Chauffeurs and Airmen

The tension between stable and unstable aircraft dates from the earliest days of aviation. As one observer put it in 1910: ''Equilibrium [i.e., stability] has developed into a controversy dividing aviators into two schools. One school holds that equilibrium can be made automatic to a very large degree;the other... claims that equilibrium is a matter for the skill of the aviator.''6

Already at this early date, just a few years after the first public demonstrations of powered flight, the debate took on a social dimension and created two distinct groups of people. The historian Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith named these two schools: the chauffeurs who thought the aircraft should be inherently stable, and the airmen, who actually preferred the aircraft to be unstable. ''The chauffeur attitude to aviation,'' wrote Gibbs-Smith, ''regards the flying machine as a winged automobile, to be driven into the air by brute force of engine and propeller, so to say, and sedately steered about the sky as if it were a land—or even marine—vehicle.''7 Gibbs-Smith identified the chauffeur attitude with the Europeans, particularly the French, who were experimenting with flying machines around the turn of the twentieth century. These chauffeurs saw themselves as ''outside'' their machines, which had a certain stately autonomy; the human role was to guide, rather than direct.

By contrast, the airmen looked upon the early ''aeroplane'' as ''as something to experience, to learn in, and to fly in.''8 Gibbs-Smith includes Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute among this school, but the ultimate airmen were, of course, the Wright brothers, who realized the critical importance of flight control to any workable airplane. ''The true 'airmen's' attitude,'' wrote Gibbs-Smith, ''was evident in the pilot's desire to identify himself with his machine ... or ride it like an expert horsemen.'' Indeed Wilbur Wright likened learning to fly to ''learning to ride a fractious horse'' and noted that ''the problem of equilibrium constituted the problem of flight itself.''9 Bicycles and horses were the Wright brothers' key metaphors for flying aircraft. The Wrights trained extensively in gliders before attempting powered flight. It is well understood by historians, as it was by people at the time, that among the key contributions of the Wright brothers were their means of controlling the airplane, and indeed their very idea that an airplane should be controlled at all. Put another way, the Wright brothers invented not simply an airplane that could fly, but also the very idea of an airplane as a dynamic machine under the control of a human pilot.

Less recognized by historians are the social implications of the airmen's philosophy. First, if the airplane was inherently unstable, then it required a great deal of skill to fly. Second, a less stable aircraft was more dangerous, and put the pilot at risk. As Wilbur

Wright wrote to Octave Chanute in 1900: ''What is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery.''10 Inherent in their idea of a controllable aircraft was a new type of person: a skilled pilot.

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