- - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE WRIGHT BROTHERS

By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster, $30, 320 pages

At exactly 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright slipped the rope restraining the Flyer and started down the track. At the end of the track the Flyer lifted into the air. John T. Daniels, a robust man from the life-saving station, who had helped haul the 605-pound Flyer over to the Big Hill, was standing there and snapped the shutter of the American-made Gundlach Korona V camera. It would be one of the most historic photographs of the century. Three more flights were made by noontime with Wilbur and Orville taking turns. The fourth, and last flight, went 852 feet in 59 seconds.

Author David McCullough concludes Chapter Five of “The Wright Brothers” this way: “Success it most certainly was. And more. What had transpired that day in 1903, in the stiff winds and cold of the Outer Banks in less than two hours time, was one of the turning points in history, the beginning of change for the world far greater than any of those present could possibly have imagined. With their homemade machine, Wilbur and Orville Wright had shown without a doubt that man could fly and if the world did not yet know it, they did.”

Mr. McCullough has gathered detailed information from hundreds of sources to create yet another inspiring American story, this time not about three of our presidents — John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman — but about two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who uniquely changed history. There was little recognition at the time of their astonishing accomplishment. Even the local paper, the Dayton Daily Journal, made no mention the following day and the city editor, who also represented The Associated Press, had no interest in sending the story along. Even now, after more than a century has passed, there is scant knowledge about how and why these brothers were able to succeed where so many had failed.

Many of those efforts to create wings for man are recorded in the book. Most notable was the dramatic collapse of Samuel Pierpont Langley’s aerodrome into the Potomac River on Dec. 8, 1903. As head of the Smithsonian, Langley’s project had cost nearly $70,000, the greater part public money, whereas the brothers’ expenses at that point were less than $1,000, all from profits from their bicycle shop. Another tragic mishap that had occurred in 1896 was the death of German glider enthusiast Otto Lilienthal, who had crashed while flying his “No. 11” glider. Mr. McCullough writes, “News of Lilienthal’s death, Wilbur later wrote, aroused in him as nothing had an interest that had remained passive from childhood. His reading on the flight of birds became intense.”

A major factor in the brothers’ success was their design of a wind tunnel to test various wing shapes. Among the many excellent photographs in the book, there is one of a scale reproduction of the wind tunnel. This was a complex scientific project that showed the brothers that the calculations and tables from Lilienthal and Langley could no longer be trusted.

On their third trip to Kitty Hawk in late summer 1902 they began work on their third machine, by far the largest glider yet built, each wing measuring 32 by 5 feet. By the time they departed for Dayton on Oct. 28 they had made nearly a thousand glides and resolved the last major control problem. Mr. McCullough writes, “They had acquired the knowledge and skill to fly. They could soar, dive, rise, circle and glide to land, all with assurance. Now they had only to build a motor.”

The brothers returned to Dayton and looked for a stretch of open land to serve as a practice field where they could master the art of flying, launching safely, banking and turning a motor-propelled machine and landing safely. What they found was an 84-acre pasture eight miles from town called Huffman Prairie, served by an inter-urban trolley connecting Dayton to Columbus.

While at the Prairie, the brothers designed and built their own “starting apparatus,” a 20-foot tower made with four poles, a pulley on top to which a weight was hoisted and the rope led to the front of the Flyer. The pilot would release the rope when ready for take-off, the weight would drop and the plane would be pulled down the launch track to flying speed.

In the last 107 pages of the book there is vindication and recognition of the Wright Brothers here at home, in England, Germany and especially France. It is 1908. Wilbur has gone abroad to demonstrate the Wright Flyer and Orville has begun demonstration flights at Fort Myer, which sits on a plateau overlooking Washington D.C., and adjoins Arlington National Cemetery.

In early 1909, Wilbur took his Wright Flyer to Pau in Southern France. On March 17, the king of England arrived, and the crowd at the airfield was large virtually every day but Sunday as a steady stream of elegant carriages and automobiles headed out to the flying field. Orville and their sister Katharine joined Wilbur in January. Katharine was presented to the king who wore shamrocks in his buttonhole in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. (There is an marvelous photograph of Orville and Wilbur explaining their flying machine to King Edward VII on that day.)

But the most significant event was the solo flight of Comte de Lambert, who was one of the three student pilots Wilbur trained. Mr. McCullough notes, “This was much to the pride of all three Wrights and to every French man and woman in the crowd.”

“The Wright Brothers” is a compelling American story told by a most American author.

Thomas W. Schaaf Sr., a retired Naval aviator living in Fairfax, flew the Stearman Biplane in 1946 when he began flight training as a Navy Aviation cadet.

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