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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 28, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Wrights, Airport Oil Slick

In Dayton Ohio, they really hate North Carolina's license-plate brag "first in flight." And they're right. Kitty Hawk was chosen for the Wright Brothers' test flights because of the "soft" landings that sand allowed, plus the dependable, sustained winds of between ten and twenty miles an hour.

Enough wind to allow a glider to rise; not so much as to force it to crash before the pilot has mastered the controls.

But North Carolina itself had no chance of inventing a flying machine.

Which is no great shame, because nobody else in the world had any idea of how to fly, either. It was only in Dayton, Ohio, in a bike shop that happened to be run by a pair of brilliantly self-educated and inexhaustibly inventive brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright.

In David McCullough's brief and clear account, two facts emerge: First, the Wright brothers were not tinkerers who happened to hit upon the right mechanical principles to achieve flight. Yes, they were mechanically brilliant -- but they (Wilbur especially) also researched everything known about flying, and then thought through all the unknowns, so that at no point were they just, so to speak, "winging it."

Second, the key inventions and processes were entirely their own. While a few people looked on with interest and hope, the fact is that nobody contributed anything to their key ideas.

And what were those ideas?

The airfoil was a well-known principle. Other inventors had developed gliders that used it -- though they often got the ratios wrong, to their personal detriment.

And putting a lightweight (aluminum-based) internal combustion engine on a glider to give it forward momentum was bound to occur to somebody, though propellers were so little understood -- even on ships that used them to move through water -- that they had to practically invent propeller science in order to proceed.

No, what the Wright brothers invented was a means of controlling an airplane while in flight. Nobody uses their system today, but it made perfect sense back when the construction was of wood and wire and silk. They warped the wings, bending them up and down to change the angle of flight in air.

What few people realize is that the famous First Flight was during their third year at Kitty Hawk. The Wrights made the long trip each year in order to perfect their control mechanism, using gliders. The winds at the Outer Banks enabled them to test their ability to keep the plane balanced and to move up, down, left, and right without having to rely on air currents.

It wasn't just a matter of invention. They had to train themselves to be so familiar with the way a glider behaved when various controls were used that it was a reflex. Only by making thousands of short flights were they able to become so adept at flight that when they put an engine on their plane, they could control its forward progress. Those reliable Outer Banks breezes over soft sand were North Carolina's contribution to flight.

The North Carolina locals naturally thought they were crazy. But they also saw that these Ohio boys worked hard -- no, relentlessly -- and they saw those gliders fly, gaining more and more control with each new plane.

But the Outer Banks posed challenges, too. Heavy rain, hurricanes, hot and cold weather, and, worst of all, an invasion of mosquitos that nearly drove them out of their minds. Yet they learned what they needed to learn.

When that first engine-driven airplane with its big propellers took off at Kitty Hawk, it was the culmination of years of study, trial, repairs, and redesigns. And every bit as important as the plane itself was the pilot -- both Wilbur and Orville had trained themselves to be competent to deal with the new challenges that engine-powered flight brought to them.

The Wright Brothers is also a family story. Together with their father and unmarried sister, Wilbur and Orville were able to maintain a nearly normal life, even after fame and prosperity came to them. Their father was a minister with great integrity, and he and his late wife had raised their children to be unimpressed with fame or money.

Wilbur and Orville argued continuously -- but they were productive arguments, because each listened to the other and considered the other's viewpoint, sometimes swapping sides before the argument was over.

Wilbur, though he was arguably the more important thinker and designer of the two, died young, but Orville lived on to witness many milestones of aviation. He also had to fight many court battles to protect their patents -- and protect their reputation.

For once people saw how changing the shape of the wing allowed for controlled flight -- whether by warping or the use of various flaps -- then it seemed obvious, and rivals were inclined to minimize the Wrights' genius.

But as McCullough puts it, until that flight at Kitty Hawk, nobody flew; afterward, everybody could. The best of their rivals admitted it and proclaimed the Wright Brothers' triumph.

This book takes very little time to read, and it's rewarding from beginning to end. The Wrights' story is an American story. They came from an inventive time and place. Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel F.B. Morse, and many other inventors were among the most famous of celebrities in that era -- and Ohio was the state with the most patents being issued, year after year.

In other words, it wasn't insane to be an inventor -- it was merely insane to try to invent a machine that flies. One of the most comical aspects of the story is how the press almost completely ignored the Wrights' achievement at first, assuming that their claim of success was pure "bluff."

And the U.S. military answered them with form letters and other signs of contempt, refusing even to send someone to see a demonstration, until the Wrights took their latest model flier to France, where their achievements were recognized and their fame became worldwide.

Once the world had proclaimed the Wrights to be the real thing, then they became famous as only America can bring off that weird, oppressive state. Yet they endured, virtually unchanged, though they did come to appreciate the accommodations at first-rate Parisian hotels a lot more than they liked their miserable camp at Kitty Hawk.

