If you were to take a trip to downtown Dayton, Ohio, you might see a curious sight. Smack in the middle of the Main Street median there’s a large undulating metal sculpture. It’s 120 feet long and rises and dips like a roller coaster, with its highest point just over 43 feet from the ground.
It was constructed in 1996 by sculptor David Evans Black. While it’s remarkable as a piece of public art, it’s more remarkable for what it commemorates: The first powered human flight, a feat accomplished by Dayton natives Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Today we pause to note the 110th anniversary of their short, perilous but notable swoop into aviation history. The wind was a brisk 27 miles per hour that morning on the sandy dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Orville Wright, who would take the first flight, wrote this about his experience: “I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult on account of its being balanced too near the center and thus had a tendency to turn itself when started so that the rudder was turned too far on one side and then too far on the other. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about 10 ft. and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight.”
The team made three more flights that morning. Wilbur piloted the day’s record flight, which lasted 59 seconds and covered a distance of 852 feet.
The Wright brothers’ fascination with the prospect of powered flight stemmed from a gift given them by their father in 1878. It was a toy glider, with a propeller spun by a twisted rubber band.
They funded their passion first with a print shop and later a bicycle shop. It bears note that the Wright Brothers were largely self-taught. Neither had formal training as engineers. What they had were curiosity, commitment and ingenuity.
Their real contribution to a field crowded by crazy flapping and spinning contraptions was the design of pilot controls. Other vehicles could glide, but the Wrights’ genius made controlled (thus reliable) flight possible.
By 1899, they had tested a series of kites and then gliders using a control system similar to the one they took to that North Carolina beach. It took them three years to develop a glider with enough control to make a sustained flight.
By 1908, they had developed an airplane capable of flying for half an hour. With their technological success, they also found fame. Unfortunately, with their innovation on display, it was easy to copy — which competitors freely did. As a consequence, they spent the rest of their lives embroiled in one lawsuit after another. While they hold the lasting honor of giving humanity the gift of powered flight, the legal battles left them dispirited.
Their particular legal and financial trajectory aside, the Wrights also gave humanity a shining example of courage and determination. Therein lies the larger lesson. They accomplished what no one had ever done before. Moreover, they accomplished what many thought was impossible. They did it without fancy degrees or fat bank accounts. They did it fueled by a dream.
As we look around at the community we want to become, we’d do well to remember the Wrights. Everything about their situation suggested failure and insurmountable obstacles. It was a crazy mission, undertaken with a paucity of resources. Even so, they persisted and in the process, changed humanity.