Tribune Print Share Text

Pioneers of flight

A fresh look at the Wright brothers

Created date

June 24th, 2015
Wright brothers plane
Wright brothers plane

By appearance alone, they hardly seemed like the men who would conquer the age-old challenge of human flight. 

Wilbur, for one, was lanky, balding, and rarely if ever smiled in photographs. His brother Orville also wore a serious, even stoic, expression but distinguished himself most notably with his bushy yet neatly groomed mustache.

Behind their rather ordinary appearance, however, was an extraordinary combination of vision and determination, qualities that come shining through in David McCullough’s new book The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster, 2015).  

“You really can’t talk about the Wright brothers without acknowledging their remarkable drive,” says McCullough, whose biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams both won Pulitzers. “People often gloss over them as two bicycle mechanics who happened to invent the airplane, but there is so much more to them, so much more to their story.”

McCullough’s research involved combing through a thousand pages of letters and diaries belonging to the brothers, their father Bishop Milton Wright, and their sister Katherine, as well as traveling the world from Ohio to Kitty Hawk to Le Mans, France. In the process, he got to know the Wrights as living, breathing individuals—details that he says add dimension to their achievement.

Humble beginnings

In fact, McCullough believes that their upbringing by itself serves to magnify the gravity of their accomplishment. As he explains, they grew up in a house with no electricity, no telephone, and no running water. But they had plenty of other advantages.

“They had no formal training, no financial backers, no inside connections,” says McCullough, but “they [learned] the values of honesty, modesty, and determination” from a father who insisted that they read, encouraged intellectual curiosity, and had “undying faith in their ability to succeed.”

Grit and determination

It was this “undying faith” that helped the brothers to soldier through countless trials with prototype gliders—some outings far more fruitful than others. Wilbur and Orville spent years testing and fine-tuning their designs on the windswept dunes of Kitty Hawk and the prairies of Dayton, Ohio.

“For quite a while, people thought they were crazy, but that didn’t faze them,” notes McCullough. “They kept on working—they worked hard as hell.”

Throughout their trials, they made alterations to the wings, the rudder, the controls, the engine. 

When they crashed, they rebuilt. When they failed, they rethought and then retried.

Of course, in writing about these challenges, McCullough says that he faced a few of his own. 

“I’m not highly trained in physics and mathematics, so getting those aspects of the story right was important to me, and I might add, not all that easy to do,” he admits. “I was also very careful to convey the spirit of a place like Dayton, Ohio, at the turn of the century—that wonderfully productive, optimistic era before World War I.”

American ingenuity

And with innovators like the Wright brothers managing feats that for so long seemed impossible, it’s no wonder people were optimistic. By 1908, Wilbur and Orville had developed an aircraft capable of flying for miles on end and entirely in the control of the pilot’s hands. 

People came by the thousands to see Wilbur fly in Le Mans, France, with Orville conducting equally popular test flights in America. And McCullough makes it clear that this historic triumph was a long and arduous journey for the two unassuming brothers who had never finished high school.

“Wilbur and Orville didn’t give up,” he says. “They kept at it no matter how difficult things were for them. If someone said they were crazy or foolish or setting themselves up to fail, they didn’t allow it to sway them.”

From the start, the Wrights knew that success wouldn’t come easily—they had no illusions about that. Indeed, Wilbur said it best when he stated with succinct eloquence that “No bird soars in a calm.”