When people go to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., they seem to have a checklist of what they want to see. At the National Air and Space Museum, visitors frequently start at the Apollo 11 capsule that carried astronauts to the Moon.
After that, it’s the “Spirit of St. Louis,” that Charles Lindberg flew across the Atlantic. For many, the next stop is upstairs, to an airplane with tan canvas wings and a wooden frame, which flew for just twelve seconds. “Well, we’re very fortunate to have the world’s first airplane, the original 1903 Wright Brothers airplane,” says Peter Jakab, Chief Curator at the museum.
The Wright Brothers are his specialty. He even earned his Ph.D. researching the two bicycle shop owners from Ohio, who never finished high school, but forged the basics of aeronautical engineering that airplane designers use to this day.
The Wright brothers’ aircraft often goes by the nickname “The Kitty Hawk,” but experts like Jakab say it’s really know by the less flashy name of “the flyer.” “And, we really have to kind of emphasize that this is the real thing,” says Jakab. “That’s because there are a lot of reproductions in museums. So, when people come here, they get to be face to face with the real thing.” The exhibit puts the “Wright Flier” down on ground level, so visitors can almost reach out and touch it.
The hall has interactive displays which explain not only the “gee whiz” factor of the Wright Brother’s first flight, but also that Orville and Wilbur were businessmen. That’s where the city of Montgomery, Alabama comes in. By 1910, the Wrights were building and selling airplanes, with competitors like aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss, hot on their heels.
For the purchase price, customers got the aircraft, as well as flying lessons from a member of the Wright Brothers exhibition team. “And to get the exhibition team, they needed a stable of fliers,” says Jakab. “So, they went down to Montgomery, Alabama in March of 1910 and until May of that year, they trained the first five members of their team.”
In other words, the Wright brothers helped create civil aviation, and they did it in Alabama.
Their involvement in the city even led to the creation of Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base. The city will commemorate Orville and Wilbur this week by renaming a city park in their honor. The event will be attended by Amanda Wright-Lane, the great, great niece of the famous pair.
The park will include a steel sculpture of the “Wright Flyer,” which will sit bolted to the ground while cargo jets from Maxwell-Gunter fly overhead. For people like Peter Jakab, it’s this airborne tribute that does justice to the Wright Brothers. Their twelve second flight in 1903 may seem quaint today, but it paved the way for every airplane design since.
At the National Air and Space Museum, Jakab walks from the Wright Brothers exhibit to a balcony overlooking a jet black rocket plane called the X-15, which was built for NASA in the late 1950’s. “And, we do a little talk every once in a while to compare the X-15 to the Wright flier, and essentially say the X-15 is a suped up Wright flier,” says Jakab. “Because the fundamental way the airplane flies is embodied in the first airplane. So, not only is the Wright airplane the first to get off the ground, but what’s really important is that every airplane emerges from it.” All thanks to two bicycle shop owners from Ohio, who taught people to fly in Alabama.