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Flying Lessons: The Wright Brothers Made Me Do It


Harnessed and clipped to red and white wings, I'm ready to fly. Perched on the Atlantic coast's highest sand dune, I'm metamorphosing from woman into seagull.

 

Copyright: Warren Lieb."Sharon, I want you to run, fast as the wind," shouts Steve Bernier, my hang gliding instructor. "Run 'til your feet no longer touch the sand. Then you'll be flying." Long graceful arms, beaklike grin, Steve's really a frigate, or maybe a peregrine falcon. I imagine this bird man gliding into an ocean sunset, or flapping through a silent canyon. His bare feet do look like talons.

I go over this morning's lessons: relax, breathe deeply, look where you're going, hold the glider bar lightly to "feel where it will take you." But the dune drops sharply to a sandy field, and I'm not sure I can trust my borrowed wings.

But I've got to fly. Just five miles from here, over at Kill Devil Hills, Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the air, trusting their motorized wings. In 12 short seconds, their courage and determination changed world history.

"Success," read Orville Wright's Western Union telegram on December 17, 1903. Sent from North Carolina to their father in Dayton Ohio, the brother's exhilaration was understated but clear. "Four flights Thursday morning, all against twenty-one mile wind. Started from level with engine power alone, average speed through air thirty-one miles. Longest 59 seconds. Inform press. Home Christmas."

Who wouldn't be impressed and inspired by the brother's determination to fly against all odds? Though their Dayton Ohio bicycle business made them prosperous, they were restless, obsessed with a dream that humans could fly. Sparked by their observation of birds, they tested wing-warping on a five foot biplane kite. By 1900, the brothers had created a 17-foot glider, which they kept aloft in free flight for ten seconds. The 1902 version featured 32-foot wings, vertical tails, and a hip cradle for the pilot to warp the wings. After some 1000 test glides, Orville and Wilbur were convinced they had the first working airplane.

Copyright: Warren Lieb. On a windy December 17 in Kill Devil Hills, the brothers mounted their engine on the 40-foot, 605- pound "Flyer," with double tails and elevators. Orville, smartly dressed in suit, tie, and cap, crawled on his belly next to the engine, released the restraining wire, and took off into the sky. "Flyer" stayed aloft for 12 seconds, then landed 120 feet away. Orville crawled aboard for his turn, achieving an even better record of 12 seconds and 175 feet. Wilbur topped him, with 15 seconds, 200 feet; and Orville concluded the amazing day with a triumphant 59 seconds, landing 852 feet away. The Wright brothers had proven man could fly and the world was forever changed. Thanks to the Brothers W, we now fly around the globe as easily as walking next door to our neighbor's house.So in honor of Wilbur and Orville, I too must fly. Wings spread wide on this sandy seaside dune, my own horizons are about to expand. Bird man Steve hovers nearby, ready with my take off pep talk. “Let the glider fly you Sharon," he smiles. “You'll love it, I promise.”

Copyright: Warren Lieb. Breathing deeply through clenched teeth I think, this flight's for you Orville. For you, Wilbur. For every egret, heron, hawk, gull, pelican, flamingo, owl, eagle, and raven I've envied, wishing I too could fly. For every swoop and flap, for every whistle and song, for all your millions of miles migrating over oceans, mountains, jungles. I join you, Bird Woman.

Running down the sand, my feet lift up, my legs swing gently back. Flying down the dune, I remember the song "You are the wind beneath my wings." Exhilarated, terrified, let my first flight last forever.

I inhale the sweet salty air, hearing my friends screaming “go bird woman!” I snap a mental photo of the swirling sand below. I flash back to the seagull I found on the water's edge that morning. She was almost dead when we discovered her, tormented by crashing shoreline waves. Hoping she might recover, my husband and I pulled her out of the water, placing her on a higher spot of beach. She looked deeply into my eyes, flapped her wings one last time, and spread them into an angel arch. I stroked them gently as she died. If I believed in Angels, and I do, I would swear her soul passed into me. I would swear my arms became wings. But I am just a landlocked human, not a sacred bird, not sure if miracles are just my hopeful dreams.

And so in honor of Wilbur, Orville, and my bird Angel, I fly, then belly flop to earth, a heavy wingless mortal once more.

"I did it!" I shout, hugging Steve with relief and happiness. “How long was I airborne?"

"Maybe around 12 seconds," he grins.

Thank you Orville. Thank you Wilbur. Thank you bird Angel.

I am bird Woman. I will fly again.

Copyright: Warren Lieb. Fast Facts:

Visit the Wright Brothers National Monument, site of their first powered flight, December 17, 1903. The Visitor Center features a full-scale reproduction of the "Flyer". Open year round; Admission. Tel: 252-441-7430.

Enjoy hang gliding courses at the world's largest hang gliding school, Kitty Hawk Kites, Outer Banks, North Carolina. The school is the world's largest, founded in 1974. Tel: 1-877-FLY THIS. Web: www.kittyhawkkites.com.

