The Navy’s Blue Angels Begin Another Season

This past weekend brought the 2019 version of the Navy’s renowned flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, to Salinas, California. Salinas marked the second of many stops on the Blues’ performance calendar for this year.

For the uninitiated, I offer the following:

-The mission of the Blue Angels is to demonstrate the performance capabilities of the modern Navy’s latest aircraft and the Naval/Marine aviators who fly them. The carefully chosen team of six aviators is comprised of the best of the best in Naval and Marine aviation. They execute the team mission by flying difficult maneuvers at high speed while maintaining very close proximity to one another in formation. This is not stunt flying. The difficult and precise routines are performed to demonstrate the ultimate capabilities of both men and machines.

-If you have never seen the Blue Angels, by all means, go do it! I can confidently speak not only for myself, but for millions of others who have attended their airshows when I say that the excitement of seeing a Blue Angels performance will rank near the top of anything the average person will experience in a lifetime. I still recall the memories of my earliest exposure, nearby at the-then Moffett Field Naval Air Station; that was in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Since then, I have seen the Blues perform several times: the thrill is ever present with each performance!

The Blue Angels were formed in 1946, just after the war. During that first year, they flew the venerable Navy warbird, the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The following year, the team embraced the faster Grumman F8F Bearcat. The team entered the jet age in 1950 with the Grumman F9F Panther. The Blues’ current ride is the McDonnell Douglas F/C-18 Hornet, an iconic airplane which has earned the longest tenure with the Blues of any airplane (the F/A-18 in1986).

This airplane is currently transitioning into an advanced configuration called the “Super Hornet.” The Navy has chosen to forego the latest high-performance airplane available in the arsenal, the advanced F-35. Procurement, maintenance and operating costs for the F-35 relative to the Hornet dictate that decision.

While anyone witnessing a Blue’s performance cannot help but admire the capabilities of the men who fly these yellow-trimmed, azure blue Hornets, my mind also focuses heavily on the aerodynamic beauty and raw power of the F-18 itself. The brute power of the airplane manifests itself with a deafening roar as the Blues roll down the runway using full afterburners during take-off. For much of the performance, the sleek Hornets slice through the air almost silently at first, only to be followed a split second later by the throaty roar from their powerful jet engines – even with afterburners off.

During their performance demonstration, the Blues’ two solo airplanes, tail-numbers five and six, employ full afterburners as they skim low across the field and rapidly swing nose up into a vertical position prior to heading several thousand feet straight up into the deep blue sky – all with no loss of momentum. To witness such performance from a flying machine is to marvel at the vision, determination, and engineering brilliance of its creators. Equally incredible is the realization that what is on display right before one’s eyes is occurring a mere one hundred and sixteen years after the Wright Brothers first left the ground for twelve seconds in 1903. That fragile machine was powered by a tiny 12 horsepower, four-cylinder piston engine machined by the Brothers’ bicycle shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor.

I like to call such positive experiences like the Blue Angels “perspective builders,” experiences which go a long way toward neutralizing the demonstrated array of follies and foolishness that history attributes to the human-race – individually and collectively. There is a sad irony, however, in the realization that some of the greatest and most rapid advances in aviation have been motivated typically by the prospect of fighting wars!

At the Airshow, It’s Time to Fly: The Excitement Builds!

In the opening moments of the program, the pilots stride six abreast with military precision along the flight line as they approach their airplanes which are precisely parked in numerical order along the line. The eyes of the crowd are affixed on the pilots, naturally, but I tend also to notice the crew chief assigned to each pilot/airplane standing by his/her aircraft, hands behind the back, waiting to swing into action. Like their crew chief counterparts in World War II combat aviation, they, too, are unsung heroes tasked with the responsibility of keeping their airplane in flying condition. In the same vein, I also appreciate the skilled mechanics who travel with and are part of the Blue Angels organization, responsible for the perfect condition of all six airplanes. There is no room, here, for less than “perfect.”

