Just 120 feet . . . and history was made

One hundred and twenty feet, that’s all. Insignificant? Hardly, yet it’s less than half the length of a Boeing 747-800.

It was however the distance of the first ever powered flight, in an aircraft designed, engineered, and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, near Kitty Hawk on the coast of North Carolina on 17 December 1903. The flight lasted a mere 12 seconds, but it would change the face of transport forever.

This must surely be one of the most famous photographs ever taken, of that historic flight.

1024px-First_flight2

What’s even more remarkable—and depressing at the same time—is that just over a decade later, aircraft had become serious military machines and deployed on both sides in the First World War.

Well, apart from an overall general interest in all things ‘aviation’, why this sudden interest of mine in the pioneers of powered flight?

51Esm+pkCSL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Among the books I recently received for Christmas was one by American writer and historian David McCullough. Published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster UK (ISBN-10: 1471150364; ISBN-13: 978-1471150364) The Wright Brothers: The Dramatic Story-Behind-the-Story is a lively account about how two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, designers and manufacturers of bicycles, developed an interest—obsession even—to design and build their own flying machine and, in the process, to become the first persons to fly a powered, heavier-than-air machine. Remember also that they had no flying manual to refer to. They wrote it, had to work out the dynamics of flying, and really did learn to fly by the ‘seat of their pants’.

McCullough’s writing style is entertaining and inviting, and I found myself romping through the fascinating story of these brothers from their humble beginnings (their father, Bishop Wright, was an itinerant preacher) to world fame.

Wilbur Wright (in 1905)

Wilbur Wright

Orville Wright (in 1905)

Orville Wright

I learned things I had no inkling about, and what the Wright brothers achieved. Beginning with gliders, then transitioning to powered aircraft, it’s amazing to discover that the brothers built almost everything they needed from scratch, their early engines, even a rudimentary wind tunnel. Their test flights were conducted in the relative secrecy of the North Carolina coast on sand dunes, buffeted by the reliable wind needed for lift, and providing a relative soft landing should something go wrong. Which did from time to time. But the brothers picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and began again. It’s a tale of focus and perseverance, and utter belief in what they were achieving. And if something went wrong at Kitty Hawk, then they would just return to Dayton (a round trip of about 1500 miles), manufacture a replacement, and carry on.

I found two aspects of their story particularly fascinating. First, how little they spent (of their own money), about US$1000, to bring about this first flight. In contrast, a failed competitor program under the head of the Smithsonian Institution that had received financial backing from the Federal Government, spent more than USD 70,000 (that’s about USD 1.9 million today). Second, the astonishing incredulity with which their claims for flight were received: in the media, among government agencies, and fellow aviators (especially the French) who thought they were charlatans. Undoubtedly they were quite secretive until they were confident that they had conquered powered flight, and some patents granted. Eventually they were hailed as heroes and recognized as the true pioneers of aviation.

By 1909 they had demonstrated the possibilities and advantages of flight, having flown many different courses and for varying lengths of time. Increasingly, they carried a passenger. It was on one of these flights at Fort Myer, in September 1908 that Orville Wright crashed just after take-off on a demonstration flight for the US Army, and his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge became the first aviation fatality. Wright himself was badly injured and took months to recover.

Sadly, Wilbur Wright died in 1912 from typhoid and never saw the full potential of aviation. However, Orville lived until 1948, and saw the sound barrier conquered just a year earlier.

Delving into the extensive Wright archive of letters (the brothers and their sister Katharine were avid correspondents) and other records, McCullough has written a wonderful tribute to these famous Ohioans. They were successful, and obviously proud of their home state, as Wilbur is quoted as saying: “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

The Wright Brothers: The Dramatic Story-Behind-the-Story is one of the most interesting reads I’ve tackled in a long time. Even if you have no interest at all in aviation, there is plenty in this book to hold your attention. I found it a page turner.

 

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