History is almost always more nuanced than we would prefer, and many “historic” figures became such more by chance or bluster than genuine merit. But David McCullough makes clear in his book, The Wright Brothers, that the well-known aviation pioneers deserve every bit of their success and fame.
We knew about the Wrights’ initial powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, but I did not appreciate how the brothers at the time prudently chose not to tout their success before they were confident that their invention had become truly useful. McCullough describes how the brothers continued for the next several years learning to fly back in Ohio, largely out of view. Only a few witnessed the flights at Huffman Prairie outside Dayton where they mastered control of their flying machine and improved its engine, performing in varying winds and learning to maintain complete control throughout their flights.
Unhurried by others’ attempts to fly in the United States and Europe, they ignored the skeptical voices of many who had heard reports of their first brief flight but little since. The Paris Herald said provokingly in 1906, “They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars.”
In addition, as their still largely unseen proficiency grew, the Wrights began to seek an outlet for their machine. The United States War Department declined their request for funding, saying the machine had not yet been brought to the stage of “practical operation.” So, despite Wilbur’s insistence that he was not a businessman, he travelled to Europe in 1908 to meet with representatives of the government in France, where the pursuit of flight was a national obsession. “He found himself in the thick of extremely complex commercial dealings,” according to McCullough, “playing for extremely high stakes with highly experienced entrepreneurs, politicians and bureaucrats, and in a language he neither spoke nor understood.” Moreover, “at the war ministry it was being said the Wrights were ‘bluffers like all Americans,’ ‘worthless people’ trying to sell to France ‘an object of no value’ that even the Americans did not believe in.”
But in that fraught environment, out of his element, Wilbur demonstrated a strength of character beyond his scientific genius. “Alert, patient, closely attentive, Wilbur ‘never rattled,’ as his father would say, never lost his confidence. He could be firm without being dictatorial, disagree without causing offense. Nor was there ever a doubt that when he spoke he knew what he was talking about….Most importantly, he remained entirely himself, never straying from his direct, unpretentious way, and with good effect.”
In order to strike a deal with the French, there had to be a demonstration of the worthiness of their flyer. It was in 1908 in Le Mans, France that Wilbur Wright finally demonstrated in public the mastery of flight they had acquired mostly unnoticed.
Working without his brother or his primary mechanic, Charlie Taylor, Wilbur Wright prepared himself and his plane for the moment that would launch or ground their dream. In front of a crowd of spectators who waited for hours in hot sun, his thoroughness was almost unfathomable. “Neither the impatience of waiting crowds, nor the sneers of rivals, nor the pressure of financial conditions not always easy, could induce him to hurry over any difficulty before he had done everything in his power to understand and overcome it,” described his associate Hart O. Berg.
Wilbur personified the advice he later wrote to his brother when Orville was preparing for a demonstration of his own in Virginia: “Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent,” he insisted. “Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready.”
Wilbur was finally confident of his preparations in Le Mans on August 8, 1908, at six-thirty in the evening with dusk approaching, he turned his cap backward, and to those accompanying him said quietly, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.”
He sailed away toward a row of tall poplars, where, at what seemed the last minute, the left wing dropped sharply, he banked off to the left, turned in a graceful curve, and came flying back toward the grandstand….Very near the point where he had started, he made another perfect turn to fly full circle once again, all at about 30 to 35 feet, before coming down to a gentle landing within 50 feet from where he had taken off. In all he was in the air not quite 2 minutes and covered a distance of 2 miles.
“The length of the flight was not what mattered,” said McCullough, “but that he had complete control and, by all signs, could have stayed in the air almost indefinitely.”
Mechanical and aeronautical genuises? Yes. But the Wrights’ success was due as well to their meticulous preparation, their confident refusal to make premature haste, their excruciating perseverance, and their integrity in seeking first to satisfy their own curiosity—to understand.