On this date in 1903, the Wright brothers tried to set the eponymous Wright Flyer into the air at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They failed.
Two days later, on December 17, 1903, the Orville and Wilbur Wright succeeded, becoming the first airplane pilots. Orville made the first controlled, powered aircraft flight, which lasted twelve lofty seconds. Then, Wilbur flew, and Orville took another turn. Their fourth go that day ended with smashing up the front rudder, but these guys were used to that sort of mishap.
We’ve seen the original Wright Flyer, which is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It found its way there after an inglorious and decades-long debate, when the museum finally agreed with Orville to always and forever exhibit it as the first aircraft capable of manned, controlled, powered flight.
We’ve also visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the National Museum of the Air Force, outside Dayton, Ohio. Its beginnings were with Wright Field, a facility dedicated in 1927. Never before had an Army installation been named for civilians, nor for a living individual. Though Wilbur had died in 1912, at the age of 45, Orville raised the flag at his own memorial ceremony. Years later, Howard Hughes, returning from a record-setting transcontinental flight, stopped at Wright Field to give Orville the last flight of his life, this time in the new Lockheed Constellation. TWA President Jack Frye, Lockheed designer and Upper Peninsula native Kelly Johnson, and actress Ava Gardner were also onboard.
Only recently, we realized that the nephew of Charles Clarke Chapman, our current university’s namesake, was a pilot. C. C. Chapman was born in Macomb, Illinois, near where we went to college. After moving to California, he became a prosperous citrus grower and helped found what is now Chapman University. The signature on his nephew Clarke Chapman’s pilot’s license is that of Orville Wright.
But our fondest connection with the Wright brothers’ accomplishments is our visits to the College Park Aviation Museum and its annual airshow, almost twenty years ago. College Park, Maryland, is home to the University of Maryland, where Anna earned her MFA, and to an airport we discovered before there was much of a museum there. This small airfield was founded in 1909, when Wilbur Wright arrived with the Military Flyer to teach Army pilots how to fly. That November two soldiers soloed in their Wright aircraft, after only about three hours of instruction. The country’s first U.S. Army aviation school opened there two years later. The College Park Airport is the oldest, continuously operating airport in the entire world.
The list of firsts for the College Park Airport is impressive: first woman passenger (1909), first test of a bomb-aiming device in an airplane (1911), first test of a machine gun in an aircraft (1912), first air mail service (1918), and first controlled helicopter flight (1924). Anna’s poem “A Fascination: The College Park Airshow, 1992” (Constituents of Matter) weaves some of these historical details together. But we’re interested in the people, too—the Wright brothers, the wing-walkers, those who spend hours and hours flying and tinkering with their aircraft. We especially remember a man restoring an old airplane that day, while others buzzed overhead:
The man I know has started talking with the man bent
over a Boyd in a wooden shack where he has pried
six hundred screws from the sheet of one wing
and pulled back its corrugated skin
to expose its kitchen-plumbing fuel lines.
This hunched man thinks he can repair sixty years
of damage to hand-rolled aluminum: it matches no other.
This wing, its edge, is a discovered secret:
discard struts and fun flaperons tip to belly
to create the power to move air with a hand and a stick.
This man leans over his table, drinks hot coffee
from a thermos and hands us pieces
of the airplane. We see why things don’t fit.
Friday is Wright Brothers Day, according to the U.S. Code. On December 17, listen for the president’s proclamation inviting us all to observe the day with appropriate activities. Might we suggest a “flight” of wine or beer?