Thursday, March 08, 2012

They Taught Us to Fly


The closest I got to a religious experience, or at least a spiritual one, was when I set foot in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and shared the same space with the Wright Brothers among the dunes of Kill Devil Hills, albeit a 109 years too late. This has always been a dream of mine, a dream shared by every pilot and aviation buff the world over, the pilgrimage to Kitty Hawk. Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) Wright invented and built the first successful airplane. Then they piloted it themselves to become the first humans to fly in a controlled, sustained, powered and heavier-than-air aircraft on December 17th, 1903.

My son asked me once: "Who taught the first pilot how to fly?" and I found it difficult to give him a straight answer. Many men died in pursuit of that heroic endeavor but once you fully learn about the Wright Brothers’ achievement and how they realized it the mystery of this daunting task and of flight itself becomes less enigmatic. Orville and Wilbur were two bachelor bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio. The absence of women in their lives had forced them perhaps to seek an alternative way to fly and be giddy. Their pain, or lack of it, was our gain of course. Just consider the tremendous advances in aviation over the last century and you would matter-of-factly appreciate why the airplane is indeed the greatest human invention in history.


The Wright Brothers were not of the daredevil type portrayed in the mostly romantic movies about the dawn of flying or even modern day aviators. In fact they were more of the bland type of men. Sedate, methodical and systematic, they attacked the problems of controlled, sustained and powered flight with empirical data and analysis reserved to physicists and experimental scientists. The self-taught aviators persisted for years in the unraveling of the secrets of flying by direct observation of the flight of birds then by making over 1000 un-powered flights in gliders of their own design and built. They chose this particular spot near Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for its dependable winds, soft sands and unobstructed expanse years before they made their historic flight. They failed and returned to their drawing board and workshop over and over again without truly risking their lives like the many fallen heroes before them. They corresponded with renown aviation scholars and glider pilots from Europe and exchanged ideas and discoveries. They invented the wind tunnel, they manufactured their own gasoline engine from scratch, they carved the propellers, they sewed the muslin, they glued the struts and reinforced the wings of their Wright Flyer with bicycle spokes and all with their own hands. Then on December 17th, 3 days after a failed attempt by Wilbur, who won the coin toss to fly the airplane first, Orville soared into the air and flew for a distance of 120 feet (37 m) in 12 seconds and at a ground speed of only 6.8 miles per hour (10.9 km/h) due to the strong headwinds. The brothers alternated as pilots and made 3 more successful flights on that same day. The next two flights covered 175 feet (53 m) and 200 feet (61 m) and were piloted by Wilbur and Orville respectively at an altitude of about 10 feet (3.0 m) above the ground. The fourth and last attempt of the day (the Wright Flyer was severely damaged afterward and never flew again) saw Wilbur fly for 852 feet (260m) and lasted for 59 seconds. Modern aviation was born and our world changed forever.

There are thousands upon thousands of detailed accounts about the Wright Brothers’ achievements and contributions to humanity and it would be idiotic of me to attempt to add more. I can, however, express my own feelings of awe as I stood, walked then ran around the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk. Once I climbed that hill and stood by the monument erected in their honor and memory the sky opened up and rain started to fall, cleansing my body in harmony with my mind... and I soared. It is simply impossible to capture the essence of the place in this short video but that was the best I could do. As I scanned the infinitely visible horizon, clearly defined against the overcast sky of the late afternoon I imagined hearing, carried with the winds and over the years, the unassuming words of the brothers sent in a telegram to their father in Ohio: Success four flights thursday morning # all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone # average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 [sic] seconds inform Press home ####Christmas.

*Video background music Learning to Fly by Pink Floyd, 1987 from the album A Momentary Lapse of Reason