The group commander flying Blue Angel number one moves first to his airplane from his position in the procession down the flight line, followed sequentially by the pilot of number two, and so on. Each pilot “mounts” his aircraft and deftly clambers into the cockpit of an airplane which is meticulously groomed ahead of time by the support staff under the watchful eyes of each crew chief. The crew chief helps each pilot “strap” into his airplane. Then, matching yellow helmets are donned by each pilot and electrical connections made to the vital on-board communications equipment which connects all six airplanes with each other… and the ground. Now the crew chiefs step nimbly down off their airplanes and, starting with Angel number one, the Hornets’ canopies close in sequence down the line.

The excited tension in the crowd is now palpable as a perceptible “whine” and loud “whoosh” emanates from the engines of Blue Angel number one, usually accompanied by a thin puff of white smoke expelled from the tailpipe. The same scenario repeats with Blue Angel number two and so-on down the line until a very robust whining/shhhhh sound emanates from the entire flight line. Now number one pulls out from the flight line turns and starts for the taxiway, followed, as always, in sequence by the rest of the team. In a few minutes, the crowd will hear all engines release the throaty roar which signifies the take-off roll with afterburners and the start of yet another in the long line of incomparable Blue Angels flight demonstration performances.

The airshow crowd is peppered with young children whose parents brought them to see the modern-day version of the barnstorming phenomenon of the nineteen-thirties: a pilot and his Jenny bi-plane landing in a farmer’s field to demonstrate to the amazement of local folks what he and his airplane can do.

My wife and I took our two young grandsons to the airfield last Saturday to see the Blues. I wanted them to experience the same inspiration and unforgettable panorama that I was fortunate enough to witness as a teen-ager – the impressive display of men and machines at their very best. The boys loved it! They all do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Father’s Enduring Legacy: A Love of Aviation…And a Prized Painting on Glass

My father was a most remarkable man. Today, at seventy-seven years of age, I have surpassed his longevity by one year. Even at this advanced age, my appreciation of him and his legacy continues to grow with passing time. There is much I could say about my father’s innate personal honesty, integrity, ambition, and commitment to excellence in all things, but I choose to dedicate this post to one particular aspect of his life and passion: His love of aviation and airplanes.

Here is the most important, early manifestation of that legacy for me, personally: a painting of his which is prominent in my earliest recollections of childhood.

I can still visualize this painting hanging on my bedroom wall in Chicago, Illinois when I was a youngster of six or seven. Today, this brilliantly created image hangs proudly in my den, high on the wall. Often, when in a pensive mood, I look upward and turn toward this painting for reflection, inspiration, and a renewed sense of longevity and permanence, qualities so absent in today’s peripatetic world. Few memories of mine go further back in time than this depiction of a furious World War I dogfight painted by my teen-age father around 1934/35. Correspondingly, few “things” in my life have been with me for as long as this little gem, painted on the back of glass using ordinary house-paints! My father’s family had no money for artist’s materials, so he did the best he could with what he had. His life-long ability to produce exceptional results in any endeavor is already evident in the clean, precise lines and brilliant images he produced while painting on the back of glass – a very difficult medium, indeed.

A Longing on My Part for “More”

As I matured into my teen-age years, I quizzed Dad about the painting – how old was he when he painted it, where he got the idea, etc. He told me that the individual images he painted were taken from “aviation pulp magazines,” inexpensive adventure accounts of the colorful aviators who flew in World War I, typically printed in slim, inexpensive monthly issues. These were targeted at and very popular with young boys in the nineteen-thirties. In my middle-age years, prior to the advent of the internet in the nineteen-nineties and prior to Google, I could only wish that I also had in my possession the original magazine issues whose colorful, eye-catching covers were depicted on Dad’s painting. Alas, even with the growth of computer technology and improved search engines, the dream seemed beyond the pale of possibility so many decades after the fact. Of all the depictions Dad chose for his picture, the brilliant red German Pfaltz airplane in the lower right-hand corner always intrigued me most as a youngster. A close examination reveals a trail of bullet-holes in the side of the red fuselage from the machine guns firing below. Clearly, the German pilot is “dramatically dead” based on the trajectory of fire!

