The appearance of human flight not only enhanced our power of movement, but also improved our vision: we gained the ability to see the Earth from above. Before Wright’s epochal breakthrough, there were perhaps thousands of human flights, mostly in balloons. But the advent of airplanes – a whole new way of seeing and experiencing our planet with speed and control – has led to euphoric reactions around the world. Wilbur and Orville caused an eruption with their first public flights in the summer and early fall of 1908.
To see how important the news was, it’s important to remember the broad skepticism toward Wright’s claims that they perfected a completely practical flying machine. They did not hide their machine during its development until 1905, but they did not invite the crowd either. February 10, 1906 New York Herald to put it bluntly: “The Wrights flew or did not fly. They own the machine or they don’t have it. They are in fact either flyers or liars. “
But when they flew to the public – first Wilbur, on August 8, 1908 in Le Mans, France – press reports were breathless: “I saw him! I saw them! ”Reporter for Le Figaro cried. “No doubt! Wilbur and Orville Wright flew well and truly!” Wilbur’s flights followed earlier French and American successes of other competitors: Henry Farman won the Deutsch-Archdeacon award for a one-kilometer circular flight; Glenn Curtiss won Scientific American Cup for one kilometer of flat flight in his June Bug. But Wilbur’s flights to France, and then Orville’s to Fort Myer, Virginia, were longer and under greater control far from anything before. “WORLD RECORD OF SHIPS DEAD ORVILLE WRIGHT ON FT. MYER, VA, ”he roared Washington Times September 13 after flying for more than an hour. An eyewitness was quoted as saying, “I’d rather be Orville Wright now than the president of the United States!”
When planes first flew, they brought two new amazing experiences to the human race. One was the sight of a fellow man traveling the sky at speed and in control. Great competitions were held so that the public could witness the miracle. The first such competition in the United States was at Dominguez Field in Los Angeles in January 1910. “On a test flight [Glenn] Curtiss soars like a huge bird. Thousands of cheers as a new and untried biplane jumps into the sky, ”he announced Los Angeles Herald. The meeting lasted 10 days and was attended by more than 250,000 people.
Another new aspect of airplane flight was what aviators and their passengers saw from the sky – experiencing our improved vision for the first time. Renowned journalist Richard Harding Davis best describes the transformation. He went to Aiken, South Carolina to fly with Wright pilot and instructor Frank Coffyn in 1911. Although he covered the Johnstown Flood and the Spanish-American War, he approached Coffyn’s Wright B model with horror. “I began to hate Coffyn and the Wright brothers,” he wrote. . “I started to regret not being raised as a family man, so … I could explain that I can’t go upstairs because I had children to support. I was willing to support any number of children. To anyone children. “
But once they were in the air, “a wonderful thing happened,” he wrote. “The polo field, and then the high fence around the boards, the tangle of telegraph wires and the tops of the tallest pines suddenly sank below us …. billiard cloth. We rolled evenly in a sharp curve, and behind us for miles we saw cotton fields like a shiny chessboard. “
He went through an epiphany. “I began to understand why young men with obviously everything that can make them happy on earth insist on leaving it by plane …. What entices them is the call of a new world awaiting conquest, a sense of power separation from all that is a humdrum, or even human, the excitement that makes all the other sensations stale and dry, the excitement that makes each of them king at the moment. “
When they landed, Coffyn told Davis they had flown about six miles. “But we went much further than that,” Davis wrote. “And how much longer we’re going to go, no one can say.”
The Wright brothers and the invention of the air age it was made possible by the generous support of David M. Rubenstein and Frederick and Barbara Clark Telling.
Like this article?
APPLY for our newsletter