The nineteenth century saw the development of two things important for flight: the science of flying and the personality of the flier. Mastering the former was no mean feat. Objects hurtling through the air are not well behaved and don’t conform nicely to the elegant diagrams of air flowing over an airfoil. All sorts of forces the Bernoullis never dreamed of can act to twist and turn the aircraft, and once a flier loses control and goes into a tailspin, it is very difficult to regain control and avoid crashing.

Beginning with George Cayley and continuing through the Wright brothers, a great deal of testing and calculating was necessary—on paper and in test devices—if a feasible flying machine was going to be created. But the people who were going to go up in those aircraft also had to undergo a transformation: they had to become fliers (“airmen,” they called them). People had to gain experience riding the wind and adjusting—either their controls or their dangling weight—in order to maintain control of their aircraft.

They had to be adept at reacting to the shifts in air pressure that might affect their aircraft. Flying an aircraft, some understood, was not like riding a wagon as a passenger; it was more like riding a temperamental horse. It required a bond and connection between flier, machine, and the sky itself. Not everyone agreed with this assessment of the role of the pilot, and the question was one of the key issues among the community of experimenters. The active approach won out, but just barely. If Samuel Langley’s machine had succeeded in flying when it was tested just a few days before the Wright brothers’ landmark flight of December 17, 1903, the future course of aviation might have looked quite different and the active-flier concept  might be a relic of an idea instead of a fundamental of flight training and practice, as it has become.

If the proper approach to flight was discussed among experimenters and enthusiasts, the general public looked at the entire matter differently. Centuries of disappointment had created the impression that flight was just impossible and that anyone involved in any research or experiment related to flight must be a crackpot. Serious scientists or engineers who wrote about the subject rarely said openly that they were discussing flight—”aerial navigation” was the euphemism they used. When Langley’s Aerodrome crashed into the Potomac on a cold December day in 1903, the report of the War Department, which had funded the project (and so must have had some hope that Langley would succeed), declared that   “we are still far from the ultimate goal [of human flight].” Five days later, the Wright brothers proved them dead wrong.