Learning to Fly: Innovation, Risk, and Leadership in the Real World

Most of us have probably heard of the Wright Brothers and their invention of the airplane.  But did you know that one of their earlier flights featured a canoe strapped to the bottom of their flying machine?

Why would such a thing be necessary, and what does their example tell us about what it takes to innovate, manage risk, and lead?

Learning to Fly: Innovation, Risk, and Leadership in the Real World

Setbacks:  The Key to Success

When traveling, I make it a habit to pick up a book at the airport, preferably non-fiction and recent.  Last week’s selection was The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.  It turned out to be a great read about this inventive duo which provided a revealing behind-the-scenes look at who they were and what it took for them to ultimately succeed.

What proved most illuminating to me was the fact that they spent so much of their time dealing with setbacks.

Seemingly each time they tried something, things did not go as expected.  And instead of a new, clearer path quickly emerging, they faced the prospect of having even more work to do to reach where they were trying to go.

We’ll get to the canoe in a minute, but here are a few of the qualities I think helped them get to the point of needing to strap a water vessel to the bottom of a flying machine.

Doing the Grunt Work

They put up with the drudgery.  In fact, most of what they did was unheralded, behind the scenes grunt work.

To build the wings, they spent hundreds of hours at the sewing machine.  For safe practice fields they filled holes, flattened mounds, and removed brush with hand tools.

During their many trips to Kitty Hawk to test their airframes, they endured heat, storms, bone-chilling cold, and even risked shipwreck.

Orville once observed that the only thing that thrived in the Outer Banks were bedbugs, mosquitos, and wood ticks.

Perhaps most horrifying of all, they even had to do without coffee at times (!!).

They lived in the real world.  In the beginning they built their fliers based on the calculations and tables touted by the thought-leaders of the day.

But once put to the test, their gliders flew very poorly.  Ultimately they realized that the respected authorities had been “groping in the dark” and that the accepted tables were “worthless.”

They started over, and tested everything.

Before they considered mounting an engine on their flyer, they tested it without one, as a glider.  Before putting a person aboard the glider, they tested without one (for four years).  Before developing a full-sized wing they tested hundreds of wing shapes until they had one they knew would work.

Importantly, they sought to know not just that it would fly; they wanted to know why it would fly.

It took years of pains-taking effort, trials, failures, and disappointments.  But it was these failures and what they learned from them that ultimately led to their success.

But if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial. – Wilbur Wright Click To Tweet

They invented inventions for their invention.  In fact, they spent a great deal of time not inventing the airplane.  Instead, they were inventing things to make the airplane possible:

A home made wind tunnel:  Once they discovered that accepted calculations were unreliable, they needed a way to test the aerodynamics of different shapes on their own.  They built a surprisingly sensitive balance inside their tunnel using bicycle parts, and tested airfoils made from old hack saw blades.

Learning to Fly - Catapult DerrickA catapult:  Winds in Ohio were not steady or strong enough to reliably launch the flyer; they contrived a tower with weight, rope, and pully to launch the flyer at the pilot’s command.

An engine:  They needed one that produced at least eight horse power and weighed less than 200 lbs.  None existed, so with some assistance they build their own using an aluminum engine block – a first.

Propellers:  They thought they could just adopt the theories for screw design used on ships, but none existed.  They had to reimagine the propeller as a rotating wing and hand-carve them from spruce using a hatchet and a spoke shave.

They were good, humble people.  They were self-aware, knew their limits and helped others when they could.

When preparing for one of his first public talks about flight, his sister asked Wilber if the speech would be scientific or witty; a very nervous Wilbur replied that it would be “pathetic.”

In 1898 their home town of Dayton, Ohio, suffered the worst flood in 40 years.  When the brothers learned a hardware dealer in the neighborhood was at risk of losing his stock to the flood, they took off their coats and helped him carry kegs of nails out of his cellar “without seeking or accepting remuneration.”

They were not “risk takers.”  In fact, they did everything they could to minimize risk.  This is where the canoe comes in.

Learning to Fly:  a 14-foot red canvas canoeIn 1909 Wilbur was to make a demonstration flight around New York.  It was a big deal and part of a larger city-wide celebration.  People turned out in the thousands for their first look at a flying machine, and as many as 1,600 vessels crowded New York Harbor.

This would be the first flight over water, the Hudson River.  Wilbur would be at great risk if something went wrong, so he explored ideas for how to make an emergency water landing just in case.  In the end he decided it would be a good idea to have a boat handy to ensure he survived.

A few days before the flight, he walked into a hunting and sporting goods store on Broadway and bought a 14-foot red canvas canoe which he later attached to his flyer.

On the day of the flight, ever practical, Wilbur made a short, seven-minute practice run to test the new configuration.  Satisfied that all was in order, he took off.

As tens of thousands watched, he flew low over the passenger ship Lusitania which was heading to sea, then flew a graceful loop around the Statue of Liberty as harbor craft blew their horns, and men, women, and children cheered.

It was a crowning, public moment made possible by years of private effort, frustration, and focus.

Learning to Fly – The Takeaway

The Wright brothers are famous for the success of their flyer, but what often goes overlooked is the effort they had to expend in order to make it possible.

It took continuous experimentation and testing.  It took a willingness to depart from accepted modes of thought when their own experimentation and conclusions led them elsewhere.  It took the discipline to work hard for years.  It took a readiness to do the unglamorous.

And it took a careful approach to minimizing risk, even if it meant strapping a boat to their flying machine.  They methodically looked for risk, then sought to minimize it before proceeding.

These are the things that characterize the achievers, the innovators, and the leaders.

In the words of a man who was present on the day of that first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, and was familiar with what the brothers had gone though to get there:

It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea and they had the faith. – John T. Daniels Click To Tweet

Whether we are learning to fly or trying to lead, I think the example set by the Wright brothers is one we can all benefit from.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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