Let's Talk About: The Wright stuff

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It was in the late 1800s in Dayton, Ohio, when Orville and Wilbur Wright, two adventurous young lads full of dash and derring-do, dreamed of inventing a heavier-than-air flying machine. Their mom was a mechanical genius who taught them to sew and helped them design the fastest sled in town one snowy winter. Their dad brought the brothers a toy bamboo helicopter from France. They spent hours tinkering with this wondrous contraption and decided to build their own kites. Even though the brothers grew to become down-to-Earth businessmen in their bicycle shop, they always kept their eyes on the sky.

While competitors struggled to get their ideas off the ground, the Wright brothers found inspiration in nature. Wilbur spotted a turkey vulture, "soaring freely ... on an infinite highway of air." Wilbur observed that the vulture would adjust its feathers to control the flow of wind over its wings.

The brothers built a homemade wind tunnel and conducted thousands of kite tests. Just as the turkey vulture has adjustable feathers, the brothers' airplane would have adjustable wings. A system of cables and pulleys allowed them to warp and twist the wings on their biplane, rolling with the wind and remaining in flight.

Their airplane weighed 750 pounds, with an aluminum engine from Pittsburgh. It was built without nuts, bolts or nails. To keep the aircraft flexible, the brothers sewed the plane together, fastening the wings with twine that would resemble today's dental floss.

The brothers chose the North Carolina coast for its ocean breezes and sandy beaches. Their first flights on the cold morning of Dec. 17, 1903, were short and sweet: just a few seconds, just a few feet. But soon they would soar into the sky and into the history books.

The next time you're in an airplane, remember it all started with that unlikely hero of American aviation, the turkey vulture.


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