Wilbur Wright

Wilbur Wright

F/A18 Hornets Fly Overhead on the Day Wilbur Orville Died

103 years ago today, May 30, 1912, one of the world’s most famous aviators and flying machine inventors, Wilbur Wright, died at age 45. Despite the dangers and mishaps he experienced as a pilot, he died at home from typhoid.

I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t recently read David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers, and I may not have remembered the date at all were it not for an air show happening a few miles away. Despite the distance, the powerful roar of the plane engines carry far.

In fact, I always know when the U.S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, The Blue Angels take to the air by their unique and mighty sound! As an extra bonus, every once in awhile on the clearest of days I’ll catch sight of a few Blues maneuvers ever so high above my yard.

Had Wilbur died before he and his brother Orville completed their exhaustive flight tests and detailed aerodynamic experiments, who knows what would– or would not– have occurred in the field of aviation.

Into the air at Kitty Hawk

Into the air at Kitty Hawk

Several other people were designing and testing flying machines back then, but for whatever reason, the Wright Brothers totally ‘got’ how manned flight should work. The competitors they outwitted and outworked had to admit their intricate understanding of flight and aerodynamics was masterful.



Perhaps their genius lie in the simplistic approach of seeing what was in front of them in plain sight (as is often the case): they keenly observed birds in flight at open, desolate, windy Kitty Hawk for hours and hours on end. So much so, that residents thought they were weird. But these hardscrabble residents of North Carolina’s Outer Banks eventually came to admire the brothers’ absolute conviction they could succeed and were on the right track, their mechanical genius (if they couldn’t find what they needed, they designed it or made it themselves) resolute diligence, integrity and ‘down to earth’ personalities.

The Wright Brothers (Orville on right)

The dapper Wright Brothers (Wilbur on right)

The unsung heroes I latched onto in McCullough’s book were bike mechanic Charles Furnas, who could build anything the brothers designed; and visionary supporter and successful beekeeper, Amos Ives Root. These two men saw the same potential as did the Wrights. Quite unlike most people who were either baffled or cynical, such as Dayton, Ohio neighbor, Torrence Huffman, the banker who allowed them free and unfettered use of pasture, Huffman Prairie, for flight practice, although Huffman told a neighbor, “They’re fools.” David McCullough, The Wright Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015) 113.

Furnas by the way, became the first air passenger when Orville flew with him on a flight that covered a distance of two miles in about four minutes. Take that banker guy! But in all due credit, Huffman’s generosity in the use of his pasture made it possible for the Wright Brothers to tinker, fly and re-tinker to create their ultimate flying machine.

Eventually, after years of effort and final success with an air worthy flying machine, the brothers began to shop their invention around, first to the U.S. government, which was funding its own aviation project, and then to governments overseas, France being the first purchaser. Wilbur gave demonstrations to thousands of people in various European cities, while Orville performed a few shows himself stateside before steaming across the Atlantic with their strongest defender, sister Katherine, to join him.

Harper's Weekly. Wilbur circles Lady Liberty

Harper’s Weekly. Wilbur circles Lady Liberty

The entrepreneurial brothers made a fortune with their invention and established manufacturing companies on both sides of the Atlantic. As owners of a large enterprise, they were soon embroiled in the scrappy world of commerce defending patents, fending off detractors, keeping up with orders, managing and running the business. This side of success was more tedious and stressful than the invention phase.

Orville and Wilbur had partnered together their entire lives, starting with making toys when they were youngsters, and as young men starting a printing and newspaper business and adding a bike shop. They built the press and designed their own signature bike. These previous successes may have been far less complicated, on a much smaller scale, very hands on and very much in their control, but none the less successful. They concentrated on the bike shop with steadily grew to the point they moved into a larger retail space. This first business financed their aviation project. They kept the store after the aviation venture ‘took off,’ now managed by an associate under the watchful eyes of their sister Katherine.

The two men had a very good business sense, despite their own concerns, and contrary comments by contemporary authors. Who can argue they had two successful businesses and possessed a knack for getting on board early to gain a foothold in the country’s cycling rage, and then had the vision and brainpower to create an entirely new industry?

The Wright Flyer was the first aircraft to soar above Paris, flown by French pilot Comte Sports Aviation cover story

The Wright Flyer was the first aircraft to soar above Paris (1909), flown by French pilot Charles, Comte de Lambert, Wilbur’s first student.  Sports Aviation cover story

Charles Alexandre Maurice Joseph Marie Jules Stanislas Jacques Count de Lambert: 1865–1944 (aka Charles, Comte de Lambert) http://www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/charles-comte-de-lambert/

You would think by now that historic fact would definitively address who did what when, but disagreements continue regarding who was airborne first, who first flew over Paris, etc., which I don’t attempt to resolve here.

Wilbur and Orville (who died in 1948 and actually saw unbelievable advances in aviation) had no training whatsoever in flight or engineering. They just figured it all out. They were da Vinci incarnate times two. The brothers were almost inseparable, unassuming, hyper focused, and able to adjust to a sensational, over the top international celebrity after many hard years of solitary toil. I have no idea how they acquired the skill to negotiate business deals like a tycoon and remain level headed amid wild fame. Kings, queens and U.S. Presidents wanted to meet them!

1909 fly over horse & buggies!

1909 fly over horse & buggies!

It is worth mentioning the brothers were idiosyncratic, and Orville in particular had characteristics that today would be considered similar to Asperger’s Syndrome. Their success and personal happiness is the best proof why everyone needs to play to their strengths and not be hampered by any shortfalls.

