Taking off from the sands of Kitty Hawk into the skies of history

Wilbur and Orville, A Biography of the Wright Brothers, by Fred Howard. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Illustrations. 530 pp. $24.95. Late in the Wright brothers' life story, biographer Fred Howard comments that ``inventing the airplane was a hard act to follow.'' Nothing in their contentious later years would top their 12 seconds at Kitty Hawk, N.C., when the wind was right and - after endless fussing - Orville, with Wilbur running alongside, actually flew 120 feet in 12 seconds. And there is the glorious old photograph to prove it!

They were to fly much higher, of course, and learn much more about their machine. They had invented the basic principle of powered flight - the ailerons, rudders, and elevators of aircraft. Still basic today. (Only rockets can fly differently.) And that was what released them from the sands of Kitty Hawk and into the skies of history on Dec. 17, 1903.

Other inventors were working with wings and propellers and engines, often with the idea that a sort of boat with wings would work, while gliders and dirigibles and balloons had been startling the crows and pigeons for a long time.

The early days of air exploration had their full share of rogues, schemers, and geniuses. Howard carefully places the Wrights in the context of this sometimes mad world. The Wrights were the first to get it right, and unfortunately spent much of the rest of their careers embroiled in arguments and patent suits, as they jealously tried to protect themselves. Commercial aviation was on its way. Orville always believed that their overwhelming business troubles caused Wilbur's early death. The only brother ever hurt in a crash was Orville.

Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone's inventor, and Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Smithsonian secretary, were two of the Wright brothers' most famous competitors. For decades, partisans would lament the fall of Langley's machine from its liftoff track as it started its trial flight from a boat. The US government spent $50,000 on that controversial failure. The Wrights calculated that they had spent less than $1,000 of their bicycle shop earnings to develop their airplane.

Wilbur had written very early that ``for some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.'' He wrote this to one of the few people at the time who could help the brothers, a Chicago engineer named Octave Chanute. Correspondence and friendship with Chanute encouraged the brothers for some years. Then, like so many of their relationships with others in the field of aviation, things cooled.

The brothers were also afflicted with frugality, the ability to work hard, and an extraordinary intuition about aeronautics. The teetotaling, balding bachelor brothers never flew on Sunday. When they did fly, they wore suits and high collars. Their father was a bishop, and they lived on Hawthorne Street, in Dayton, Ohio.

While Mr. Howard is expert with all the technical material, the story was perhaps most fun for him, and it certainly is for the reader, when the Wrights finally get to their exhibition flights here and abroad. Those triumphs foreshadow Charles Lindbergh and the moon landings.

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