Back on the 107th anniversary of heavier-than-air powered flight last month on December 17, I fell to musing about the significance of what the bicycle makers from Ohio engendered that day on the beach in North Carolina.
We all know that on that now-famous day, Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane 20 feet above a wind-swept beach at Kitty Hawk. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. Three more flights were made that day with Orville’s brother Wilbur piloting a record flight lasting 59 seconds over a distance of 852 feet.
I’m a pilot, and we aviators like to think we understand what happened when Orville and Wilbur proved, after several years of their successful glider trials, that their airplane with an engine would fly.
Today, in our age of instantaneous information retrieval and ubiquitous world-girdling jet flights, to truly understand that moment at Kitty Hawk and how far we have really come in those 107 years we have to look back at the world in which the Wrights lived.
Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States. When he visited San Francisco that year to help inaugurate the public use of the telegraph cable between the City on the Bay and Hawaii, he rode through the streets in a horse-drawn carriage
Ford Motor Co. was founded the same year and the Model A began production. Ernst Pfenning of Chicago became the first owner of a Model A just six months before the Wrights flew. The first motorized (non-railroad) crossing of the United States took George Wyman 50 days on his California brand motorcycle from San Francisco to New York. Later that year, the first transcontinental trip by car took place, in a Winton open-touring car; it took 52 days. It was probably pretty bumpy, given that no roads as we today understand them then existed. But Bayer aspirin was already three years old in case of headache.
That day at Kitty Hawk also marked the first time pilots realized that tie-down ropes were necessary. After the final flight of the day, the Wrights carried their Flyer into the lee of a building and a gust of wind flipped it over.
“Will who was near one end ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us. Mr. Daniels, having had no experience in handling a machine of this kind, hung on to it from the inside, and as a result was knocked down and turned over and over with it as it went. His escape was miraculous, as he was in with the engine and chains. The engine legs were all broken off, the chain guides badly bent, a number of uprights, and nearly all the rear ends of the ribs were broken. One spar only was broken,” wrote Orville in his diary chronicling the events of the day.
What is simply amazing is that the path the Wright brothers set us upon led only 32 years later to the first flight of the DC-3 on December 17, 1935, and only 66 years later to The Apollo 11 space flight that landed the first humans on the moon on July 20, 1969.
And to think that just four days before the Wrights flew, a New Yorker named Italo Marchiony was granted U.S. patent No. 746971 … for inventing the ice cream.
Thanks Orville and Wilbur, but thanks also to you Italo!
Copyright 2011, David Hipschman