On a winter day in 1903, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two unknown brothers from Ohio did something no human being had ever done before: They successfully flew the first heavier-than-air powered machine carrying a pilot. Their remarkable story is told with clarity and thoroughness by David McCullough in his book, The Wright Brothers.
The brothers, Wilbur and Orville who were five years apart, grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Their father was an itinerant clergyman who traveled far and wide. Their mother, Susan, bore five children. Sadly, she died of TB when Orville was only 17. They had two older brothers who married and had families. Their younger sister Katherine graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and became a teacher. She was deeply devoted to her two bachelor brothers and played a pivotal role in their lives. While they toiled away in their bicycle shop six days a week, she kept house, cared for their father, and gave them invaluable emotional support. When separated from her brothers or father, Katherine maintained an extensive correspondence with them, a great resource for McCullough’s book.
What were the Wright brothers like? Both men were quiet and extremely intelligent. Wilbur was rightfully called “a genius” while Orville displayed unrivaled mechanical ingenuity. Neither brother ever attended college. Their lack of formal training in engineering or physics makes their accomplishments even more incredible. Throughout their years of experimenting, they supported themselves through the modest income from their bicycle shop. (Another aviation pioneer, Samuel Langley, received $50,000 from the U. S. Government for his experiments which were largely unsuccessful, whereas the Wright brothers spent about $1,000 of their own money for theirs.)
Other qualities fueled their success: They were sticklers for detail and they worked very, very hard. They leaned on each other. Although they were called “fools” by many and even “liars” by some, they persevered. And it’s important to remember: Every time they ventured up in one of their “flying machines,” they risked being killed. Early on they agreed never to fly together in case their plane crashed. They figured if one of them was killed, the other could carry on with their work.
On September 17, 1908 Orville did suffer a disastrous crash in Fort Myer, Virginia. His passenger was killed and he was severely injured. Months of around-the-clock care from Katherine contributed to his eventual recovery.
Some other facts I found particularly interesting:
1) Kitty Hawk was the perfect place to test their planes. The winds averaged 20 miles per hour which was ideal. The soft sand provided a landing strip. Remember, the earliest planes had no wheels, only “skis.”
2) Wilbur and Orville read everything they could get their hands on about flight. They would stand for hours studying the birds at Kitty Hawk. They also built a small wind tunnel in which they conducted countless experiments.
3) Early on they told the U.S. Military about their planes, but the military wasn’t interested, one official even saying he saw no use for flying machines in war. But the French military was very interested. Hence, the brothers took their planes to France. Only later did the U.S. Military see the potential in planes. Orville lived to see the horrific devastation caused by planes in World War II. He said although he never regretted the role he and his brother played in the invention of the airplane, “No one could deplore more than I the destruction it has caused.”
4) Wilbur died of typhoid in 1912 at age 45. His father died in 1917 at 88. At age 58, Katherine married a friend and widower she met at Oberlin College. Orville was so distraught, he refused to speak to her again until she was lying on her death bed.
5) Charles Lindbergh, after soloing across the Atlantic in 1927, went to Dayton to thank Orville personally for his pioneer work in aviation. When Neil Armstrong (another Ohioan) landed on the moon in July 1969, he carried with him a swatch of muslin from the Wright’s 1903 airplane.
6) The pictures in the book are fascinating too. Wilbur and Orville fly their planes wearing their regular dark suits, ties, and starched white collars. One photo shows Wilbur circling the Statue of Liberty in 1909.
7) There is a friendly rivalry between Ohio and North Carolina as to which state can claim the invention of the airplane. This rivalry is reflected in the mottoes on their license plates. North Carolina: “First in Flight”; Ohio: “Birthplace of Aviation.”
One of the most well-known English poems about flying is “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. He wrote this sonnet a few months before he was killed in a plane crash in 1941. He was only 19. The poem has been set to music, but this version is simply the poem with visuals and instrumental music:
Does anything impress you about the Wright brothers?
Do you like to fly? Why or why not?
Do you like any words or phrases from “High Flight”?
PS: We remember in prayer and with gratitude all military veterans and their families on Veterans’ Day. Two years ago I offered a tribute to veterans on my blog by writing about my uncle. You can access that post by typing “Uncle Hank” in the search space on the right.