Geniuses, tinkerers, theoreticians, self-made engineers, disciplined and methodical men, problem solvers, humble and honest brothers—Orville and Wilbur Wright were all these, as the Wright Cycle Company and Visitor Center (part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park) displays. The Wrights lifted off the ground in Kitty Hawk, but they learned how to make a flying machine—and how to fly—in Dayton.
When Orville and Wilbur were children, their father (a pastor) gave them a flying toy that put the germ of flight into their minds. Their supportive mother and father instilled in them positivity and a love of learning (and of tinkering) that enabled the germ to grow, and though neither Orville or Wilbur went to college, they self-learned the equations and methods necessary to discover new principles of flight.
They studied other pioneers in the field, but when some passed-down structure or some formula didn’t work, they thought and tinkered and experimented to find out why it didn’t, and then found out what did.
The Wright brothers, veterans of their printing press and bicycle shop businesses, put their mechanical know how and their figure-it-out genius to work to create a new propeller that pulled a plane through the air. Observing birds in flight taught them to control roll by warping wings. They learned to control pitch with elevators and to control yaw with rudders. They needed a faster takeoff speed than what their lightweight motor provided, so they designed a slingshot that launched their plane down a rail and into the air. By dint of experience and experiment (they used a wind tunnel to test their ideas) they learned, for example, that putting the elevator forward enabled them to control the plane better.
During years of dedicated, methodical work, they filled notebooks with data points and calculations as they learned not only how to power lift their plane off the ground but also how to control it and circle it many times around Huffman Prairie (their flying field located just outside of Dayton, which is now on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) until only a lack of gas glided it down.
Orville and Wilbur Wright epitomize the American success story. Two brothers working out of a bicycle shop at first, then committing full time to airplane design, thinking, experimenting, picking up after crashes and fixing things, who are driven to fly. And they do.
The Wright Cycle Company and Visitor Center in Dayton tells wonderfully the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright learning to fly. Also at the Visitor Center, on the second floor, is told the story of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a noted American poet publishing at the time when published poets weren’t black. From his poem “Sympathy” are these verses: “It is not a carol of joy or glee / But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, / But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings.”
Maya Angelou used this last verse for her autobiography’s title.
Also on the upper floor: a display about the history of parachutes. It includes a description of the Caterpillar Club, a club whose members are inducted after having bailed out of a disabled aircraft and surviving. Notable members include Charles Lindbergh, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Doolittle, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong.
“Dayton Aviation Heritage,” information brochure, National Park Service.
“23 South Williams Street. The Wright Cycle Company Building,” information brochure, National Park Service.
On Great White Wings, movie, National Park Service.