December 2006 Issue
Flights of Fancy
From re-creating historic aircraft to inspiring kids to construct a plane, the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company makes the imagination soar.
Strolling the sun-baked tarmac at the Dayton International Airport in July 2003, it would have been easy to forget the folly of scientist Simon Newcomb.
After all, this was the Dayton Air Show, with planes of every type -- from the jaunty acrobatic models to the military's sleek scream machines -- taking turns occupying the sky just as casually as the clouds. The 250 aircraft were noteworthy and their features impressive, but certainly no one was surprised that the planes could actually get off the ground.
Well, almost no one.
"If God had intended that man should fly, he would have given him wings!" shouted Newcomb, sneering at the air show's bemused attendees.
"I was accosting people, really," says Nick Engler with a laugh. Engler, director of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company in Dayton, recalls the crowd's reaction when he dressed in period costume to portray famous 20th-century scientist Newcomb, whose cynical 1903 quote about God's intentions -- uttered months before Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved powered flight -- has gone down in history as one of the all-time great gaffes.
The thought of two local men who never graduated from high school prevailing against such a world-renowned authority helped motivateEngler to start the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company in 1999. Its mission, to share the significance of the brothers' accomplishments, has found a natural home in classrooms across Ohio.
"Theirs is a story that we should be telling children to create courage, perseverance and a belief in oneself," says Engler, 57, whose company presents a "Secret of Flight" program in schools. "It's what we should tell them when they outgrow The Little Engine That Could."
Of course, it's easier to get kids' attention when you have cool props.
Engler's experience as an expert woodworker (he's written more than 50 books on the subject) enabled him to endeavor to re-create full-scale replicas of Orville and Wilbur's historic flyers and gliders by hand. Today, thanks to an army of devoted volunteers that includes historians, pilots, teachers and all-around flight fanatics, the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company boasts the world's only complete collection of experimental Wright aircraft -- one of which, a full-size replica 1902 Wright Glider, is part of the portable museum the company brings along for their programs.
The passion and principles needed to construct those planes have sparked the next generation of Orvilles and Wilburs.
"It seems like the kids in Russia want me up there once a week to work with them," says Engler, of the west central Ohio town (pronounced ROO-shee) where an aeronautics movement is under way, spurred on by the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company. The local school's eighth graders are working on their third full-sized, old-fashioned aircraft -- just one year after traveling to the history-rich hills of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and watching a Wright glider they constructed soar through the air.
"I love to see the lights go on in kids' eyes, those little 'aha!' moments," says Engler. "Seeing them get enthused about all this stuff, that's even more important than the actual flying."
Looking at their early lives, it's no wonder that the members of the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company now spend so much time gazing skyward.
Engler, for example, whiled away hours as a child sitting in the movie theater at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (where his grandfather was a volunteer), transfixed by footage of planes. Van Buren resident Ron Bowerman, the company's director of special projects, can also trace his passion back to boyhood -- specifically, being 5 years old and strapped into the open-air cockpit of a crop duster as his pilot uncle skimmed a field in North Creek, Ohio. Whether it was the thrill he felt as his uncle did loops in the air, or the look on the man's face when he turned around, took off his goggles and smiled at his young nephew, "I'll never forget that day," says Bowerman.
With such heartfelt memories, neither Engler nor Bowerman needed additional reason to become enamored with planes. Still, they found it in the Wright brothers.
Inspired by the rubber-band-powered toy airplane that their father brought home from a business trip when they were boys, Orville and Wilbur undertook what so many other learned aviation experimenters before them had been unable to achieve: powered flight. This, despite their lack of higher education, opposition from the likes of Simon Newcomb, and the risk of death.
After all, says Bowerman, before the Wright brothers patented the three-axis control system (known as roll, pitch and yaw), aviationpioneers were trying to control gliders by shifting their body weight, leaving them vulnerable to the types of strong gusts of wind that killed well-known German aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1896. "The Wright brothers adored him," Bowerman adds.
In tribute to Orville and Wilbur's ultimate success in the face of such adversity, the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company teaches the significance of the Wrights' early accomplishment via a process they call "reverse archaeology": having kids build planes largely in the same old-fashioned manner of that era so they'll gain a greater appreciation of the Wrights' invention.
And as far as Engler and Bowerman are concerned, teaching children the art of woodworking is a nice bonus. "I'm not anti-technology or anything," says Bowerman, "but we're starting to have a whole generation of kids who don't know which end of the hammer to use."
Of course, that doesn't apply to the 31 eighth graders in Russia who were each awarded commendations from the state legislature this year for building and ultimately flying their 1902 Wright flyer. And it also doesn't apply to the kids Bowerman has been working with for the company's "Spirit of Ohio" project: an effort to tour the state and have students from all 88 counties build the ribs for a 1908 Wright flyer, set to soar in 2008.
On a wall in Bowerman's home hangs a framed letter of support from Homer Hickam, NASA aerospace engineer and author of the best-selling memoir Rocket Boys.
"A rocket won't fly unless somebody lights the fuse," Hickam writes, citing an inspirational line from both the book and its adapted movie, "October Sky."
"I take that as encouragement," says Bowerman. "But sometimes, it seems like the matches are wet and the fuse is not wanting to light."
He could be referring to the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company's troubles ever since a major supporter, former Dayton International Airport director Blair Conrad, died last year.
"Every endeavor like this needs a patron, a cheerleader," says Engler, who notes that despite his enthusiastic network of volunteers, there will always be expenses. "Steel pipe, engine casting, crankshaft, pistons ... there's probably $7,000 worth of wood alone in [one] airplane that has to be paid for.
"To that end, the company is considering selling its collection of re-created aircraft, along with the rest of the popular "Birth of Aviation" exhibit that debuted at the Dayton Air show in 2003 -- the same one where Engler, dressed as Simon Newcomb, shouted about the ridiculous notion of manned flight while standing amid a sea of planes.
But, "what's important here is that the kids don't suffer," says Engler, insisting that the company will continue to trumpet the Wright brothers' achievements through school visits and the "Spirit of Ohio" project. "You can't say no to kids who actually want to sit down and work with you."
To learn more about the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, call Nick Engler at 937/698-3619 or visit www.first-to-fly.com. For information on the "Spirit of Ohio" project, call Ron Bowerman at 419/299-3807.