Searching for Meaning Amidst the Noise

Lane concludes that the building of the reproduction Wright Flyer is the best celebration of the Wright brothers? achievement.

Color_LaneF

Color_LaneF

The rain is, if anything, coming down even harder than it was a few minutes ago. The bench I'm sitting on is covered in puddles, and the stream of water cascading off my umbrella has completely soaked my legs and sneakers. The field where the big event is supposed to take place is quickly becoming a muddy morass, and I can't help but wonder if all 35,000 of us have taken collective leave of our senses, enduring this much discomfort for the long and unlikely chance of witnessing a few wobbly seconds of flight.

But even as that thought registers, I find a trace of a smile creeping across my rain-streaked face. For it occurs to me that there's actually a weird kind of lovely justice at work here. The committee organizing the centennial celebration of the world's first sustained, powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight had planned a precisely timed, Busby Berkeley-choreographed extravaganza to mark the moment. The event was designed to be movie-perfect, complete with a presidential appearance, marching band, Jumbotron television monitors, a host of carefully orchestrated significant gestures, country and rock concert music blaring through a network of basso profundo speakers and, of course, a re-creation of that first flight precisely on cue, at a moment determined by schedule instead of nature.

Wilbur and Orville would never have been so silly. And while I'll be disappointed if we don't get to see the Wright Flyer fly today, there's a part of me that's okay with that. For the misery we're enduring at the moment is actually far closer to the Wright brothers' real-life experience here than anything the celebration has dished up so far.

Celebrations aren't supposed to be duplications of history, of course. But when I first arrived here on December 15th, I thought perhaps I'd come to the wrong event. The first thing I encountered was a strict security checkpoint with armed soldiers, guard dogs, metal detectors and very serious-minded security folk (a defense line reinforced with a second checkpoint run by armed Secret Service agents on the 17th, when the President was going to arrive). The images of a guarded compound seemed sadly at odds with two innovative brothers bringing a beautiful, fragile craft to the wild, open sand dunes here to pursue the lofty goal of flight.

Passing beyond the perimeter, my ears were then assaulted with loud country and rock music blaring from speakers-speakers that were even balanced upon the granite memorial itself, at the top of the hill. I struggled for a bit to figure out exactly what connection Aaron Tippin, Michelle Branch, or the Temptations had with the Wright brothers or flight. The answer is none, as far as I can tell, unless it's that they've all flown in planes en route to concert performances. But someone evidently saw this event as a big New Year's party, requiring Dick Clark-style entertainment.

Don't get me wrong. I understand why the security was there. And I love concerts, music and dancing. I'd just come here in search of something slightly different. And I was having a little trouble finding it.

The next morning I arrived on site early, in hopes of avoiding some of the crowds and maybe, just maybe, getting enough space and quiet to find some connection with the people and reason we were all here. The exhibit booths weren't due to open for more than an hour, and the crowds hadn't yet arrived. A bright sun and brisk chill greeted me as I whizzed through security and contemplated the memorial, up on the hill.

"If you haven't seen the site from up there, you owe it to yourself to go look," a passerby offered as he saw me gazing up at the wing-shaped obelisk etched with Wilbur and Orville's names. I started up the hill but had only gone a few steps when I was stopped by a pilot named John Eckel, who'd recognized me and wanted to talk airplanes. I almost turned him down, because I'd been trying so hard to find some quiet, contemplative space here. But as we started up the hill and John began relating his story of flying a 1930 Fairchild KR 21 across the country, I was glad I'd invited him along.

"We had a landing accident in New Mexico," he said, "and just like you wrote in your last column, we were sitting there wondering how we were going to fix it, and what we were going to do, when this guy pulls up and asks if he can help. Turns out he was a mechanically minded guy, and he had a block and tackle, and he helped us fix the plane and then we never saw him again."

I smiled, remembering the wonderful connectedness of pilots and planes that's been an integral part of aviation since it all began. And I was suddenly grateful that John had bumped into me. For his tale of adventure, beauty, flight and community helped remind me of all the wonderful things that were born here and why, exactly, this place is so special.

We stood together at the top of the memorial and surveyed the still-uncrowded site. It all looks completely different today, of course. Trees and grass have been planted on the dunes to keep erosion at bay. But from the hilltop, you can still see the ocean and realize how exposed the site must have been to the elements and winds.

Climbing back down the hill, I made my way over to the boulders that mark where the 1903 Wright Flyer lifted off and landed on each of its four flights that December day. It doesn't seem possible that the space between the first two rocks was enough to change the world. Knowing that their first flight lasted only 120 feet is one thing. Seeing the physical distance that figure represents is something else. I paced off the length. It took me 45 steps and 20 seconds. Unbelievable. I stood gazing at the rocks for a long time. Few distances of such a short span were ever fought for so hard, or with such effort. And standing at the liftoff point, I gave a silent, mental bow of respect to the brothers whose dedication, skill, and determination made those few hard-won feet, and the world they opened up, possible.

