Glide, Don’t Fly – A Lesson from the Wright Brothers

First_flight2It’s 1903, and Wilbur and Orville Wright are preparing to fly the worlds’ first piloted aircraft.

But meanwhile, Samuel Pierpoint Langley is readying an aircraft of his own. With a small army of staff, and funding from the US government, his prospects look good.

Langley’s basic theory is: build the most powerful engine possible and the plane will stay up. He’s focused on creating an engine so powerful it would thrust a plane into the sky.

On October 7th 1903, he Langley flew his aircraft for the first time with a mighty – but heavy – 50 horsepower engine. It crashed immediately. Two months later, a second attempt. According to a reporter it dropped “like a handful of mortar”.

Langley gave up. He was ridiculed by the press and took heat from members of Congress for wasting taxpayers dollars. (As you can imagine, most people thought flying was impossible.)

Meanwhile, the Wright brothers had taken the opposite approach.

Instead of raw power, they’d focused everything on getting the balance and the steering perfect.

They’d built a glider – not a plane – that would glide down from a hilltop with no engine at all. Only after the glider worked by itself did they plan to try and power it.

It took three years, but eventually the glider flew. They commissioned a bicycle shop engineer to build them the smallest, lightest engine possible – a tiny aluminium device with 12 horsepower weighing just 69Kg.

Fixing the engine on the glider, the Wright brothers had a plane. And on December 17th 1903, they made history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Today, the Wright brothers are taught in schools while few have heard of Mr Langley.

Their approach of making sure the plane flies before applying high power was the winning idea. Even today, it’s counter-intuitive thinking. But it’s something you can bring to bear in your job.

From small campaigns to global change programmes, work out a way to see if you can control what you’re working on before you tug back on the throttle.

Then, like the Wright brothers, attach a lightweight engine and you can fly.

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