I HAVE DEVOTED THE BETTER PART OF 30 YEARS TO THE STUDY OF WILBUR AND ORVILLE WRIGHT and the invention of the airplane. I have written several books on the subject, and more articles than I care to count. I have no idea how many lectures I have given with titles like “Why Wilbur and Orville?” The producers of documentary films have enlisted me to serve as a “talking head,” describing the life and work of the famous brothers from Dayton. I have even appeared in an IMAX film, my head five stories tall, describing the Wrights’ achievement.
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You might imagine that I would give almost anything to step back in time and join the four men and a boy who watched Wilbur and Orville Wright fly a powered airplane for the first time. You would be wrong. I would not find many surprises, standing around with my collar turned up against the wind blustering across the Kill Devil Hills on the morning of December 17, 1903. The Wright brothers kept a meticulous record of each of the four flights: times, distances, wind speeds. In later years they provided lucid and engaging accounts of their first powered flights. There are even photographs of three of the flights, including the famous one taken by John T. Daniels, one of the witnesses, at 10:35 a.m., just as Orville lifted the airplane off the ground for the first time.
Nor would I waste the opportunity to spend a few hours with Wilbur and Orville by choosing to witness any of the glider trials, which they conducted in 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903. Thanks to my friend Rick Young, I have been there, and done that—or almost. Rick, a Virginia restaurateur, has built and flown replicas of the three gliders that were the Wright brothers’ stepping stones to success (see “The Thrill of Invention,” Apr./May 1998). All of this flying has been done in one place: Jockey’s Ridge, the largest single dune on the East Coast, four miles south of the Kill Devil Hills.
Today at the site of their experiments stands the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a wonderful place to visit. You can see full-scale models of the 1902 glider and the 1903 airplane, and Ranger Darrell Collins will describe the events of December 17, 1903, in a manner guaranteed to inspire you. You can peer into reconstructions of the two sheds in which the brothers lived and worked on this remote stretch of coast. Of course, you will want to hike up to the great monument on top of what was once the big Kill Devil Hill. Unfortunately, the creation of the monument required that the shifting sands so familiar to the Wrights be transformed into a very different landscape. Wilbur and Orville would no longer recognize the place.
They would feel right at home, however, on Jockey’s Ridge, now a North Carolina state park. Rick Young began flying his first 1902 replica from the ridge close to a quarter of a century ago. Fortunately, he invited me along on quite a few occasions. The flights have been reenactments in the truest sense. Civil War reenactors will always be thwarted in their desire to taste something of the life of the soldier. No one is shooting at them. Flying Rick Young’s gliders, on the other hand, one experiences precisely what the brothers did.
Thanks to Rick, I have felt Wright gliders come alive in the wind. Watching others on his team fly them is like seeing Wilbur and Orville’s wonderful glass plate negatives spring into motion and living color. It is one thing to sit in a library and read what the Wrights had to say about a problem with one of their machines. It is something else again to see that problem with your own eyes, standing ankle deep in the sand, puzzling over what just happened. Nor had it ever occurred to me how difficult it was to shlep those gliders back up the dune for the next flight until I had done it myself. The hours, days, and weeks that I have spent with Rick and his gliders have shaped, at the most fundamental level, what I think and say about the Wright brothers.
I first began to think about the Wrights in a serious way in 1970, when I was in graduate school. My timing was impeccable, for the scholars who laid the foundation for our understanding of the invention of the airplane and the early history of flight were still active. My mentors included Marvin W. “Mac” McFarland, chief of the science and technology division at the Library of Congress and the man who had edited the classic two-volume edition of The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
I was sitting at a desk in the old Library of Congress manuscript reading room one day in the early 1970s when Mac walked up and handed me the address and telephone number of Ivonette Wright Miller. Until then, it had not occurred to me that the little girl with the blond curls peering impishly out of some of the Wright family photographs might still be living. Mrs. Miller was one of the Wright brothers’ nieces, born in 1896. Mac explained that the Library of Congress did not have all of the Wright papers. In 1948, library officials had taken only the most important items that the heirs of Orville Wright offered to them. Mrs. Miller and her husband, Harold “Scribze” Miller, still had a basement full of historical treasure.
I called Mrs. Miller the next time I was home visiting my parents in the Dayton area. She invited a young grad student whom she had never met into her home, and she turned me loose to dig through the boxes in her basement. There were priceless family papers: the diary that Wilbur and Orville’s father, Bishop Milton Wright, had kept for over half a century; family correspondence and genealogical records dating back to the early 19th century; the report cards and school papers of all the Wright children, including the inventors of the airplane; original photographs; box after box of financial records; and most of the Wright brothers’ library, complete with their handwritten notations on important aeronautical papers. I was only faintly aware of it at the time, but my career was born in that basement.
More important than all of that was the opportunity to sit at the kitchen table at the end of the day and have tea and cookies with a woman who could remember the day, just before Christmas, 1903, when Wilbur and Orville returned in triumph from Kitty Hawk. The inventors of the airplane were her babysitters. They had built and flown little helicopter models to entertain her. She had flown with her uncle Orville in 1911; been married in his Dayton home, Hawthorn Hill, seven years later; and served as his unofficial hostess for two decades. Her husband was one of the executors of Orville Wright’s estate.