McCullough has written some of the definitive histories of the American experience. He can boast titles like "1776" and "Truman" and "John Adams" (granted, he is not the most creative when it comes to book titles). This book, his newest, does not disappoint. For as long as humans have existed we have watched with envy as birds effortlessly defied the laws of gravity before our very eyes. There has always been a romantic sense of freedom in the idea of being able to fly unencumbered through the air. We long for the liberty to soar above all the obstacles of the world, past the walls that life seems to throw in our way, to glide effortlessly over the broken ground we have scrabbled to overcome since we first made our way out of the trees. Humans have dreamed of this for eons, but it wasn't until December of 1903 in North Carolina that we finally achieved controlled flight. And it was no daredevil, no artistic genius, no acolyte of Icarus who pulled it off. It was a pair of conservative, careful, and meticulous brothers who finally slipped the bonds of gravity and discovered how to challenge the birds in their own elements.
McCullough begins his story by describing the Wright brothers. Wilbur, the older brother, was born in 1867 and was bald with a grave countenance. Energetic and serious, he was the brother who felt most at ease speaking in public and who wrote most of their published works and journal entries. Orville was the quiet one, the one with the mustache who was painfully shy. Born in 1871, Orville was the brother who was best with his hands and was always the most fashionably dressed of the two. Their mother had died in 1889 and their father was an influential pastor who was often away from their Dayton Ohio home on church business. Although they had other siblings, Wilbur and Orville behaved in a way usually unique to twins, sharing a joint bank account, finishing one another's projects, constantly arguing and fighting but without ever holding a grudge.
When he was in high school, Wilbur's future looked promising. There was talk of his going to Yale after graduation, until one day, that is, when he was smashed in the face with a hockey stick during a game on the frozen lake beside the Wright house. The assailant was no ordinary young hockey player. Oliver Crook Haugh would grow up to become a mass murderer, eventually executed for killing his entire family. Wilbur's teeth were knocked out by this psychopath and his full recuperation took years. His ambitions were squashed and he spent months secluded in his room. All talk of Yale ended. For years afterward he would suffer from depression, focusing his attention upon keeping his ailing mother healthy. This time alone allowed Wilbur to spend more time than ever reading books at a pace that he never had before. This time of scholarly solitude provided Wilbur with an education that would prove to rival any he could have gained from any Ivy League school of the time. You found it fascinating to wonder at how much of human history might have been changed but for the swing of a hockey stick.
After the brothers spent a few years running their own printing press business, they opened a bicycle repair shop. Bicycles were new inventions and the Wright brothers worked on the safest and most popular style, the kind with two equal sized wheels which we think of today as normal bikes. Eventually the brothers moved from simple repairs to building their own models. The Wright brothers were coming of age in an unprecedented era of invention and technical innovation. In just over a decade they had seen the creation of cheap portable cameras by Kodak, the first electric sewing machine, the first elevator, the first safety razor, the first mousetrap, and the first cars. It was a world primed for the introduction of a new flying machine.
As the turn of the century approached, the world became obsessed with manned flight, not floating in a balloon or parachuting from impressive heights, but real, powered, controlled flight. Prototypes and innovations were popping up all over Europe and the US. Most of them crashed immediately and men were regularly dying in spectacular fashion in their efforts to defy gravity. Rather than being swept up in the hysteria, Wilbur characteristically dove deeply into any literature he could find on the topic. In May of 1899 he addressed a sternly serious and pointedly academic letter to the Smithsonian requesting, "...such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject (flight), and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language." But even as serious a book worm as Wilbur Wright knew that studious reading alone would not be enough, experimentation and experience would be the key to achieving the dream of manned flight.
Before the year was out the brothers had realized that altering the shape of their model aircraft's wings might be the key to changing direction and altitude. Wilbur devised a completely new means of controlling a man-made wing in flight. Changing the shape of the wing with pullies and strings (called wing warping) would prove to be the most important innovation in the technological advancement of human flight. But their observations of birds in flight and their years of working with bicycles also convinced the Wright brothers that balance was as important in designing and aircraft as aerodynamics.
Wilbur and Orville decided to seek a testing grounds that would facilitate greater experimentation. They built a glider and took it to a remote place called Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks island of North Carolina. The conditions there provided exactly the steady winds, soft sandy landing places, and towering dunes for launch sites that the brothers needed for their experimentation. Soon they were riding their glider above the dunes, perfecting their technique. But they were no daredevils. Instead they were methodical about their testings. They were careful and scientific in their approach to every challenge.
