Retracing the Footsteps of Giants
“If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to
sit on a fence and watch the birds….”
By transcending human limitations, the Wright Brothers opened the door to new capabilities and ushered in new ways of thinking and new ways of being for all the world’s inhabitants. When the powered Flyer took to the air on December 17, 1903, it also gave flight to human possibilities that had never existed before. Only 66 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buz Aldrin touched down on the surface of the moon.
In 1970, when I set out to build a full-size replica of the Wright Brothers’ 1902 glider, there was no practical justification for building it, much less for flying it. It was built mainly as a way to retrace the footsteps of giants – to see what they saw, to touch what they touched, and to feel what they felt at the controls of this awkwardly graceful bird. It was an adventure beyond words to describe. And in the end, I was left with a profound sense of the spirit that must have propelled the Wright Brothers on to unreasonable success and a deep appreciation for the giants they truly were.
In November, 1972, the finished glider was towed aloft from the dry lake bed at Lake El Mirage, California for its maiden flight. This was the first time since the Wright Brothers’ experiments that a 1902 Wright glider had taken to the air. It had soft and gentle flight characteristics, but the pitch instability reported by the Wright Brothers was still present. The biggest problem, however, was borrowed from Samuel Pierpont Langley – the “launch mechanism.” Since the replica was towed by a station wagon, pull on the tow line connected to the lower wing caused it to pitch up while under tow and pitch down when released. In free flight, however, the machine was quite docile, despite its pitch instability. By staying focused on pitch attitude, it was easily controlled. Later, the glider was donated to the California Museum of Science and Industry (now California Science Center) where it has since been on display.
During remodeling at the Science Center in 2001, the glider was badly damaged and returned for repair and refurbishment. While being refurbished it was almost totally destroyed in a tragic fire, so it was completely rebuilt. The reconstructed glider, built entirely to Wright Brothers’ specifications and with only the elevator hinges from the original replica, is now in its permanent home at the California Science Center. Like its predecessor, this new glider is fully operational and capable of flying.
100 Years After the Wright Brothers’ Conquest of the Air: This tribute to the accomplishment of the Wright Brother is also a celebration of human achievement.