Reaching For The Sky

You can't hit a target you cannot see, and you cannot see a target you do not have.

~ Zig Ziglar

The Wright brothers’ invention of the airplane is a fascinating story of creative genius, hardship, perseverance, and spectacular triumph. I would like to retell it here because it also beautifully illustrates the power of vision and partnership in belief.  

Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in late 19th century Dayton, Ohio in a family of five children.  Their Victorian home provided few of today’s comforts – no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing – but it did have a large and diverse book collection. Orville wrote: "We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity."  When Orville and Wilbur were ages 7 and 11, their father brought them a "helicopter" based on an invention by French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Penaud. The little toy made of bamboo, cork and rubber bands sparked their first interest in flight.  

The two brothers opened a bicycle shop in 1892, the same year German aviator Otto Lilienthal died in a glider crash.  His pioneering work had a great influence on them, and they decided to continue where he left off. They read everything they could about the subject, studied the motion of birds in flight, and designed experiments of their own. They built a small wind tunnel in the back room of their bicycle shop and spent hours conducting hundreds of tests. They would trust nothing they couldn’t prove themselves, no matter how widely accepted the information.  In November 1899, Wilbur wrote to the chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau to find a place with wind conditions suitable for flight. Kitty Hawk in North Carolina’s Outer Banks was a perfect fit, and Orville and Wilbur spent time there during 1900 to 1902 making successful trials with kites and gliders.  Here their vision became crystal clear—they would fly a powered machine.

Back in Dayton they immediately went to work on the project, only to meet stiff obstacles. Wilbur could find no engine manufacturers willing or able to build a motor light enough for a flying machine. Propeller design was also more difficult than the brothers had anticipated.  They also faced financial challenges – their work was entirely funded with profits from their bicycle shop, amounting to about $1000. Undeterred, the Wrights resolved to do the work themselves, assisted only by their shop machinist.

They returned to Kitty Hawk in late 1903 to test their Wright Flyer.  While the brothers contended with torrential winter rains and high winds, Samuel Langley was preparing to test his Great Aerodrome flying machine with great fanfare. Langley, a respected astronomer and aviation pioneer, was celebrated by the press and backed by more than $70,000 in grants from the US Army and the Smithsonian Institution.  On October 7, 1903 the manned Great Aerodrome shot out of a catapult mounted on a houseboat anchored in the Potomac River. It immediately nosedived into the water, in the words of one reporter, “like a handful of mortar.” 

Meanwhile the Wrights worked quickly to make their own attempt at powered flight. Stormy weather delayed their progress, and equipment failures and repairs added to their troubles. The sensible thing would have been to pack up their camp and return in the spring. But after having come so far with their goal within reach, they chose to keep going.

On the cold and blustery morning of December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers achieved the first controlled flight of a power-driven, heavier than air plane. Wilbur flew the longest of four successful attempts, an impressive 852 feet in 59 seconds. They surpassed their own milestone two years later when they built and flew the first fully practical airplane at Le Mans, France.

Intelligence, curiosity and an inventive spirit transformed the Wright brothers' vision of flight into reality. Faith and mutual support helped them overcome disappointment and keep that vision alive.

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