After two years perfecting their designs and honing their skills as pilots at Kitty Hawk, the brothers realized that some of the established technological wisdom they had taken as gospel truth from some of their heroes in the field were deeply flawed. Undaunted, they went to work trying to figure out on their own the complicated laws governing the physics of fluid dynamics required for any true understanding of flight. Using a wind tunnel they made by hand, Wilbur and Orville tested the effects that differently curved wing structures had on the air flowing across them. They weren't afraid to throw well established theories of flight out the window if they proved suspect under scrutiny, and they weren't afraid to accept the seemingly absurd if repeated experimentation proved it true.
Six months before their first flight, Wilbur gave a now famous speech in Chicago asserting that the biggest problem with manned flight, "is apparently not so much one of better wings as of better operators." This was a revolutionary idea in the field. For hundreds (if not thousands) of years humans had dreamed of building wings which allow them to soar like birds. The Wright brothers were the first ones to realize that the miracle of flight was in the birds' brains, not just in their wings. Wilbur argued that a successful operator must be experienced in the operation of his craft. In dangerous situations, he, "must know that in an emergency his mind and muscles will work without conscious effort. There is no time to think." Men not only needed to build artificial wings, but before they could operate with any confidence in the air they would need to learn the art of flying.
On December 17th 1903 only five men were present besides the Wright brothers at Kill Devils Hill at Kitty Hawk. It was a cold winter day with winds out of the north at 20-27 miles per hour. In retrospect, attempting a first flight in an untrained vehicle under such conditions was crazy. Three days before, on their first attempt, Wilbur had won the coin toss to be at the controls of their new flyer, one with a gas fed motor turning two large propellers. Wilbur had overcorrected on takeoff and had slammed back into the sand only a few feet from the launch point. Now it was only fair that Orville get to make the next attempt.
At 10:35 AM Orville lifted off. The headwind was so strong that Wilbur had no problem keeping up with the flyer, running beside it on foot. A friend snapped a photo with the camera the brothers had brought along to document their progress. It was on of the most historic photos of the 20th century. There is something magical about it. The flyer itself is extraordinary, huge and frail with the hazy shadow underneath proving that men had finally broken the bonds of gravity. But it is Wilbur to the right of the plane who always gets your attention. There is an excitement about his body language, an eagerness, a palpable kinetic drive. He wants to be on that plane! As excited as he must have been to have witnessed the singular moment from just a few feet away, you can sense that every fiber of his being is straining to be on board, to be the one flying. His silhouette, stark against the white sands, stands out as an emblem for all of us, stretching back to our ancient history. He bore witness to something we have all longed for and in that moment had the most relatable of human reactions, he wanted to be a part of it. In that moment, in that iconic photo, Wilbur Wright is all of us.
That first flight didn't last long. With such strong headwinds the flyer couldn't move forward very fast, but in 12 seconds of erratic, bouncing flight, Orville covered 120 feet before landing gently back in the sand. The brothers took turns flying three more time that day with Wilbur making the longest flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds. That is half a mile in one minute, quite literally as the crow flies. This was not gliding. This was not floating in a balloon. This was not falling with style. This was powered flight. Before any more flights could be made that December day, an errant gust picked up the flyer and sent it tumbling over the sandy hills, smashing it to pieces.
The brothers decided to keep their next experiments closer to home and continued in a new flyer at Huffman Field just outside of Dayton, Ohio. Here is where the Wrights truly learned to fly. they devised a catapult to launch their new flyer into the air, canceling out the need for Kitty Hawk's reliable gusts. For years they used this field to make longer and more complicated flights, they learned how to bank and turn, how to control altitude and how to land gently. They learned how to fly in curves and then circles and then figure eights. Here, in the Ohio skies, they gained the experience that Wilbur had asserted was so crucial to any successful flyer. Oddly, the local populace as well as the press corps were not interested in the historic, inspiring work being done a mere stone's throw from their front porches.
