By Walter J. Boyne.
Reprinted on Wings Over Kansas with permission by Roger Post of Flight Journal Magazine.

It is fitting that the Wrights have at last received the recognition that they truly deserve in the many celebrations around the world on the 100th anniversary of their first flight. They were unquestioned geniuses in aviation whose true importance has only belatedly been recognized.

In the United Staes, the importance of their achievement is reflected in many things-the immense wealth of our nation, our national security and the freedom of travel we enjoy. But oddly enough, their achievement is given even greater luster if we stop to consider what might have happened had they failed.

It is not implausible that a gust of wind might have caught the Flyer on Wilbur Wright’s first attempt on December 14, 1903, wrapping it into a mass of tangled wires, just as happened after the fourth flight on December 17. Wilbur might have been seriously injured, and the Wright boys, tired from their four years of ceaseless effort, might have decided to bag the whole concept of flying and returned to the bicycle business they knew so well.

Had they done so, the entire course not only of aviation history, but of world history would have changed. In order to understand the magnitude of the change that would have come after a hypothetical mishap on December 14, a quick review of what really happened after the successful December 17 flight is necessary.

At the time of their epic flights in 1903, the Wrights estimated that they were ten years ahead of all competition, and this was probably conservative. There was literally no one else in the field pursuing a viable alternative. Otto Lilenthal was dead; Samuel Pierpont Langley’s great Aerodrome had crashed twice; Octave Chanute and Augustus Herring were pursuing hang-gliding, which at the time was the same dead-end that had killed Lilienthal. Clement Ader’s machines were uncontrollable; Augustus Whitehead had not yet made his difficult to confirm claims, and John Montgomery’s gliders were demonstrated death-traps. There were others out there, but no genuine contenders building an aircraft that could be developed into a practical machine.

The Wright’s success rekindled interest in aviation. Imitators seized upon the obvious features of the Wright’s success (a biplane with control surfaces fore and aft), without understanding their real secret, control about the three-axes of flight. Nonetheless, by 1907 real progress began to be made, and the Wrights were forced to abandon their short-sighted policy of secrecy and demonstrate their aircraft in public. While their ongoing patent fights had stunted aviation’s growth in the United States, their stunning successes in 1908 and 1909 spurred aviation progress in Europe, so that by World War I, all of the great nations had air forces of one type or another. France had 140 aircraft, Germany about 250, Britain about 180; all were largely derived from civilian practice and, compared to modern aircraft, were flimsy, difficult to fly, short ranged and slow.

But it happened that aircraft were absolutely crucial for the outcome of World War I. On August 22, 1914, two British aircraft returned with news of a huge column of the German First Army passing through Gramont. (The first airman to be wounded in air combat, Sergeant Major D.S. Jillings of No. 2 Squadron, was in the second aircraft to land.) The German movement was the beginning of a turn to the east by General Alexander von Kluck, part of the famous Schlieffen plan to envelope the British and French Armies as Paris was by-passed to the North

Incredibly the airborne information was believed by British headquarters, and the long-suffering Tommies held their ground long enough for the French to escape.

Then on August 31, additional Royal Flying Corps aircraft saw von Kluck turn to the southeast, in an apparent move to envelop Paris. Armed with-and believing in-this knowledge, both the British and the French Commanders positioned their armies to take advantage of this error on the Germans part. The result was the battle of the Marne, where the German advance was stopped, and the course of the war reversed. Kaiser Wilhelm’s dreams of defeating France in six weeks, and then turning to defeat Russia, were over. Germany was caught up in a fatal war on two fronts.

Thus in the first month of the war, aircraft, primitive as they were, made a decisive contribution to the outcome of World War I.

Lets skip now to our What If scenario. Imagine, for example, that the first December 14th attempt at flight by Wilbur had failed, and the brothers had quit. What would have been the effect upon history?

