Sunday, October 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'The Flyers': Recapturing a sense of wonder

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur & Orville Wright"

by Noah Adams
Crown, $22
Author appearance

Noah Adams will appear at noon Saturday on the Hugo Stage of the Northwest Bookfest.

One hundred years.

This Dec. 17 it will be 100 years since Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first men to move a controllable engine-powered vehicle through the air — or, in more mystical terms, the first men to fly — and lately we've become a little jaded with the concept. Now it's all about cramped seats and crappy meals and canceled flights. The childhood wonder that we're even able to get this huge metal contraption off the ground — — is gone.

Noah Adams, author of "Piano Lessons" and host of NPR's "All Things Considered," is intent on infusing us with that childhood wonder again. His book, "The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur and Orville Wright," is a lot like the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer: It's light (222 pages) and doesn't keep us in the air for long, and there are bumpy patches; but we're left filled with wonder.

Most of us know the moment: Kitty Hawk, two nattily dressed brothers. One of them (Orville? Wilbur?) stayed up for a couple of seconds, and that's why we can travel today from Seattle to New York in five hours.

There's more to the story, of course, and Adams tracks it down like the radio man he is, visiting the spots the Wrights visited, retracing their steps and interviewing the people he finds there. He begins at the end — the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio — and talks with Jim Sandegren, the staff horticulturist.

He goes to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hill — chosen by the Wrights for its constant autumnal wind — and to Huffman Prairie Flying Field in Ohio, where, post-Kitty Hawk, the Wrights perfected their Flyer, and which, remarkably, was loaned to them by Mr. Huffman at the Fourth National Bank "without charge, but they had to be careful about the livestock."

Adams also travels to France, the site of Wilbur's 1908 triumph, where the aeronautic French were stunned to see his aircraft "make a deep, banking turn," and declared, in the words of the French flier Leon Delagrange, "Nous sommes battu." We are beaten.

The innocence the book captures is not simply in this new thing but in what this new thing might do. Wilbur was in France to sell their aircraft to the French Ministry of War, while Orville was in D.C. doing the same with the U.S. Army Signal Corps. But Orville, who lived to see two world wars (Wilbur died in 1912 of typhoid fever), later admitted they did not foresee air battles and bombing raids on civilian targets, "though we did think it might be used in dropping an occasional bomb about the heads of the rulers who declared war and stayed home."

There's a deeper level of innocence in their story as well, and it has to do with fame. When the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk — Orville, first, for 12 seconds, later Wilbur for 59 seconds — they did not hold a press conference. They simply packed up and went home to improve their design. Fame, when it came, was almost a nuisance, which got in the way of their quiet tinkering. It reminds us what an era of braggarts and chest-thumpers we live in. When did the goal become the spotlight rather than the worthwhile accomplishment that happens to draw the spotlight?

Their later years were filled with loneliness and battles with the Smithsonian — of all places! — for recognition; but the lingering effect of Noah Adams' book is best summed up by Charlie Webbert of Dayton, who, in 1904, volunteered for a day's work at Huffman Prairie. "The old engine seemed to be working a little better than normal," he told a reporter. "Orville stuck his head and nodded to Wilbur, and Wilbur turned her loose. And by God the damn thing flew."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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