviation History (GBSL e.V.)