Other Outer Banks, North Carolina, Attractions & Sports:

Kitty Hawk Sports offers windsurfing and kayak rentals and instruction. Tel: 800-948-0759. Web: www.khsports.com.

The Elizabethan Gardens – a beautiful 16th century style garden, open year round. Hours vary; admission. Tel: 252-473-3234.

North Carolina Aquarium – Sharks and sea turtles in the 285,000 gallon "Graveyard of the Atlantic" tank, touch tanks featuring sea stars and stingrays. Tel: 1-800-832-FISH. Web: www.ncaquariums.com.

Roanoke Island Festival Park-Climb aboard a 16th century sailing vessel, enjoy the historic film "the Legend of Two Path," and learn about the 1580 New World settlement in a hands on exhibit hall. Outdoor summer concerts. Open year round; admission. Tel: 252-475-1500.

The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama – A Pulitzer-prize winning drama about the English settlement in the new world. Six nights a week at the Waterside Theatre, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, June-August. Admission. Tel: 252-473-3414.

For more information on the Outer Banks contact the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, 704 S. Hwy. 64/264, Manteo, NC 27954. Tel. 800-446-6262. Web: www.outerbanks.org.

Sharon Lloyd Spence lives at 7200 feet, in Los Alamos New Mexico. She is the author of 8 books on travel and teaches travel writing worldwide.

So in honor of Wilbur and Orville, I too must fly. Wings spread wide on this sandy seaside dune, my own horizons are about to expand. Bird man Steve hovers nearby, ready with my take off pep talk. “Let the glider fly you Sharon," he smiles. “You'll love it, I promise.”

Copyright: Warren Lieb. Breathing deeply through clenched teeth I think, this flight's for you Orville. For you, Wilbur. For every egret, heron, hawk, gull, pelican, flamingo, owl, eagle, and raven I've envied, wishing I too could fly. For every swoop and flap, for every whistle and song, for all your millions of miles migrating over oceans, mountains, jungles. I join you, Bird Woman.

Running down the sand, my feet lift up, my legs swing gently back. Flying down the dune, I remember the song "You are the wind beneath my wings." Exhilarated, terrified, let my first flight last forever.

I inhale the sweet salty air, hearing my friends screaming “go bird woman!” I snap a mental photo of the swirling sand below. I flash back to the seagull I found on the water's edge that morning. She was almost dead when we discovered her, tormented by crashing shoreline waves. Hoping she might recover, my husband and I pulled her out of the water, placing her on a higher spot of beach. She looked deeply into my eyes, flapped her wings one last time, and spread them into an angel arch. I stroked them gently as she died. If I believed in Angels, and I do, I would swear her soul passed into me. I would swear my arms became wings. But I am just a landlocked human, not a sacred bird, not sure if miracles are just my hopeful dreams.

And so in honor of Wilbur, Orville, and my bird Angel, I fly, then belly flop to earth, a heavy wingless mortal once more.

"I did it!" I shout, hugging Steve with relief and happiness. “How long was I airborne?"

"Maybe around 12 seconds," he grins.

Thank you Orville. Thank you Wilbur. Thank you bird Angel.

I am bird Woman. I will fly again.

Copyright: Warren Lieb. Fast Facts:

Visit the Wright Brothers National Monument, site of their first powered flight, December 17, 1903. The Visitor Center features a full-scale reproduction of the "Flyer". Open year round; Admission. Tel: 252-441-7430.

Enjoy hang gliding courses at the world's largest hang gliding school, Kitty Hawk Kites, Outer Banks, North Carolina. The school is the world's largest, founded in 1974. Tel: 1-877-FLY THIS. Web: www.kittyhawkkites.com.

Other Outer Banks, North Carolina, Attractions & Sports:

Kitty Hawk Sports offers windsurfing and kayak rentals and instruction. Tel: 800-948-0759. Web: www.khsports.com.

The Elizabethan Gardens – a beautiful 16th century style garden, open year round. Hours vary; admission. Tel: 252-473-3234.

North Carolina Aquarium – Sharks and sea turtles in the 285,000 gallon "Graveyard of the Atlantic" tank, touch tanks featuring sea stars and stingrays. Tel: 1-800-832-FISH. Web: www.ncaquariums.com.

Roanoke Island Festival Park-Climb aboard a 16th century sailing vessel, enjoy the historic film "the Legend of Two Path," and learn about the 1580 New World settlement in a hands on exhibit hall. Outdoor summer concerts. Open year round; admission. Tel: 252-475-1500.

The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama – A Pulitzer-prize winning drama about the English settlement in the new world. Six nights a week at the Waterside Theatre, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, June-August. Admission. Tel: 252-473-3414.

For more information on the Outer Banks contact the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, 704 S. Hwy. 64/264, Manteo, NC 27954. Tel. 800-446-6262. Web: www.outerbanks.org.

Sharon Lloyd Spence lives at 7200 feet, in Los Alamos New Mexico. She is the author of 8 books on travel and teaches travel writing worldwide.