The Free Market Takes Flight

Article excerpt

On December 18, 1905, Orville and Wilbur Wright sent a letter to the U.S. government inquiring as to whether or not the federal bureaucracy would want to purchase airplane technology for military or other uses. Their letter was received by Congressman R.M. Nevin, who forwarded it to the secretary of war. The letter was then given to the Board of Ordnance and Fortification. The government, however, was singularly uninterested, either in funding flight experiments or in purchasing technology developed through aeronautical experimentation. "I have the honor to inform you," wrote Major General G.L. Gillespie in reply to the Wrights, that "the Board has found it necessary to decline to make allotments for the experimental development of devices for mechanical flight...."

The Wrights, of course, were not seeking government funding for their experiments. In fact, they already had a flying machine and had demonstrated that it could be flown reliably over substantial distances. On October 5, 1905, for instance, they flew their airplane for 38 minutes and covered more than 24 miles. Just as this flight remarkably demonstrated the forward-looking technological innovations developed by the Wrights, the letter from Major General Gillespie remarkably demonstrated the federal bureaucracy's bumbling shortsightedness and incompetence. On the other hand, the ignorance of federal officials allowed for a sort of benign neglect in matters related to technical developments and advancements. Nowhere was this truer than in the field of aviation, and the subsequent development of the airplane, beginning with the pioneering efforts of the Wright brothers, is a triumphant tale of private initiative, ingenuity and enterprise.

Without the meddling interference of government, other innovators after the Wrights continued to make rapid improvements in aircraft technology. A substantial advance was made by French engineer Louis Bleriot. The son of a textile manufacturer, Bleriot earned his engineering degree in Paris in 1893. Shortly thereafter, he developed a type of automobile headlight that brought him a small fortune. He spent much of his earnings on subsequent experimentation with powered flight. After testing numerous designs for gliders, ornithopters (aircraft with wings that flap), and fixed-wing designs, Bleriot was known best for surviving the numerous crashes that plagued his early work.

In 1907 Bleriot introduced a design that, though not initially successful, incorporated innovations that pointed to the future of aircraft design. This plane, the Bleriot VII, was monoplane in configuration, carried a front-mounted engine, a rudder and tailplane to the rear, an enclosed fuselage, and a landing gear assembly featuring two main wheels and a tail wheel. …