Monday, December 27, 2010


The 17th of this month was the 107th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wright Brothers Day (official since 1963) is separate from National Aviation Day, established in 1939 on Orville Wright’s 68th birthday. Both events are variously ignored or the subject of pro-forma proclamations from the duty politician occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Incidentally, August 19 also is National Potato Day. Honest.)

National days of observance proliferate like weeds after a rain shower. Frankly, many of them alternate between absurd and irrelevant, usually the result of some pol seeking favor with a particular constituency or special interest group. During the Reagan administration a search for The National Dance included such esoteric candidates as the hula and the polka.

Now, I hasten to note that I have absolutely nothing against the polka. In fact, the stout Wagnerian wife of a Luftwaffe fighter ace swept the hangar floor with me (and other pilots) at Abbotsford, B.C. one evening to the accompaniment of accordions and other Lawrence Welk instrumentation. But while they may polka frequently in Milwaukee, did you ever dance the hula in the contiguous 48? Me neither.

Finally in 1982 The Gipper declared the square dance as The National Folk Dance, which at least has some claim to being uniquely American. (Besides, in the 6th or 7th grade, it was about the only way boys could hold hands with girls, however briefly, without garnering sneers or suspicion.) However, Ronnie’s effort was only for a two-year period, and a couple more states still need to sign on before it becomes official. (Wisconsin and Hawaii remain notably absent from the process.)

So what does The National Folk Dance have to do with the Wrights? Glad you asked. You see, we are burdened with Vice President Joe Biden. (Stay with me—this is headed somewhere, honest.)

In October, bloviating at a Democrat Party fund raiser, Biden declared, “Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, 20th century, and 19th century has required government vision and incentive.”

Forget the airplane for a moment. Let’s consider independence from Britain, the assembly line, the light bulb, the automobile, the telephone, television, machineguns, banana splits, Cherry Coke, personal computers, and…oh hell. You get the idea. There’s a bunch of excellent reasons he’s called “Slow Joe.”

For a more reasoned/reasonable assessment, consider this statement from 2000: "The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together."

That statement came from Bill Gates who—contrary to what Slow Joe may believe—had far more to do with inventing the internet than Algore. Or for that matter, more than about 60 percent of Delaware voters can absorb.

But I digress.

Please consider the accomplishment of the Wrights, two self employed bicycle mechanics who, lacking a high school diploma between them, solved the riddle of the ages: human flight. And they did it in about four years.

Neither of Bishop Wright’s boys were dullards. Wilbur, in fact, planned to attend Yale before a hockey accident derailed his plans for higher education. But considering how things turned out, undoubtedly that puck in the face was a Good Thing.

In those early 20th century days, somehow the Republic struggled along with six cabinet posts (State, Treasury, Justice, Agriculture, Interior, and newly established Commerce) plus the Army and Navy departments. Notably absent were Labor, H&HS, HUD, Transportation (!), Energy, Education, Veterans and Homeland Security. It goes without saying that more than a century ago the Wrights and, for that matter, Henry Ford, got along just fine without federal watchdogs at Transportation or Education. But I’ll say it anyway. Orville and Wilbur, considerably predating outcome-based education, could read, write, and cipher without federal guidelines, and undoubtedly most of their classmates could immediately identify the USA on a world map. Reportedly two-thirds of the current crop cannot.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Wrights’ achievement was not merely producing a workable flying machine, but the way they went about it. They started with the advantages of intense curiosity and native intelligence, sufficient not only to question the conventional scientific wisdom of their time, but to find it wanting. That was an enormous intellectual achievement, for it forced them to confront their idol—the late-great Otto Lilienthal—and their mentors, engineer Octave Chanute and Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley of the Smithsonian Institution.

From there, the Wrights began a patient, methodical approach that involved invention and innovation. Lacking a wind tunnel, they built one. Lacking sample airfoils, they made and tested 200. Lacking a lightweight engine for their aeroplane, they had one built to their specs. Furthermore, they were the first to recognize that a propeller also is an airfoil, and their design was nearly 90 percent as efficient as props on current lightplanes.

Note to Slow Joe Biden: Orville and Wilbur invested entirely their own funds—around $20,000 ($450,000 today)—and succeeded where Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley of the Smithsonian Institution failed spectacularly after 16 years of effort. Moreover, Langley received $63,000 in U.S. Government funds ($1.65 million today)—about 85 percent of his total support.

In fairness, the brothers did derive some benefit from their tax money. They received important data from the Weather Bureau, and the hardies at the lifeguard station also proved helpful.

The Wrights are not faultless. Their bitter patent disputes, notably with Glenn Curtiss, retarded aviation progress until the First World War. In that period America’s gigantic lead in aviation diminished and soon disappeared with Europe dominant after 1908.

Wilbur, four years junior to Orville, died in 1912 at age 45. Orville passed away in 1948, age 76. Now, considering what they represent—the American genius for innovation and their effect upon shrinking the world—isn’t it time they get more recognition than a single day that’s often ignored? Surely air travel is worth more than National Potato Day—and a damnsight more than Slow Joe Biden can appreciate.