The Glory of Flight

Ninety-four years ago, the Wrights changed everything

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On any given day, millions of people hear the distinctive sounds of the transportation web that weaves the world together. In airports everywhere, multilingual boarding calls compete for the ear's attention with jet engines roaring against gravity.

It's a good time to recall how important aviation is, because tomorrow, Dec. 17, is Kitty Hawk Day. Ninety-four years ago, Wilbur and Orville Wright fulfilled a dream that began when people first envied birds.

They flew. Briefly and tentatively, but they flew. Sixty years later, I attended the anniversary of that flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The attraction that day was John Glenn, the astronaut who had just done for the American age of space what the Wright Brothers did for the age of flight: He started it, with his orbital flight in the tiny capsule Friendship 7. That's now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, and visitors invariable say it looks too small and too frail to have done what it did - take a man into a hostile environment and bring him back again.

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The Wright Brothers' first plane is there, too, and on that 60th anniversary there was a replica of it at Kitty Hawk. John Glenn was urged into what newspapers in 1903 called "the operator's chair." He sat there, wearing that grin, and said, "I don't see how they did it."

Those who built on the Wright Brothers' achievement, including John Glenn, changed the way we travel, and the way we fight, and their names are as famous as their achievements. Perhaps never before had technology and exuberance been harnessed into such a grand adventure. Never before had the public been so fascinated.

Col. Billy Mitchell and Cap. Eddie Rickenbacker and Baron Manfred Von Richtofen. Charles Lindbergh and Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, Col. Paul Tibbetts, Chuck Yeager, and Neil Armstrong.

By now most of us are adjusted to a world made smaller by the giants of aviation. We're so accustomed to being passengers that it's hard to imagine the singular glory of steering something through nothing, of flying. Wilbur Wright knew that feeling before anyone else. But maybe a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot said it better than anyone else who ever flew.

"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sunsplit clouds,

and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of:

Wheeled and soared and swung high in sunlit silence.

Hovering there, I've chased the wind along

And flung my craft through footless halls of air.

Up the long delirious burning blue, I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace,

where never lark or even eagle flew.

And while with silent lifting mind I've trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie McGee wrote that in 1941. It still works, even for passengers, in the moment when the jet leans back and lifts, to break that surly bond.

* Steve Delaney, former host of Monitor Radio 'Early Edition,' lives in Milton, Vt.

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