Red Mulock survived the war, an ace. He died in 1961.
It’s a commonplace that aviation developed with explosive rapidity after the Wrights’ flying demonstrations in France in 1908, but we forget how rapid it really was. It’s startling to see a photograph, for example, of a number of big, closed-cockpit, three-engine flying boats under construction on the Curtiss America production line in Buffalo, New York, in a factory that would soon employ 18,000 people. This was just eight years after the Wrights had astonished the flower of European aeronautics merely by being able to bank and turn at will.
The quick growth of early aviation should not surprise us. Aeronautical engineering is a merger of three disciplines: aerodynamics, structures and propulsion. Structures were well understood, and suitable materials — wood, aluminum and steel — and techniques were available and familiar. The greatest difficulty for the structural engineer was knowing what the aerodynamic loads were and how they would be applied. Some of this was common sense for any structural engineer; to analyze a wing beam that could support a fuselage of a known weight was an exercise for a first-year student.
It’s true that there were subtler loading problems that were not so well understood, for instance the distribution of forces on wing ribs during a pull-up maneuver. There is a powerful suction near the leading edge, the strength of which the designers of both Fokker and Nieuport fighters underestimated — fighters, of course, encountered the greatest in-flight stresses — with the result that in aerial combat upper-surface skins would sometimes balloon out, tear and peel back. The famous American ace Eddie Rickenbacker survived such a mishap in a Nieuport. For the most part, however, designing a reasonably safe airplane structure was not beyond the capacity of any professional engineer, or even of many amateurs.
Propulsion, similarly, was a known thing. To design an acceptably efficient propeller was not that difficult; the Wright brothers had managed it from the very start. Engine reliability was the main problem, and improvements were a matter of detail refinements, metallurgy, better fuels and service experience over time. In its March 1916 issue, Flying rather presciently proposed raising $100,000 in prize money as an incentive to the development of a motor “as dependable for long time and distance operation as the steam engine. ... Then trans-oceanic as well as trans-continental flight will instantly become practicable. ... ”
It was aerodynamics that presented the greatest difficulties, particularly in detail design. The configuration that would become conventional — engine in front, stabilizers in back — emerged quite quickly, encouraged not only by its inherent advantages but also by the success of the Bleriot XI that crossed the English Channel in 1909. But pilots of today would find most of the airplanes of that era unpleasant to fly — sluggish, heavy, unstable, underpowered, unresponsive and self-willed in various combinations. It took time, and the patient experimental work of NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and similar research establishments abroad, to find ways to make controls light and sensitive, to streamline wings and fuselages and their intersections, to tame adverse yaw and Dutch roll, to cowl and cool powerful engines and to develop the thousand other tricks that made today’s production of comfortable, fast and pleasant-handling airplanes routine. These were refinements, however; a basic understanding of the principles of lift, stability and control already existed well before the Wrights actually flew.
Some things in these pages are unexpected. I should have known that Sperry automatic pilots were already being offered for sale in 1916, but I didn’t. Still less did I know that a now-obscure manufacturer called Gallaudet had produced airplanes with a propulsion arrangement that would be considered revolutionary today: two engines buried in the fuselage spinning a propeller whose blades emerged from a hoop flush with the round fuselage between wing and tail.
What is perhaps more striking than the rapid progress in the early years is how slowly change came later. If you took your first flying lesson 50 years ago, the airplane you flew, and the ones parked on the line, were much like those you would see and fly today. But between 1916 and 1962 everything had changed. Have we said goodbye forever to that early vigor?