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

A Tour of Levi’s Stadium: The 49er’s New $1.2 Billion NFL Football Palace

My wife presented me with a most unusual birthday present this past August: A guided tour of Levi’s Stadium, the brand new football home to the fabled San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise. Linda learned of this stadium tour from a fellow volunteer at the local Sunnyvale Historical Museum who had recently taken it. My wife’s senior colleague does not invoke the image of a rabid football fan, so Linda was surprised at her friend’s rave reviews of the stadium and the tour.

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Yesterday, we saw for ourselves why this newest crown-jewel of National Football League stadiums can so excite even casual visitors. Yes, it is a beautiful stadium complex, constructed with an eye to environmental considerations and fan enjoyment. Unique to such stadiums is the fact that fully two-thirds of its 68,500 seats (all of which have been “sold”) are located in the “lower bowl,” closer to the playing field.

As the photos show, everything is spit and polish…except for the natural grass turf which posed a problem on opening day, surrendering large divots to the player’s football cleats. The grass problem is slowly yielding to the extensive efforts and expenditures being applied. Artificial turf has been ruled out as unsatisfactory. The stadium and practice facilities are located down the peninsula from San Francisco – in Santa Clara, California…in the heart of the world’s tech center, “Silicon Valley.” Nevertheless, the team is still known as the San Francisco 49ers.

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The luxury amenities in the form of “suites” which lease for hundreds of thousands of dollars and the large “club” areas meant for socializing, eating, and drinking (and occasional game-viewing) are quite spectacular and posh.

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The construction, appointments, and attention to detail of this entire facility is simply mind-boggling. This is a first-class facility, one fit for the wealthiest of Silicon Valley entrepreneur sport-fans, but, alas, not for the bulk of the valley’s residents. Going to a game, here, will cost big-bucks. I have more to say on that, later.

The most impressive aspect of the entire complex was not the stadium itself, but the 49ers football museum it contains. I was impressed by the larger facility, for sure, but I was absolutely blown-away by the beautiful tribute paid to 49er football history. The museum with its attention to detail, fabulous visual displays, and wealth of information reminded me of a gentler time back in 1957, a time when a seventeen year old high-school kid (me) and his dad could afford to attend a 49ers game at old Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

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It was my first significant sporting event…of any kind – in any venue, and it was a good one! My dad and I attended the pivotal 1957 game with the Baltimore Colts. I saw the fabled “million dollar backfield” of the 49ers: Quarterback Y.A. Tittle, halfback Hugh McElhenny, and running backs Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. Across the line of scrimmage, I saw some now-legendary players from the Colts as well: Quarterback Johnny Unitas – one of the best ever – and his great wide-receiver, Lenny Moore. What can I say? These folks are all in the NFL Hall of Fame. McElhenny, in particular, was a sight to behold carrying the football and is generally regarded as the greatest open-field runner in the history of the game. Once he got underway with a step or two and any openings ahead, good luck even laying a hand on him let alone slowing him down.

I recall playing touch football on a neighborhood street in San Mateo with some friends when I was in grade school – we did that a lot. That particular day, another boy from their neighborhood had joined our small group – he went by the name, “Whitey.” I never forgot that guy: It was impossible to “catch” that kid – he was so quick and elusive – on the run or from a dead start. Standing face-to-face, he would head-fake, juke, and take off with the ball leaving even the quickest of us in the dust! On the run, you could not anticipate what his next move would be; you merely blinked and, suddenly, he was… “gone.” Through the years, whenever I bemusedly recalled that afternoon of frustration playing against that kid, I could understand how Hugh McElhenny’s opponents at the University of Washington and, later, in the NFL must have felt.

That day of the 49ers/Colts game, October 8, 1957, John Brodie, the rookie All-American quarterback from Stanford University won the game in the last seconds after replacing veteran Y.A. Tittle who was injured late in the game. The winning touchdown pass from Brodie to Hugh McElhenny in the end-zone gave the 49ers an exciting 17 to 13 win and kept their playoff hopes alive. The thundering crowd reaction to that play was the first of many that I would hear in the years to come while following major college football at Stanford Stadium.

