Son Merle finds a scrap of 35mm film on the ground in the driveway early one morning, a Kodachrome slide minus its holder, fallen out of a wastebasket on the way to the trash can. On the film is an image of a poster. Merle's sharp eyes spy a quotation by Wilbur Wright: "It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill." Next to the words, a dove soars into the air.

I snapped that photograph at an exhibit in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, 20+ years ago. The original Wright Flyer hangs there from the rafters --- paradoxically overhead yet beneath notice for an army of visitors who ignore it. They gawk instead at the massive machinery of aviation and rocketry that fills the hall.

So it is that even now, the mere memory of standing there and looking up at that first powered aircraft mists my vision. A tiny contraption of wires and cloth, product of a couple of Ohio bicycle mechanics who realized that balance and control were infinitely more important than power.

As a teenager I read Stick and Rudder, the classic book of flight instruction by Wolfgang Langewiesche ... studied Flying magazine, especially the analyses of small-plane accidents and their causes ... soared with Richard Bach's rhapsodic Jonathan Livingston Seagull ...

And I remember riding out to "Bird's Nest" and other long-extinct little airfields near Austin Texas ... clambering into open-cockpit fabric-winged Piper Cubs and similar machines ... sitting in the front seat while a private pilot high-school friend advanced the throttle ... shouting over the engine roar and through the prop wash as we climbed a few thousand feet ... taking the stick and feeling the plane bank in response to ailerons, slow with the application of elevators, skid with a kick of the rudder pedals ... cruising along creeks and ridges across the countryside ... sharing the rental expense in order to fly to an arbitrary town and back ... watching cars pass us on the highway below as we struggled against a stiff headwind ... sacrificing half a mile of altitude in a handful of seconds via a controlled spin that stalled one wing while the other kept flying ... and, one time only, steering the little craft along the flight pattern, lining up with the runway, and coming in to my single landing (under the watchful eye of the real pilot, hands hovering near the controls) --- a little hard, but on the centerline and without any ill results to airframe or occupants.

Quite a thrill --- but I wasn't (and still am not) much of a thrill-seeker. And there was the cost to consider: ground school was simply too pricey for my adolescent budget; aircraft hourly charges plus fees for flight training came to even more. A crusty old instructor at one of the little air parks told me, "If you really want to learn to fly, you'll find the money." I guess I didn't.

So I became a theoretical aviator, a vicarious pilot, now decades out of touch with modern airspace rules and technology. But the bits of flying that I did taught me countless lessons, both general and specific, human and aerodynamic. It all snaps into focus when I see that little Wright Flyer, hanging from the ceiling ... and in the same way, when I glimpse that most miraculous of images, taken at the perfect moment on the first day of powered aviation, with Wilbur and Orville Wright, one running alongside a wing tip, the other lying stretched out along the fuselage as the first airplane takes off.

... knowledge ... skill ... balance ... control ...

(see also BookhouseBoy (29 Sep 1999), KnowHowAndFearNot (19 Nov 1999), HighGlider (8 Oct 2000), ... )

TopicPersonalHistory - TopicScience - 2003-03-30

(correlates: NecessityAndSufficiency, Theory of Flight, EternalInstant, ...)