The audiobook of The Wright Brothers is read by David McCullough himself. I figure that none of his producers dared to correct his pronunciations, assuming that he knew. But he didn't, so there are some laughably awful French pronunciations.

Still, McCullough is a good reader -- clear and never over-excited. The listening experience is first rate. But reading it in print will be just as rewarding, even if you can't safely do it while driving.

I thought I knew about the Wright Brothers -- but I knew nothing until I read this book. You should read it too, not just because of the aviation lore, but because of the picture it gives you of American life at the time when we were first emerging as a dominant nation on the world stage.

The Wrights became, for many Europeans, the symbol of what Americans were at their best. They served us well in that role, and by the end of the book I had come to like them a lot, beyond honoring them for their achievements.


So on Tuesday morning, I got up at the same time as my wife -- five a.m. She does this every weekday morning because she teaches a scripture class to high school students in our home at 6:15. I did it because we had to catch an 8:15 flight in order to get to Salt Lake City for my mother's funeral.

You can only understand how radical a change it was for me to arise at that hour when you realize that for more than a month, I've been on a horrible anti-sleep cycle in which I usually don't go to sleep until dawn -- often after the kids from her class leave at 7:05. So on Tuesday, I got up just about the time I've been going to bed.

So I was tired. And we were rushing to make sure we didn't miss the flight.

One thing that helps is to have her put both our bags on her ticket. I drop her off at Delta and she checks the bags while I go park the car.

This was an especially good idea because I've resumed exercising, including walking on a treadmill, since the heel pain that has long interfered with my exercise has eased a bit. So I was looking forward to the walk from the parking garage to the terminal, with my carry-on bag in tow. Exercise!

I had to park on the middle level, at the far corner, and then went up one floor to the top parking level to cross over the road. I was moving at a brisk pace -- for me -- which means I wasn't walking all that fast. I noticed that at the end of E row, the painted concrete surface looked a little wet, but I can deal with a bit of water.

It wasn't water. The blue had concealed the tint of the opposite color, orange. It was an oil slick.

And I mean slick. All of a sudden, my feet slid out from under me and I landed on my right knee and both hands. Remember, I'm seriously overweight, so there's no guarantee my bones can stand the strain. But despite the pain I was relieved that I hadn't broken any bones. I hadn't even torn the knee of my pants.

I rolled onto my back and quickly discovered that I had just converted my body into a mop. My shirt soaked up a lot of oil.

But what really mattered was that I couldn't even sit up. To do that, I would have to push myself up on my hands -- and as soon as I put weight on my hands, they slid on the oil. I basically had to wriggle an inch or two at a time toward drier ground. This was not looking good for catching my plane.

Then a car came along. It was impossible not to see me, and the driver kindly stopped to ask if I needed help.

Oh, yes. I needed a time machine, so I could go back and walk around the oil slick, now that I knew what it was. And while we're doing the time machine, I'd like to go back a year or so and not gain the fifty pounds I put on last year.

But I kept that suggestion to myself, and instead pointed out that I didn't think I could get myself to a standing position. My knees aren't all that flexible, and even getting out of a low chair has been hard for me lately. There on the pavement, even when I rolled over and got on my hands and knees, there was nothing for me to grip in order to raise myself up.

If this gentleman had not stopped, I would have had to crawl over to the wall on the other side of the lane, which would have been very painful, especially for my right knee. Instead, though, this kind man -- who looked to be somewhere near my age (greying hair) but far more physically fit -- offered to help me up.

"I'm quite heavy," I pointed out (obvious, but now we could both admit it), "and until I get my legs under me I won't be much help."

He, too, couldn't see the boundaries of the slick surface. He found that region with his feet. "Wow, that really is slippery," he said. And I suggested that before he tried to lift me, he needed to be standing on a dry surface.

He stood in a safe place and then, very manfully, hoisted my dead weight to a position nearing vertical. I handled the final two inches, because I'm so strong.

Basically, this gentleman found me like a beetle on its back, and he stopped, got out of his car, and did some serious exertion to flip me onto my legs so I could move under my own power.

I didn't think to ask his name. But I thanked him then, and I thank him now.

He also asked me, "Do you have a shirt you can change into?" That was when I realized that my shirt must be really soaked in oil. But I could truthfully answer, "Yes."

Ever since the last time I had luggage inadvertently rerouted, or missed a flight and had to stay overnight without access to my checked bags, I have made it a practice to stuff a shirt, socks, and underwear, along with my meds, into the computer bag that I carry aboard the plane. So I did have a spare shirt.

He drove on, and I hobbled my way, pulling my computer bag, across the road and parking lot, into the terminal.

I also had a canvas tote with a few things in it. That, too, was soaked in orange liquid. The oil hadn't made it through to the inside, but it was only a matter of time. So in the terminal, I stopped at the shop where they had some totes and bought the least girly one. I asked the nice lady to throw the old one away for me, after I transferred my possessions.

