Happy birthday, Wilbur! First Flight Society celebrates Wilbur Wright

Published 8:22 am Saturday, April 29, 2023

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The First Flight Society (FFS) held a birthday party for Wilbur Wright at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk on April 14 for the 2nd Annual Wilbur Wright Day.

The luncheon began at 11 a.m. with a silent auction for items such as professional photography pieces, autographed books and bottles of wine. All proceeds from the auction went to the First Flight Society programs.

The luncheon was attended by about 100 members and guests, including Rep. Greg Murphy, M.D. (NC-03), Kitty Hawk Mayor Craig Garriss and councilwoman Charlotte Walker.

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First Flight Society board member Paul Carr, dressed in turn of the century attire, represented “The Spirit of Wilbur Wright,” giving a brief and entertaining glimpse of the life of Wilbur Wright, who would be 156 years old if he were alive today.

Mike Fonseca, First Flight Society president, introduced the keynote speaker Dr. Peter Jakab, a speaker, author and senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

Speaking to a roomful of Wright Brothers enthusiasts, Jakab humorously began his lecture about Wilbur with quote from Elizabeth Taylor upon her eighth wedding night: “I know what to do, the challenge is how to make it interesting.”

Jakab painted a fascinating contrast between the two Wright brothers, Wilbur and his younger brother Orville, and how events in both their lives shaped the men into aeronautical pioneers.

Though the party was held on April 14, Wilbur’s birthday was on April 16, 1867.

An ice hockey injury combined with the sickness and subsequent death of his mother greatly impacted Wilbur. He kind of “dropped out of life,” said Jakab.

When Orville, four years Wilbur’s junior, opened up a print shop, Wilbur joined him and the two began a lifelong partnership. They opened a bicycle repair shop in 1892 and moved on to manufacture and design their own bicyles in 1895, producing between 200 and 300.

“For Wilbur, it wasn’t enough,” Jakab said. He wanted to sink his teeth into something new. His interest moved to aeronautics, where a fascination with flying was sweeping the world.

“They didn’t think they were going to invent the first airplane. They thought they were just going to contribute. They were surprised to discover that not a lot of really useful work had been done [in the field of aeronautics],” Jakab said.

What separated the Wright brothers from the other people working to develop an aircraft, according to Jakab, was that they really understood the problem.

“An airplane was a technological system. It was not just one system,” Jakab said. “They were the first to pioneer aeronautical engineering.”

The brothers developed a glider and chose Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to test their craft. Returning home to Dayton, Ohio, they pioneered the use of the wind tunnel, and they were the first to use a wind tunnel to design an airplane.

“We do that today in fundamentally the same way,” Jakab said. “You could argue that’s their greater contribution.”

But of course, the world knows the story. After perfecting the glider style, selecting the most efficient wing shape and finally adding power, the brothers were ready to test their airplane.

The first successful flight was on December 17, 1903.

Over the next several years, the brothers perfected their design and worked on securing patents for their plane. In 1908, Wilbur went to Europe to present his work to the rest of the world.

“He was either going to fail or be a great success,” Jakab said. “He was a great success.”

Jakab shared some of his favorite photos of Wilbur that capture not only his personality but how the world responded to him. Jakab described Wilbur as “the toast of the town” in Europe, attracting the attention of royals and dignitaries. One photo shows Wilbur with the king of Italy, who was carrying a camera so he could snap his own photo of Wilbur the celebrity.

In 1912, at the age of 45, Wilbur died of typhoid fever, exacerbated by the stress of patent suits.

Jakab lists the accomplishments of the Wright brothers among the top three or four inventions of the 20th century. “Clearly what the Wright Brothers did changed the world,” he said.

The First Flight Society is committed to ensuring that the accomplishments of the Wright brothers are remembered for future generations. Orville Wright’s birthday is celebrated also each year at National Aviation Day in August, as well as Wright Brothers Day on December 17.

For the 100th anniversary of flight in 2003, First Flight Society hosted a five-day event. “The whole world was here – it was incredible,” said Fonseca.

The society has recently completed strategic planning and refined its vision, and they are rejuvenated to tell the story of the Wright brothers through community events and education, and are already planning for a momentous celebration for the 125th anniversary in 2028.

The non-profit society welcomes new members. Information can be found online at www.firstflight.org.