The Question

Why did the Wright brothers choose not to use a wheel undercarriage, but to persist for a number of years taking off and landing with skids?

Professor Emmett, whilst engaged giving a lecture at a National University, became momentarily at a complete loss, unable to answer the student's question.



Before his next lecture was due the professor had spent a great deal of thought during his waking moments, attempting to discover the reason why the bicycle manufacturers did not adopt what would be a very straightforward procedure for them, the use of a specially built frame fitted with cycle wheels.

This provided the professor with a very difficult question; precisely how to answer the student's question. Whatever answer the professor gave, he was well aware it might well reflect on him personally, for challenging the well publicized and widely recognized aviation pioneers.


This question and his answer would persist and become the starting point leading to a number of similar questions.


From photographs it appears that the Wright Brothers were using a central rail suitably positioned and secured on the ground to determine the line from which the aircraft should lift off. Use of a centrally placed skid would require the aircraft to be supported probably by men at the wingtips to keep it level until the moving aircraft was under the control of the pilot. Photographs show men at the wingtips running alongside until they were no longer required to support the aircraft in level flight. Landing on the central support was likely to also become a problem. Always with the possibility of tipping on to its nose, until pilot control was no longer possible as it lost speed, and coming to rest on a wing tip. The solution when two skids were added, may be seen in photographs. The impact of touching down and landing without shock absorption devices can be imagined.


Many would be aviators of that period avoided a pusher type propeller, they had obviously preferred and adopted the use of a tractor system. But this is not shown in photographs.

The advantage of placing a propeller in front to pull the aircraft, in preference to pushing it from the rear, becomes very obvious and can readily be demonstrated by the use of a child's toy. When the toy is drawn along by a string it must follow the same direction as the string. Turning the toy around, with the string at the rear, it becomes obvious that a slight deviation will immediately turn the toy around; the pusher becoming a tractor.

Using two propellers to push the aircraft requires generating a perfectly balanced amount of thrust from each propeller. The most obvious conclusion is the slightest deviation from a straight line of flight will necessitate corrective control by the pilot requiring continuous use of the rudder to keep the aircraft on a straight course.

Mounting the propellers at the end of a long shaft not being directly attached to the engine, or appear to have a rigid supporting base, is an invitation for resonance and vibration.

A much greater than usual length of cycle chain from one central engine to the propellers; one chain twisted to 1800 to provide reverse rotation to one propeller, does not appear to be the most desirable or rigid arrangement.
It says much for the balance of the propellers to avoid premature destructive vibration forces. One brother was carrying a passenger, Lt. Selfridge, who became the first passenger to die in an aircraft accident. It is said the propeller could have struck the bracing wires, causing one wing to collapse.

Today we can only speculate why the Wrights contemporaries were successfully using a tractor propeller system, when others knew that if it were attached to the engine the method would prove more successful.


A number of pioneers were working with a single high wing braced parasol arrangement; which achieved much advantage in stability, derived from a pendulum effect, requiring far less drag also much reducing the power required from the engine.

Those who decided to build multi-wing machines were forced to expend a considerably greater amount or money on wages and material which usually resulted in a bigger and heavier structure requiring greater power from an engine to overcome the large amount of drag. This is probably the reason a variety of less costly braced-parasol aircraft were chosen and built by those who did not have an excess of funds.

The Wright brothers were known to have met and discussed their problems with one Gustav Whitehead. His achievements have been largely forgotten and unfortunately these were never officially recognized, although numerous photographs of his aircraft still exist. In addition a number of newspaper reports, and affidavits; indicate that his achievements were far ahead of those who claim to have flown after the turn of the century.


Persons who may be interested In the subject of 'who flew first?,' and would care to research more deeply for their own satisfaction, will find records relating to the activity of Santos Dumont who freely publicized his work. He successfully built a number of his Demoiselle, most likely inspiring the builders of The Antoinette, and Bleriot to create flying aircraft of their own design. Examples of these exist today, actually flying at Shuttleworth. Bleriot flew across The English Channel July 1909.

The overlooked and ignored work of Gustav Whitehead, his well documented flights photographed and published at the time (prior to 1900) has recently, at last, aroused public interest.

This is my answer to students or oldies, who continually ask The Question: "WHO FLEW FIRST?"

The Professor has now laid his pen alongside the chalk, and no doubt will anticipate that he has prepared himself for any response which any Wright supporters could aim at him.

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