I also told her about the oil slick and begged her to notify somebody, because that slick was going to catch somebody else if they didn't clean it up -- or at least mark it off. I couldn't take the time to do it because I had to catch that flight to Atlanta.

But despite my rush, I did take the time to stop in the restroom and change my shirt. The one I had been wearing was so covered with oil that it was hard to find a way to roll it up so that the oil was all on the inside. But I finally did, and put it in the bottom of the tote.

Maybe I should have thrown it away, but it's hard enough to find shirts that fit me. Even if the stain was permanent, it could be a work shirt. Or work-out shirt. I knew I could drop it off at Baird's, the cleaner I regularly use in Orem, Utah, where my family actually lives.

But I couldn't do anything about my pants or underwear -- not in an airport restroom when I had a plane to catch. One of the obnoxious things about being this obese is that it's harder and harder to dress myself. Changing those items of clothing would take more time than I had.

Fortunately, our flight was delayed because our flight attendants had come in on a late flight the night before, and they couldn't fly again until a certain number of hours had passed. So that slight delay in our departure time allowed me to make it to the gate in time to board.

By the time I reached Utah, the oil on my underwear had soaked through to the shirt I was wearing (and sorry about whatever it might have done to the airplane seat; I looked and couldn't see anything, but then, I couldn't see the original oil slick, either).

So we made it to Baird's well before closing, and they promised to do whatever dry cleaning could accomplish. I told them that all I cared about was getting it by Wednesday afternoon; I didn't expect them to eliminate all staining. (Epilogue: Baird's got the shirt completely clean.)

Then we got to the hotel, I changed all my clothes, and my wife took them over to her mother's house to start them washing. I found out that oil had somehow come in through the top of my sneakers and turned one white stocking orange. It was a good thing that I always pack for one more day than I actually plan to be gone -- an extra day's pills, too. Because you never know.

Now my legs are stiff and sore. I have a large scrape on my knee, just like the ones I got when, as a three-year-old, I tried to run down a hill in San Mateo, California, a place as vertical as San Francisco. Makes me feel so young. At least I haven't started losing teeth again. Yet.

All of this comes on the heels of my wife having been warned, teasingly, by a family member that, starting yesterday, "Mercury is in retrograde." This is a family joke because we have one true believer in astrology, and whenever Mercury was in retrograde, there were phone calls warning us not to travel or make important decisions.

My wife is hoping that I've already drawn down all the bad luck from Mercury. But actually, I was quite lucky. At my age (63), a fall like that could break bones and leave me crippled for what's left of my life. Instead, I was just strong enough to break the worst of the fall, and lucky enough to have the help of a kind stranger. The injuries are real but not crippling, and they're already well on the way to healing. So Mercury really didn't have it in for me after all.

The standard joke about the constant possibility of death is, "I might get hit by a bus anytime." But I think I proved that with the help of a conveniently placed oil slick, I can be my own bus.

On the plane, though, I found the solution to a problem with my current novel project (Gatefather), so now I know how the book ends. (I thought I already knew, but I ended up using that event near the beginning of this volume and I had nowhere else to go. Till now.)

Did the accident jog my brain? Make me aware of my own mortality so I knew I had to get that novel done?

My editor has already warned me that if I die with this book unfinished, she will not let me rest in peace. She hasn't been more specific than that, but she doesn't have to. I really do prefer fulfilling my obligations -- especially when I can do it by writing a book that might actually be worth reading.

I had made a three-point landing, there on the concrete. But only my knee was injured. My fingers are still typing just fine. It could have been so much worse.

In fact, within a few days the injuries had pretty much worked themselves out. That's because you can't use American airports without walking for long periods of time ... in a hurry. It gets downright aerobic.

OK, yes, you can opt for carts and wheelchairs. But the electric carts are not fast, and the wheelchairs are for withered people who weigh as much as a leaf. I weigh as much as a tree.

I'm sure the ever-willing wheelchair pushers would gladly take on someone my size; the question is, are any of them heavy enough or strong enough to act as an anchor should my sixth-of-a-ton get away from them on a downhill slope?

No, it's walking. Especially in airports like the ones that don't believe in signs. For instance, in Kansas City the rental-car bus drops off their Delta passengers between two entrance points. The entries are far apart (to someone with an injured knee, at least), and they both say Delta. Period.

We chose the one on the left -- and entered right at TSA's security checkpoint. To get to ticketing and baggage drop-off, the obvious destination for people getting off a rental car bus, we had to walk the full length of the distance between those entrances, and then some.

A simple sign outside, saying, for instance, "Ticketing" or "Check-in," would have saved us about a football field's worth of walking.

The Delta agents agreed with us, but apparently the airport authorities won't allow the placement of any sign that might save passengers a few hundred steps. Did Michelle Obama get to them and persuade them that airline passengers should be forced to exercise whether they like it or not?

Well, it worked. I walked off the injury. In fact, with back-to-back trips to Salt Lake City and Kansas City, I had enough airport walking that exercise feels almost tolerable. Thanks, Michelle.

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