Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The Wright Stuff

One hundred years ago today, on an oceanside dune at the shore of North Carolina, there occured the first flight in a heavier-than-air contraption. The Wright Brothers, William and Orville, were witnessed by three Coast Guardsmen from a nearby station, a young boy who scratched a living as a muskrat trapper, and a lumber salesman visiting from out of town.

The coin was tossed, and Orville won. At 10:30 in the morning, he took the controls of the Flyer, and lifted off the ground for twelve seconds and 120 feet. The event was photographed for posterity, if only by accident. One of the Coast Guardsmen had his hand on the trigger, and clenched his fist in his excitement at witnessing history. There were three more flights that day, the longest being piloted by Wilbur, and running for 59 seconds and 852 feet. But before the day was over, a sudden gust of wind flipped the parked machine over, damaging it beyond repair.

Today, an attempt was made to re-enact the event. Exact time, exact place, exact replica, not so exact results.

What was truly remarkable about these two men is that, while the best minds in the world were attempting time and again, on both sides of the Atlantic, to be the first to fly a heavier-than-air machine, the claim rightly goes to two small-time bicycle shop owners from Dayton, Ohio. Indeed, the Buckeye State has gone on to provide two other native sons as pioneers in the skies: John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth (not to mention the oldest, in all likelihood), and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

Wilbur died in 1912, but Orville lived to see a demonstration of Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier in the X-1: "Wilbur would never have believed it, and neither would I."

Now, if we can just get to Mars in this century. Where's "the wright stuff" when you really need it?

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