A quote attributed to Einstein reiterates this point perfectly: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” THAT insight my friend, is what makes Einstein a genius!

There were no user manuals or plane assembly parts available obviously, so the brothers wrote the manual as they went along and machined their own parts. When there wasn’t enough wind to set them aloft for example, they designed a catapult to launch the aero plane. They were unstoppable and eventually, unbeatable.


One of the brothers in a glider preparing for take off

One of the brothers in a glider after a landing

The early flights reached speeds of 7mph–19 mph.

The sweetest and most poignant scene from the McCullough book was when the two brothers, for the first time, flew together. Up to that point, recognizing the dangers and possibility of death, they agreed never to take to the air in unison. If one died the other would continue the endeavor. McCullough wrote  “it seemed their way of saying they had accomplished all they set out to do,” and were able to enjoy “the thrill of flight” together at last.  David McCullough, The Wright Brothers. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 2015) 253.

Sadly, the first aviation crash fatality occurred with Orville at the controls. The plane crashed nose down, severely injuring Orville, and killing his passenger, 26 year old Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. Investigation revealed a stress crack in the propeller. For what it’s worth, Orville had flown passengers before. It was noted that Selfridge was his heaviest at 175 pounds.




Not so surprising, but maddening none-the-less, is how quickly the military took an interest in aviation for its nefarious uses. Again not so surprising, the Wright Brothers spent a few hundred dollars on their winning invention while the military, and other aviation projects, spent thousands on theirs that didn’t work as well or at all.

Having said that, in one of the ironies of my life, without the military we’d never have the F/A-18 Hornets flown (with minor alteration) by my favorite Flight Demonstration Squadron, U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels!

I love the screaming loud flamed engines of the fighter jets when they zip and zoom overhead at 700mph –1400mph, especially in one of my three favorite maneuvers, the Sneak Pass. The six jets break off in different directions, disappearing out of sight for several long seconds, and suddenly burst out of the sky over the spectators in a deafening screech that shakes the ground and vibrates eardrums. It is a show favorite! (You may wanna pack an extra Depends for the uninitiated in your group.)

It’s not easy photographing something that moves at Mach 1 speeds, as evidenced by all of my ‘action’ shots being empty air, a back engine or vapor trails! Which also explains why my only shots of the day are before or after their flight!

Blue Angels lined up on tarmac. Heat waves were visible all around the jets.

Blue Angels lined up on tarmac. Shimmering heat waves were visible all around the jets.

Preflight cockpit flight check with the crew chief

Preflight cockpit flight check with the crew chief

Youtube has a number of excellent videos when the Sneak Pass is performed over land and water!

The best video I’ve seen of the Blues in flight, and the longest, was shot over the skies of Boston May 26, 2015. The video does a fantastic job showing how close to one another they fly in formation. It IS as close as it looks: anywhere from 18 freakin’ INCHES to four feet apart!! In this fly over—not a show—there are seven jets.


Another awesome maneuver is the Opposing Solo, when two jets scream in from ‘opposing’ directions to pass over/under one another by a few inches in the middle of the tarmac, only a few feet off the ground.

The third feat is the belly-to-belly; similar to the Opposing Solo, but instead of passing over/under one another right side up, one jet is inverted, so the undersides of both planes pass one another!

belly-to-belly 5259978244_83e9b00e57_z.jpg flickr.com

belly-to-belly 5259978244_83e9b00e57_z.jpg flickr.com

The Slow Speed Calypso Pass is similar to the belly-to-belly.

Remember when I said the Wright Brothers spent a few hundred dollars on their Flyers? ONE Blue Angel costs taxpayers $25 million. Finally! Our tax dollars well spent!!!

Blues F:A18 heads down the runway


The first powered flights were also noisy because the fragile open seating of the Wright Brothers aero plane held an engine inches from the pilot seat. Long gone were their glides through the air in the very earliest flights.

Having been to Kitty Hawk and seen the original Wright Flyer hanging in the Smithsonian, I cannot imagine what the two brothers would think today of an air show. Would it be fascinating or beyond their comprehension? Would they see improvement or a loss in the art of flying? Would they approve of the various directions aviation has taken? And what about space flight? Did they ever contemplate flying that high or far? Would they love to fly in a jet or retreat to their Flyer?

Original Wright Flyer at Smithsonian being positioned

Original Wright Flyer at Smithsonian being positioned

I’m not aware of any documentation that broached these imaginings, so probably not. They may have been so focused on the here and now, they didn’t wonder or wander that far ahead. I have to think that as inventors and curious individuals, they would be eager to understand the science and design, though overwhelmed at first..

For sure, the dreams of flight didn’t stop with their achievement.

Kitty Hawk National Park, Kitty Hawk, Outer Banks of North Carolina



From Daedalus to balloonists, airships, Wilbur & Orville Wright all the way to the sleek Boeing F/A18, and now back to the future with the latest experimental aircraft, Solar Impulse, a solar powered, clean technology the brilliant Wright Brothers hadn’t (yet?) considered. What a ride!


“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.” Wilbur Wright

p.s. I can’t resist sharing one last video! This is one of THE BEST car/jet videos ever!! Just ignore what the guy says about Porsches. It’s all lies.   Motor Trend:  ZR1 Vette vs Jet! – Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 Races A U.S. Navy Fighter Jet!


……if not for two quiet and earnest bike shop owners in small town Ohio……….


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