Airmen's relative has the Wright stuff
Ninety-nine years ago, Orville Wright and his brother Wilbur catapulted a biplane of their own making into the air over Kitty Hawk, N.C., and landed in the pages of history.Skip to next paragraph
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It marked the first time anyone had ever flown in an engine-powered machine. The catapult was needed because, while the Wright brothers' l2-horsepower engine was big enough to sustain flight, it lacked the drive to make the plane itself airborne.
Even after all these years, though, questions about the Wright brothers still perch on history's clothesline like a row of sparrows.
For example, what were these bicyclemakers from Dayton, Ohio, really like? How much did the gift of a 50-cent toy helicopter from their father, a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren, trigger their interest in flight? How could two farm boys, with little formal education, succeed at a venture that had baffled some of the world's greatest minds? How did they happen to build a wind tunnel? How much help, if any, did Wilbur and Orville's two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, and a younger sister, Katharine, provide?
No one, of course, has the answers to all these questions.
However, one source able to provide great insight into the Wright brothers is Margaret Edwards Brown of Claremont, Calif., their grandniece, whose safe-deposit box holds two pieces of damaged wood and one piece of torn fabric from the original plane.
When she was between the ages of 8 and 13, Margaret and her family visited the Wright brothers' home in Dayton about half a dozen times, and took two trips to the family's summer home in Canada. Years later, Orville would pay Margaret's tuition at what is now the University of Kansas after previously putting her mother through Oberlin College.
"Even though Wilbur had died before I was born, the impression I got when I visited their home as a young girl was that Wilbur and Orville [who lived 26 years longer] were first and foremost family men," Mrs. Brown says. "I was always told that they were a lot alike - men who cared deeply about their parents, their brothers and sister, and anyone else who was close to the family. Even as adults, they continued to live with their parents.
"Uncle Orv was very serious. He did not have an expressive face, and after reading most things that have been written about him, you would never guess that he was a prankster," she says. "Yet, he enjoyed jokes and he liked to play tricks, but always with a twinkle in his eye.
"Looking back, I seem to remember that he always had time for family members and that he was easy to be around," she adds. "If I had to put a label on each one from what I know now, I would call Uncle Orv 'the tinkerer' and Wilbur 'the thinker.' "
It wasn't until years later, though, that Brown fully realized the brilliance of the self-taught brothers, who at one point in their research challenged - and disproved - views on wind speed and wing lift that had been accepted for years.
They solved most problems by talking them over, working them out on paper, and, finally, building models that they trusted to the air only after constant testing.
Unconfirmed, but probably true, say historians, is the fact that Wilbur and Orville's glider experiments, prior to moving into manned flight, cost them less than $1,000.
One of their biggest challenges was the need to build an inflexible wing that would allow the plane to bank and turn - an effort at which others had constantly failed. They spent hours bird-watching, with special emphasis on the gull and the hawk.