I was so excited to go to the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk. It’s been a dream of mine since we moved to within driving distance ten years ago.
Who doesn’t love the story of the two bicycle repair shop brothers who built the first powered, sustained, and controlled heavier-than-air flying machine. Self-financed, they were first, in a field crowded with other inventors and tinkerers.
And this Memorial, though not a long trip, was so well thought out. I can’t think of a National Park I haven’t liked, but since proximity often breeds affection, this is definitely one of my favorites of the National Parks.
The full-scale model of their 1903 successful plane was there. And some original pieces of the original plane! Eee! In life, it’s more like a kite than a plane. Canvas and balsa wood, with a bicycle chain to help power the machine. I had no idea, but it makes perfect sense.
Looking at it, we realized we had all been seeing it backwards in our minds. Because today’s planes fly with a tail at the back, we had been assuming that the same general shape applied to the Wright’s plane. But it didn’t! The boxy, bulky bit went to the front. And the classic, iconic photo of the first flight shows Wilbur on the ground running away from the camera.
From the room with the model, we looked out an enormous window to see five marble markers. These marked the start and ending point of the four flights taken by the brothers on December 17, 1903. First Orville’s 12 second, 120 foot flight. The next two lasted a few second more, and flew marginally farther.
And then the fourth flight: Wilbur’s 852 foot, 59 second flight, almost quadruple in length and distance. I get choked up just thinking about it, to see how much farther that flight was.
From the observation room, we walked down to the reconstructed barracks where the brothers lived for a few months a year. A hundred years ago, there were no trees to block the wind, no grasses to hold the sand in place, though now there are both. So the brothers couldn’t camp in tents, but built two sheds. One for them to stay in; one for them to work in.
We walked the memorial pathway, tracing the distances.
Then we turned and hiked up the nearby hill. Today there is a lovely walkway to take us up gently. We carried no more than a water bottle, and walked in casual summer wear.
But a hundred years ago, the brothers repeatedly carried a 600 pound glider up this dune, often sinking up to their knees in the sand, as the wind picked up the grit and blew it into their faces. They appeared to always be impeccably dressed in collared shirt and, often, even jacket.
I can hardly imagine how taxing it must have been.
What drive they had! To take their earnings and use them to travel to the one isolated, windy, sandy spot, where a glider wouldn’t break on impact. And to spend months there, trying to discover the secrets of lift and balance.
They had experimented near their home in Ohio in 1899, then traveled to Kitty Hawk in 1900. In 1901 they were back, and their new attempts proved a leap backwards.
Imagine how discouraging! A full year spent, learning what didn’t work.
But in 1902, their attempts worked much better. Enough so that they applied for a patent in March 1903.
They wouldn’t fly successfully until December that year, but they had enough confidence in their ideas and understanding to apply in advance of actual field testing.
At the top of the sand dune stands a government monument. I studied enough art history in college to be generally less-than-impressed with government-sponsored art.
But this monument was outstanding in its field, with these words written around the sides:
OF THE CONQUEST OF THE AIR
BY THE BROTHERS WILBUR AND ORVILLE WRIGHT
CONCEIVED BY GENIUS
ACHIEVED BY DAUNTLESS RESOLUTION
AND UNCONQUERABLE FAITH
In my daily life, I don’t have wool clothes with sand, or disappointment over a year’s work turning out badly.
But I do have to deal with sometimes grumpy children, with lack of motivation, with surprisingly frequent feelings of guilt over not doing enough.
I don’t think the words to describe me would be “dauntless resolution.” Yet that phrase calls to me. Persevere! Keep going! There are rewards that wait!
Thank you, Orville and Wilbur, for the example you offer.