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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 12-15-23 – The Anniversary of Controlled Flight

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ― Leonardo da Vinci


Flight and things that fly have always fascinated me. As I have noted, from my earliest years, I read everything I could get my hands on. I read encyclopedias and almanacs. When I had the opportunity to go to a library, by bicycle or convincing a parent to give me a ride, planes were a topic of particular interest I would seek out in the stacks. While it may be hard for younger people to understand, information was not at our fingerprints in the way that it is now. It took a lot more effort to understand what Da Vinci references in his quote above, which is a millennia long quest to take to the sky, at first in gliders and then through powered flight. The progress we have made in the air in a brief time is astounding.


We live in an amazing age where we can fly in ways that were inconceivable a generation ago. Consider that until the mid-1960’s to travel to Europe meant a transatlantic ocean crossing that took a long time. Even in the fastest ocean liner in history, the SS United States which is now rusting in a berth in Philadelphia which still holds the Blue Riband, for highest speed transatlantic crossing in 1952. It crossed the ocean of 2,942 nautical miles in three days, ten hours and 40 minutes. An average speed of 35.59 knots, which is just under 41 miles and hour. It is hard to consider in these times that a trip to Europe and back had to factor in a few days of travel in either direction. We can now hop on a plane and eat our next meal on a different continent. We take this for granted, but such travel was beyond the conception of any generation that came before ours in human history.


One of the most significant milestones in the history of flight took place nearly exactly 120 years ago on December 17, 1903. The Wright brothers, who were bicycle manufacturers from Ohio studied gliders (and practiced gliding at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. They were working on powered flight. They took a glider and added rudimentary control surfaces, bolted on an inline, four cylinder, 12 HP water-cooled engine attached to two propellors that rotated in different directions. The plane weighed 605 pounds. On that first controlled flight, it flew for 12 seconds a few feet off the ground for a total distance of 120 feet. The era of flight began with a flight less than half of the wingspan of an Airbus A330.


Just as an aside, I suspect that few readers, if any, will make it to this paragraph as this is probably quite boring to nearly everyone. I am fine with that. The topic is interesting to me and that is who I write this for. Few things in human history have transformed our world in the ways that flight, and it occurred with blinding speed. The history of controlled flight moved at a blinding pace. Within 20 years of that first flight, the first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley was commissioned in 1922 as the implications of flight changed warfare. That first flight was 8 feet off the ground and peaked at a speed of 31 miles an hour. Within just over 60 years, the SR-71 Blackbird could fly at  2455 miles an hour (faster than the fastest of bullets) at an altitude of 85,000 feet, which is the edge of space. It could fly faster than the rotation of the earth and had gas tanks that leaked on the ground because they were designed for the pressures of high-altitude, high-speed flight. All this progress and how it transformed our world occurred in a relative blink of time.  


What intrigues me the most is our innate inquisitiveness and capacity for progress in this way. Passenger air travel was something reserved for the wealthy in the early 1950s, but by 1960, it had quadrupled from 1955 to 59. Last year, there were a total of 853 million passengers carried to their destinations. It is also remarkable safe. There were 12 commercial flight accidents in that same year with a total of 229 fatalities. Incidentally, the odds of getting killed in a commercial plane crash are about 1 in 11 million, or for perspective much less riskier than the chance of getting hit by rocks falling into the earths atmosphere.


The picture above is of me hang gliding 6,000 feet over the same area where the Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903. Flight is wonderous. For all of the crap that comes with flying somewhere, I still love it. I prefer the window seat so I can see the world below. We humans are adept at exploration and figuring out our engineering and logistical challenges. We live in a era we can go on vacation to places few people even a generation ago could go, and we do so almost routinely. We owe this to people like the Wright Brothers, who were modest bicycle manufacturers who were inquisitive and decided to pursue a dream of flight.


I am grateful for the pioneers of controlled flight on the 120th anniversary of that first flight on those coastal sand dunes in North Carolina. In the coming weeks, we may gripe and complain about the indignities of modern air travel, but it is a miracle. Those of us traveling to see loved ones in coming weeks for the holidays simply would not be able to do without what we now consider mundane, but for all of human history before us was seen as an unobtainable dream. I am grateful for the pioneers of controlled flight.

What are you grateful for today?  

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