Even though World War I aviation with its colorful dogfighting occurred well before Dad entered his teen-age years in 1929, he knew the stories and he knew about the aces and heroes, men like Captain Eddie Rickenbacker flying for the Allies, and “The Red Baron,” Manfred Von Richtofen, on the German side. Along with millions of Americans, Dad was captivated in 1927 by young Charles Lindbergh and his daring trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh was clearly both a catalyst for my father’s life-long interest in aviation and an inspiration to him. Dad was eleven years old in 1927, and Lindbergh epitomized what an underdog can accomplish through intelligent dedication to a clearly defined goal. And dad did begin life as a definitive underdog, necessarily dropping out of high school after one year to support his struggling parents and siblings during the Depression. It was in the early nineteen-thirties when my father began to compile his aviation scrapbook, a serious collection of magazine and newspaper articles covering all aspects of the subject, meticulously assembled – as usual. Many of the entries have notable historical significance in aviation history: General Billy Mitchell’s analysis of the autogiro is present as is a photo/clipping of Jimmy Doolittle standing next to his bumble-bee-like Gee-Bee racer after setting an astounding new world speed record of 309 miles per hour! Dad had told me of his scrapbook early-on in my youth, but it had not been seen for decades, apparently lost in our move to California in 1948. “If only Dad’s scrapbook were not lost,” I often mused.

The Scrapbook Surfaces and Dad’s Aviation Legacy Grows

Miraculously, that very scrapbook surfaced in the early nineteen-sixties. I detailed the circumstances and the scrapbook itself in an earlier post which I attach in its entirety at the end of this post. Amazingly, loosely tucked between the pages were the pulp magazine “cutouts,” the very images Dad used for his dogfight painting on glass. These were taken directly from the aviation pulp magazine covers that he owned. For me, this was a dream-come-true, to possess not only this scrapbook, but the actual image-sources used for my prized painting.

 

It eerily seemed almost pre-destined that this should happen, that these objects, so strongly coveted in my imagination, should materialize out of the blue like that. Pasted within the book itself, are several other cut-outs from aviation magazine covers similar to those depicted in my painting.

Noteworthy, and not surprising given Dad’s aptitudes, many of the newspaper and magazine articles chosen for the scrapbook focus on technical aspects of the newest improvements in aviation and aeronautical engineering. The choices Dad made for inclusion in his book clearly reflect his early interest in mechanical engineering. In 1943, he left the production lines of the Schwinn bicycle company in Chicago to join United Air Lines as a draftsman and, later, as an employee in United’s Radio Laboratory. I recall him telling me many years ago that he just wanted to be around airplanes and the airline industry in some capacity or another – even if it meant washing airplanes!

Dad was transferred by United Air Lines in 1948 from Chicago to United’s maintenance base in San Francisco, California. My first-ever airplane flight was on a United DC-4 which took several hours to fly our family of four to SFO. As teenagers around our family dinner table listening to our parents re-living their day, my younger sister and I learned first-hand of the many workplace experiences (and frustrations) Dad encountered at United as he worked his way up through the ranks from draftsman to mechanical design engineer and ultimately to hands-on engineering manager of a ground-equipment design group in 1969. Achieving corporate recognition of his talents by United in the form of that last promotion was Dad’s ultimate professional goal. From 1969 until his retirement from United in 1981 after thirty-eight years, he was responsible for major portions of the ground equipment required to support United’s flight operations. He did major design work and structural analysis on jet engine maintenance scaffolding, food trucks, lavatory trucks, and baggage transporters used to efficiently load and unload United’s “Mainliners” on the tarmac. Quite a remarkable achievement for a self-motivated man who only had one year of high school! The lack of a college degree in aeronautics or engineering was a show-stopper at United even back then for anyone with significant engineering design aspirations. I often wonder how many of Dad’s colleagues, who realized he had no engineering degree yet came to appreciate and respect his mechanical engineering aptitude, had any idea of his lack of even a high school education! With each promotion and advancement, Dad had to prove and re-prove himself on the job, over and over again. Night classes in calculus, physics, and engineering at the local College of San Mateo fortified his innate abilities and enabled him to ultimately achieve the position and recognition he deserved at United. Dad was also very good at expressing his logical thought processes in clear, tautly-written memos – a must for any managerial candidate. Where he acquired his fine ability for written expression is still a puzzlement.

