Happy birthday, Orville Wright

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David V. Wendell, guest columnist

Happy National Aviation Day. That’s a greeting you don’t hear every year, but in Cedar Rapids maybe you should.

National Aviation Day was authorized by Congress to be observed the week of Aug. 19 in commemoration of the birthday of Orville Wright. It was Orville, who on the morning of Dec. 17, 1903 completed the first flight of a heavier than air machine, becoming the first airplane pilot.

This year, 2016, marks 145 years since his birth. Of course, he did not accomplish the flight alone. He and his older brother, Wilbur, had been building models, of varying sizes, since they were in grade school.

It was a legacy begun in 1878 in Cedar Rapids when Milton Wright, their father, was assigned as a Church of the Brethren bishop, to Eastern Iowa. They settled on what was then Iowa Street and Milton traveled the preaching circuit throughout the Midwest. In 1878, he brought a toy, popular with children in the larger cities, to his sons as a present to show his love despite his long absences and also to inspire their appreciation of science.

The gift was a model helicopter known as the Penaud Flier. It was composed of a dowel with a wooden blade attached perpendicular at the top of the dowel. When the dowel was spun by hand, once it was released, it would drift up to the sky and hover for a few seconds. The brothers became so infatuated by this that they began crafting their own versions of it … in fact, Orville was punished by his teacher at Jefferson School for carving the toy while in class (Jefferson included grade school students at the time).

The family remained in Cedar Rapids for three years until Milton relocated his wife and children to Indiana, and, ultimately, Dayton, Ohio. There, the brothers learned the printing trade and the study of anything mechanical. They also, indirectly, made a major contribution to civil rights as publisher of an activist newspaper run by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a leading black reformist in the early 20th Century.

When the newspaper folded, and Dunbar move on to national acclaim, the Orville and Wilbur opened a bicycle repair shop in 1893 near their family home. Examining the wheels, they adapted a rim horizontally in front of the handlebars and attached short wings to it to test the airflow around them. This led to the construction of gliders that could carry a man, and, eventually, a prototype airplane with engines and propellers.

The craft was a biplane with two wings 39 feet, six inches long made of wood spars and canvas (which was acquired from a millenary in Iowa). The fabric was stitched together by the Wrights’ sister, Katharine, and the whole flying apparatus delivered to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There, the ocean breezes would produce the 30 mile per hour winds they desired to lift it into the air.

On Dec. 17, 1903 a coin was flipped and Orville, winning the toss, laid down on the center of the lower wing as the engine next to him sputtered and the propellers behind him whooshed in circles. At 10:35 a.m., with Wilbur running beside him, a sandbag of ballast dropped from a tower, initiating a series of pulleys and cables that pushed the plane down a rail until it lifted off into free flight. Orville was airborne and would forever change the way we travel around the world.

His flight only lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet (half the length of a 747 jumbo jet today), but the concept of controlled heavier than air flight had been proven a reality. A second run by Orville, after a short hop by his brother, verified the results, ending in a flight of 200 feet in 15 seconds. Mankind’s dream of mastering the skies was no longer pie in the sky, the brothers had proved that man could control his (or her) destiny in the air … and it all began on that joyful day when a father returned home with the gift of a model to show his love to his children.

So, it is appropriate that on the third week of August, you think about the Wright Brothers as you walk down the streets of Cedar Rapids, and greet those around you with a “Happy National Aviation Day.”

• David V. Wendell is a historian from Marion and Curator of the Wendell Air and Space Museum. More information: www.wendellairandspacemuseum.org

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