Good science

Ben Visser is an aviation fuels and lubricants expert who spent 33 years with Shell Oil.

In one of my past columns, I criticized the ethanol industry and others for using “bad science” to promote their products. I received several emails from readers who felt that I was off base because, they said, the Wright brothers were just bicycle mechanics — not scientists — who discovered controlled flight. Let me share with you a little history about Orville and Wilbur. The Wright brothers were two of the top aeronautical scientists of their day who just happened to run a bicycle shop to pay for their research. They were NOT two backyard hacks who just lucked into building a machine that flew.

If you read a school history book, it will always point out that the first heavier-than-air flight was done by two bicycle mechanics. Now I am not in any way, shape, or form downplaying the work that mechanics do. My problem is that most general history books — and Hollywood — love to romanticize the discovery of flight.

However, the truth is that the Wright brothers were scientists who spent a great deal of time and money to develop basic data, build a wind tunnel, and test different models. They then retested, redesigned, built new models, and so on until they were able to finally build a working model. It was a very organized, science-based research program that culminated in the first heavier-than-air flight. They may not have had a college education, worked for a large company, or been associated with any institution, but they ran a great scientific experiment that was truly based on “good science” and hard work.

Speaking of “good science,” I learned at last year’s Reno Air Races that Lyle Shelton had passed away. For those of you who have never been to the Reno Air Races, you may not know about Lyle, and you have missed one of the greatest air events.

Lyle was an airline pilot who loved air racing. He bought a slightly bent Bearcat out of a corn field in the Midwest. With the help of a lot of very talented friends he built the plane into the “Rare Bear.” He then won Reno numerous times and set several world records with the “Bear.”

I truly felt honored to know Lyle. I remember one time I arranged for him to speak to a SAE convention in Wichita. After his talk and Q&A session, the entire audience of mostly aviation technical people was totally impressed that this pilot knew a great deal about the science of flight and, in particular, high speed flight. They also were impressed that the “Rare Bear” was designed and flown using “good science.” Lyle will be missed.

The most important thing about the Wright brothers and the Lyle Sheltons of this world is that they had a passion for flying. It is this “fire in the belly” that helped them focus on a goal and make the sacrifices necessary to reach their goals. In today’s sanitary, politically correct, legally sanitized world, we seem to have lost this passion. I think that is our loss.

NOTE: From an accuracy standpoint, I used a phrase that is accepted as common knowledge, but is not historically accurate in my last column. Columbus did not have to convince the world that the Earth is round. That debate had happened in the scientific community years before. It was just the general public that had not accepted it. Remember, the Internet was still years away in 1492.

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  1. Kent Misegades says:

    Good comments. A diploma is no guarantee that an engineer or scientist will ever produce anything of value to mankind. The lack a diploma will also not prevent this. Case in point: Bill Lear, inventor of the car radio (called it the Motorola), aircraft radio direction finders, autopilots, ILS, portable aircraft radios, 8-track tapes, and of course the Learjet and Learfan. The Bombardier CJ series of commuter planes is based on his LearStar 600, the first wide-body business jet he sold to Canadair which changed the name to Challenger. Lear’s education? 8th grade. Perhaps it’s time we rethink who future engineers and scientists are being trained in 2011. Where are the Bill Lear’s today, sitting bored stiff in some college taking compulsory art appreciation & psychology classes?

    • Bill Lear was an eclectic genius and a gifted entrepreneur, to be sure The inventions mentioned by reader Kent in his post above were indeed the result of this man’s vision. But their actual realization required the work of many educated engineers, people that Bill employed but often gave little credit. The Learjet would not have not happened without them. Give Bill the credit he deserves as a concept visionary, hard-driving manager, and determined entreprenuer. But don’t fall into the trap of believing that concept-design creativity alone is enough to actually build complex things. As for Bill Lear, you can read about his life in a excellent biography entitled “Stormy Genius”. I think the book is out of print now but a public library could probably locate a copy for you. Good reading.

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