Fifty-seven years later, I could still play that touchdown back in my mind’s eye like a film replay; it happened in our corner of the end-zone. I was thrilled yesterday to see a film-clip of that very play featured in the museum displays – a virtual duplicate of the 57 year old “highlight film” embedded in my memory. Even the actual game ball that was presented to John Brodie that day was on display! Fabulous memories, those are. Seeing that film-clip was like meeting a very old friend, once again, whose persona and likeness one never, ever forgot.

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Entering the 49ers football museum, one is immediately greeted by the “million dollar backfield” of the nineteen-fifties era 49ers, sculpted in life-size figures and painted in silver. In fact, the dark-walled, spotlighted room is populated by a ghostly, apparition-like phalanx of players who are members of the 49er Hall of Fame. Many of these greats are also honored in the NFL Hall of Fame located in Canton, Ohio. Such a display could easily have looked cheesy; not this one! I was extremely impressed by the fine finish and detail of the many posed figures. Every aspect of the players and their uniforms was perfectly executed. After a first, cursory look, I checked the sculpted faces of these figures – the acid test! I was very impressed that I could easily recognize those players most familiar to me, a tremendous tribute to the exhibit and the folks who created it.

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Here is the fabled “million dollar backfield.” From left to right, Hugh McElhenny (halfback), Joe Perry (fullback), Y.A. Tittle (quarterback), and John Henry Johnson (halfback). These four comprise the only complete backfield ever to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

A fellow senior on our stadium tour commented that, in the off-season, Y.A. Tittle – star quarterback – was their milkman in the nearby community of Los Altos! That recollection highlights the wide gulf between salaries paid star players then and those of today. Those old-timers had all the motivation in the world to play their hearts out every single minute of every game…and they did. There were no “instant football millionaires” back then. Hugh McElhenny received $7,000 for his rookie season in 1952!

A famous 49er moment portrayed among these life-size figures is “The Catch,” capturing the instant which finally lurched the Niners past the Dallas Cowboys and propelled them to their first Super Bowl win in 1982 under legendary coach, Bill Walsh. The winning fourth-down touchdown pass at the end of the game was from Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana to receiver Dwight Clark. Given the Niners’ seemingly perpetual domination by the Dallas Cowboys, this was one of the greatest of 49er moments.

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Joe Perry, the Niner’s great Hall of Fame running back never had a contract with owner Tony Morabito back in the fifties – just a verbal agreement and a handshake. Oh, don’t get me started! What a beautiful time – when a man’s word was sealed with a handshake and so different from the big bucks, the miles of legal red-tape and the pages of fine print which dominate big-money sports and all other aspects of today’s society. I took particular note of that exhibit.

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There are more pictures to show, so I leave you with this: Levi’s is an amazing monument to the popularity of NFL football, today. The logistics and the talent required to conceive, build, manage, and operate this stadium truly boggle the mind. While the image of legions of excited, expectant fans filling the stadium seats on game day is easy to conjure-up in the mind’s eye, the behind-the-scenes requisite flow of money which changes hands with every game played at Levi’s is truly incomprehensible. It is sobering to ponder the vast army of people required to support the several dozen supremely talented athletes who display their skills weekly…and the huge sums of money involved in the enterprise. Perhaps it has now grown beyond reasonable bounds.

The first few games this year revealed severe traffic problems to and mainly from the stadium after the games. That is undoubtedly being improved via “logistics learning curves,” yet it is clear to me that because of the hassle and the expense involved in attending games, Linda and I will be watching 49er games mostly from the comfort and convenience of our family-room television set.

Finally, my hat is off to all involved for their role in presenting the history of 49er’s football in the world-class museum that Levi’s stadium offers the public. Yes, world-class I say, and I have seen more than a few of those in my lifetime. If you have the good fortune to visit Levi’s on tour or on game day and you are even vaguely interested in football, plan to spend close to two hours in the museum! I loved the sporting memories and the reminders the museum contains of a simpler society, a simpler life, and a simpler game – food for thought.

 Just A Few More Photos:

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John Brodie’s 1957 game ball: San Francisco 17, Baltimore 13

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 Twenty yards and a cloud of dust: Old Kezar Stadium

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 Linda and life-size Leo “The Lion” Nomellini on her left

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The “imposter” Joe Montana, #16: That’s Linda having
fun at one of the museum’s interactive exhibits!