How I Accidentally Flew a Wright Flying Machine

Winter 2003 CSANews Issue 49  |  Posted date : May 02, 2007.Back to list

Dec. 17, 2003, marks the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight of a heavier-than-air machine, when Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, flew the first Wright Flyer 120 feet at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Let's get one thing straight right from the top: I am not a pilot. I have never had flying lessons but, throughout my life, I've always had a passion for aircraft and anything connected with aviation. Little did I know that, thanks to the generosity of the City of Dayton ­ the hometown of the Wright brothers, where they not only discovered the concepts of flight through scientific experimentation but also designed and built their flying machines ­ I would accidentally pilot a Wright Flyer and enter my own footnote in aviation history. Here's my story...

Bless those early highway engineers who planned the course of Interstate 75. In doing so, they built it right through the Wright brothers' neighbourhood in Dayton. Just west of I-75's Third Street (exit 53A) ramp lies the original Wright bicycle shop on Williams Street, where the concept of powered flight was born. Now restored as a museum with free admission, it also serves as the headquarters of the U.S. National Park Service's Dayton Aviation Historical Park. Across the road is the site of the brothers' second bicycle shop, and just a few blocks away is Hawthorne Street, the site of the Wright family home.

These heritage sites so close to I-75 gave me the very excuse I needed to become involved with Dayton and its aviation historians. Several years ago, realizing that the Wright centenary would soon be here, I picked up the phone and started making contact.

The Dayton folk were very helpful. They were well along in their plans for a summer festival called "Inventing Flight ­ Dayton 2003," which included a special exhibit park, many actors (including "Wilbur" and "Orville") roaming the streets in period costume and a faithful recreation of the original parade in 1909, when the city welcomed its heroes home.

My wife, Kathy, and I spent a lot of time communicating with these folks and visiting Dayton. On one occasion, they opened the museum at Carillon Historical Park for us after hours and allowed us to go into the restricted area, where the Wright brothers' second machine, the 1904 Wright Flyer II, was displayed. It was a great thrill to touch and photograph up close this very special historical flyer ­ the world's first practical aircraft, which is now designated a National Historic Landmark.

As a result of all these activities, we published a special collector's edition of Along Interstate-75, which honours Dayton and the Wrights. And that's how, on a quiet, sunny morning in May, I found myself sitting nervously on the lower wing of a 1911 Wright Flyer B alongside pilot John, resplendent in his 1909 U.S. Army Signal Corps uniform. Let me take you back to that day.

May 19, 2003, Kettering Field, Dayton, Ohio: On grassy Kettering Field I sat strapped into the flying machine while pilot John allowed the 1909 engine to reach operating temperature; it was at this moment that I felt a real connection with man's first powered flight. Few people have heard an antique Wright engine rhythmically clicking as its oily tappets compress the cylinder valves. Few people have felt the vibration of a flyer's huge wooden "pusher" propellers as they idle with an eerie "whoomph whoomph" just a few feet behind them, driven by bicycle chains humming through narrow tubes. It's a very special moment.

I was surrounded above and below by ribbed canvas wings held together by a forest of wires and spruce wood struts.

A brass petrol canister secured to the stanchion above my head fed the antique engine by gravity. I didn't need to close my eyes to take me back to the early 1900s...I was already there.

John tapped me on the shoulder, and I lowered my flying goggles. With a hand adjustment to the spark magneto, he opened the fuel lever, and the props' thrumming noise steadied before exploding into a loud, angry roar.

The 1911 Wright Flyer B trundled forward. As it slowly gathered speed, the grassy surface beneath us converted its unevenness into shaking, which seemed to tear at the very structure to which we were strapped. My nerves tingled, waiting for the inevitable...but then, with a final shudder, the ground slowly slipped away and we climbed smoothly into the waiting sky.

We were flying under power just as man had flown for the first time 100 years earlier. A feeling of awe quickly pushed apprehension into the background. This was THE defining moment; I was experiencing history first-hand. Little did I know that in another second it was going to become very personal!

John indicated for me to take the controls. Horror! Through a miscommunication during the pre-flight briefing, he thought I was an experienced pilot ­ but I had never been at the wheel of an airplane in my life! I couldn't communicate this error to him because of the roar of the two huge propeller blades just six feet behind us and the fact that his ears were encased in a leather helmet, which completely blocked any thought of conversation.

So, turning a problem into an opportunity, I gingerly took the controls and tried a slow roll to port and then a reverse roll to starboard (with a little rudder to bring me back on course ­ thank heavens for hours spent on Microsoft's Flight Simulator on my home computer!). At an airspeed of about 50 mph, the Flyer lumbered very heavily on her controls, rather like an old car with no power steering.

All too soon it was over. I gave John a thumbs-up, and he took the controls for our landing. We quickly exchanged our airspace for the bumpy grass landing strip, and I exchanged Wilbur and Orville's simpler world for today's complex one.

Several months I learned what a unique experience my flight had been. I was describing it to a friend, who thought for a minute and observed, "Do you realize that there are only three people who have ever flown a Wright Flyer without training or previous experience? Wilbur, Orville, and now you!"

I checked my sources, and he was right: even the brothers' sister, Katherine (the first aviatrix), had been given lessons by Orville. I had literally flown the Wright Flyer by the seat of my pants, just as the two brothers had in 1903!

Facts: The Wright Flyer "B" was built by the Wright Brothers in 1911 for the Army Signal Corps. It was known as the "headless Wright" because it was the first flyer not to have the familiar front elevator of the earlier craft. Wing span - 38.5 ft; length - 28 ft; weight - 1,250 lbs. Engine: 4 cylinder (140 cu. ins.) developing 30-40 hp.