In 2003 we will celebrate the airplane’s 100th birthday. Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic flights at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, and the world has not been the same since. Airplanes have revolutionized travel, warfare, and the way we look at our world, and they did it in a relatively short time. Before he died in 1948, Orville Wright saw the machine he and his brother invented develop into something far beyond what they could have imagined on those dunes on the Outer Banks.
Two of my favorite American history stories involve the airplane. One is about the Wright brothers; the other is that of Charles Lindbergh and his solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Both tales involve pluck, determination, and a will to succeed. And both demonstrate a peculiarly American streak of stubborn individualism.
Yet the same qualities that motivated the Wright brothers and Lindbergh didn’t translate so well into other realms. Lindbergh, “the Lone Eagle,” found it was hard to be alone when you’re a global superstar, and his celebrity had tragic consequences with the kidnap and murder of his son. In the years leading to World War II, Lindbergh campaigned to keep the United States out of the conflict, and a series of ill-advised actions led to charges that he was pro-German and anti-Semitic. He learned that it was a lot easier becoming a hero than remaining one.
The Wright brothers, too, were essentially loners. They developed their airplane quietly and without much outside help. Samuel Langley, who was also trying to break the ground barrier, was the secretary of the Smithsonian and had considerable financial backing from the Institution. The Wrights were modest bicycle mechanics who proceeded to solve the problem step by careful step. It was an amazing feat, an admirable approach to something that had left others baffled. After their first successes in 1903, the Wrights largely avoided the limelight even as they flew longer and longer flights from a prairie outside Dayton, Ohio. While it might not be accurate to say they shunned attention, the brothers certainly did not seek it. Their rival, Glenn Curtiss, was perfectly willing to make a very public flight to win a prize offered by Scientific American, but not the Wrights, even though the prestigious magazine had created the award with them in mind.
Solving the problem of flight was one thing–translating that achievement into a practical business success was something else. As “The First Airplane Fatality” by Wyatt Kingseed explains, the Wrights soon found themselves embroiled in patent fights, and their legal battles essentially halted their experimentation. Neither man seemed suited for the give and take of the business world and all its necessary compromises.
Wilbur’s death in 1912 only reinforced Orville’s sense that it was the Wrights against the world. In fact, when his sister Katharine had the audacity to marry in 1926, Orville broke off contact with her. “From Orville’s point of view,” wrote Tom Crouch in his book The Bishop’s Boys, “it was brutally simple: Katharine had violated a sacred pact.” Only because his brother Lorin insisted did Orville finally consent to visit his sister as she lay dying of pneumonia in 1929.
The Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh were pioneers. And like the settlers who found that the rugged individualism necessary for frontier living wasn’t necessarily compatible with the different demands of society, the aviators found that moving beyond their pioneering achievements meant confronting a whole new set of challenges.
Tom Huntington, Editor, American History