Published: January 2013
Flying Lessons: The Wright Brothers Made Me Do It  

Harnessed and clipped to red and white wings, I'm ready to fly. Perched on the Atlantic coast's highest sand dune, I'm metamorphosing from woman into seagull.

"Sharon, just do it!" encourages Steve Bernier, my hang gliding instructor. "Run off the dune's edge 'til your feet no longer touch the sand. Then you'll be flying."  His enthusiasm for flying has our whole class revved up for hang gliding over North Carolina's Outer Banks.  I'm crazy to run off a 100 foot sand dune. But the six teenagers in my class are egging me on....

I recall the morning's lessons: relax, breathe deeply, look where you're going, hold the glider bar lightly to "feel where it will take you," Steve instructs me. But the dune drops sharply to a sandy beach. Can I trust my borrowed wings?

I've got to fly. Just five miles away at Kill Devil Hills, Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the air, trusting their motorized wings. In one day their courage and determination changed world history.

"Success," read Orville Wright's Western Union telegram on December 17, 1903. Sent to their father from North Carolina to Dayton Ohio, the brother's exhilaration was understated

but clear. "Four flights Thursday morning, all against twenty one mile wind. Started from level with engine power alone, average speed through air thirty-one miles. Longest 59 seconds. Inform press. Home Christmas."

Who wouldn't be inspired by the brother's determination to fly against all odds? Although their Ohio bicycle business made them prosperous, Orville and Wilbur were restless. Sparked by their observation of birds, they became obsessed with their dream that humans could fly. By 1900, the brothers had created a 17-foot glider, which they kept aloft in free flight for 10 seconds. The 1902 version featured 32-foot wings, vertical tails, and a hip cradle for the pilot to warp the wings. After some 1000 test glides, Orville and Wilbur were convinced they had the first working airplane.

On a windy December 17 1903, in Kill Devil Hills, the brothers mounted their engine on the 40-foot, 605 pound "Flyer," with double tails and elevators. Orville, smartly dressed in suit, tie, and cap, crawled on his belly next to the engine, released the restraining wire, and took off.  "Flyer" stayed aloft for 12 seconds, then landed 120 feet away.  A second flight was made by Wilbur, who stayed aloft for 12 seconds, and landed 175 feet. Orville's next fight lasted

15 seconds, going 200 feet. Wilbur concluded the amazing day with a triumphant 59 seconds, landing 852 feet away. The Wright brothers had proven man could fly, the world was forever changed.

Thanks to the Brothers W, we now fly around the globe almost as easily as driving to a shopping mall.    So in honor of Wilbur and Orville, I must fly. Wings spread wide, my horizons are about to expand.

Birdman Steve hovers nearby with my take off pep talk. "Let the glider fly you Sharon," he smiles. "I promise, you'll love it." My teen classmates cheer me on, but why do I have to go first?

Breathing through clenched teeth, this flight's for you Orville. For you, Wilbur. For every egret, heron, hawk, gull, and pelican I've envied, wishing I too could fly. For every swoop and flap, for every whistle and song, for all your millions of miles migrating over oceans, mountains, jungles. I join you as Bird Woman.

Running down the sandy hill, my feet lift up, my legs swing gently back. Flying over the dune, I remember the song "You are the wind beneath my wings." Exhilarated, terrified, let my first flight last forever.

Inhaling the salty air, I hear the kids screaming "go bird woman!" I flash back to the seagull I found on the water's edge that morning. She was almost dead, tormented by crashing waves. Hoping she might recover, Warren and I had pulled her out of the water, placing her on a higher spot of beach. She looked deeply into my eyes, slowly flapped her white wings, and spread them into an arch. I stroked them gently as she died. If I believed in Angels, and I do, I would swear her soul passed into me. She gave me wings. But I am just a landlocked human, not a sacred bird, not sure if miracles are just my hopeful dreams.

And so I soar, then belly flop to earth, a middle aged wingless woman.

"I did it!" I shout, hugging Steve with relief. "How long was I airborne?"

"Around 12 seconds," he grins. "Same time as Orville's first flight."

Thanks Orville and Wilbur. Thanks kids. Strap on those wings, now it's your turn to fly.

Hang gliding at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

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