Thursday, December 17, 2009

Learning To Fly

Magnet # 120: North Carolina State Quarter

Material: Pewter

Purchased By: Me

Well, we're staying in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for another noteworthy event that occurred there - the world's first successful human airplane flight. It was conducted by the Wright Brothers on this day in 1903. It's funny, but for many years, nobody realized this incredible event had even happened. There were no press in attendance that day, and only one man took photographs. By day's end, their Wright Flyer I had been so damaged that it could never fly again, although Orville did restore it years later. But the press largely ignored the news of this story, and some began to believe the Wright brothers were liars.

Many years and a great deal of work had led up to this event, and there was much more hard work ahead of the brothers. They had grown up with two older brothers and one younger sister in the home of a bishop who traveled and edited news articles. He always encouraged his children to learn, and their home had two libraries. It was in the general downstairs library that the brothers became aware of the concept of flying. Later, their father brought them home a toy made of bamboo, cork, and paper which resembled a helicopter. The pair were enthralled by it, and played with it until it broke, then rebuilt it. They also made a good deal of kites. When they grew up, they opened their own bicycle shop, and later began producing their own bicycles. This made them familiar with the concept of balance, which would help them in designing planes. When they finally began to work on a plane, they poured over the work of engineers who had gone before them, including Otto Lilienthal, who had recently perished while flying his own glider. They knew what was at stake, but they continued, undaunted. They began to travel from their home near Dayton, Ohio to the Outer Banks, which featured strong winds to carry their gliders and soft sands to land them on. For four years, they commuted, experimenting with gliders until their 1903 breakthrough. Most of their contemporaries were focused on building more powerful engines to keep planes in the air, but they were able to succeed where others had failed thanks to their creation of the three-axis control, which allowed the pilot to control the plane's course and balance it out.

After their success, the Wright brothers returned to Ohio, and shifted their operations to nearby Huffman Prairie. There, they began working with the Wright Flyer II. They invited the press to view a flight, but it turned out so poorly that they ignored the brothers for over a year. Some think this was a deliberate act on their part to keep the press and their competitors unaware of their progress. By then, they had decided to abandon the bicycle business and focus all of their efforts on planes, believing they could later sell their creations. They worked hard, progressing to the Wright Flyer III, which they rebuilt. But, soon, they had flown for over 30 minutes and the town was abuzz with stories of their success. And, yet, governments still would not take the duo seriously. It didn't help that, fearful of someone stealing their designs, they refused to demonstrate their machines without a contract. When their patent finally came through, they were able to negotiate contracts with France and the U.S. Wilbur headed to France in 1908, where his demonstrations finally captured the attentions of the world and put to rest any accusations that the brothers were fakes. In Virginia, Orville's demonstrations were initially successful, but he later suffered an accident that killed his passenger and had him in the hospital for seven weeks. This incident made Wilbur even more determined to achieve greater success in Europe, and before long, the Kings of Spain, England, and Italy sought him out. The pair went on with setbacks, but were also given all sorts of accolades and awards. Their contributions had changed the course of the world, and none could deny it.

It's amazing to see how far we've progressed in airplane technology in just a little over a century since that 1903 Kitty Hawk flight. Sure, if the Wright brothers hadn't made their advancements, someone would have figured them out eventually, but who knows how long that would have taken? Oddly enough, neither brother ever married, which may have helped their progress, for few wives would have tolerated their obsession with airplanes. Regardless, today, in the Outer Banks, the First Flight Society is celebrating the 106th anniversary of this historic day with its annual Anniversary Luncheon. And, back in 1948, this was the day the Smithsonian first introduced the Wright Flyer I into its public display. This put to rest a longtime feud between the institute and the brothers over its claim that another flyer had been the first capable of man powered flight. Now, the record has been set straight, and though both Wilbur and Orville are long gone, wherever an aircraft soars, whether on Earth or in space, their legacy lives on.

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