TCS Daily

Airplane "Scientists"

By Rand Simberg - December 17, 2003 12:00 AM

I'm often irritated by the phrase "rocket scientist," as in "it doesn't take a..." because, as a recovering aerospace engineer, I'm occasionally burdened with the mislabel.

Scientists seek knowledge and understanding, often for its own sake. Engineers apply principles learned through science to solve practical physical problems (such as how to get a payload into orbit from the surface of the earth).


Of course, the division isn't quite that clean. Sometimes, in order to perform an experiment, a scientist has to roll up his sleeves and design and build a piece of hardware. And quite often, particularly when operating at the cutting edge of a technology, an engineer has to perform some experiments to figure out what is going to work and what won't.


Forty-five years after the founding of NASA, and almost eight decades after the American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard flew his first rocket on his aunt's farm in Massachusetts, the people who work on rockets are for the most part not scientists but engineers.


But there was a time when rocketry really was science, and not long before that, a time when aviation was as well.


100 Years Ago...


A century ago today, two sons of a Bishop of the United Brethren Church, in Dayton, Ohio revolutionized the world of flight.


There's a popular myth that Wilbur and Orville Wright were "just bicycle mechanics," but they were much more than that. They were arguably the first true applied aerodynamicists -- they were airplane scientists. But they were more than that as well. They were a two-man aviation research and development firm -- probably the first one in existence.


They didn't invent the wind tunnel, but they were almost certainly the first to use one that they built themselves for practical research in determining aerodynamic characteristics of various wing and body shapes, vital to successfully designing a functional aircraft. In addition, they were keen observers of birds in flight, thus learning the secret to controlling their direction and speed.


They realized that propulsion was critical to a successful aircraft, and that this had two key elements -- propeller and the engine.


The former had to be efficient, providing the maximum thrust for the minimum drag, and no one until them understood how to do that. But they learned how to properly shape it from their wind tunnel tests.


The latter had to be light, yet powerful. Most other people (unsuccessfully) attempting powered flight were using off-the-shelf engines, but the Wrights realized that no existing engine, designed for more mundane purposes, would do the job. They had their bicycle shop manager, Charlie Taylor, build a custom engine, with the innovation of an aluminum crankcase (starting a tradition of the use of this lightweight wonder metal in the aircraft industry).


The one area in which they didn't make either theoretical or practical breakthroughs was in control theory. Modern aircraft are stable -- if you take your hands off the controls they'll continue flying smoothly on their current path. The Wright's first aircraft was not only unstable, but extremely so, almost akin to walking a tightrope. This made it very difficult to fly, with the slightest bit of pilot inattention or control error having the possibility of catastrophe. On the other hand, it should only increase our regard for them as pilots for their ability to handle an aircraft that few modern experienced pilots can fly.


Based on their observations, they built test articles, and flew gliders. They gathered data, and refined their designs, and went back to the bicycle shop to build new ones, shifting back and forth smoothly from being draftsmen, craftsmen and engineers, to scientists, to test pilots, and back to engineers again as their ideas took shape and, eventually, flight.


They were methodical, and did everything via incremental testing, starting in the bike shop, then working with small kites and models in the fields near the town, then larger gliders, then powering the successful versions of the gliders. When they had problems understanding an aspect of the design, they switched back to science mode and tried to learn the underlying principles of it, an approach that ultimately led to the success that we commemorate today.


Dirtied Hands


They had a competitor, Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley, who despite being a science professor, didn't take as scientific an approach as the Wright brothers, though he no doubt thought he did. He received fifty thousand dollars from the government, studied the problem avidly, and (after deriving some laws that were disprovable both mathematically and by actual experience) came up with what he was confident would be a successful design, ready to fly. He never dirtied his hands with actually building anything himself, spending his government money on assistants for that. But without test flights, or experience, based only on (flawed) theory, he used the taxpayers' money to build a manned flying machine. On its first flight, a scant two months before the Wrights' success, it ignominiously dropped into the Potomac River with its hapless pilot. In the second attempt, just a few days prior to that historic date, the catapult that launched it tore it to pieces.


Despite being bicycle repairmen, it was the Wrights who had the successful scientific approach -- a blend of engineering and basic research, with many tests and incremental progress.


Are there parallels with our own age -- private activities that take incremental approaches, building a little and testing a little, versus government-funded programs that spend enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars for extensive analysis and a concept that is fully formed when first built, resulting in hangar queens that never fly?


Don't ask me. I'm no rocket scientist.


Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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