By Carole Hemingway
NO, I didn’t know the Wright Brothers personally. But I could have known Orville, who died on January 30, 1948. I was only seven-years-old then; still, I could have held the doorbell he was fixing to his home in Oakwood, Ohio, when he had a sudden heart attack at age 76 and left our world richer for the years he gave us. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912; he was only 45 years old, but he certainly lived all those years dreaming of one day flying, like the birds both brothers observed.
The Wright Brothers were respected pioneers who marched into the frontier of aviation. They experimented with gliders at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina between 1900 and 1903. They made over a thousand flights, each year constructing a new glider, and by 1903 they were the most skilled glider pilots in the world. By 1903, they built the Wright Flyer and installed an engine in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio.
Wilbur, the older brother was a genius, straight forward and clear in explaining the details of how planes work, while Orville, the younger one was curious, the ‘what if’ brother. Neither was a pretty boy and neither ever married. Their mistresses were made of ‘an aluminum eggshell’ delicately built. Their goal was not only to ride with the wind but to balance and steer in the air. Kitty Hawk was the launching pad for their experiments, where high winds were the norm in not so much as making headway but maintaining balance. Wind was essential; a motor was not. The brothers did all this together, on their own, paying their own way, as they did everything in their lives. To these heroic brothers, ‘fear was a stranger,’ as they were on intimate terms with the wind.
The Wright Brothers came from Midwest Ohio, originated from humble beginnings, raised by a minister and a very mechanically-minded mother. Neither brother finished high school, therefore college was not in their futures as they shaped it. Imagine no running water, telephone, electricity, or indoor plumbing. But they had lots and lots of books and both felt it was better to seek more knowledge rather than more power.
To use the wind to glide; studying the birds had to bring a certain amount of magic dust into their lives by two very different-thinking magicians…to become KINGS OF THE HILL. Why not? They grew up in a family with plenty of love to go around, emotional support, and encouragement. Who couldn’t thrive in that kind of environment? They had no money, but sure had a lot of faith.
No bird soars in a calm.
Through four years of cuts and bruises, broken bones and ribs from near fatal crashes, they pushed on until 10:35 a.m. in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. Orville slipped off the rope holding the ‘Flyer’ and headed slowly forward into a nasty headwind, and Wilbur, his left hand on the wing, effortlessly beside it. Down the track which they had also built, their Flyer began its voyage, lifting erratically at first, a bit unsteady into the ‘fates of air pockets,’ like a feather light ‘bucking bronco’ ride until one wing hit the sand. The event lasted all of 12 seconds and had flown 120 feet, less than half the length of a football field. Neither brother was scared by the process, there wasn’t time. As the day wore on, each of the following four test runs got better and ended up a distance of 825 feet in 59 seconds.
During the four years it took to get this far, they endured very bad weather, many setbacks, injuries from near fatal crash landings, numerous disappointments, and had to put up with an impatient public; they were laughed at, and bitten by swarms of mosquitoes. Five round trips were made by train from Dayton, Ohio to North Carolina, 7,000 miles, and all to fly no more than half a mile. But they never gave up. They succeeded where no one else had.
It took hard work and a lot of common sense from two devoted brothers, joined at the hip, who put their hearts and souls into their project. They never lost faith. You can’t do anything without it. The Wright Brothers taught us to fly and they had fun along the way. The rest, as they say, is history!
Carole Hemingway is an internationally regarded author, speaker, and historical researcher. She currently lives along the coast of Maine where she is writing a book about Gettysburg and waiting to publish another book about her father, Ernest.