A few weeks ago, while cleaning out some cabinets, I came across a photo album which I had practically forgotten. The nicely displayed photos and memorabilia therein were of my father’s retirement party from United in 1981. My wife and I were present that night as were many of Dad’s colleagues and close friends from United. Some of the friendships present that evening spanned most of Dad’s thirty-seven years at United. What a contrast to today’s workplaces!

I noticed two UAL envelopes tucked into the front of the album. The typewritten, personally signed letters inside were on UAL letterhead stationery and dated 1969. One was from the corporate vice-president of base maintenance at UAL/SFO who knew Dad and took the time to personally congratulate him on his appointment in 1969 to engineering design manager. He knew and appreciated what Dad had achieved and how deserving he was of the promotion.

The other letter was from a long-time friend and colleague of Dad’s from the early Chicago days at UAL. Like my father, Duane Buckmaster was deeply rooted in aviation and on a steady-track of self-improvement. I will never forget the time he came out from Chicago to SFO on UAL business and came by our little San Mateo home to join the four of us for a home-cooked meal. This was around 1956/57. Dad gave me a heads-up prior to Mr. Buckmaster’s arrival that evening. He said, “You should know that Duane flew B-24 Liberators over Germany on bombing raids during World War II. His plane was shot down on June 6, 1944 (D-day) by German fighters during the famous Ploesti oil field raids. After parachuting with the rest of the crew from the doomed plane, he was captured by the Germans and held prisoner. He eventually escaped and found his way back across the enemy lines.” I recall Buckmaster’s story that evening and his detailed responses to the many questions from myself, my sister, and my parents. Needless to say, I was mesmerized by his story, and I have never forgotten that evening over all these years. Here is his congratulatory letter to Dad, dated July 7, 1969:

I especially appreciate his vivid comments about “our mutual struggles with the calculus” during “those nights at College of San Mateo.”

Duane Buckmaster was a good friend who, like Dad, also left his mark on United Air Lines, eventually becoming Executive Vice-President of Human Resources based in United’s Chicago offices. Predictably, Duane Buckmaster made it a point to be here, in California, to honor Dad at his retirement party in 1981.

United Air Lines runs deep in my veins for so many obvious reasons. It was and is a major part of my father’s aviation legacy. Dad and “Buck” Buckmaster worked for the airline during its glory days, days when flying was more than merely a quicker option to get from point A to point B. From United’s inception in 1926 and well into the nineteen-sixties, flying the “Friendly Skies” meant just that – an enjoyable, special experience – an event. Times and circumstances change, however, and not always for the better. United’s foundational president, W.A. Patterson ran United with a sure and steady hand for many years.

Patterson always valued United’s employees and their contributions as evidenced by the book High Horizons which he commissioned and gifted to every employee in 1951, on United’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The book is a revealing, well-illustrated history of United Air Lines over its first quarter-century. I remember my father’s copy which arrived at our house in 1951 and remained housed in our small dining room bookcase for many decades. Alas, it disappeared after my parents died. Such is the importance of United Air Lines and aviation in my life and recollections that I recently searched for and found a like-new copy of High Horizons on the internet. It arrived in the mail just days ago. Tucked inside is the original silver card insert that carried president Patterson’s personal thanks and best wishes to each employee – a class act. Employee regard for W.A. Patterson was high for obvious reasons. Patterson made United a great airline.

My father’s retirement years were heavily tinged with his continuing love of aviation. He obtained his private pilot’s license and became heavily involved with building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes. I have written about his RC flying in previous blog posts about him and his dedication to excellence. He and my mother, who was always by his side through forty-nine years of marriage, spent several very happy years enjoying the retired life together before she passed away in 1989. Life was not the same for Dad or for us after she was gone; he followed her in 1992 leaving my sister and I and his grandchildren a fine legacy of remembrance, a special part of which I highlight, here, in this post/tribute.