At that crucial point, the Wrights ten-year advantage would have been sacrificed. Without the Wrights to inspire other aviators, no one else would have flown until 1913. This means that none of the armies of World War I would have had an air force. Everything else, however, would have been much the same, and the guns of August would have bellowed in 1914.

This time however, there would have been no airmen to observe the German march on Paris. Without those observations, the Schlieffen plan would have succeeded. Paris would have fallen, France would have surrendered, and the Germans almost certainly would have won World War I, probably by the summer of 1915.

The political consequences of this are mind-boggling. There would have been no Lenin smuggled into Russia, and thus no Bolshevik revolution; Kaiser Wilhelm would have wanted to keep his cousin Nikki, (Tsar Nicholas) on the Imperial Russian throne. This means that communism would probably have been delayed getting control of any government for years, and perhaps forever.

It also means that there would have been no Nazi Germany, with Adolph Hitler as dictator. Kaiser Wilhelm was no prize, and the Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm was not much better, but either was far preferable to Hitler.

But even more amazing than these political upheavals are the devastating effects the Wrights’ failure would have had on technology. World War I had tremendous influence on aircraft development. Some 225,000 aircraft and more than 300,000 engines were built between 1914 and 1918. Huge industries were established specifically for manufacturing aviation products, and aircraft were given an accelerated development, setting the stage for the glorious period of flight from 1919 to 1939.

World War I probably compressed twenty years’ advances into four years-say a net gain of sixteen years. Add this to the ten years that the Wrights had advanced aviation, and you have a twenty-six year difference in progress if the Wrights had quit.

If World War I had started in 1914 with no airplanes, and ended in 1915 with a German victory, aviation-and most other-progress would have been delayed by almost a quarter of a century. But, to be conservative in our what-ifing, lets assume that aviation really caught on after Germany’s triumph, and that the industry was only fifteen years behind were it was in “real” life. This means that the first significant flights-for example across the English Channel, or over the Alps-would take place in the mid-1920s, with the first flight around the world occurring in 1939.

Given the sad and savage state of European politics, there still would have been a Second World War, and lets assume that it broke out again in 1939, with France and England seeking revenge against the Germans. The fifteen-year deficit in progress would have had tremendous effect upon the respective air forces.

The British, instead of being armed with Hurricanes and Spitfires, would have been flying Gloster Grebe’s. The Germans, instead of flying Messerschmitts, would have been equipped with Fokker D-XIs. The U.S. Army Air Corps, would have had squadrons of Curtiss P-1As instead of Seversky P-35s.

A Pearl Harbor was out of the question, for neither Japan nor anyone else would have had the capability to execute such a mission. There would obviously have been no large scale bombing campaigns, and equally certain, no nuclear bomb nor any means to deliver one.

Lets assume, however, that aircraft development was accelerated during this hypothetical Second World War, no matter who was the ultimate victor. If so you could project that engines of about 1,000 horsepower would have been available by 1945, with the first Grumman F4Fs, Hurricanes, MiG-1s and Zeros rolling off the production lines. But the technology required for jet engines would have been delayed much longer (it was ten years between the 1,000 horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin and the first practical jet engines) with the Boeing 707 not rolling out until about 1974.

Perhaps even more important, the development of the computer, which in our real world was so stimulated by the aviation industry, probably would not have been used extensively in industry until the early 1990s, and Bill Gates would be just another working stiff in Seattle.

Similar extrapolations can be pressed well on to the future, and if you are not too rigorous, its easy to imagine that if Wilbur had pranged in 1903, the 747 would have debuted in the 1990s, and the revolution in airline travel would just be starting. The effects upon space exploration would have been even more dramatic, with a man not going to the moon until well into the 21st Century.

It is fortunate that the Wrights were blessed with that combination of intelligence, persistence, intuition and genius to give us the aircraft when they did-and when no one else was able to do so. Thank goodness they did not prang, or we’d all be working in jobs we didn’t like.

Yet when you think about it, you have to wonder. No Hitler? No Stalin? No nuclear bomb? No Cold War?
Hmm, maybe they didn’t do us a favor after all.