December 17, 2003

Wright Brothers 2003


"If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on the fence and watch the birds." -- Wilbur Wright

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight. There have been many great achievements in aviation in the intervening years, from trans-Atlantic passenger jets to moon landings.

Unfortunately, cultural changes have gradually turned against the innovative spirit that makes such technological strides possible. The above quote is included in an Ayn Rand Institute op-ed by Heike Berthold: America Has Grounded the Wright Brothers.

A century ago Americans understood that progress comes at a price and were willing to pay it. Orville Wright was hospitalized after a crash that killed his first passenger; Clyde Cessna, the founder of Cessna Aircraft Company, only earned his wings after 12 crashes. [...] But the risks these early aviators took were calculated and deliberately accepted. They stemmed not from irrational folly, but from their willingness to accept the responsibility of independent judgment. ... Today, we seek to escape the responsibility of judgment while demanding that progress be risk-free. New products are expected to be instantly perfect, to last forever and to protect us from our own failings—or else we sue.

Berthold argues that government regulations have also stifled aviation innovation.

[B]y the 1930s the government had begun regulating the airlines, master planning route structures and suppressing competition. Today, innovation has ground to a halt under the weight of government control. Unlike the first 25 years of flight, the last 25 have seen few major advances -- and regulatory barriers suppress the adoption of new technology. For instance, most FAA-certified aircraft today are still the same aluminum-and-rivets construction pioneered more than 50 years ago, while for at least a decade non-certified experimental aircraft builders have preferred composite materials, which make their aircraft stronger, roomier, cheaper, and faster at the same time.

(Coincidentally, Boeing just announced plans to produce their first new jet design in 13 years, one that utilizes composite materials.)

But utopian product safety is not the only cultural battle being fought. The Wright Stuff by Thomas Sowell examines how even the Wright Brothers have fallen victim to "political correctness."

Man had dreamed of flying for centuries and others were hard at work on the project in various places around the world when the Wright brothers finally got their plane off the ground a hundred years ago, on December 17, 1903. It didn't matter how long or how short the flight was. What mattered was that they showed that it could be done.

Alas, Orville and Wilbur Wright are today pigeon-holed as "dead white males" whom we are supposed to ignore, if not deplore. Had either of them been a woman, or black or any of a number of other specially singled out groups, this hundredth anniversary of their flight would be a national holiday with an orgy of parades and speeches across the length and breadth of the country. [...]

Many of the great breakthroughs in science and technology were gifts to the whole human race. Those whose efforts created these breakthroughs were exalted because of their contributions to mankind, not to their particular tribe or sex.

In trying to cheapen those people as "dead white males" we only cheapen ourselves and do nothing to promote similar achievements by people of every description. When the Wright brothers rose off the ground, we all rose off the ground.

Think modern culture could get an lower? You betcha. Just yesterday, one George Monbiot opined that airplanes should be reviled as weapons of mass destruction. (Via Tim Blair)

For a rational perspective of the Wright Brothers' achievement, here is the Smithsonian Institute's tribute: The Wright Brothers: The Invention of the Aerial Age. (Though this FoxNews story notes a serious omission by the Institute.)

FoxNew also reports: Bush to Honor Wright Brothers on 100th Anniversary of Flight.

UPDATE Dec. 18: Quent Cordair Fine Art has a photo of the Wright Brothers' first flight as well as aviation-related art.

Posted by Forkum at December 17, 2003 07:34 AM