The aviation bug, planted by my father, has been in my system for as long as I can remember. It periodically goes dormant for a while when one of my many other interests flares up yet again to reclaim its periodic turn in the spotlight of my attention. However, none of these is as deeply rooted in my consciousness as is aviation, thanks to Dad.

Pushing Hard to Complete the Arc of Dad’s Legacy

Two weeks ago, and after all these decades, I resumed my quest to learn still more about the aviation painting that hangs in my den. What were those magazines whose covers are depicted? Enlisting the aid of Google search, I was finally able to identify the specific aviation pulp magazines whose covers grace my father’s painting. Furthermore, I found the actual 1931 August and September issues of Battle Aces for sale on the internet. The cover artwork of the September issue carries the red German Pfaltz airplane so dramatically pictured by Dad in his painting. The August issue’s cover is not depicted in the painting; the July issue is.

 

This, and the image which follows are two of the covers which captured my father’s fancy as a young man. Finally, after decades of mystery and intrigue, my quest to intimately know the details pertinent to my prized painting has been satisfied. The cover art on all but four of the twenty-seven issues of Battle Aces which ran from October, 1930 through December, 1932 were painted by Frederick Manley Blakeslee at the beginning of his notable career as illustrator for early aviation publications, and later, railroading magazines.

As a final chapter to this part of my story, I also discovered that the original Blakeslee oil painting commissioned for the September, 1931 issue of Battle Aces was sold at auction in 2012 for $2200! The only thing better than having the magazine cover would be to own the original painting commissioned for it!

In 1988, my dad created an oil-on-canvas re-visitation of his early painting on glass. A few aspects of the aerial battle were modified in his new effort, but the red Pfaltz was depicted as before, only headed now in the opposite direction!

Aviation in World War II: The Latest Installment of the Legacy

There is one final chapter (at least for now) of the aviation legacy I inherited from my father. Conditioned by my lifelong involvement with Dad’s legacy and artwork which began with World War I, I have more recently taken note of today’s many fine artists and their fabulous work portraying airplanes and aviation history in the World War II theatre. I find particularly interesting the stories of wartime flyers like Duane Buckmaster who have incredible tales to tell. Fascinating, too, are the aces and the airplanes they flew that saved the western world from Hitler’s Germany and the Luftwaffe.

One of my earliest literary entries into World War II aviation is represented by this excellent book on the Air Force and air power published by Martin Caidin in 1957. I was a high school junior at that time, well into my aviation legacy and already a veteran when it came to building model airplanes. I recall seeing this book displayed in the window of a small bookshop in downtown San Mateo. When I asked to see it, the ten-dollar price on the jacket meant leaving without it, but the photo/text of the book proved fascinating. Every time I passed that bookstore window, the book beckoned. Finally, I had mowed enough neighborhood lawns to save the ten dollars and the book was mine. It seemingly was meant to be that I should have this book. In fact, at the very moment I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps Duane Buckmaster’s visit to our house in the month’s prior precipitated my burning desire to have this book – very possible, even likely, and interesting to contemplate! Today, I have assembled a small but meaningful reference library on aviation, airplanes, and aces – a collection which began with Caidin’s book, Air Force.

I published a previous post (see my archives) highlighting the fascinating story of A Higher Call, as portrayed in the book of the same title and depicted by the artwork of Florida artist, John D. Shaw. Shaw recently completed his most recent artistic rendering of the event in a new limited print edition titled Prey for Mercy.
Shaw’s artwork gives us a wonderful portrayal of the opening moments of a most improbable and unforgettable interaction between a B-17 bomber pilot and crew and a multiple ace of the German Luftwaffe on the threshold of earning the coveted Luftwaffe Flying Cross, needing just one more “kill” to his credit. I was taken with this limited-edition offering and recently received my print along with accompanying material and the actual signature card of the German flyer who was involved, Franz Stigler. Shaw’s earlier artistic rendering of the event is also beautifully done, but long sold-out and very hard to find on the secondary market.

The Legacy Continues!

