How the birthplace of aviation lost that competitive advantage

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Thu, 02/24/2005 - 03:06.

I happened to catch the NOVA program "A Daring Flight" onÂ
Louis Blériot developing the first airplane to cross the English Channel, which in fact revolutionized the airplane industry at its beginning. Lessons Louis learned from Dayton's Wilbur Wright made this possible, and over the years following his Wright "schooling" Louis gained nearly every flight record in existence, with a plane that exceeded the Wright Brothers' accomplishments, becoming the most popular airplane in the world at that time. Understanding that transformation in time, place and industry offers many lessons for NEO now, in our transition.

The Wright Brothers were successful bicycle engineers and manufacturers who become the early world leaders in flight through a methodical process of research and development, focusing on engineering and flight control. They measured and refined others' flight concepts, built the first wind-tunnel to test flight physics, and designed solutions that enabled the first powered flight to succeed. Then they took their triumph on the road, but failed to leverage early success and evolve. They were more engineers than entrepreneurs, more inventors than innovators. Ultimately, it seems most of the Wright Company's brief 13 years of Wright family involvement were spent in legal and business troubles and fighting about old patents rather than inventing new solutions.

In contrast, Louis Blériot was an entrepreneur who saw opportunity in innovation and made a fortune in the automobile headlight industry, and then became obsessed with the objective to build airplanes. The opposite of the Wright Borthers in approach, he threw passion and funding into one failed new design after another, crashing and starting anew - depleating his fortune to the point he sold his headlight patent, summer home and automobile to risk everything to become the world-leader in flight, which was defined by who flew the fastest and furthest first.

After the Wright Brothers had achieved the distinction of flying far first, with control, they took their well engineered product on a world tour to attract sales. Louis met Wilbur Wright at one of his flight demonstrations in Paris and learned from Wilbur the secret of their control system - the flexible warped wing. At the time, the Wright Brothers were trying to commercialize their original bi-wing plane, without significant enhancements since the Kitty Hawk "Flyer 1". Louis was on version 10 of his disruptive plane design process, which had evolved into a craft very much like the small propellor planes we see today, but without good control. Louis immediately embraced the Wright Brother's flex-wing concept and in a short time had a viable airplane... he benchmarked and continuously improved based on best practices.

Shortly after learning the Wright secret, and nearly broke, Louis had evolved a functional airplane and took on an unmet challenge from the London Mail newspaper to be the first person to fly across the English Channel, to win 1,000 pounds. He succeeded, thus also winning global recognition as the world leader in what was finally a viable commercial industry - and Louis made a new fortune.

I found the story fascinating. Especially engaging was the difference between the Wright brothers, flight inventors, and
Louis Blériot, flight innovator. While the Wright Brothers engineered best processes to make flight possible, Louis leveraged global best practices to make flight practical, and so valuable. Whereas the Wright Brothers were intelligent engineers, Louis was a successful entrepreneur.

Perhaps most intriguing about this story was seeing the excitement of the people of France supporting their inventors and entrepreneurs. The early aviators drew crowds to their test flights, and were celebrities in the community - as they succeeded they became national heroes. For Louis' success, the nation of France became the world leaders in flight. They didn't invent it - they weren't first to market - they didn't have the best R&D - they just pulled the pieces together smarter and better.

I try to imagine a man like
Louis Blériot in Cleveland today - reflect on how the Plain Dealer and local leaders and the public would respond to him after his 10th failed product version, after scores of public crashes. If we are to transform this region as we intend, we need to get used to that type of innovation cycle. Further, we need to celebrate men like
Louis Blériot who are willing to take huge risks with the unknown, and invest themselves in innovations never seen or realized before that may transform industries, nations, the world and society at large, forever.Â