By Chet Yarbrough
The Wright Brothers
Written by: David McCullough
Narrated by: David McCullough
“The Wright Brothers” must have wondered—Birds fly, so why can’t I? David McCullough writes and narrates a memoir of the Wright Brothers that perfectly turns wonder into reality. Orville and Wilbur Wright are the first to design, build, and fly an airplane that demonstrates human control of flight. They were not the first humans to fly, but they were the first to fly like birds; i.e. with nature and intent. Before the Wright brothers, flying is left to man’s faith in God and luck; after the Wright brothers, flying is firmly within the grasp of humanity.
Two farm boys are raised in a family of seven (a mother, father, sister, and two brothers). Neither Orville, or Wilbur are college educated. Both are born to a mother who graduates from Hartford College, as the top mathematician in her class; a woman who became a housewife to an ordained minister, and an example to her children. Through nature and nurture, Orville and Wilbur become the talk of Dayton, Ohio, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Paris, Washington DC, and, eventually, the wide world.
Wilbur is a student athlete and scholar in high school. He goes to Hartford College, like his mother, but (unlike his mother) never graduates. Orville is the younger of the two by 4 years. Orville never finishes high school. McCullough describes the boys as tinkerers with ambition and a burning desire to understand how birds fly. With extraordinary observational skill, hard work, and persistence, Orville and Wilbur observe birds in flight, build and tinker with flying machines, and meticulously repeat experiments in human flight.
With income from a bicycle business they start in Dayton, Ohio, they begin designing their first glider. After completing their design, they make parts and assemble their air vehicles at the bicycle shop. They search for an area of the country that has the wind and landing characteristics they need to test their glider. They are invited to an area of North Carolina because of the wind and sand characteristics of the area. Their first flight is on October 5, 1900 near Kitty Hawk but it is flown more as a kite; without a pilot. After the first experiment, Wilbur takes flight as a pilot, while helpers tether the glider from the ground. These first flights lead the brothers back to the drawing board for control-feature re-design.
The brothers return in 1901, with a new glider. The new design, allows the ribs of the wings to flex to allow adjustments in flight. They find the flexing refines control of the glider in their Dayton shop where the re-design and reassembly occur. They create a wind tunnel to help with a re-design of glider controls. They add a rear rudder to improve the steering capability of the flyer. At this point, McCullough explains that the brothers begin flying in earnest to improve their skill in maneuvering the glider. Orville and Wilbur realize earlier failures, by themselves and others, will be repeated by pilots without extensive experience with aircraft controls. McCullough reinforces the historic truth of the Wright brothers’ invention of the first airplane. Without the brother’s creative control features, airplanes would be too dangerous to fly.
Once the aerodynamics of flight are understood, the Wright brothers turn to the idea of a motor to complete their vision of human flight. Searching the nation for a light weight engine to power their glider, they find no engine fits the bill. By good fortune, the Wright brothers become friends with Charles Taylor. Taylor takes over management of their bicycle shop while they are refining their gliders. Taylor happens to be a master mechanic. He hand-builds an engine to power the first airplane motor by boring a block of aluminum for pistons to provide 12 horsepower to the Wright’s first airplane. On December 17, 1903, the first flight of a motorized airplane (an airplane with directional controls) takes place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
McCullough notes that neither Orville or Wilbur ever marry. They are a close family, raised by a loving father who is often absent because of his Bishopric duties and a mother who surprises local residents with her ability to manage the household, repair broken tools, and raise such self-reliant children. The brother’s sister, Katharine Wright is the only child to graduate from college. She becomes the boy’s surrogate mother when their birth-mother is invalided in 1886 and dies in 1889. Katherine becomes the first woman to fly as a passenger with Wilbur in Paris.
In the many flights that Orville and Wilbur take, there are several crashes. The worst crash is when Orville is demonstrating their latest airplane to the Army. According to McCullough, the crash is caused by a mechanical failure that kills an Army Lieutenant as a passenger on Orville’s flight. Orville is nearly killed but is nursed back to health by Katharine.
In most of Orville’s and Wilbur’s flights, they fly separately to assure the continuation of their company should one or the other be killed. As fate would have it, Wilbur dies from typhoid in 1912. Orville lives until 1948. They created a company in 1909 that sold planes to the U. S. Army and a French syndicate. Orville sells the company in 1915 but stays involved in aeronautics for the remainder of his life. He became a member of the Board of Directors for NASA.
Several lawsuits were brought to challenge patents created by the Wright brothers on their airplane designs; none of the challenges succeeded. McCullough implies “The Wright Brothers” story is proof of the truth of the American Dream. With hard work, persistence, and intelligence, success is every American’s opportunity. In recent years, ghosts of past and present, challenge that belief. But, for white Americans in the early twentieth century, the dream is made real by McCullough’s entertaining and informative story about the Wright family.