My enthusiasm for aviation is hardly satisfied at this late date; there are still so many books on my shelves and stories waiting in the wings. Most significantly, both my curiosity about and my fascination with this life-long legacy of aviation gifted to me by my Father, Alfred Chester Kubitz, are still running strong. Time is running short, now, but the skies still beckon!

The Brothers Wright Had “The Right Stuff”

Their names are synonymous with the airplane and aviation, yet they are under-appreciated by today’s public. Wilbur and Orville were brothers from Dayton, Ohio, and they truly had “the right stuff.” Nobody knew their names in the beginning. This famous picture captures the moment that changed everything.

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 Kitty Hawk – Dec. 17, 1903 – Orville Wright at the controls!

Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot who first flew through the sound barrier at Edwards Air Force Base in 1947 also personified the “right stuff”, and nobody knew his name. Also anonymous were his fellow test pilots at Edwards who risked their necks while pushing aviation’s “envelope” in the early part of the last century. But, all of it started with the Wright brothers from Dayton, Ohio.

Humans had dreamt of flying for centuries. It finally truly happened on December 17, 1903 on the barren sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The chosen site of mankind’s first self-sustained, powered flight had little to offer as amenities except sweeping expanses of soft sand and virtually constant wind – just what the brothers Wright were looking to find. Despite all the hot-air ballooning and gliding experiments that had taken place decades before that day in December, 1903, there were many so-called aviation “experts” who said man would never truly fly…right up to the time of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight.

Wright Bros. Stamp_1Wilbur and Orville Wright were not listening to the skeptical “experts.” They navigated their successful course relying on their own compass bearings: That was just their way of doing things – a necessary ingredient for the “right stuff” recipe. Even so, they had hoped to leverage their engineering/design efforts by using worthy findings and data compiled by their contemporaries and predecessors in “the flying machine game.” It was only common sense to use what findings were already available. But, as often as not, the brothers had to invent and chart their own course in so many ways.

Even the great German, Otto Lilienthal, whose pioneering experimentation with gliders furthered the cause of flight, had compiled data on wing curvature that was proven erroneous by the independent-minded brothers who proceeded to correct Lilienthal’s findings. Ultimately, the brothers Wright did things their own way, and, in the process, provided society not only with man’s first flying machine, but with a template for future large-scale engineering and manufacturing processes.

1909_Wright_Cycle_Shop[1]There are few stories more engaging than that of these two brothers who turned the world on its ear through their vision, ingenuity, and stark determination. Imagine: Two brothers in the business of manufacturing and selling bicycles from their tiny shop in Dayton, Ohio, taking upon themselves the immense task of building a flying machine by studying and observing birds in order to decipher their DNA encoded secrets of flight. Wilbur and Orville had no fancy college education to enable them. It was their curiosity and sense of wonder, coupled with their practical, can-do attitude, that powered them to success in the venture.

Their father, Bishop Wright, was a religious man – a traveling pastor whose personal example instilled in the brothers their common-sense approach to life and their devotion to hard work. And the task they undertook required copious quantities of both virtues.

Their first successful powered flight of 12 seconds duration over120 feet of distance occurred during the third of three extended trips to Kitty Hawk. The first two outings which began in 1900 were devoted to gliding experiments.

Among the critical findings during those first two extended stays on the site’s desolate sands were the concepts of wing-warping and proper wing curvature. Warping of the wings using controls by the prone pilot anticipated the modern aileron design present in all modern airplanes and crucial to controlled turns. It was their correct surmise that control of the machine was the ultimate problem standing in the way of successful flight, and they attacked it with a vengeance. The critical wing curvature question was tackled in the backroom of their cycle shop using one of the first wind tunnels ever constructed (by themselves, of course!).

There was one major problem remaining, and that was acquiring a very lightweight engine capable of launching their craft in the air…and keeping it there. A search for appropriate power-plants revealed none, so the brothers furnished their own! The twelve horsepower, four cylinder engine with a lightweight aluminum block was designed and built by Charlie Taylor, a mechanic with a genius bent who worked for the brothers in the backroom “machine shop” of their cycle shop. Yes, luck is always present in any successful endeavor with a long reach, but the brothers’ association with Mr. Taylor accurately illustrates the adage that talent attracts talent. It is quite incredible and so fitting that the brothers produced, as icing on the cake, their own power-plant for the world’s first true flying machine.

