‘Twas the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the past century that our world, the planet Earth, was captured by flight.
On the morning of that day, 8/8/08, a small crowd gathered at the LeMans racetrack 120 miles southeast of Paris. In the crowd of 150 there were assorted minor celebrities, military attaches and newspaper reporters. It was a festive occasion. Women in large brimmed hats packed picnic lunches in hopes of being present when the Americans would demostrate for the world what had largely been done in the seclusion of Kitty Hawk, N. C. and Huffman Prairie in Ohio.
The French had several “aviators” of their own working on the problems of flight. They were frankly skeptical that the two unassuming, taciturn American bike builders had indeed conquered the air. After all, there had hardly been any witnesses to their supposed flights. It seemed it was mostly just rumors, conjecture and unconfirmed sightings.
Waiting for the right wind near sunset—after spending hours leisurely and meticulously examining every fitting—Wilbur Wright, his cap on backwards, announced quietly, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.”
“Back again in his seat, Wilbur released the trigger, the weight dropped, and down the rail and into the air he swept. Cheers went up as he sailed toward a row of tall poplars, where, at what seemed like the last minute, the left wing dropped sharply, he banked off to the left, turned in a graceful curve and came flying back toward the grandstand.”
Circling the field he was airborne for not quite two minutes and he covered about two miles—but this short flight electrified the bystanders and within hours newspapers around the world were carrying the story. In the following weeks thousands made the trek to LeMans to watch Wilbur record one flight after another—seemingly each longer, faster and higher. Tho fame and money were never their motivators within months the Wrights were world famous and in years a bit of wealth would follow.
Today, it’s the stuff of history that the Wright Brother’s first powered flight occurred nearly five years earlier on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk on the windswept Outer Banks of North Carolina. Prior to 8/8/08 the Wright’s Flyer had been seen airborne by but a very few. Besides Orville and Wilbur there were only five witnesses present for that very first powered flight in 1903.
I’ve been reading The Wright Brothers, David McCullough’s new book. Even though he’s my favorite historian I probably would not have read this book had I not heard him interviewed on NPR. Orville and Wilbur had never struck me as particularly compelling characters. I’m a native Ohioan and the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and the stories of how the Buckeye State pioneered practically everything to do with progress in the 20th Century was old hat—just part of the Buckeye DNA.
I’d previously read McCullough’s books 1776, about the first year of the Revolutionary War, and his 900-page biography of my favorite president, Truman. However, the story of the Wrights did not seem to be of the same caliber. I was wrong. After hearing McCullough’s NPR interview about the Wrights my mind was changed.
Orville and Wilbur were part of an an intensely interesting family. Their father was a bishop in the United Brethren Church and their younger sister Katharine attended Oberlin College—and she was a largely un-credited but important part of Team Wright as well. They themselves had no formal education beyond high school but grew up in a home in which the open discussion of ideas, the arts and books were part of the daily fare. The older brother Wilbur was a brilliant autodidact and Orville a mechanical genius, but they likely both had genius level IQs and were scientists in the truest sense.
Starting in 1899, that first powered flight of 1903, was the culmination of a steady four year growth thru both experimentation and book knowledge in solving the problems of flight. They did an exhaustive study of every published work available as well as spending hours observing birds and experimenting with gliders.
Likewise, the nearly five years between the first flight in 1903, and the LeMans exhibition was filled with ongoing trial and error experiments on learning to control their Flyer. The Wrights were a bit secretive in this process. They certainly didn’t seek out publicity and their expenses were funded strictly by income from their bicycle shop in Dayton.
They’re American originals and we all pretty much know the outcome of the story. We learned about that in school. But what’s really compelling—at least for me—is the process, the journey. McCullough’s book brought the Wright’s, their quest and that era alive, and to see something old and well-worn reconfigured is the essence of great art.