Handling Charge

What fate awaits the fool who messes with an aeronautical icon?

Wright Flyer undergoing restoration 1984-1985.jpg
The 1903 Wright Flyer undergoing restoration in 1984-1985.

The Smithsonian’s treasures rate the same kind of safeguarding that the crown jewels enjoy at the Tower of London. We don’t—more’s the pity—have 16th century Beefeaters armed with halberds. But we do have guards, ubiquitously astroll, or standing, hands behind backs, rocking on heels, eyes narrowed in suspicion. What fate awaits the fool who messes with an aeronautical icon?

Let the punishment fit the crime, I say. The idiot who prods the Spirit of St. Louis with a walking stick should be clapped into its cabin after having been kept awake all night, then compelled to take off from a muddy field, badly overloaded, with only a periscope to see through. The culprit should then fly for 33 ½ hours, still without sleep, land at a strange airport in the dark, and be mobbed by 100,000 howling Parisians. Throw a spitball at the Bell XS-1 and you get stuffed in its cockpit with a freshly broken rib, dropped from a B-29, and fired through the sound barrier.

As for the Wright Flyer, I myself live in trepidation that I may one day be forced to fly it. There is hardly a worse punishment for those who have touched that sacred relic out of sheer curiosity. And mea culpa: I have touched it.

It happened three years ago, after the Flyer had been lowered from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum for reconditioning and replacement of its rotted muslin fabric. The work was done in a gallery so people could watch the process and see the bones of the old airplane. Curators reminded shocked purists that the Flyer had been repaired many times before the Smithsonian received it in 1948, and little remained of the raiment it wore in 1903. One fragment went to the moon with Apollo 11.

Four months later, when the restoration was finished, I was invited to the Flyer’s reinstallment. I showed up at the museum in the evening and found technicians, curators, dignitaries, and members of the Wright family gathered around the airplane, which was now as polished and well dressed as the guests.

The Flyer rested on the floor before us. We could walk within inches of it, which I did, hands avoiding contact like a soccer player in a kicking scramble.

“Go ahead. Touch it,” said a voice. I turned to see what shape Satan had taken this time and found he occupied the body of Walter Boyne, then the museum’s director. So I laid coarse and mortal hands upon aviation’s holiest of relics. And I learned a thing or two about mankind’s first airplane.

There was a fair amount of anhedral built into the wings—that is, they drooped. It’s quite pronounced when you run your hands along the leading edge. It must have made the aircraft so unstable that the pilot had to struggle for control every second aloft.

The brothers devised a wing warping technique to turn the aircraft. A cradle on the lower wing into which the pilot wedged himself was linked to the wingtips by cables. When the pilot shoved his hips to the left, the cables would tug the trailing edge of the left wingtip upward and that of the right wingtip down, resulting in a turn to the left.

I’d read about the cradle and the cables, and had seen them from a distance. Now I shoved the cradle left and right. The wingtips warped astonishingly—nearly a foot. Similarly, the control linked to the small elevator that juts forward of the wings produced an amazing amount of travel. (Yes, I wiggled that, too.)

And so, having sinned, I began to understand the aerodynamics of the fragile, kite-like structure. The elevator was so easily overcontrolled that on its first flight the Flyer oscillated wildly for 120 feet before dropping onto the sand.

Compared with a student’s first flight in a little Cessna or Piper today, Orville’s must have been a horror. Picture him lying on his stomach in a business suit, blinking against sand and wind. As he desperately tries to keep the aircraft’s nose on the horizon, he must also hike his hips left and right to keep the wings level. And all the while the 12-horsepower engine blats in his right ear, the chain drives whine around him, and—well, if my punishment is to fit my crime, I’ve earned 12 seconds of utter hell. But it was worth it.

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