The brothers continued their pioneering work on flight in the years which followed Kitty Hawk, keeping much of it under wraps for fear of those who would steal from them, their patentable ideas. Indeed, in France they believed that they, the French, were leading the charge in aviation – that is, until Wilbur traveled to France in 1908 and took the wraps off the brothers’ latest refinements with a tour-de-force series of demonstration flights by Wilbur in the latest “Wright Flyer.” The French were stunned and found themselves quickly relegated to a back seat in the bus along with the rest of the “flying machine” contenders.

Wilbur died early, in 1912, but Orville lived until 1948, long enough to see their brainchild, the airplane, exceed anyone’s wildest imaginings. I recall that Orville’s death occurred just one year after Chuck Yeager shattered the sound barrier in the rocket-propelled Bell X-1 at Edwards, thus giving birth to a new age in aviation.

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The saga of the Wright brothers is the quintessential American story. Fact is always stranger than fiction…and so much more engrossing. I love a true story, well-told, so I am very pleased that the author/historian best positioned to do the Wright brothers justice has chosen to do so in his just-released book, The Wright Brothers. That, of course would be David McCullough, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies, Truman, and John Adams.

Wright_Brothers_in_1910[1]Author McCullough maintains that Wilbur and Orville Wright, though well-known, are under-appreciated by today’s public; I agree. In reading McCullough’s carefully researched account, I find so much of value in their story which sticks to the reader’s ribs. The author’s demonstrated appreciation of “excellence” and “self-reliant” motivation resonates perfectly with the characters in his book. In today’s world, with its emphasis on glitz and immediate, though transient impact, the devotion-to-task and patient steadfastness of the Wright brothers may appear old-fashioned and out-of-date, but there is no denying that that they, as much as anyone in our history, characterize our celebrated “Yankee ingenuity” and inventiveness. These were serious people, doing serious engineering, and making great history. I applaud author McCullough for his thorough research which figures so prominently in highlighting the personal characteristics of these men, characteristics which enabled their great success. The world has been and continues to be changed forever by the likes of them.

Remarkably, they achieved this great success without any outside funding for their efforts – unlike some other competitors who failed, despite government funding. True to their independent nature, the brothers paid their own way – entirely. Later, the government in Washington predictably became very interested in their flying machine… for military purposes.

I found fascinating, McCullough’s vignette on Amos I. Root, an enterprising beekeeper from upstate Ohio and one of the very few people who took any notice of the Wright’s extensive test flying at Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, in the spring of 1904. It was over that expansive prairie that the brothers perfected their flyer and honed their flying skills. This went on for months, to the complete oblivion of virtually everyone in the region including the local Dayton newspapers. Proud owner of a new Oldsmobile automobile, Root would motor down to Dayton to watch the brothers fly, earning their friendship and confidence, in the process. It was months before the population and the local papers finally latched on to the importance of what was visibly happening right under their distracted noses. In contrast to the public at large, Mr. Root possessed intellectual curiosity and sufficient wisdom to be able to discern history in the making.

And finally, much like the brave, intrepid test pilots like Chuck Yeager at the Edwards Air Force Base Test Center, the two brothers risked their lives every time they went up in the air – even in the early gliders. The brothers did all of their own flying. The first airplane passenger ever killed was a member of the Signal Corps who went up with Orville in 1908. Orville was seriously injured and barely survived the crash. Nothing about their remarkable, successful journey was simple or easy. I confidently hope that David McCullough’s book will help to impress that fact upon the public while generating new interest.

The quote which opens chapter one is perfectly suited to the message received from the story within the book:

“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

 – Wilbur Wright

Postscript:

With all due respect to Ohio, that state may not quite be the exciting cauldron of opportunity it once was, but Wilbur’s contention that a good father and mother are  prime catalysts to the success of their offspring still holds true. I feel so strongly about that contention that my blog post last week happens to be about the most important job in the world: PARENTING. I think the brothers Wright would agree.

