If you have any interest in aviation history, pick up a copy of David McCullough’s latest book: The Wright Brothers, published earlier this year. Having read other books about this famous duo, it was with some apprehension that I opened this latest work. It didn’t take more than a few pages to become captivated by the story, masterfully woven by McCullough. More so than the other books I am familiar with, this account made it feel like I knew Wilbur and Orville, as well as their sister, Katharine, another key member of the team. How these individuals from a seemingly “normal” middle class family in Dayton, Ohio managed to succeed over others better equipped and financed, is a fascinating tale that goes beyond the mechanics of aviation. This is why McCullough found it a worth story to research and share with the world.
The first part of the book introduces the Wright family in some detail. Much of the foundation that set the course for the Wright Brothers is found there in the form of a rich home environment that provided a well-rounded education. Even though neither brother finished high school, there was “much encouragement to intellectual curiosity” that extended beyond the classroom. Their father, a bishop in his church who spent months at a time away from home, provided a role model that demonstrated both a strong work ethic, and that it was OK to be focused on a mission—even one that might not be popular. Conquering the problem of manned flight was not something that the brothers grew up with, as their interests and talents were quite broad including athletics, music, reading, even cooking.
An event that most likely did lead them to the “aviation question” was of a different nature. During his senior year in high school, Wilbur was struck in the face with a hockey stick, resulting in the loss of most of his upper teeth. This incident and the three-year convalescence that followed changed the direction of his life, causing him to drop plans of attending college. As largely a home-bound recluse, he began to read widely which brought Otto Lilienthal, the German glider enthusiast, to his attention. There are many twists and turns along the way, which McCullough does a masterful job of weaving into the story, making it hard to put down.
Wilbur Wright at the controls over Le Mans, France. This was the location of the first public demonstration of the Wright Flyer aircraft, which made the Wright brothers famous overnight.
The book fully describes the events leading to the famous 12 second flight in 1903 we celebrate as the “take off” of powered flight at Kitty Hawk. While a significant milestone, it was almost another five years of pain-staking trial and error development that followed before the real public roll-out of aviation. That occurred in Le Mans, France on August 8, 1908. On the track that was used for horse races, Wilbur made the first public demonstration of the Flyer. The French, at the time, were more active in aviation development than the United States, and considered themselves the leaders in this arena. Many believed that the Wright brothers were bluffing with regard to their accomplishments of “controlled flight.” Toward the end of that day, after long and careful preparations, Wilbur took off, flew a simple race-track pattern and landed almost exactly on the spot he had departed. It lasted only about two minutes, but the crowd went wild. Pilots in the audience, including Louis Bleriot, were stunned by the control that had been demonstrated. Overnight, Wilbur’s flight made worldwide headlines. Why this took place in France and not in the US is a fascinating part of the story, which I won’t risk spoiling.
Last week, I heard David McCullough speak about the Wright brothers, and some of the elements that most intrigued him about this story. He credited the home environment, created by their parents as providing the brothers an exposure to the world beyond their hometown. He pointed out that Dayton was the source of many patents at the time, including the invention of the cash register, which became a huge business there. McCullough noted that pre-1903 most of the population believed that manned flight was impossible. Consequently, people that pursued that goal were by definition suspect, if not outright wackos. He also observed that the brothers were able to learn from their failures, yet were not deterred from their quest.
The magnitude of their accomplishments went well beyond figuring out the design of an airplane. Wilbur and Orville taught themselves how to fly—a task that even today is no small undertaking. They realized that aviation was a potentially dangerous activity, which had killed earlier experimenters including German glider enthusiast Otto Lilienthal. Consequently, they implemented risk management practices. The brothers didn’t fly together, so that if a fatal crash occurred one would remain to continue the mission. It wasn’t until a celebration in 1910 that the two brothers flew together, for the first and only time, which McCullough cites as a recognition that they had accomplished their goal.
The Wright Brothers runs to over 250 pages, richly illustrated with photographs, diagrams and documents. It topped the New York Times Best Seller list for multiple months, which suggests that more than pilots are finding this piece of American history worth reading. If you pick up a copy, be prepared to strap in and enjoy the ride!
For a brief glimpse of Wilbur Wright flying in Le Mans, France in 1908, check out this short video.