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Saturday, August 25, 2012

walking it back

The greatest, most glorious retraction I ever read ran on December 17, 2003, on the front page of the first section of the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. It was part of my job to go through this paper each day. (On Sunday they had crossword puzzles from both the NY Times and the LA Times, and I'd save these pages for trips. I miss that!)

On this particular day, my eyes were greeted by a follow-up article to an original article I hadn't seen — I'd only been in the area since 1985:

A story and headline in the Dec. 18, 1903, Virginian-Pilot contained errors.

Orville Wright was the pilot for the first flight of the Wright Flyer. It was not Wilbur, whose name is not spelled Wilber.

The plane's wing span was 40 feet, 4 inches. The wings were 6 feet 2 inches apart vertically and 6 feet, 6 inches from front to rear. They were covered in muslin, not canvas.

The engine rested on top of the lower wing. It did not hang below it.

The propellers had two blades each, not six. They both were mounted on the rear side of the wings. There was no propeller providing upward force.

Rudders in the front and rear and warping of the wings controlled the plane. There was not a single, huge fan-shaped rudder that could be moved side to side and raised and lowered.

The pilot lay prone on the lower wing. There was no pilot's car.

The Wrights have always said they were equal inventors of the machine. Wilbur never took credit as the chief inventor. The brothers had no plans to build a much larger machine and never did.

Their success came after four years of work, not three.

They took one trip to the Outer Banks in the summer and two trips in the fall prior to 1903. They did not spend almost the entire winter, fall and early spring on the Outer Banks for three years.

They arrived on Sept. 26 in 1903, not on Sept. 1.

The plane took off under its own power after traveling 40 feet down a rail on flat land. It was not sent down a slope after Orville Wright released a catch. The engine was started before takeoff. It was not started after the plane had rolled halfway down a 100-foot hill.

The plane flew 120 feet, 8 to 10 feet off the ground in a straight line on the first of four flights. It did not soar 60 feet in the air. It did not circle and fly 3 miles over breakers and dunes. It did not tack to port, then to starboard.

The plane's ground speed was 8 to 10 mph. Its air speed was 30 to 35 mph. It did not fly at 8 mph.

The plane hit the ground nose-first after its fourth flight, damaging the front rudder mechanism, and was later destroyed by a gust of wind. It did not descend gracefully and rest lightly at a spot chosen by the aviator after one attempt.

Five onlookers helped the brothers and watched the flights. A small crowd did not run after the plane and give up after it outpaced them.

The flight took place at the foot of Kill Devil Hill. Orville Wright did not declare the flight a success before a crowd on the beach after the first mile. The flights were not on the beach.

Wilbur Wright was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds. His eyes were blue-gray and his hair dark brown. He was not 5 feet 6 inches tall and did not weigh 150 pounds. He did not have raven-hued hair. His eyes were not deep blue.

Orville Wright was 5 feet 8 inches tall and had blue-gray eyes and dark brown hair. He did not have black eyes. He did not have sandy blond hair.
The article referred to can be seen here, thanks to the Smithsonian.

It's possible I have the article among my boxes. I found it today with a search at the Pilot Online, then I bought the article for $1.95, then I searched on a phrase in it and found that the article was carried by many other newspapers, so I copied the text from the Floridian of St. Petersburg.

I find it entirely commendable that a news organization can clear up the record this way, without fear of looking foolish. Indeed, I suspect they were saving the article for the anniversary of the original occasion. The Virginian-Pilot account of the flight was pretty much the first, and can be found at the Smithsonian's web site as part of a lesson plan for the historic event.

Footnote: Driving through Dayton, I saw (and photographed) the present-day incarnation of the Wright Brothers' firm, which (if I understand correctly) was sold quite a few years ago, but which continues to be a going concern. I'm sorry that we have lost Neil Armstrong today, but at least some names are still with us whose bearers have helped us in the ongoing quest to (in whatever degree and for whatever duration) get off the Earth. [Edited again in 2020: It's a firm called Wright Engineering, but it seems they are unrelated, and perhaps making capital from the name.]

Edited to add: I wrote to the Smithsonian and told them about the correction, and got a nice answer back to the effect that they might revamp the lesson plan and include the corrections in the update as an interesting sidelight. Tickled, I am. (September 17, 2012)