Click here to see last week’s post on PARENTING

 For my previous blog post on author David McCullough click here:

My post on David McCullough

Better to Pursue One’s Passion or a Practical Profession?

First Flight_1 Crop

The Wright Brothers from Dayton, Ohio, pursued their passion of manned flight. In 1903, their dedication and efforts created not only a practical profession for themselves, but the entire aviation industry! In case they were not successful, they had an established backup plan: Their profitable bicycle shop back home. They were quintessential examples of successfully pursuing a passion.

The working world offers many career choices. Within any given category lurks the tricky task of choosing “passion” or “practical profession.” The question is: “Shall I pursue my passion, or shall I choose a more predictable profession which will offer financial security?” The expense of a college degree or other training which is required is often a significant factor in the whole equation. Let us look at another, less dramatic example of passion vs. profession involving aviation.

Another Aviation Example: Passion or Profession?

For a youngster looking to the future who loves airplanes, the prospect of flying them might entail both a passion and the most enviable of professions – at least until a reality check makes it clear that a smooth path to a steady, well-paying flying career in the airlines is a thing of the past. Many career airline captains in past decades received their flight training and flying experience while in the military, a point of entry which is, today, almost non-existent compared with years past – especially the World War II and Korean War eras.

Private aviation flight schools are no less expensive than most colleges and universities; a degree/certificate from one of these comes complete with very tenuous employment opportunities with the major airlines. Flying for a small feeder line guarantees very poor pay, long hours, and no job security – if one should be so lucky to even find such a position. For some, their innate talent and the dedication to pursue their passion will overcome any practical considerations…and Godspeed to them!

A more practical alternative for the aviation buff might be to enroll in a college or university which offers a degree in mechanical or aeronautical engineering. With such credentials, the chances of a stable and rewarding career in aviation are significantly improved – compared to flying. My father had such a career.

My Father and the Perfect Solution

My Father had a lifelong passion for airplanes and aviation along with virtually no initial chance, whatsoever, to embrace his passion or even to experience a rewarding career in the field. He had but one year of high school before coming face-to-face with the necessity of going to work to help support his family during the Depression. He went from the bicycle assembly shop at Arnold Schwinn in Chicago in 1940  (the year I was born)  to senior mechanical design engineer/engineering manager at United Air Lines many years prior to his retiring (comfortably) in 1981 from United. He accomplished this very difficult feat through dedication, study, and hard work over many years.

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My father was a most uncommon man: You may read my prior posts on him for the details. Click here for: Aviation Scrapbook: A Long-Lost Treasure From the Attic (3-16-14); The Work Ethic and the Dignity of Excellence  (9-15-13); Family Funnies / Great Laughs! (6-9-13).

The point, here, is that he was able to do important work in aviation and to be around airplanes for the better portion of his career by making judicious choices along the way. Ultimately, he made his youthful dream come true by earning his private pilot’s license and flying single engine airplanes under the auspices of United’s employee flying club. Although he would have loved to fly for United as a career, he forged an alternate pathway to get up-close-and-personal to his great passion – airplanes and aviation. His career with United spanned thirty-seven years, capped by a comfortable retirement of eleven years before he passed away. He had aspects of both passion and stable profession over all those years.

Is the Passion vs. Profession Quandary Always Easy to Resolve?

Not really. For would-be artists, dancers, musicians, and athletes whose passion is  to reach the upper echelons, there is no compromise with the all-out dedication and effort those fields require. Although there is inevitably a fallback position available to those who fall short of reaching the top in those fields, the long-term prospects and the financial security of those alternate livelihoods are typically problematic.

It would seem that only those imbued with extreme confidence in their innate talent (and dedication) – Charles Lindbergh, for example – should “risk all” by entering a potentially dead-end, one-way alley. The rest would be well-advised to hedge their bets and plot an alternate path – just in case! Even Lindbergh, with his warranted, great self-confidence and his passion to make aviation history, had a fallback position: As an experienced air-mail pilot. He did not need it.

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