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November 4, 2015

By meriwether, Nov 6 2015 01:02PM

Hello All . . . from Kitty Hawk -

It wasn’t much of a flight really - 12 seconds, 120 feet - in a machine that looked more kite than aircraft. Orville, lying flat on his stomach on the lower wing; Wilber running along side to steady the right wing as the machine began its slide down the launching rail. Ever so slowly the two propellers thrust man and machine forward against a 27 mph wind. And then . . . tentatively, with just 10 feet of elevation but still taking flight, the Wright Flyer soared into history, accomplishing what humans had dreamed of for centuries. It was only 12 seconds, but it was 12 seconds that would make the world vastly different in the coming century.

On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved what they had been working on for four years, and dreamed of since youngsters in Dayton, Ohio. The two bicycle mechanics used all their research skills, mechanical ability, innovative spirit, and downright genius to do what no one had done before, and thus open a new age of aviation.

How lucky we all were that the surf man, John T. Daniels, from the local life saving station came running that day when the brothers signaled that they needed some help. He had never taken a photograph before, or even seen a camera. But following Wilbur’s directions, he squeezed the bulb at the right moment - and what a photo he took - one of the most famous in the history of photography. (The Wrights had no idea what he had snapped until weeks later back in their photo lab in Dayton)

How appropriate that I arrived at Kill Devil Hills - the site of the First Flight - on my bicycle. A fellow visitor made that comment, as I seemed to be the only one about on a bike. It wasn’t until he made that comment that the irony struck me.

I had just seen the original Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian two weeks ago, and now here I was where that machine actually took flight from the sands of the Outer Banks. Like that “shot heard round the world” at Concord Bridge in 1775, the 12 second First Flight in 1903 is one of those seminal events of humankind that affects all of us one way or another.

Backtracking to last week, after three days of rain in Williamsburg, I set out early for a beautiful dawn ride along the Colonial Parkway which connects Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown. Part of the route follows the course of the James River, Virginia’s longest and broadest watercourse, as it seeks to empty into the Chesapeake Bay. At that early hour, I was one of the few vehicles on the Parkway, and it was like riding a huge bicycle path and having it all to myself. My destination was the James River Ferry, the only way for a bicyclist to get off the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers (no bicycles on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge). As the ferry pulled away from the Jamestown pier, I had a good view of the 3 small replica ships - the Discovery, Godspeed, and Susan Constant - that brought those first English colonists in 1607 to the New World, and I wondered how they must have felt stepping for the first time into the wilderness of an unknown continent. Were they frightened, hopeful, apprehensive, homesick, excited to begin a new life in a new land? Probably all of those to some degree.

Following mostly backroads under sunny skies and very comfortable riding temps to Suffolk, VA, I spent a day volunteering with Habitat For Humanity of South Hampton Roads. Two houses were going up on the site, and 7 more were to follow. So this was a framing day, and when I had my turn at the nail gun, I endeavored not to drive a nail through my foot which would make for some very uncomfortable riding.

Gray skies overhead and the threat of rain - lots of it - accompanied my arrival on the Outer Banks. Riding in a steady rain, I dropped in on Warm Showers hosts Tom and Linda who greeted me warmly and shared their home, some good wine and food, and good company.

These last few days have been a bit depressing, riding under dark and brooding skies and a constant threat of rain, and the shortened days always make me keep one eye on my watch, not wanting to be caught in the dark without a place to lay my head for the night - always a concern, and one that is quite stressful.

But my time spent with the Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, make up for the dark, because of the light of their achievement - these two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio.

Proceeding On, Southward Along The Outer Banks . . .

Al Thompson

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