The rest of the day was lost in noise and bustle, where the only few feet being fought for were those leading to the rest rooms and food vendors. By mid-afternoon, I broke away, intending to return to my motel. Kitty Hawk and Nag's Head are now fairly developed communities, with strip malls and vacation homes covering the beachfront landscape. But as I made my way south along the main drag, I suddenly saw an unspoiled sand dune looming off to my right. And more important, on top of that massive sand dune was … a wing. Two wings, in fact. Hang gliders, silhouetted against the winter sky and perched on the top of a windswept, sandy ridge.

I braked sharply and turned around, heading down a side road toward the dunes, which a sign informed me were part of Jockey's Ridge State Park. I parked and began to make my way across the sand toward the distant ridgeline. I'd almost forgotten that Nag's Head is still one of the best-known hang gliding locations in the country. And those simple wings, straining in the wind on top of a sand dune, were calling to me.

The sand was damp and firmly packed beneath my feet as I worked my way toward the ridge. Puddles of water, rippling with the December afternoon wind, still stood from the weekend's rainstorms in between hillocks of white sand adorned with wild sea oats waving in the breeze. Damp sand gave way to deeper softness as I climbed the ridge, and my cheeks stung with the chill wind whipping across the desolate landscape. From here, partway up the ridge, the modern world was invisible. All I could see was sand, water and sky. And as I moved across the sand toward a pair of fragile fabric wings, I began to sense the lingering presence of two brothers who had known the same sights and sensations here, once upon a time.

But it wasn't just the surroundings that gave me that feeling. For as I reached the top of the ridge, I found intrepid young adventurers who had come here, just like those brothers 100 years ago, to master the basics of flight. I stood on the dune and watched as instructors explained the principles of lift and control to three young hang gliding students who then screwed up their courage, grasped hold of their fabric wings, and launched off into the wind. Some of them landed well. Others dropped a wing and crashed into the soft sand soon after takeoff.

On this sparse and windswept sandscape, far away from the noise and the crowds, the entire progression of the Wright brothers' struggles, failures and triumphs was being re-enacted in a far more meaningful way than any formal ceremony could offer. A little distance away from the instructors, I even came across two pilots from Menlo Park, California, who wanted to mark the centennial by attempting their own 12-second hang glider flights off the dunes of the Outer Banks. It had taken Brian Heuckroth a good part of the day, but he'd finally matched Orville's time aloft.

He was happy. And so was I, standing there laughing with him about the challenge of it all. For here, upon these still-wild dunes, I'd found something better than just a link to the past. I'd found the spirit of the Wright brothers still vibrant and alive.

So I didn't even really mind the crowds and hour long security lines and rain the next morning. I'd already found what I'd come here for. Whatever happened on the 17th would just be icing on the cake.

It was disappointing, of course, that the Wright Flyer reproduction didn't get a chance to fly in front of the crowds. Because the three or more years that Ken Hyde, Bill Hadden, Kevin Kochersberger and the other Wright Experience craftsmen had invested in building the plane seemed one of the most real and meaningful parts of this whole re-creation. I would have liked to have seen their faces light up with the same happy satisfaction that Wilbur and Orville must have known on this day, 100 years ago.

But the Wright Flyer reproduction did fly. Twice. I saw the footage that night, along with the triumph and joy on the faces of its builders and pilot. It just did not fly on cue, at the moment the media and event organizers had designated as the one that would spell success. But, one is tempted to remind them, very little in aviation has ever happened on cue. Especially when it depends on weather.

If the people crowding the memorial site came here today just to see 12 seconds of flight, they were probably disappointed with the outcome. But if, like me, they also hoped to find and connect with a piece of the Wright brothers by coming to the place where it all happened a century ago-well, we've all gotten our wish. Maybe not quite the way we hoped or envisioned … but in a way that is inarguably real.

For 100 years ago, the Wright brothers also endured massive amounts of discomfort and waited helplessly and patiently for Mother Nature to cooperate. And they, too, had disappointments and days they didn't fly. It is, in fact, one of the most enduring and fundamental truths that comes with this activity called flight.

And so I smile, despite the rain, the rock music, the Jumbotrons, the tacky souvenirs and the Secret Service security details and restrictions. Who says the spirit of the Wright brothers isn't alive here? Besides. The truth is, it's in the building of the reproduction Wright Flyer … in the young people still coming here to discover and master the basics of flight … in the skill, dedication and experiences of pilots like John Eckel … and in the effort that thousands of pilots went to just to be here today … that the best celebration of the Wright brothers' achievement can really be found.

It's a celebration that doesn't depend on dignitaries, weather or scripted cue lines. And, best of all, it's a celebration we can continue … any time we fly.