We Ohioans like to claim Wilbur and Orville Wright as our own, and why not? They began their pioneering aviation work in Dayton, birthplace of Orville and the final resting place for both brothers. Their Wright Flyer III was built and flown in Ohio. We’ve honored them with the establishment of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Wright State University. Still, the fact remains that our favorite aviators were out of state when they achieved their most notable success. One hundred and seven years ago today, the Wright brothers achieved the first controlled, powered, manned flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
This is a big deal to North Carolinians, whose license plates bear the slogan, “First in Flight.” I can’t blame them for displaying a reverential pride regarding the momentous event that occurred within their borders. I also appreciate the measures they have taken to preserve the historic site in such pristine condition that it is easy for visitors to visualize the original Wright Flyer skimming the windswept plain of Kill Devil Hills. But “First in Flight”? Just remember that it was a pair of Ohio boys who got you there.
It is said that history is written by the victors, and to this maxim I would add that historical markers are written by those who have bragging rights. Sure, I agree that preservation and education are the foremost concerns of the legislators that bestow such signs, but these noble purposes are often supported by an underlying opportunity for chest-thumping. Call it smack talk for history nerds. Oh yeah, that’s right, you’re lookin’ at Ohio, home of the Wright Brothers, bay-beee!
Ohio was accustomed to taking credit for important historical figures long before this whole aviation thing got off the ground. As the native state of William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley, our state was known for its contributions to the Oval Office by the time the Wright brothers took off. Two more Buckeye Presidents, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding, took office not long afterward, earning our state the boastful title, Mother of Presidents. Never mind the fact that they ran the country from Washington, D.C., the point is that they came from Ohio. We are proud of what we have exported to the rest of the nation and the world.
That’s why our state pride is tarnished when the Wright brothers are associated exclusively with the Tar Heel State. We see Orville and Wilbur as merely the first of many homegrown aviation pioneers. There was also World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. John Glenn has the distinction of being the first American to orbit the Earth, as well as the oldest man in space and the only astronaut to travel within a Mercury capsule and the Space Shuttle. Most famously, Neil Armstrong attained superstratospheric heights as he became the first human being to set foot on the Moon. Add to that a whole slew of additional Buckeye astronauts, and it becomes obvious why we feel entitled to yet another maternal claim, Birthplace of Aviation.
The respective historical legacies of Ohio and North Carolina clashed in the summer of 2000, when both states sought to include the Wright Brothers in the design of their forthcoming commemorative state quarters. North Carolina had the upper hand, as their earlier admittance to the Union resulted in their quarter being issued a year before Ohio’s. They boldly featured a recreation of John T. Daniels’ famous photograph of the inaugural flight of the Wright Flyer on the back of their quarter, along with a significantly altered motto, “First Flight.” That removal of the tiny preposition in solidified North Carolina’s claim. One might question whether Ohio deserved the “First in Flight” designation just as much as North Carolina, but there is no denying that the First Flight itself took place in North Carolina.
Second in coin, Ohio submitted several designs for its own commemorative quarter. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts considered an etching of the Battle of Lake Erie and another featuring a cardinal perched on a buckeye branch, as well as a few drawings with aviation themes. “Spirit of Invention” honored Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers. “Heroes of Aviation” included references to the Wrights, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong. Ultimately, a coin depicting the Wright Flyer III and an anonymous astronaut against a state outline with the legend “Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers” was chosen.
It was a missed opportunity, really. Because North Carolina’s coin had already been issued, we had a chance at getting the last word without the threat of rebuttal. Instead of the watered-down “Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers,” I would have preferred something more aggressive. I am particularly fond of the suggestion made by my brother Brian, who envisioned an Ohio state coin emblazoned with the taunt, First in Flight My Ass. I suppose the United States Mint might have lacked the necessary sense of humor to appreciate it. But think of the joy it would have brought to hundreds of millions of consumers. Surely it would have been a prized collectible.
Of course, the squabble over bragging rights is minutiae in comparison to the importance of what the Wright Brothers accomplished one hundred and seven years ago today. Not only did they revolutionize mechanized transportation, they managed to pull off the world’s first four manned flights of a controlled, powered aircraft within a single morning. Orville went first, taking the Wright Flyer 120 feet in 12 seconds. Wilbur then broke the world distance record for sustained, powered flight by taking the Flyer 55 feet further in the same amount of time. Not to be outdone, Orville went even 25 feet further than that in 15 seconds. Wilbur responded by shattering all previous records, remaining aloft for 59 seconds and traveling 852 feet. Not a bad day’s work, especially considering it was all over by lunchtime.
Modern transportation and our nation’s economy are now dependent on the regular departures and arrivals of more than 87,000 flights every day, and that’s only what’s going on in our corner of the world. Who do we have to thank for such an incredibly consequential contribution to mankind? Orville and Wilbur Wright. You know, the Ohioans. Yeeah, bay-beee!