Wright Brothers: Origins of my fascination with flight

Wright Flyer , first powered flight. By John T. Daniels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Wright BrothersThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a boy, I loved to read. Every so often at school, the Scholastic "book club" brochure would be sent home, and we were allowed to choose a few books from the catalogue. Two books I remember fondly, Robert Westall's (1975) The Machine Gunners and Quentin Reynolds' (1950) The Wright Brothers: Pioneers of American Aviation

McCullough had a lot of competition to win me over (when I think about it). McCullough's book was a gift from my sister. Just before my birthday, I (un)ashamedly posted my Book Depository wishlist on Facebook. Each of my sisters bought me some of the books from the list for my birthday, except the elder of my sisters. She remembered my fascination with Reynolds' book in the 1970s and bought McCullough's book for me instead.

And there it was, just like when I was a child, except the stories of the Wright's mother weren't as forthcoming, and my early education in things like "friction" and "wind resistance" and Orville winning the bicycle race, hunched over, and my burning desire to study "aeronautics" and become a fighter pilot crashed as a nostalgic tidal wave. We call them tsunamis these days, but not in the 70s. I couldn't put McCullough's book down, to the point of staying up far too late to finish it before I left some four hours later to fly to Shanghai. Not as a pilot, regrettably, but that is another, longer story.

I found McCullough's style much like Simon Winchester, but with an urgent sense of drama. Very entertaining. I also felt a bit put out that it didn't cover some parts of Reynolds' children's book, except the few times I read "wind resistance" and a shudder of pleasure rippled through my memories. Yet this is a fine book, and it fills out so much of the Wright brothers' story, more of their sister Katharine, and more of their time in Europe.

And every time I saw that replica of a 1910 Farman at Hong Kong Airport I could have sworn it was a modified Wright Flyer. I didn't know that it was actually Glen Curtiss, along with Alexander Graham Bell, who did a little more of the aeronautical plagiarism, and that the Wrights spent considerable energy in protecting their legacy. Their moral uprightness is evident in McCullough's writing, and the shy, standing on the shoulders of giants for the good of humankind genius of the Brothers Wright rather than greedy profit shines through probably a little too heroically, even for someone who still thinks of the Wright brothers the way he did in the 1970s.

Part of me wanted the book to be more academic, but at the same time it was riveting. It didn't make me regret reading it like part of me still regrets Simon Winchester's Atlantic: The Biography of an Ocean. (Although, recently when I gave away a bunch of books to a second-hand bookstore, I rescued Atlantic from the pile because I think I liked it more than I let on.) And how academic could it be? There are pages and pages of references and notes at the back of the book; it is clearly well-researched and the record of the research is detailed enough for any scholar.

It is just that the popular genre leaves me with a sense of the unauthentic. And then I remember my sister remembering me and my fascination with the Wright brothers and I wonder how far one could be objective about these two heroes who did what every boy in history wished he could do, and how the early days of cycling and flying and racing cars were romantic to the point where one could still win the Grand Prix while smoking a cigar and now you can't even buy cigars without breaking the bank because you are not allowed to but the Wrights did it and even though others tried to take it away from them they couldn't and what else could I possibly want in a book?

The more I think about it, the more stars I keep giving it and I shall have to admit that I loved it, just as I did Reynolds' book over forty years ago, and I am reminded of what it is like to work hard and achieve the impossible so why wouldn't it be romantic and nostalgic? It was, it is, and the only thing that upsets me is that Orville neglected his sister Katharine, but thankfully saw her at the last moment and was with her at the end. But that wasn't McCullough's fault. I think it just bothered me more than I can admit, and from what I can remember, Reynolds' never mentioned it. Come to think of it, neither would I to a seven year old boy.