The United States War Department, for some odd reason, showed no interest in buying the Wrights' flyer so Wilbur made a trip to Europe to see if he could interest any buyers in France or Germany. His patriotic heart recoiled at not being allowed to sell to the US first, but, as the proverb says, you can only lead the horse to water. Wilbur elicited quite a bit of excitement on his visit to Europe. The Europeans had caught the flying bug and they were interested in this man who claimed to have mastered flight. Wilbur fell in love with the architecture in Paris and spent most of his time in the Louvre delighting in the endless halls of unmatched works of art. He even shocked some of the locals with his intimate knowledge of the history of some of the areas he passed through... Not bad for a man with no college education.
Soon both France and the United States (at last!) were now interested in the Wright's flyer and were offering substantial money. But none of these potential buyers had actually seen the brothers fly their crafts. Demonstrations would be necessary, and Wilbur and Orville were rusty. They returned to Kitty Hawk to test out their latest ideas and, most importantly, to become experts in the art of flying. They developed a plane with two seats rather than the initial design which had only the solo pilot lying on his stomach. The brothers vowed to never ride together so that if one were killed in a crash the other could carry on the work.
On August 8th, 1908, almost five full years after that initial historic flight (the one with only five witnesses present) Wilbur gave his first truly public demonstration at Le Mans, France in front of a decent crowd of several skeptics, a handful of reporters, and more than a few rivals. He flew for just two minutes and covered a distance of barely two miles, but his absolute control of the air was so evident that once he landed the crowd exploded into cheers and screams. They could hardly believe what they had witnessed. The spectators raced en masse onto the field to kiss Wilbur and his "aeroplane" with one rival pilot even exclaiming that "we (meaning all other pilots) are as children compared to the Wrights." It wasn't that the flight had lasted any significant length of time that impressed them all, it was the obvious control that Wilbur had over his flyer that sent them all into apoplexy. Day after day as Wilbur gave more demonstrations, the crowds grew and word spread.
The press went mad with excitement that summer. This was not a fad or some flimsy, childish trick that would ultimately disappoint the quixotic dreams of a few enthusiasts. This was real! Every skeptic who had claimed that man simply was not meant to fly, every fanatic who had insisted that God himself had intentionally limited humans to scramble on the surface of the planet for eternity, every scientist who had expressed academic certainty that it could not be done... they had all been silenced in a day.
It was clear to all who witnessed these flights that Wilbur Wright could stay in the air as long as his fuel lasted, that he could overcome any obstacle. Those throngs of witnesses at Le Mans realized that they had seen what almost no other human being had ever seen before, they had seen a human fly like a bird. And they knew that this had changed the world.
Less than a month later, at Fort Mayer, only a few miles from Washington DC, Orville repeated his brother's performance. He broke every record in manned flight that anyone had ever set, including his older brother. He was the quintessential test pilot, a man who knew what his airplane could do and who knew, better than anyone, how to get the most out of his aircraft. Even when he suffered a crash that killed a passenger, he was sure the theory was flawless.
Soon Orville and their sister Katharine (instrumental in running the Wright household and encouraging the brothers to achieve their best) joined Wilbur in Europe. The French pilots Wilbur had trained were proving their skills in solo flights. Kings and queens, debutants and playboys, millionaires and farmboys, all flocked to witness the dawn of a new era. The knowledge was spreading. There was no stopping it now. One year after Wilbur's sensational flight at Le Mans, France hosted an aerial race with over a dozen pilots competing. Humans were now animals who could fly.
Within five years the Great War would push the science of airplane technology faster than Wilbur or Orville ever could have. A few decades later, another world war would begin with propeller driven planes and end with jet fighter, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and four engine, high altitude, pressurized bombers that rained nuclear destruction on civilians and soldiers alike. Dismayed at the violence wrought by their inventions, the Wrights took no personal blame. They likened it to the discovery of fire. Men could use either for good or for evil, but neither was inherently bad.
Your house right now sits underneath a virtual high way in the skies. An hour does not pass that a massive metal jet airliner does not pass over the heads of you and your family. You and your children continue to draw inspiration at the miracle that humans have figured out how to accomplish this feat, and you are still inspired at the unprecedented global connection human flight provides the world. That first, short, dangerous flight at Kitty Hawk set events in motion that changed the course of human history in ways that were both as profound and inspiring as they could be horrific and unforgivable. The last paragraph of the book was a reminder where Wilbur and Orville took us all.
"On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 flyer."It makes you wonder just how much farther we will go, riding with the Wrights all the way.
On to the next book!