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From Kitty Hawk to the moon

Several new books mark the centennial of the Wright brothers' first flight, plus detail the attempts by others.

December 15, 2003|Ron Berthel | Associated Press

Although checking in at the airport only seems to take 100 years, it has already been that long since brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first manned, powered flight, near Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903.

In this centennial year of their historic accomplishment come several books marking the occasion and lauding the attempts of some of the many others, before and since the Wrights, whose lofty flight plans didn't get off the ground.

How the Wrights, bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, rose to fame after their Wright Flyer rose into the sky near Kitty Hawk is told in "The Wright Brothers Legacy: Orville and Wilbur Wright and Their Aeroplanes" (Abrams, $37.50).

This coffee-table book by Walt Burton and Owen Findsen features 240 illustrations, including photos of the event taken by the brothers to defend themselves against skeptics.

It chronicles early attempts at flight, beginning centuries before the Wrights, and documents the brothers' post-Kitty Hawk activities, including attendance at air shows throughout Europe and the United States; their role in the development of military aircraft; and the installation of their restored 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 1948.

The also-rans (who didn't also fly) get their due in "To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight" (The Free Press, $28).

Author James Tobin's tale of the quest to build the first manned, powered aircraft tells why so many failed (they relied on power to lift their crafts) and why the Wrights succeeded (as bicycle mechanics, they knew the importance of balance).

Most prominent among the no-flies was the affluent Samuel Pierpont Langley, who was head of the Smithsonian and whose experiments were backed by the U.S. War Department. His attempts to achieve liftoff with a powerful engine repeatedly met with defeat.

Among other aviation underachievers were telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who was Langley's friend; and Glenn Curtiss, a motorcyclist who adopted the Wrights' ideas in an attempt to acquire personal fame and fortune.

There was even a measure of failure in the Wrights' achievement, since they worked in virtual obscurity and their initial success was hardly the media event it would be today.

Flying flops are the subject of "The Wrong Stuff: Attempts at Flight Before (& After) the Wright Brothers" (Hylas, $24.95) by Phil Scott, in association with the Smithsonian.

Scott examines the flawed attempts of those who came before the Wrights and of those who attempted to improve upon the brothers' success.

Among them are the obscure as well as the famous: Leonardo da Vinci, who designed a pair of wings for people to wear; Howard Hughes, whose huge wood seaplane, the "Spruce Goose," made a mile flight in 1947 and has since been grounded as a tourist attraction; and even the Wrights, whose 1904 Flyer proved to be misnamed when it crashed shortly after takeoff.

Included are illustrations of various contraptions that look as if they'd never get off the ground -- and didn't.

There are mostly success stories in "Wright to Fly: Celebrating 100 Years of Powered Flight" (Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund-Trafalgar Square, $60).

In this slipcased volume with a ribbon bookmark, Peter R. March has compiled reproductions of 100 color paintings, 12 commissioned for the book, to illustrate the progress of manned flight, from the earliest wood-and-fabric planes to the space shuttle.

There is a survey of each year, from 1903 to 2002, honoring the people, events and machines that have played important roles in the history of powered aviation. For each year, there is also a daily chronicle of events.

The evolution of commercial and military aircraft is traced, as is the development of helicopters, blimps, stealth aircraft, the moon landing and the SST.

The book reveals that Dec. 17 was a historic day in aviation history not only in 1903 but also in 1935. That's when the Douglas DC-3 prototype made its first flight.

The development of this plane helped establish flying as a feasible and profitable method of long-distance travel. A DC-3 is depicted flying over New York in a painting by Robert Watts.

Noah Adams retraces the steps -- on the ground and in the air -- of the Wrights in his book "The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur & Orville Wright" (Crown, $22).

Adams spoke with descendants of families that helped the brothers conduct their experiments, hang-glided in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, visited an aircraft builder constructing a replica of the Wrights' 1903 Flyer and handled the tools and materials that the Wrights used.

Letters, telegrams, diary entries and other documents are cited to help reveal the lives of the brothers and their family.

Adams traveled thousands of miles -- to Le Mans, France; Dayton; and the Kitty Hawk area -- and interviewed dozens of people to chronicle the brothers' lives and deeds, and to get to know them not only as inventors, but as people too.

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